Well, here we are again. On the eve of college basketball’s 2011 NCAA National Championship game, we find ourselves reflecting on yet another fantastic tournament and all it has brought the college basketball universe.
Although March is officially over and we are a few days into April, the madness doesn’t officially end until later tonight for the men and tomorrow for the women. The teams, players, coaches and fans involved in both tournaments have shown us once again why we love March Madness and why this type of tournament is arguably the best in all of sports. For starters, a true champion is crowned - one that actually has to beat its opposition in head-to-head competition, not just run the table and hope a computer ranking system, strength of schedule, conference they play in, and potential number of alumni traveling to their bowl game (among other things) will determine its fate and its ability to have the opportunity to play for a national championship.
Moreover, this tournament has enabled us to enjoy watching "mid-major" schools and coaches like Shaka Smart (VCU) and Brad Stevens (Butler) design game plans that have frustrated basketball's best coaching minds. We just watched Women's coaches Muffet McGraw (Notre Dame) and Gary Blair (Texas A&M) upset dominant UConn and Stanford teams, respectively. We have witnessed young men and women play a brand of basketball that is nothing short of fearless and every bit the result of their desire to make their dream of being a champion a reality. It's time to discard the notion these so called "mid-majors" are pulling off these "shock the world" upsets when they knock off the perennial powerhouses that are expected to waltz into the big dance. Mid-majors can compete - and beat - the best their sport has to offer. They aren't just beating the "little sisters of the poor" (to quote a certain big-time athletic director who mocked TCU and Boise State during the 2010 college football season and ironically, his head football coach has recently been suspended for rules infractions).
As the players and coaches prepare to take their place in history, these fortunate few will find themselves in front of the white-hot lights of the media and a public that will scrutinize every move they make. This is not uncommon. For many young athletes - and coaches for that matter - the unforeseen nature of how relatively quick the transition from local hero to national spotlight takes place is overwhelming. For coaches like Stevens, Smart, and others, reaching this level often means the bigger schools come knocking, offering big dollars and contracts to tempt these upstart coaches. Players who perform well often see their draft stock rise significantly while showcasing their skills before a national audience. And somewhere along the line, controversy will arise because at some point during the journey, an athlete or coach made an ill-advised decision and broke a rule or two, and someone has been waiting to go public with it. Then, in an instant, everything they've spent their lives working toward is in jeopardy.
We've witnessed this during this year's Men's tournament. Former University of Tennessee Basketball Coach, Bruce Pearl, enjoyed tremendous success as a coach the students and university loved during his tenure there. However, despite his success, he recently lost his job because of a few wrong turns in the recruiting game that came to light earlier this season. Although Coach Pearl apologized, served his suspension, owned his mistakes, and worked hard to regain credibility, etc., the University let him go after the Volunteers' season ended. BYU found itself vaulted into the headlines not only because of the outstanding play of Jimmer Fredette, but because of the team losing the services of its other great player due to his violation of a certain school policy that had many outside the university scratching their heads.
On the other big stage that is Division I NCAA college football (now known as the FBS or First Bowl Subdivision), Auburn University was front and center on the controversy and scandal stage throughout the 2010 season, as their electrifying quarterback, Cam Newton, had to deal with his past being thrown into the present during his ascent to the top of the sport. As Newton lead his Tigers on their national championship run and picked up a little Heisman hardware in the process, controversy swirled around him. The way young Cameron handled it spoke volumes. Newton did not lash out but stayed focused at the helm, guiding his Tigers to a hard fought and well deserved title. As the pressure mounted and the spotlight grew hotter and every move he made was subject to further criticism, Newton flashed his million-dollar smile and reminded everyone he paid for his previous transgressions. Barring his poor choice of words surrounding the now infamous "icon" reference, Newton did as good of a job as a young man facing that amount of national scrutiny could. No, he has not been perfect, but let’s hope he continues to grow as he transitions to the NFL later this month.
