How To Build A Championship Culture
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When Vanderbilt won its first national championship in 2014, the reactions of alumni were telling. As the Commodores celebrated on the field, Twitter overflowed with expressions of heartfelt gratitude for coach Tim Corbin and the tight-knit culture he had built.
“I couldn’t be any more happy or proud for @TimCorbin and @VandyBaseball,” tweeted Grayson Garvin, one of Vandy’s numerous former first-round picks. “No coach or program deserves it more. Proud to call them family!”
“my man @TimCorbin … best coach/mentor I’ve ever had … you deserve every bit of this!!” tweeted David Price, a Cy Young Award winner who became the No. 1 overall pick during his time at Vanderbilt.
The groundswell of appreciation was a strong testament to the value of the family atmosphere that Corbin has worked hard to cultivate. Meanwhile, in the other dugout at TD Ameritrade Park, Virginia’s own tight-knit group tried to cope with the disappointment of a runner-up finish. But a year later, UVa. would become another reminder of the importance of team chemistry, heart, leadership and willpower — the stuff that cannot be quantified but is nonetheless vital for team success.
The 2015 Cavaliers were a perfect case in point. Coach Brian O’Connor had plenty of teams that were more talented than this one and had much better regular seasons than this one, which went 17-18 in the eight-week period between the first conference series and the final exam break. In eight of the 11 prior seasons of the O’Connor era, the Cavs lost fewer than 18 games all season long. So how did this team wind up winning the national title? Did leadership and unity and mojo really have that much to do with it?
“I think a lot of it was that,” O’Connor said. “I mean, you have to have enough talent — certainly we had quite a bit of talent last year, especially some of those guys on the mound. If you don’t have that, you can’t do it. But everybody in Omaha has talent. What we went through last year, I think it had a lot to do with the culture that we have, that we’ve built over the years. So I think that ‘team’ part is what did it for us, quite frankly … That culture that we’ve been so conscious of building over the years, I think kept it together enough to give us a chance.”
It isn’t easy to create that culture, and there aren’t any shortcuts. Corbin and O’Connor both built talented rosters immediately after taking over programs that lacked a winning tradition, and they quickly turned their programs around — but it still took time for that winning culture to take root. Virginia didn’t reach Omaha for the first time until O’Connor’s sixth season, and Vandy didn’t break through until Corbin’s ninth. That experience shaped both programs; they each made multiple return trips over the subsequent four years, and each won a national title and finished as a runner-up. It takes unwavering patience and deep commitment to cultivate a championship culture.
“I think it takes a lot of time. Cultures or environments like the one I think we have right now, that wasn’t the case 12 years ago or 10 years ago,” Corbin said. “I think it takes time. You have kids inside your program that help the building of teams. But cultures are the accumulation of teams that have been together and achieved some success. It’s just always something I’ve wanted personally. I don’t know if maybe it’s my dad’s side of the family, that family atmosphere you get personally, when you leave it, you want to create it somewhere else in your life. I guess that’s the part I’ve enjoyed doing with these kids, trying to build an extended family, if you will.
“Once they leave, we leave their bedroom door open, so to speak. As I’m talking to you, I’m looking down and there’s 20 former players in the cage hitting. That’s gratifying that they would come back. I know Nashville’s a nice city, but they don’t have to come back here. A lot of them aren’t from here. But they find their way back. I think it’s good for our younger kids too, because it instills the culture, instills the fabric of family. I don’t want to over-use ‘family,’ but that’s how I feel about it. We feel like we’re extended parents to a lot of these kids. Our girls are gone, and we enjoy that. My wife is right in the middle of it, and I’m thankful for that. She’s at every workout, every game, she travels with us. I do think the kids enjoy that in a lot of different ways.”
Corbin said that when filling out his staff, he looked for coaches with uncommonly supportive wives who are willing to participate in and embrace the family atmosphere of the program. He wants his assistants to bring their own children around the ballpark and spend time around the team, a practice that former Vandy assistants Josh Holliday and Erik Bakich have taken with them to their programs at Oklahoma State and Michigan.
