Headstrong Leadership

May 072009
Authors: Keith Robertson

Chemistry is a class you take in high school. Culture is how you describe the actions of people in a society. These are words we use to describe science. So, neither of these terms has any meaning in sports.

Sports, specifically successes in sports, are measured in athletic ability. They’re measured in size, weight and strength. The best team on the field or court is the most talented team, the bigger team, the stronger team, the tougher team. Not the team that gets along, not the team that has a common purpose, not the team that believes in itself. Right?

Wrong. And two coaches at CSU are proving it.

Last year both the CSU football team and the women’s basketball team found themselves staring down the barrel of a bad situation: No coach and almost fewer wins. Bad team culture and stale coaching led to both teams searching for new blood-they found it.

A Ram returns home

In 2007, the football team ended its season with three things: A legacy, a 3-9 campaign and a locker room that seemed to have lost its way.

“Lackadaisical, more of a nonchalant attitude,” said Ram wide receiver Dion Morton when asked about the team’s culture before this season. “Didn’t really care about much, kind of just go out and work but not really planning on working hard.”

It was obvious that the team was in need of a coach that could instill a new attitude and a new culture to the distraught team.

That coach was found in former Ram quarterback and coach Steve Fairchild. Once the pupil of CSU coaching legend Sonny Lubick, Fairchild returned to his alma mater with hopes of bringing success back to Ram nation. And he did.

As the faithful who stand in the cold and snowy bleachers at Hughes stadium know, the Rams turned what could have been a year of excuses, bad games and rebuilding into one of national praise and success.

Fairchild took the 3-9 disheartened, down-and-out Rams and morphed them into the 7-6 New Mexico Bowl winners, and he did it as if he were Barack Obama – with change.

“Everything changed,” said cornerback Nick Oppenneer. “Nothing was the same. It was necessary. Coach Fairchild needed to come in and shake things up, and it was all for the better.”

From how the team conditioned in the weight room to the way the team traveled, everything was altered. Players who were used to the relaxed mentoring attitude of the previous regime were in for a jarring team culture shock. This coach was from the NFL, he expected discipline and 100 percent effort, or you’ll get your walking papers.

“Steve is very demanding,” said defensive coordinator Larry Kerr, who also served under Lubick. “He’s very organized. He has a great plan and knows what he wants to do, and the players know it’s work time when he’s out there.”

The team bought into what he and his staff were selling.

“You had to,” Oppenneer said. “He doesn’t really leave you much of a choice. You either fall in line, or he’ll leave you behind.”

Fairchild knows the type of person and coach he is and told the nervous team during its first meeting that he wasn’t going to be loved by all. Being direct with his team ranks high on his list of priorities, and he told the team his expectations and let them know if they’re unhappy, they’re welcome to leave.

Fairchild says his job is to win football games and get his student-athletes degrees — plain and simple. Just like him.

“I don’t tell a lot of jokes,” Fairchild said. “I am kind of a no-nonsense coach.”

Following a legend and picking up the pieces of a discouraged team was a hefty challenge, especially when he had been out of the college game for quite a few years. But when he is on the field, the players know what is expected of them.

“He’s real serious,” Morton said. “He’s got a winner type attitude, and he wants to win at all costs.”

No room for negativity

Football was not the only CSU athletic program that had fallen on hard times a year ago. The women’s basketball team closed out the season with two big wins in the Mountain West Conference tournament, but ended the season 4-28.

Their head coach was dismissed, and a breath of fresh air was needed to get the Rams out a season where they were the laughing stock of the Mountain West.

Athletic director Paul Kowalczyk looked internally at an assistant for the job, and by selecting Kristen Holt, he sunk the battleship.

“It became evident over time that she had a good handle on what it took to run a Division-I program and she had the kids buying into her philosophy and demands,” Kowalczyk said. “She takes charge and that, to me, was a great quality to see.”

Holt made her mark early on the team. Having spent a year on the staff, she knew the players, and they knew her.

The change was welcomed. At one point the team had lost 20 games in a row, and negativity had set in.

She made it clear that this team was more than sneakers on the court; it was a family. She told the players to be always optimistic, and never again would they be divided.

“We were a lot more positive, and we actually meshed a lot better this year,” said forward Britney Minor. “She made the environment so positive. Instead of talking negative about them, we actually dealt with the problem(s).”

She, too, made her players accountable for their actions on and off the hardwood. She gave the team to the players, allowing them the opportunity to win or lose but never to make excuses.

“Quite honestly, they really needed to look at themselves in the mirror and know that they are a part of a team,” Holt said.

She also established new team leadership. Minor said that before Holt’s arrival as head coach, the team had captains but no leaders. Holt gave the team to her players and gave them a leader and a captain in guard Kandy Beemer, and a difference was made.

Holt took a team that was coming off of one of the worst seasons in CSU history, changed the culture and more than doubled the previous year’s wins. The team still ended with a losing record finishing 10-21, but it was a record they could still be proud of – because they did it together.

“I think that we made really good strides this year,” Holt said. “I don’t think that we’ve changed it to the point where we’re satisfied. (But) I don’t think we’ll have to go back to square one like we did.”

Back to the future

With both teams on the up and up, expectations have followed. But both coaches are up to the task, and their reputations will begin to precede them. College athletics are built on recruiting, and both coaches have built a solid foundation to build from.

Fairchild has and will attract better players because of his NFL experience, tough attitude and desire to win and may have already done so as rivals.com rated five new CSU recruits with three stars.

Holt will also gain momentum in recruiting circles, as she is the type of coach young women like to play under — a strict but fair mentor who runs a fast-paced offensive game.

The future for both of these coaches is as bright as the Beijing sky on Chinese New Year. They both turned their teams around without bringing in the wrong type of players with the right type of skills.

They did it by changing the culture of their teams and making their student athletes believe in winning, believe in their teams and, most of all, believe in themselves.

Sports writer Keith Robertson can be reached at sports@collegian.com.

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