Thanks for the life lessons, Coach Cullop

April 15, 2011 | Op-Ed, UToday
By Clint and Cindy Longenecker

Congratulations to the Lady Rockets for their amazing season culminating with the WNIT Championship win over USC, 76-68. What a team to take defeat in the Mid-American Conference Tournament and turn it into a history-making championship run. Now Coach Tricia Cullop is being described as one of the “hottest coaching talents in the country” for her team’s performance, but what are the keys to her success?

Cindy and Dr. Clint Longenecker posed for a photo with Toledo basketball players, from left, Melissa Goodall, Lecretia Smith, Andola Dortch, Haylie Linn and Naama Shafir.

Cindy and Dr. Clint Longenecker posed for a photo with Toledo basketball players, from left, Melissa Goodall, Lecretia Smith, Andola Dortch, Haylie Linn and Naama Shafir.

We have followed the Lady Rockets for more than 25 years, have had close relationships with many players, and have had the chance to address the 2010-11 team. In January, we had the unique privilege of being the “sixth man” (as a couple) on the Lady Rockets bench; this provided a wonderful opportunity to see, feel and hear the inner workings of a team that had something very special going on. With this backdrop, here are several observations about what makes Cullop a great coach that goes well beyond simply being a great student of the game:

She is a tireless and effective recruiter. While it is obvious that she has recruited outstanding basketball talent, she has surrounded herself with an exceptionally talented and motivated coaching and support staff that operate with great passion and professionalism. Oh, and if you hadn’t noticed, she also recruited all Toledoans for each tournament game and has already recruited us for next season.

She has staked out a strong, positive identity for her team. Coach constantly says, “This is who we are …” and then fills in key virtues and qualities that are her team’s identity. We are “blue-collar,” “family,” “serious in the classroom,” “a buzzer-to-buzzer team,” “don’t finish ugly,” “demonstrate character”; these are a few of the encouraging and elevating epitaphs that are repeated and reinforced. This identity has created a lifestyle and mindset that lead to high performance. And when performance falls below expectation, she reminds her team, “This is not who we are.”

She has a real talent at connecting with people. Coach has the uncanny ability to make people feel like the center of her attention. She demonstrates great emotional intelligence and a genuine talent for communicating with everyone regardless of the stressfulness or loudness of the situation. She also has great listening skills — frequently found wanting in strong leaders — that are needed for motivating, solving problems, scouting and understanding others. Catch her eye one minute before tip-off and she focuses her attention on you as if she has all the time in the world.

She understands the power of synergy and family. When you look at the talent and athleticism of UT’s WNIT opponents, it is apparent that we won because of team play. Coach creates synergy, as the whole of the team’s performance was far greater than the sum of its parts. Everyone in the stands knew that they were witnessing a group of individuals that were playing and winning synergistically. This team is a family “by design” as team building on and off the court has created a “family” with intangible qualities that few teams ever achieve. On the floor after each game was a family gathering to celebrate the community and team’s success that was orchestrated by the coach and her players.

Coach is always coaching. Players will tell you that she sets very high, clear expectations for everything: academic performance, practice, travel, game preparations and the games themselves. She and her staff then do everything in their power to equip players to meet those expectations. This is where she truly shines by providing continuous situational feedback. When each player returns to the bench, she receives immediate feedback. A player is not left guessing as to her quality of play on and off the court. Watching Cullop on the floor after winning the championship was a delight as she fought her way through the crowd to personally congratulate each player and to hug her and to whisper some personal comments. One can only imagine her feedback, but the smiles on the players’ faces revealed they knew that they were valued.

Coach demonstrates humility and that it is not about her. Finally, our coach has been quick to give credit for our national championship performance to the fans, her players, her staff, the UT Athletic Department, the administration and Toledo. Somehow all 7,301 of us felt like we were the “sixth man.” That was the winning combination. When she told us that the team could not have won these games without us, the fans, we truly believed her and felt like we had done our part for the team. Humility pays dividends!

So the run is over, the newspapers are still on kitchen tables but on their way to recycling, and life has moved on. But even after the games were over, our family cannot help but sing and dance each night along with the Black Eyed Peas as they perform the Lady Rockets’ theme song, “Tonight’s Gonna Be a Good Night.” And what a good night it was. Thanks for the life lessons, Coach Cullop, and for the championship! We love you!

Clint is the Stranahan Professor of Leadership and Organizational Excellence in the College of Business and Innovation. Cindy is a homemaker, teacher and community servant. Both are UT graduates and former intercollegiate athletes.

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