Friday, February 15, 2008

Good to Great

About a month ago my company scheduled an offsite strategic planning meeting. Part of our preparation for the planning was to read the Jim Collins book Good to Great, so I did on my flight to Germany. Then the meeting got canceled. Still, it was a good read, and I thought sevearl of the book's main tenets are applicable to Badger sports.

In a nutshell, the book was a scientific analysis of why some companies, like Kimberly-Clark, Phillip Morris, and Walgreens, outperform the market after years of middling results, while other comparable companies plod along. Some of the traits these successful companies shared were humble leaders, people put in the right places, and focusing on something they can be the best in the world at. Let's look at this from a UW athletics point of view.

Humble leaders: I'm going to put Pat Richter in this class. The guy is obviously incredible, from his days as an athlete to his days in business to his days running our athletic department. Yet you never heard him glorifying himself in public. Barry Alvarez had/has an ego, but you didn't hear him using the first person to describe the program's accomplishments. Dick Bennett and Bo Ryan are as self-effacing as they come.

Put the right people in the right places: Credit Donna Shalala for this one, getting Richter on board to lead the resurrection. But there were lots of other people responsible for doing off-the-field work required in a successful athletic program: Al Fish, Joel Maturi, Jamie Pollard, John Chadima, Steve Malchow, Rob Jansen, and lots of others. ;) These are the ones who monetize all of UW athletics' assets, who communicate a consistent message to the public, who hire other talented people at the lower levels.

Do what you can be best at: In the book the author cites Phillip Morris, which decided to be the best damn tobacco company in the world, not one that got distracted by diversifying into peripheral businesses (although they did that successfully later). No matter how you feel about the ethics of this, you can't deny that they've succeeded, and been immensely profitable along the way.

Let's apply this to UW sports. What could they be best in the world, or at least one of the best in the country, at? Alvarez built the football program with the goal of being the best in the country at running the ball. He figured that he could get linemen from the Midwest and a few good backs and build an identity. Sure, many talented receivers languished under this offensive approach, but it lifted the program to three Rose Bowl titles in six years, unprecedented success.

The basketball program under Bennett and Ryan has been the best in the world at defending and controlling tempo. Sure, many talented offensive players have had their games suppressed under this approach, but it lifted the program to a Final Four and a string of 20-win seasons and NCAA appearances that would have been a pipe dream 20 years ago.

Running a successful athletic program is like running a successful business, and we should be thankful that ours has been run as one of the best in the country for the last 18 years.

Big thanks to my brother-in-law Tony Sorgi, er, Nick, whose computer I'm using to write this.

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