LEADERSHIP LESSONS: What I Learned from UCONN Coach Jim Calhoun

04 Apr


During the 1995-96 basketball season, while an undergraduate student at UCONN, I served as one of 14 “student managers” for the men’s basketball team. This team included Ray Allen, Doron Sheffer, Travis Knight, Kirk King, Eric Hayward, Rash Jones, Ricky Moore, etc etc. We won the Big East tournament that year and lost to Mississippi State in the Sweet 16.  

There were four student managers who travelled with the team and were very involved with day-to-day basketball operations. I was not one of those managers, though among the four were Jim Calhoun’s future daughter-in-law and the now infamous Josh Nochimson.  As one of the “other 10” student managers, my responsibilities were limited to helping at practice: setting up the locker room and court, running the clock and score board, rebounding for the guys during warm ups and drills, help with drills, get water/powerade as needed, keep notes/stats for coaching staff, clean up the court and locker room post practice, etc. 

For a college basketball fan (and rabid Huskies fan) this was one of the greatest student activities in the world. 

One of the greatest parts of the experience was getting to watch Jim Calhoun’s coaching and leadership upclose. Here are ten lessons I learned from watching Calhoun… these are principles that have helped me as a leader in ministry and other contexts.


Jim Calhoun has a clear sense of personal (and organizational) core value — and those core values drives his leadership style.  For too may people and organizations, core values are mere aspriational statements, not descriptions of actually lived-out values.  That is not true for Calhoun.  His values drive his decisions in real and practical ways.  For me, one of the applications of this is that when I was part of a team planting a church, we took our core values very seriously. We built them into our annual organizational and pastoral evaluation process and I reviewed them almost daily as part of my planning/prayer time.  Almost more than mission statements, core values drive decisions.  I learned this from Calhoun and it is a valuable lesson.


One of the most uttered phrases around Gampel Pavillion (at least back in those days) was “Connecticut Basketabll”, as in “we play Connecticut basketaball… as long as we play Connecticut basketaball, we will be fine… etc”.  “Connecticut Basketball” was a phrase that meant a lot to everyone involved in the program.  It described a clear style of basketball, a brand. Running fast breaks of of made baskets, tenacious pressing defense, blocking shots, rebounding… all elements of “Connecticut Basketball”.  Calhoun used this as an internal branding tool to constantly remind people what we were about, what we were trying to accomplish, and we were going to accomplish it.  Does your organization or church or business have a clear sense of “internal branding”?  What is it? Do your folks know what it is?


Calhoun is one of the best motivators I have ever seen.  I think one of the most important — and least understood/recognized — aspect of leadership is motivation. Calhoun knew how to motivate and knew that how you motivated different people is always different.  For example, Calhoun is known to be pretty intense and will yell and scream at people easily. That said, during the entire season, I never once saw Calhoun yell or scream at Doron Sheffer.  For Sheffer, this would have been a de-motivator.  He would shut down.  Calhoun knew this and altered his style to become a great motivator of Sheffer.  On the hand, Antric Klaiber? He got yelled at!  The big take-away for me is that leaders need to be students of the art and science of motivation.


Like all great coaches, Calhoun focused on fundamentals and execution.  But he didn’t just talk about it.  He believed that fundamentals are learned and mastered through drilling. And repeat drilling. Over and over again.  Want to learn to be great at something.  Practice and drill.  It was amazing to me how much of practice was basic drills — not so different then what I used to do when I coached a 4th & 5th grade rec team.  More complex drills, yes.  But still drills.  And lots of free throws. Over and over again.  This is an important lesson: success is about fundamentals executed consistently well; you learn this through drills and practice, not by playing.   I found the same to be true in lots of skills such as preaching, cooking, etc.  The place to master my knife skills is not working the line on a Saturday night — no, it is in practicing different cuts when the kitchen is slow and I have time to focus.  Great preachers master their craft not on Sunday morning, but Tuesday moring in their study.  I suspect this is true with almost any skill or job.


Calhoun is a great recruiter and consistently has a pool of very talented people to work with — both on the court and off.  But the success of the Men’s Baskteball program at UCONN is not about any individual people, but about the systems that Calhoun has created. Systems transcend people. That is why Calhoun can be successfukl year-after-year.  Assistants leave, players leave early for the NBA, some transfer or never pan out — the system is what allows it all to work.  Calhoun had systems for everything: recruiting, practicing, travelling, gameday routines, etc etc.  Great organizations are built on great systems. I think one of the #1 things keeping most organizations from realizing their full productive potential is lack of good systems.  Building and maintaining good systems takes time, patience, insight, wisdom and an ability to see the big picture while managing the smallest of details.  Great leaders can do this; Calhoun does it extraordinarily well.


A lot of energy and money was spent on creating a sense of family and community. Catered dinners after practice (to which managers were able to attend), gifts of branded stuff, etc etc — all created a sense of team, family and community.  For Calhoun, these weren’t just words… he really does believe that the program is one big family.


Part of the family/community dynami
c was a sense of loyalty. Great leaders engender loyalty from their followers. But ultimately one can’t demand loyalty, but must earn it through loyalty.  People are amazingly loyal to Calhoun — but he is even more loyal to those he leads.  This is a critical lesson for all leaders, but I think especially pastors and church leaders.  If you want folks to be loyal to you, become their #1 fan and encourager first!  Loyalty begets loyalty — and it starts with the leader.


This one is simple to understand and to say, harder to do.  But Calhoun is one of the most demanding people I have ever met — not just of the players, but of everyone around him.  Trust me when I tell you that you only need to be yelled at by coach once to know that you never want that to happen again. Calhoun expects excellence and demands it — and has no patience for excuses.  Excellence is not perfection.  It is doing the best with what you’ve got.  And anything less is simply unacceptable to Calhoun.


Calhoun always made clear what the goal or objective was.  Of the season, of a practice, of a drill.  In other words, you always knew what it meant to win at what you were doing. There was never confusion about what the goal was, what we were trying to accomplish.  In many organizations, I think most people have no idea whether they are winning or losing.  This is certainly true in most churches.  Sundays come and go — and services happen. But is that the “win”? Or is there something else we are going for?  At my previous church, we tried to define the win for everything we did.  Overall, our sense of a win was simply this: changed lives.  If people were encountering God and experiencing life transformation, this was a win.  Do people in your organization and under your leadership have a crystal-clear understanding of what it means to win?  Do you?  If not, why not? What are you waiting for?


When you are successful, it is easy to develop a sense of arrogance.  Calhoun is about as successful as they come.  He has been dubbed a Super Coach. At the time when I was a student manager, Ray Allen was dubbed a Superman… today, that is Kemba Walker.  Calhoun knows that it is dangerous to believe your own press — or to try and live up to it.  You’ve got to kill superman.  Ray Allen did the same drills as everyone else — and often stayed late after practice working on his shooting.  If anyone didn’t need the extra practice, it was Ray Allen… but then again, the reason he is Ray Allen is because he put in the extra practice so consistently. Ray never believed he was superman (Calhoun wouldn’t let him) and so kept working hard to get better and better.  The take-away? You’ve got to kill superman, don’t listen to your own press, stay humble, and stay grounded.


Jim Calhoun is not perfect.  He doesn’t run a perfect program.  The systems don’t always work.  BUT, he is a great leader.  Some people never realize their full potential as a leader because they think they can’t lead because of their flaws, mistakes and failures.  This is a great lie. No leader is perfect — in fact, the only great leaders are those who know they are flawed, make mistakes, and have a history of failures.

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Posted by on April 4, 2011 in Uncategorized


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