April 7, 2014 was a special night. The UConn Huskies men became the first 7 seed to win the NCAA championship. As an unlikely victor, they had been disqualified from the NCAA the previous year and had a new coach at the helm. The next night UConn Huskies women won the title, making it an unprecedented 2nd time UConn won both titles.
It was special night for me, but not just because my son James is attending UConn and we were able to share in the win, but because three of the people I was watching the championship game with had uncanny insights, and it seemed everything they predicted during the game actually happened. All have unique backgrounds integrating basketball and business. So to bring you into the action, below are questions I asked them afterwards to share with you.
– Sonny Hill: 27-year radio show host on WIP in Philadelphia and celebrating his 47th year in broadcasting. A former basketball player, coach, general manager and top union executive. According to records as of August 2012 Hill touched one million youngsters. Also the founder of the first summer professional basketball league in 1960, member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and Executive Advisor to the Philadelphia 76ers. *As a note, the answers below were when Sonny invited me to be on his radio show on Easter morning.
– Fred Shabel: Vice-Chairman of Comcast-Spectator, Vice President for Operations, University of Pennsylvania with responsibility for all non-academic businesses and Penn’s Athletic Director where his teams achieved 28 Ivy League titles. Fred was originally a Division 1 scholarship player, playing for Duke. Fred then became the assistant basketball coach at Duke and then later was the head basketball coach at UConn where he led the team to a 72-29 record.
– Alan Miller: Founder, Chairman, and CEO of Universal Health Services, a $7.5 billion Fortune 500 corporation with 225 hospitals in 37 states and over 60,000 employees. He began his career at Young & Rubicam and became the agency’s youngest Vice President. In 1954 he helped his high school basketball team to an undefeated season and a New York City championship. Alan, like Fred, was a Division 1 scholarship player, playing for the University of Utah Freshman team, then for William & Mary.
To me, UConn won on fundamentals. They shot 10 for 10 from the free throw line (61 of 67 foul shots their last 4 games) while Kentucky only shot 13 – 24. Here are the experts’ insights on UConn, basketball and life.
Robert Reiss: What lessons can leaders learn from UConn’s basketball program?
Sonny Hill: We can learn a lot from Kevin Ollie. The UConn program was on the way down as they were banned from the NCAA the previous year. But Kevin Ollie got the players to buy in to the philosophy. Basketball is not about X’s and O’s; it’s about buy-in … and when players buy in, they function not as individuals but as a unit. And here’s what’s interesting, if UConn wasn’t banned, they might not have won because it allowed people to stay with the program. In sports as in business, sometimes challenges can open the door of opportunity.
Alan Miller: UConn won and showed the value of the unflashy defense. They disrupted the offense of Kentucky with good guard play, defense, and beat a better offensive team. Defense is hard tiring work, not the flashy shooting, rebounding and dribbling but it wins, in the trenches. The lesson for leaders is that hard work wins.
Fred Shabel: Most fans think about coaching and the UConn coach did a fabulous job but it goes beyond the X’s and O’s of the game. You must look at the recruiting skills of the coaching staff. You must recruit good talent before you can even begin building a successful team. This is no different from a sales manager recruiting the right talented individuals for his/her sales force. In short, one might argue that 70% of the UConn victories were as a result of the personnel, for example Napier; 20% the coaching and 10% luck. Others might use different percentages, but the point is you have to start with great talent. But of course the coaching 20% includes motivation, changing defenses, scouting the opponent, timeouts and on and on but it goes beyond the X’s and Ox’s. Coaches teach loyalty, team spirit, unselfishness etc. It’s that desire to play for the team that makes for wins. The same is true for a manager trying to build a successful work team.
Reiss: Why is basketball so important to the fabric of America?
Miller: Sports are a true meritocracy. Everyone wants to win so the best players make the team and play no matter what color or how much personality, the coach wants to win so the best play and the others sit.
Shabel: Not easy to answer. We have many other sports but March Madness seems to capture the nation. Almost every office, family and workplace has a pool. Many say it came about as a result of television. But there are several other things: like, easy access to the sport of basketball — you can play it on just about every neighborhood playground; colleges promote school allegiance among their graduates; the great story when the small, unknown underdog comes in and beats the big time favorite (a Mercer or Leigh beating a Duke). The game truly unites, and in fact can be seen as a microcosm of society.
Hill: Basketball enables all people to really come together. All you need is a basketball and a rim and you can play solo or as a group. Basketball crosses all genders, religions and ethnicities. I was born in 1936 and the doors weren’t open to interact or integrate. While baseball is my first love it was basketball that made the difference. Basketball gave me the foundation and opportunity to be on this wonderful journey. Basketball was the melting pot for which I grew. Only in American can a person to born in 1936 and become a successful businessman. David Stern has done a tremendous job at globalizing the sport and I am proud that I have seen the evolution.
Reiss: What was the personal lesson you learned through involvement in basketball?
Shabel: As an assistant coach working at Duke, I had the good fortune to have Coach Vic Bubas as my mentor. He taught that it’s not just the wins and losses; it’s how you handle the wins and losses. Do you congratulate the team for effort; do you blame them for mistakes or do you teach them to learn from the mistakes and get back on the court and work harder. He believed “no job too big, no job too small”. He followed in the collegial model in the world of recruiting: 1. Identify talent – do the research 2. Recruit them – sell the program and make the sale 3. Keep them – support them socially, academically and programmatically 4. Coach them. If you were successful at the three things above, you will be a winner.
Hill: Sports are fantasy, but it brings people into the real world. In 1960 I was the first black elected to the union. When I met, the first thing people would notice was the color of my skin, but then they’d observe how I’d carry myself so being strong verbally became important. The next thing they’d do is challenge me, but because of sports, I was used to being challenged and knew the key was in making the right adjustments. So through my career I’ve used the same philosophy so people just identify you as a human.
Miller: Sports taught me to work hard, practice practice work work and you will get better. If you are not working you will run up against a player who is more proficient and you will be embarrassed in front of a crowd in a game. Teaching my son I said that George Gervin is shooting 1,000 foul shots tonight and every night and so is some kid you will play against later on; don’t be out worked.