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Being Strategic in Quiet Times: Green Bay's Charles Guthrie

By Charles Guthrie, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay

Seldom in the high-pressure, fast-paced world of intercollegiate athletics do we find ourselves in a quiet period, a period that not only allows for, but arguably invites reflection, learning, relationship building, depth, and uninterrupted attention to detail. These moments challenge us to resist our well-conditioned reflexes that all too often urge us to constantly remain in high gear.


In an industry in which demands are relentless and expectations immense, with stakeholders seeking updates, decisions, and progress yesterday and not a moment later, the enormity of this challenge cannot be understated. However, I have come to firmly believe that slowing down, particularly during the ebb of the tide, is a more expedient route to strategic thinking, idea generation, and enduring excellence.


Build Positive Working Relationships with Internal and External Constituents


Building positive working relationships with internal and external constituents is a critical aspect of my position and one of the most enjoyable, yet it can be difficult to dedicate as much time as I’d like to this area when activity levels are high and attention is being pulled in many directions. Thus, during quiet periods, I actively seek to formally and informally nurture relationships with student-athletes, coaches, staff members, community members and friends of the program.


When schedules aren’t as chaotic and everyone has a bit more time to breathe, my 90-minute weekly meeting with members of my senior leadership team tends to involve deeper, more nuanced, more creative, and notably more forward-thinking exchanges. While we still dedicate time and energy to updating one another on current events and department happenings, we are intentional about using these gatherings to think big, plan for future events and prepare against anticipated developments.


In our conversations with one another, we commit to raising tough questions and considering opposing ideas, with the hope of reducing the decision-making bias and risk that is more difficult to minimize during time-pressured periods. Respectfully sharing diverse viewpoints increases the likelihood that situations will be assessed from multiple angles, engenders mutual respect, and communicates a message of openness that can and should be carried throughout the department. It is during the quiet periods that these critical perspectives are often best processed.


While my senior leadership team meets each week, weekly meetings with coaching staff members simply isn’t feasible given the realities of coaches’ day-to-day responsibilities, as well as my own calendar, so I make a concerted effort to check in with coaches in a manner that has little to do with performance assessment and a great deal to do with a genuine interest in hearing about coaches’ time outside of the competitive environment.


These informal, relatively short conversations often tell me far more about the challenges and opportunities facing a particular coaching staff and/or sports program that any formal meeting I might be able to schedule. They also, by virtue of their more personal nature, do far more to generate trust, engagement, and understanding, elements that are critical to advancing the larger goals of the department.


Prepare for a Crisis Situation


As we have all seen within and beyond the intercollegiate athletics sphere, it is the unseen or unanticipated crises that can quickly overwhelm us, testing our decision-making and strategic thinking abilities in ways that render us unable to adequately respond. Consequently, at Wisconsin-Green Bay, a considerable amount of time during quiet periods is spent identifying and preparing for potential crises.


We work to stay abreast of crisis situations happening elsewhere within intercollegiate athletics and the larger higher education landscape so that we can better position ourselves to manage similar situations, should they arise on our campus. Much has been written, for example, about the need for increased awareness and support of student-athlete mental health, and incidents of sexual assault on NCAA member campuses have rattled all of us with a connection to college sports.


During quiet times, knowing what we know now, my colleagues and I ask ourselves if what we’re doing today will prepare us for the uncertainty of tomorrow. Hopefully, by front-loading a crisis management approach with a strong emphasis on readiness and preparation, we increase our chances of staying ahead of troublesome issues.




Assess the Intercollegiate Athletics Landscape


There are events that we readily classify as crisis situations based on our familiarity with events of an identical or similar structure, yet there also previously unseen events and developments that we simply imagine will be problematic should such events and developments one day occur. Earlier this year, a number of reputable sources reported that student loan debt is now the highest ever, with more than 44 million borrowers collectively owing $1.5 trillion in the U.S. alone. The enormity of student loan debt, a product of increasingly high tuition rates, relatively stagnant wages, and decades of unchecked behavior by banks and lenders is, likely to have a lasting economic impact, which should give all of us pause.


At Wisconsin-Green Bay, like so many other campuses outside of the Power Five, our athletic program is partly subsidized through a university-issued student athletic fee. Perhaps not surprisingly, I support the notion that athletics positively contributes to the university in a myriad of ways and that the general student population benefits, to some degree, by existence of the athletics operation. Yet, I cannot help but wonder, as student loan debt shows little sign of shrinking, at what price point does a student athletic fee become inappropriate?


As the value of a college degree becomes subject to even greater scrutiny, and as an aging population and declining birth rate creates underpopulated cities and towns, how will we tackle the implications of lower enrollment figures? What will affordability concerns and declining enrollment mean for athletic subsidies?


Are we prepared to generate the revenue needed to sustain operations? Are we willing to adjust operations in a way that significantly reduces expenditures? How might athletic department priorities shift if and when financial pressures mount to a degree not yet previously experienced?


Similar questions come to mind when I think about the often outsized role television contracts have in college sports. Increasingly viewers are ditching traditional cable and satellite television for internet-streaming services. What does this mean for those at the upper echelon of college athletics? What does this mean for those of us who are likely to feel the ripple effect of any changes to those at the top?


Are we prepared for disruption in this area? If not, what should we be doing at a campus, conference, and national level to ensure a level of stability? During quiet times, it is these larger issues that cause me the greatest consternation. As athletic department leaders, we must work collaboratively to address these and other questions, the answers to which will undoubtedly, if not immediately, lead to transformative and substantive change.


Step Away


There is a lure to quiet periods, a temptation to use them to engage in as much observation, listening, and strategic planning as resources will allow. Yet, occasionally, quiet periods call for a physical and emotional distance. While different in design, these periods have the potential to be highly rewarding. They offer a much-needed opportunity to rest and restore one’s physical and mental health and come back to the work with fresh eyes. I truly believe, and advocate to my team, that sometimes in the quiet periods, the most strategic move is to do nothing more than embrace and experience the quiet.