“When you spend so much of your time in an environment, your wives have to share the passion for what their husband does. These wives are here quite a bit, and I welcome that. I want them in our space, so to speak. I want them around as much as possible,” Corbin said. “Spending about 80 percent of your time with someone else’s children, there’s a feeling like, ‘Are my kids getting cheated?’ In some ways, yeah — from a time standpoint, you can’t lie about that. That’s a reality.”
But having coaches’ children around the program is good for the coaches, good for their families, and good for the team, because it helps players feel like they’re part of the family, too.
Here are some other ways coaches can cultivate a winning culture and foster a healthy clubhouse chemistry.
There’s always an adjustment period for freshmen when they show up on campus, but coaches can make that transition smoother by getting an early start. There are a lot of negative things about the trend of high school players committing at increasingly younger ages, but savvy coaches take advantage of those early commitments by getting a head start on the acclimation process.
“These kids are committing now two years before they get here, so we try to use those two years to try to get them to understand what we do,” O’Connor said. “There’s a lot of teaching points even before they get here — not how to bunt, or how to throw a pitch or things like that. But decisions they make. I go out and watch a kid committed to us play, and they dog it to first base, I’m calling the kid and saying, ‘Listen, you want to come here, and you think you’re going to play here?’ So because of the early process, they start to come and they start to understand more what it’s about. Because they commit two years early, we try to get them to our practices as much as we can, so they can start seeing that and maybe make a quicker adjustment.”
At the American Baseball Coaches Association convention in January, O’Connor started off the weekend’s clinic schedule by speaking about building a championship culture — a tradition for the coach of the reigning national champion. Penn State coach Rob Cooper heard him speak, and his message resonated with Cooper’s own philosophies. Cooper, like many coaches, said that culture-building starts in the recruiting process: You have to identify players who will fit into the clubhouse dynamics.
“I really do think it’s a separator. You can have the most talented guys, but if they’re not bought into the same thing, or they’re not on the same page, not doing it for each other, the talent can’t shine through, because you’ve got it going in so many different directions,” Cooper said. “So I’m a big believer in it. It’s part of the thing we’re trying to do in recruiting: We’re trying to recruit the right-minded guys. We’ll pass on a really good player if we don’t think he’s going to be a culture-type guy.”
Foster Quiet Humility
Corbin has spoken often in the past about encouraging a “servant” mentality. He wants his players to serve each other. He trusts his older players to set a positive example for young players and show them the ropes. And he wants his freshmen to learn the value of keeping your mouth shut and your eyes and ears open.
“I spend time with the freshmen alone in certain areas, and I speak to them a lot about maintaining a level of silence and just listening as much as possible,” Corbin said. “I feel like they’re at a stage when they first come in, there’s an awe factor in terms of academics and what’s asked of them athletically. I say, ‘Don’t do much talking. Listening is the first step to learning.’ They seem to follow that order pretty well. It’s not dictatorial, it’s just how we feel about the learning process here. If they do that, they’re able to make the transition a little quicker. That’s certainly what this group has done. They’ve come in and just blended in. The way the older kids have spoken about them, the word is ‘mature.’ They’ve handled themselves appropriately. There’s no off the field issues we’ve come into with young kids, making poor decisions. They’ve been quiet, they haven’t said a whole lot, and I think that’s important.”
Make Fall Trips
Shared experiences on the road tend to have a bonding effect. That is particularly true when teams travel to less developed nations, like in the Caribbean, and players can realize how fortunate they are to have all the advantages and comforts that come with playing baseball at a Division I program in the United States.
Cooper’s Nittany Lions made a fall trip to Cuba, and the journey had a positive team-building effect, as hoped.
“Honestly, it was one of the reasons why I wanted to take the trip, because we have 11 freshmen, six sophomores, so we have a young team,” Cooper said. “One of the things that just happened to work out in our favor about Cuba is that the internet and WiFi down there is still not really there. So for basically the entire week, our guys weren’t on their phones, they weren’t on their laptops, they weren’t on their iPads. They had to talk to each other, they had to interact — no swipe left, no swipe right, none of that stuff. That was one of the things that was awesome, because those guys came back saying, ‘Hey, we really bonded.’ So it really worked out good.
“The other thing, when you go to a foreign country, it’s just your team. None of our families could go, because of the travel restriction. So it was just a neat thing for our guys to have to rely on each other.”
