It wasn’t all hot air

09/02/2020
09/02/2020 CHRC

It wasn’t all hot air

A deflated basketball sat on Coach’s desk to remind every player that basketball glory could be fleeting; they were one injury away from having to pivot from the sport. If they had nothing else, then what? 

When I started college, I couldn’t have imagined that one of the greatest teachers would be a professor I never had, nor a subject I never studied. It is easy to forget that in 1982, college basketball was still a local sport. No ESPN, no CBS Sports. All I knew was that Georgetown had a basketball team, and I heard that they had a strong coach. 

No talented young man was going to go play for Big John unless they were willing to play by his rules. They were going to be a student-athlete, emphasis on the student. They sat in the front row in class; not always convenient for the rest of us. They didn’t miss class; not unless they wanted a 5:00 am practice the next day! Study hall and tutors were not optional. The discipline he expected off the court could be summed up by why he never wanted his Freshman talking to the press: “[these are] dumb college kids.” Not pejorative, but realistic. In the early to mid-1980s, many outside of the Georgetown community were skeptical of Thompson’s tactics, but Coach Thompson had a longer-term strategy; he was building a culture.

“I don’t coach their team,” Mr. Thompson famously declared, “They play on my team.” 

After a sports injury, I saw this culture first-hand in the training rooms of Georgetown Athletics.  I observed many examples of how Coach’s expectations of his players meant that they treated others with dignity and respect. One example especially stands out:  One day postseason, I witnessed a 7 foot player cower when the 5’ 7” female trainer told him he wasn’t working hard enough. He respected her authority and expertise–and got back to work. 

In 1994, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras wrote a book called Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. One aspect that the authors highlighted was that organizations with strong corporate cultures had higher returns.  I have seen this time and time again in business, and one of the first places I had seen it work well was with John Thompson’s Hoyas. The management term for this is self-selection. When you create, build, and sustain a strong culture, you typically only attract those that want to be a part of that culture. In turn, they succeed in that culture; and therefore, continue to sustain it. 

Coach Thompson built that culture and success followed. Georgetown won an NCAA championship under Big John. While some players made it to the NBA, others went on to successful non-sports related careers and lives. That’s because Coach understood that playing basketball was part of the journey, not always the destination. His job was to accompany the young men along this journey and create success not just on the court, but for the rest of their lives. 

In college, I never imagined a career path in Management or Human Resources. I had no idea that these players and coaches I watched would become powerful examples of good leadership. This week, I have been stunned by all the articles and commentary about Coach; it is amazing to see how far and wide his influence stretched. While others continue to herald all that John Thompson, Jr. did for the game, the players, and the hearts (and heart attacks!) of fans, I will personally always hold the coach in high esteem for the management lessons he was teaching me—without me even realizing it. 

After all, I was just a dumb college kid, what did I know?  Read More Here