This past weekend the Grove City College men's tennis team fell in the second round of the NCAA championships bringing to close another outstanding season. But the occasion also brought to a close the fantastic coaching career of Joe Walters at GCC. Fittingly, the GCC team won the PAC conference tournament for the22nd consecutive year, and Coach Walters was named the PAC Coach of the Year. He retires as one of the most successful tennis coaches at any level of NCAA competition.
I am a very proud alumnus of Coach Walters program. For his retirement celebration, which unfortunately I could not attend because I was traveling abroad, I was asked to send in some words and I did. I described him as a "coach for adults" and how his method of team organization was one that gave tremendous 'ownership' to the athletes he coached, but one which also held them accountable for their success individually and to the team. When I played at GCC we also tallied a strong winning record, and my senior year we ended the season with only 1 loss -- for a 9-1 record. When I coached competitive junior tennis players in the early and mid-1980s, I tried to take the lessons learned from my experience at GCC and translate it into a way they could understand. Tennis is an individual sport, but I often told parents of these HS players how much enjoyment I got from playing in college as a member of a team, and as a representative of a program. Yes, we won tennis matches throughout my career at GCC, but Ws and Ls are not the only measure by which you can (or even should) judge a program. Though there is something very important to be learned from what makes for a successful program like the one that Coach Walters ran at GCC.
I played tennis for 4 years in college, but in HS I actually played football, basketball and baseball. I was introduced to tennis in MS, and actually trained with a tennis pro throughout HS but mainly for what now would be called "cross-training" for lateral movement. -- Eventually all my athletic efforts were directed at basketball. My senior season, we produced the greatest record in the history of the school up to that point. My HS coach was in many ways the opposite of Coach Walters, but the issue of ownership, responsibility and accountability for individual improvement and team success was an area of overlap. I then spent 2 years trying to play college basketball (at 2 different schools), but repeated injuries limited and ultimately derailed that effort. Still the first college program I was involved with was the worst athletic experience of my life, while the second college program (at GCC) was first-class and very successful. First program -- no accountability; GCC program -- maximum accountability.
When I reflect on the programs created by great coaches --- such as Coach Joe Walters --- they get the most out of their best by demanding the most out of their best. The worst coaches create an atmosphere where their best athletes lack accountability. In short, in winning organizations the very best work harder than everyone and demand that the entire organization try to keep up. But in losing organizations, the "best" take short-cuts, rest of past accomplishments, expect to always be excused for poor performance or lack of effort. The best organizations do not allow excuses, and they don't allow whining. They do insist on responsibility and accountability for all, but especially for those who are the most talented. To those who have been given the most, much is expected. There is no such thing as an entitlement mentality in winning organizations.
Translate this as you will into any walk of life --- athletics, business, or academics to name just 3. Winning organizations require the creations of expectations of excellence. Excellence, Aristotle taught, is not a single event, but a habit. It is that sort of environment that permeates successful programs --- whether John Wooden's UCLA teams or Bobby Knight's Indiana teams or Mike Krzyzewski's Duke teams. Coaches come with different temperments and different styles, but in the end the successful ones all create an environment which demands excellence and holds the members throughout of the organization accountable to that standard. Every detail is paid attention to and every action fits a purpose from the most minescule to the most significant. Success doesn't happen by accident, it is cultivated by leaders who know how to create environments that get the best out of everyone involved.
As I have tried to organize research and teaching activities related to economics at NYU and at GMU, I have always had these lessons learned from my experiences with athletic organizations. I hope I have passed those lessons along to my former students as they are starting their own efforts at program building --- I think they have since several of them have been very successful in doing precisely that. No short cuts, no excuses, no whining; just hard work, attention to detail, expectation of excellence, and demand the most out of those who are the most talented and gifted in your organization.