Newton fell from grace early in his college career yet found a way to rebound. Some will argue he paid the price for his transgressions, while others will argue he was paid a price for his services. His coach, Gene Chizik, found himself in the position of being "the guy" chosen for the coveted Auburn job despite a host of criticism and doubt just a couple of years ago. Now just two years removed from that infamous "booing" incident as Coach Chizik exited the plane upon his arrival at Auburn, he turned the program around and coached his Newton-led team to a national championship in no short order after accepting the job. Like Newton, Chizik and all of those who have been successful in the face of adversity, did the job that was necessary when facing his detractors and media scrutiny and staying focused on the task at hand.
The reputations of Brad Stevens, Shaka Smart, and their players are now part of the national sports conversation. For Stevens, he was there last year and both he and his players have handled the spotlight with class and dignity. And although bested by Butler this past Saturday night in Houston, Smart showed nothing less than sheer confidence while leading his Rams during their historic run at the title. The other two teams in the Men's Final Four have been here before and their coaches are no strangers to scrutiny and have built coaching legacies for the ages based on their success. However, their reputations have taken a small hit, as both Kentucky and UConn have been the subjects of recent NCAA investigations.
Reputation management is an extremely important part of building one's brand and when done effectively it often leads to many things, including more lucrative endorsement deals and better post-career opportunities, among others. But even if you do everything right, at some point in your career you may find yourself faced with a crisis. That crisis may not always be that of the negative persuasion. In fact, learning how to handle the success that has been achieved and the numerous responsibilities that come along with it, may present the unprepared with a crisis of a different nature.
I have spent the majority of my career guiding professionals through crisis situations as well as helping them manage their success. Throughout the past few months, I've worked with several athletes who have talked openly about some of the concerns they have with being successful. They've been coached and counseled on what to expect, who not to surround themselves with, etc. They want to raise their profiles in positive ways outside of their sport and they don't want to be in that high percentage of athletes who go broke within five years of exiting their sport. They understand they need a plan to protect their name and image.
Of the many things I shared with them, here are four of the most important when it comes to handling success:
1. Be prepared.
Preparation is key because you never know when a crisis will hit. If you did, it wouldn't be called a crisis. Be sure your trusted team of advisors includes at least one skilled and seasoned strategic PR person and make sure they know about anything that can surface.
2. Open an account with "The Bank of Goodwill."
Building up the bank of goodwill by doing the right thing all the time is essential because you will need to make a withdrawal from this specific bank if faced with less than favorable circumstances.
3. Be smart about what you say and do. Especially when it comes to social media.
Whether you're on Twitter, updating your status on Facebook, checking in on Foursquare, sending a text, or conducting a post-game interview, take a moment and think about what you are about to say and share. Remember, for someone in your position, it's not always a good idea to use social media as a license to say, do, and share whatever comes to mind.
4. If and when crisis hits, you and your team must be prepared to respond quickly.
If you don't talk others will and you cannot afford to lose in the court of public opinion. Get out in front of it quickly and professionally. Remember, this is not about "spin" nor is it about banging your fist on the table and proclaiming your innocence while vehemently denying the accusations lodged against you. When dealing with the court of public opinion, a “No comment” response is essentially an admission of guilt. You need to have a position and a response – even if that position is you will respond in the appropriate manner at the appropriate time once all the facts have been gathered, etc. The bottom line is that you must have a solid plan that addresses the issue and how it will be dealt with.
Getting back to the young men and women involved in this week’s National Championship games, hopefully we won’t see anyone making the decision to “get something off their chest” or “say what’s on their mind because that’s just how they roll” during a post-game interview. Hopefully we won’t see or hear about another “something happened on the way to the title game” story and all will go according to plan.
What's often lost in the process of ascending to the top is the continued focus on safeguarding your reputation and that of the school and team the athlete represents. Looking back at March and the past year in college sports, the examples are there of how quickly one's reputation can be damaged despite the years of hard work it took to build. When you’ve trained this hard to get to the pinnacle of your sport, you need to make sure equal effort is spent understanding the importance of your reputation. It is all you have at the end of the day so protect it.