Many teams claim it, but few have it. A winning culture is elusive. Building and maintaining a winning culture, a real winning culture—especially in college athletics where players are constantly turning over—is difficult. It’s a big reason why few mid-major basketball teams are able to sustain success and annually compete for a conference championship and spot in the NCAA Tournament, aka March Madness.
As recently noted by the Dean of Local Sports Scribes, the typical mid-major story features a class top-heavy with seniors that builds for four years and makes a single run at that one shining moment. Think of the 2008-09 Bison, with guys like Ben Woodside and Brett Winkelman, that made the school’s first-ever NCAA Tournament. Four of the five starters, the team’s nucleus, were seniors that had played together their entire collegiate careers. After they graduated, the Bison were in full rebuild mode. The team did not win another game at the Summit League Tournament until March 2013, when it advanced all the way to the championship tilt before falling a few points short.
Unlike their first foray of success in March, it wouldn’t be another three years before the Bison contended for another trip to sport’s biggest party. The following spring, March 2014, the Bison not only advanced to the NCAA Tournament, they upset Oklahoma in a game that catapulted NDSU to the biggest national stage it had ever set foot on. Over the last five years, going back to the start of the 2012-13 season, the Bison have more wins than anybody else in the Summit League, including South Dakota State. NDSU is 112-50 during that span, good for a winning percentage of nearly 70 percent. The Bison have also played in four straight championship games at the conference tournament, a rare feat for any mid-major basketball program.
“We expect it every year. It’s one thing to have that expectation, but to go out and put ourselves in this position with the target on our back that we have, very proud, very pleased with this group,” said head coach David Richman heading into the final week of conference play. Taking nothing away from the guys that preceded him, Richman has built something or, perhaps more appropriately, built upon something—in turning the Bison program into one that no longer rebuilds, but reloads. Gone are the days where the cupboard is emptied and the team has to start from scratch like it did post-2009.
If you’ve spent any time listening to Richman, you’ll hear him talk about the importance of team and culture. There is little, if any, talk about the individual. In mid- February, junior guards Paul Miller and A.J. Jacobson both scored their 1,000 career points within minutes of each other in the first half against Denver en route to a big 81-63 home win at the SCHEELS Center. While Richman did not downplay the significance of these individual accomplishments, during his post-game interview, he explained his team-centric view that places winning above individual accolades.
“The primary goal and objective when you go into any game is to win,” said Richman, who is in his third year as head coach. “We don’t celebrate individual success very well, nor do I really want to, but it is pretty cool.” Richman went on to explain that the team would find a time to celebrate the individual benchmarks, but that time isn’t now with a trip to the NCAA Tournament on the line.
This team-centric focus and philosophy has played a big role in NDSU building and sustaining its winning culture. It’s how the Bison have been able to contend for a trip to March Madness on a yearly basis while other teams are seemingly always in rebuilding mode. It’s clear from the results that NDSU men’s basketball has bought into and trusts the process. Jack Welch, the legendary business leader and General Electric CEO, emphasized the importance of culture and buying into the team’s mission. “No company, small or large, can win over the long run without energized employees who believe in the mission and understand how to achieve it.” Or, as Vince Lombardi succinctly stated, “Individual commitment to a group effort–that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”
That is the process. As a concept, it’s easy to grasp, but it’s a much tougher beast to actually understand and apply. It’s why few teams repeat high caliber performance day after day, month after month, year after year. That isn’t to say there aren’t hiccups along the way – but on the macro level, the process and the culture it promotes are what sustains any successful team or organization. From Bison hoops to General Electric, to Apple, the New England Patriots, you name it.
Let’s go back, for a minute, to Lombardi’s quote. “Individual commitment to a group effort.” You may have heard this before stated another way. “The strength of the Herd is the Bison, and the strength of the Bison is the Herd.” Selfish teams don’t win. Period. Teams that don’t buy into the process and the grind—the showing up every single day and getting better when nobody is watching—are mediocre at best, and they certainly don’t win championships.
What Richman preaches is the same message you hear from Bison football coach Chris Klieman. The focus is not on the outcome but in the process of getting to the desired outcome. That process, and trusting in the process and abiding by it, ultimately determines the outcome. As Urban Meyer, Ohio State’s championship-winning football coach is fond of saying, E + R = O, specifically, Event + Response = Outcome. That is simply the formula for the process. “Our guys really sense the time of year and the urgency, and the position we’re in, and the position we can be in if we continue to take care of our business on a daily basis,” explained Richman following a double-overtime win in the home finale against Western Illinois.
No talk of cutting down nets, just showing up for the big game, etc. It’s the process and its culture that have propelled the Bison, the relentless focus on taking care of business on a daily basis. You’ll also hear Richman, Klieman, Meyer, and their players talk about and thank everybody from assistant coaches, the sports medicine personnel, to the strength coaches, student assistants and fans in the stands. The winning culture has to permeate all facets of the organization to sustain a high level of success. It isn’t just the star players that have to buy into the process, to focusing on each day, every repetition, every drill. It’s everybody involved with the team or organization buying into that culture and embracing the grind. The Bison have that. It’s the culture Richman, his staff and the entire program have built upon and sustained. It’s why they are well positioned for not just this March, but for many more to come. Everybody up for the tip-off, the March Madness is on!