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Leading Through The Perpetual Crisis Of College Athletics

By Jason Belzer
8 min read

There is no time in which our leadership will be challenged more than during a crisis. Whether as an athletic director, business executive or any other position in which we are tasked to guide others, our ability to make rapid decisions when everything is on the line will define our legacy far more than anything else we do during our careers. Yet in many ways, as leaders in college athletics we face a more difficult burden than our corporate brethren, if only because of the sustained nature of the crisis facing our industry. Every word we say, move we make, and action we undertake is constantly being judged and analyzed by countless individuals, most of whom have little influence themselves but who in a collective fury can insure that we never work another day in this business.


What is even more frightening is that the managerial adaptability necessary to meet the seemingly unyielding succession of challenges the industry now throws our way is beyond any athletic director’s current capability. By the very nature of the perpetual crisis that we face, none of us have been here before. After all, the leadership we relied on in the past is what got us into this predicament in the first place. And so any athletics department that relies solely on the preexisting expertise of its senior staff during times of crisis all but guarantees its own failure.


How then do we lead through what seems to be constant calamity without losing our heads (and our jobs)? The truth is that there is no single panacea, because the way forward isn’t obvious (if it was, it wouldn’t be a crisis). That being said, we can begin to formulate a plan by first recognizing that crisis leadership comes in two distinct phases: recognizing and mitigating the adverse effects of the crisis in the short term, and then insuring that our organization is actually now better off than had we not faced the adversity in the first place.


Effective leadership through persistent turmoil starts with recognizing whether the particular situation our organization is facing is in fact really a crisis. Quite simply, a crisis is: any event which threatens personal safety, and/or jeopardizes the short or long-term image, reputation or financial stability of our athletic department or institution as a whole. 


If one of your student-athletes dies in a car accident, it’s not a crisis. If that student-athlete died because a fellow teammate was driving the vehicle while under the influence, that’s a crisis. If rumors swirl that your head basketball coach’s days might be numbered, it’s not a crisis. If the media finds out that you’ve secretly been negotiating with their replacement while saying otherwise, now you have a crisis (and shame on you).


Every problem your department has is not a crisis, and not every crisis necessitates the same response. And while prevailing wisdom says that we should lean on the people within our organizations to help us identify the tell tail signs of coming catastrophe, it’s really not that simple.


If we have created a culture where our employees can voice their concerns without fear of repercussion, and transparency is valued above all else, then maybe we have a chance of preventing disaster before it happens. But we only need to remind ourselves how unwilling we are to reveal bad news to our own superiors to recognize how difficult it is for our subordinates to do the same with us. As Norman Augustine once said, “asking the people responsible for preventing a problem if there is a problem is like delivering lettuce by rabbit.”


Even when we distinguish an unfortunate tragedy from a legitimate crisis, the majority of us will find new and creative ways of making the problem even worse than it already is. Crisis management requires triage – we must make tough decisions and make them quickly if we’re going to stop the hemorrhaging. Yet when it comes to making such decisions, most of us fail miserably.


On the one end of the spectrum, you will find the overly democratic athletic director, who when faced with responding to a given predicament becomes paralyzed because of their instance on seeking the input of every single person in their department and institution before making a decision. At the end of the day their indecisiveness ends up producing a three sentence statement that contains the opinions of a hundred different people.


At the other end, you have the dictator, who convinces themselves that they know everything there is to know and that they can handle the situation without bothering to consult (or even inform) anyone else within their organization. It’s because of this hubris that they end up digging themselves into a hole deeper than the one in which they started.


While neither of these strategies proves to be particularly useful, we can’t necessarily blame our innate propensity to fall into one of these categories either. The problem is that when crisis strikes, we simply don’t know what we don’t know. We can have access to immense amounts of information, or none at all, but either way it’s all but almost impossible for us to filter any of it within an ever shrinking time frame.


The best leaders, then, are the ones in the middle. They seek input from people, but act decisively and live with the repercussions. And as your legal counsel shouts “say nothing” while your SID feverishly types away at a press release, anyone who’s been there before will agree that you should probably say something.


When Ereck Plancher passed away during a University of Central Florida football practice in 2008, athletic director Keith Tribble did say something to the rabid mob of reporters outside the practice facility. He told them that the team had been working out for just 10 minutes before Plancher collapsed – a figure that was given to him by his coaching staff only moments before. As it turns out, that information was wrong. The team had in fact been practicing for much longer, in scorching hot weather and without a water break. Three years later as Tribble took the stand to testify in a wrongful death suit against the athletics department, that very same statement was used by the plaintiff’s attorneys to discredit his testimony.