At some point in our lives, we all benefit from mentorship. Mentors come in all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds. For most of us, our first mentors were our parents. As we progressed through life, mentors probably took the shape of teachers, coaches, pastors, community leaders, counselors and friends. Last week Northwest held its commencement ceremonies. I’m guessing that most, if not all, of the 700+ students that received their diplomas last Saturday could classify a professor, staff or community member in the category of someone who helped them on their journey to a degree. I was actually able to read of several such relationships via our graduates’ comments on Facebook and Twitter. The professors and instructors at Northwest do a tremendous job of mentoring their students throughout the college experience and well into their professional lives.
I can’t think of any field where mentoring is more critical than that of athletics. Often, you will hear coaches reference this when they speak of “leadership” on a team or “senior leadership.” In this instance, leadership is referring to the older or more experienced players leading the younger or less experienced players. Most highly successful teams have a leader or leaders, usually upperclassmen, who help the rest of the team understand what it takes to win and succeed. They will also help their teammates understand the sacrifices that will need to be made, the work ethic required, etc.
There is similar mentoring that occurs from head coaches to assistant coaches. Most head coaches have mentors as well. Maybe it’s a previous boss, or another head coach, or even an administrator. Personally, I believe most successful people continually seek mentors. They know that there is always room for growth and seeking advice and counsel from others will only make them be better prepared for whatever challenges might be faced.
Beyond a shadow of a doubt, I’ve benefited greatly from some tremendous mentors. I couldn’t possibly list them all, but I do want to mention a few that have helped me during my career. Coach Eddie Sutton was a great mentor. He instilled a tremendous work ethic throughout the OSU basketball program. During my time at OSU, twelve hours was a short day. With all of his accomplishments and in his 70s, Coach could have been coasting into retirement. Instead, he was at the office, all day, every day outworking people. Truthfully, I used to sit in my office in July when there really wasn’t much to do and wish he had more hobbies! I wanted to be out golfing or fishing but knew I better be in the office as long as he was! I think about that work ethic often and always try to remember that the hardest workers experience the most success. No one taught that better than Coach. Coach Sutton’s eldest son, Sean, also taught me many of the same values and lessons as Coach Sutton. I still talk to them often. I will always be appreciative of the Sutton family and what they’ve meant to me.
James Dickey is the head basketball coach at the University of Houston. He probably took more time than anyone to help mold me into a young coach and administrator. James was great about talking to me about the way you dress, the professionalism you must always keep with student-athletes, staying calm at all times and many other lessons. James and I came from a similar background and had a lot in common. He is still one of the first people I call when I am battling adversity, personal or professional because he has a great way of looking at things from every angle. I’ve been told I approach my job very analytically. I think I learned that from James. He always examines every angle of a problem or situation.
I’ve also been blessed to make some contacts with other athletic directors who have been mentors. However, two stand out. Both are among the best athletic directors in the country. I can’t say enough how much I appreciate each of them for taking the time to help teach me how to be a more effective leader.
When I was at Rogers State, we were governed by the University Of Oklahoma Board Of Regents. Because of that governance structure, I was able to meet Joe Castiglione, the AD at OU. Early on in my tenure, I would email or call Joe with questions about policies and procedures. Since we were building the athletic department at RSU, we literally had to start from the ground up. Joe was always helpful. Eventually, he invited me over for lunch and a tour of the athletic facilities at OU. I was figuring Joe would spend no more than an hour with me for lunch and have one of his staff members give me a tour. Instead, Joe spent 2 ½ hours with me. I learned more that day than I had in a year as athletic director. We would do it many more times in the coming years. We have talked about hiring and evaluating coaches, fundraising, drug testing, interacting with regents, donors, and fans, and every other topic. His experience was vast and insight deep. When Coach Bostwick passed, he was one of the first people to call and check in on me. His willingness to share his knowledge and be a sounding board has been an incredible resource for me.
Bubba Cunningham is the AD at the University of North Carolina. Before becoming the head Tar Heel last year, Bubba was the AD at the University of Tulsa. My friendship with Bubba began in a similar manner. I contacted him for a tour of TU’s facilities. He took me to lunch and we spent three hours talking shop. I’ll tell you an amazing story about Bubba. He was accomplishing great things at Tulsa and had been a Division I AD for many years. Yet, amazingly, he called me a couple weeks later and wanted to come over to RSU to tour our facilities to look at what I was putting together. I can’t imagine that Bubba learned much from his trip to RSU, but I certainly did. Primarily, he taught me that you are never too accomplished to learn and everyone has something to teach. Much like Joe Castiglione, Bubba continues to be a resource I lean on when I have questions.
Both of these gentlemen have been tremendous resources. I call on them often for advice or just to be a sounding board. They are two of the most successful athletic administrators in the business who are also full of class.
I continue to seek mentors. I have already had the chance to go spend three hours with Mike Alden, the AD at Missouri. I hope to visit Mizzou again soon. Mike is another one of the premier ADs in the country and has been very gracious with his time. Two former Northwest coaches have been mentors and have given me great advice. I speak to Coach Tjeerdsma and Coach Tappmeyer regularly. Both have been tremendous resources in helping me understand the history at Northwest, MIAA competition and the strengths and opportunities of our athletic department.
The point is we all need mentors. It doesn’t matter if you are a player, coach or administrator, or even in another profession, mentors are critical to success. None of us has all the answers. Sometimes just talking through a situation can help prepare you mentally and emotionally for the decision that must be made. You can never get too old or too accomplished to learn from the experiences and knowledge of others. So a big thank you to all of my mentors. I appreciate each of you and look forward to finding more mentors in the future. I encourage everyone else to do the same.