Bob Knight, the coaching legend, once noted, "The good teams that I've had over the years have had players on them, I'd just simply say, 'You better make damn sure Jones is straightened out' and, I mean, Jones would be straightened out in a heartbeat." That was his singular way of explaining the value of leadership-from-within, the high value placed on players taking ownership of their team and holding both themselves and their teammates accountable. Pat Fitzgerald, the 'Cat coach, has long recognized this and that is why a staple of his program has been the Leadership Council, a group of 10 that meets with him weekly to discuss issues that affect the whole.
In the past, the team selected those leaders from any name on the roster. But this winter that changed. This winter a player had to apply and answer a series of question to get his name on the ballot.
"I just felt like a small change was needed, a tweak, putting, again, more ownership into the players," says Fitzgerald. "It's one thing to put everybody's name in there. It's another thing for a young man to say I want to be on there and here's why. Learned a lot. Learned a lot about some individuals who maybe had not been looked on as leaders or aspiring leaders. Also learned quite a bit from some guys who did not apply. That opened up some areas for dialogue with some young men.
"There was a lot that went into it. You research it. Everyone does
something like this. I forget who it was that I talked to who said we
have guys apply. I talked to a high school coach, they do it in the
off-season where they have a formal interview process. I didn't want to
go to that extreme. But I really liked the idea of having them apply.
Those questions, not surprisingly, centered on accountability and the player's vision of the future and the changes he felt necessary for the whole to reach its collective goal. Then there was the last that asked, "Explain why you deserve the right to be on Council."
"That was somewhat of a trick question. I wanted to see how many guys came back and said, `I don't deserve it. But I want it, the responsibility.' Leadership isn't an election. It's earned. It's a responsibility. That was their opportunity for me to hear them articulate how they were going to be a leader. So it wasn't necessarily a trick, but more of a Jedi mind trick, I guess. Why you? Why you?"
Did any say they deserved to be there?
"A couple. A couple."
Did he agree with them?
"No. I knew their approach was selfish in nature, where the guys I thought had the best approach were looking at it from the leadership perspective of what I'm willing to give to make the mass better rather than the this-is-what-I've-done, this-is-why-I-deserve-it approach. I'd say 98 percent of the guys' responses were team-oriented. A couple were more individual."
Did he learn about his players through their answers?
"Absolutely. I learned a ton about some guys. I have some stats I'm not willing to share. But I learned about the team too. How many guys per class applied. Which guys per class didn't apply."
What did it tell him when someone didn't apply?
"I needed to ask them why. Boom. Here we go. Here's your opportunity to take over, to take a step of responsibility. What's holding you back from making that personal choice. Each guy's answer was a little bit different. One guy, `I was on it before, I think we need more people to be part of it. I know what I need to do now that I've been a part of it and I think somebody else in my class should be part of it.' Very mature, team-oriented guy I thought in that response. To a guy who said, `I really wasn't interested because I think I'm going to have to do more work, I don't have time'? Ok. That's fine. But now I know this young man might be a little overwhelmed with some things that are going on with his life. So what's going on? What's going on with you right now? Is he involved in too many things away from football? Or are we missing something with him, does he have something going on back home? So it just allowed me to dig a little deeper, peel some of the layers off the onion away with some guys. And some other guys I didn't follow up with. I learned everything I needed to know. So it was a great exercise."
Gary Williams, the Maryland basketball coach, once said, "You need somebody who's realistic, especially nowadays, and it has to be a player, it can't be the coach, who realizes the team's not playing as well as it should be, or not going as hard in a drill as it should, and he's got to be tough enough to say, 'Hey, we can't win like this. This isn't going to get it done.' When you hear it from another player, it means a lot more than hearing it from the coach. You can tell them, but a player goes, 'Well, he's just mad at us.' But they don't look at it as getting yelled at if it's another player."
Or, as Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo once snapped: "I don't think you can just lead by example. I hate that term. Players have to know they have to play for you. Not the coach, the leaders of the team."
"I think that's the curse of this generation," says Fitzgerald. "For whatever reason, it's been accepted at a younger age. Just lead by example. Everything is, `Lead by example. Lead by example.' That's the Numero Uno copout, I think. `I lead by example.' `Oh. OK.'"
Does he think they're afraid to yell at a buddy?
"That's the whole deal. It's the peer-to-peer that makes team such a tough challenge. They've got no problem being with their peer and bitching about the coach. They've got no problem bitching about a professor or how hard a class is or woe is me. But, gosh, there's nothing wrong with you, there's nothing wrong with me because we're boys. That's where we kind of hope to take that next step. There's nothing wrong with you two guys being boys. But when we get together in the team context, and we're looking after each other in the program context, then we're holding ourselves to a high standard of excellence that we all can live up to. Yeah, we may have some momentary slips, but we're there to pick each other up. I'm there to say, `Hey, Skip. Don't do that again. You need to spend more time doing this, more time doing that, and less time doing this, less time doing that.' Why? Because you care about each other, you love each other. But it's so much easier to say, `I just lead by example.' I think that's the issue of this generation. I go back to when I was playing. The guy's who were leaders were out in front. They were bell cows."
Did he ever get in a teammate's grill?
"Very rarely. I think we were all on the same page. That was the maturation that took three years."
But you weren't afraid to do that?
"Oh, no. Not at all. But my point is, especially from my side on the defense, we knew each other so well personally that if I were to look at you and say, `Hey, Skip, you're bucked up here,' that's all I'd have to say. And you'd say, `OK, Fitz, I got ya.' There was so much mutual respect and trust, we could communicate with guys like that. It's hard now for guys to look at each other and say that. The other aspect of it is make sure you're not hypocritical. That's the rub. If you're going to take that step of responsibility, you can't be a hypocrite. You can't be in the locker room or over in the dorm complaining. That's why we created this forum. If there's an area that affects the team that we can improve, we need to communicate. And if you're not man enough to communicate, if you're not man enough to create a solution -- we all can talk about the problems. But, c'mon, lets talk about how we can solve it. It takes a big man to do that."
In all he learned through this exercise, did any one thing disappoint him?
"Yeah. That I didn't do it earlier. Really. We've liked the concept (of the Council). The guys have done a good job. Obviously, we didn't finish the way we wanted to (last season), and I felt some little tweaks and changes to the things that we believe in might help. Not necessarily what we value. But I opened it up to the Leadership Council, `Do we need to tweak anything or make any adjustments here.' `No. Not at all.' They wanted to add a few goals to the goal board, which were goals we've always talked about. But now they wanted them up front-and-center. And that's to win our division and win the Big Ten championship to go along with consistently preparing and win a bowl game.
"Not that we didn't talk about those things in the past. But they wanted them up. You got it."