Seek Outside Help
Many coaches swear by the value of bringing in team-building consultants or “performance coaches” for a weekend of bonding. In the past, Vanderbilt has worked with Team Elite Performance, whose other clients have included Michigan, Kentucky, Washington, Oregon State, Kent State, Nevada and Arizona, and New Mexico State. Dean Whellams, co-founder of Team Elite, said he is careful not to work with multiple teams in the same conference, which helps foster trust with the players.
“They literally submerse themselves into the team culture and team values, there’s so much background work that goes on,” said Bakich, who was first exposed to Team Elite when he was at Vanderbilt and now brings them in every year at Michigan. “They’re not just presenting some canned powerpoint or video or team-building presentation. They’re really invested in getting to know every one of the guys, learning about the culture of the program and the coaching staff. The approach they take, they’re masters, they’re experts at being able to get the student-athletes to maybe knock down some of the walls that they’ve got up. At the end of it, you feel emotionally spent, because you feel you are so close, and the circle got even tighter. It’s a bonding opportunity, and there’s definitely a team building component, but it’s fun, it’s enjoyable. The feedback we get from the guys is very positive.”
Team Elite works to get players to knock down barriers they have set up between each other. It is often a very high-energy, emotionally draining program that leaves players feeling like they know each other better than ever.
“One of the ones we do that is probably one of the most powerful and eye-opening for the coaches—this is always early on, within that first session,” Whellams said. “With each player, we call it a self-introduction, they have to say who they are, what team they play for, and something nobody knows about them. We do it very specifically, first of all the way they introduce themselves to the team. They have to be excited. It’s not just about being big and loud, that’s not the point. It’s about letting them know this stuff matters. We hold their feet to the fire. If somebody’s kind of like holding back, we’ll have them do it again. The reason we do that is we want to get the team to start holding each other accountable. We call it ‘level 10’ energy — we want them all to hold themselves to that.
“It’s a pretty common thing to hear from one of these players, after spending a weekend with us, they’ll say, ‘Man, I feel closer to guys here and feel like I know them better than I’ve known anyone my whole life.’ Let’s focus on that at the beginning of the year rather than letting it happen by osmosis throughout the year.”
Spread The Playing Time
Early in the year, it can be worth sacrificing a win here or there if it means putting inexperienced players on the field and seeing what they’ve got. A midweek game in February is a good time to help young players learn — and it’s good for team chemistry, too.
Florida has one of the nation’s most talented rosters every year, and there’s only so much playing time to go around, so the Gators know how difficult it can be to keep everybody happy. But Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan is a master at making the most of his roster, from 1 to 35. There’s no reason to constrict your roster to core players early in the season.
“Let’s face it, everyone wants to play. The biggest thing for me is, (a) you’ve just got to find good kids, that’s No. 1. That starts in the recruiting process,” O’Sullivan said. “There’s red flags, how parents perceive things. That’s No. 1, recruit good kids, who at least on the outside seem like good kids, team oriented and get it. The second thing is, the older players have to do a good job with the guys in the locker rom. We’re not in the locker room, we don’t know what’s going on before or after. They’ve got to be able to put their arm around a guy and say, ‘Hey, I did this my freshman year, it’s not easy.’ Tell stories like Jonathon Crawford, who threw three innings his freshman year and ended up being a first-rounder. I think any chance you get to start a kid and give him a chance to play, you’ve got to do it. Even if you lose a game here or there.
“You’ve just got to keep them going. A guy like (freshmen) Danny Reyes, Nelson Maldonado, those guys are gonna have to get starts. That helps in the long run.”
It isn’t easy to keep everyone happy when you’re dealing with high-level athletes, many of whom harbor burning desires to play professional ball. But fostering a culture of mutual respect and building a program filled with players who care about that culture can go a long way toward winning a championship. And championships are only part of the reward. The best coaches understand that they have a unique opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of young men. When alumni keep coming back, year after year, to spend time around your program, that means you’ve built something special.
“It’s gratifying that they’re here,” Corbin said. “The paychecks come in the form of the wedding invitations, to be honest with you. We went to seven this past fall, and we’ve already got six for next year. When my wife and I look at that, it’s an honor to have to travel on a weekend to go to a wedding. They didn’t have to include us, but those are the paychecks you get in coaching.”