O. Homer Erekson: Leadership fundamentals on and off the field

O. Homer Erekson John V. Roach Dean Neeley School of Business at TCU

During different stages of my life and professional career, I have come to know many coaches, sometimes from the bleachers and other times across the table or other personal ways. These include Gary Patterson, Jim Schlossnagle and Jeff Mittie from TCU, Dean Smith from the University of North Carolina, Randy Walker from Miami University and Northwestern, Charlie Coles at Miami University, and my father Owen Erekson who coached for many years at Brenham High School and Houston Reagan High School.

These coaches have many things in common and enjoyed incredible success in numerous ways. Each can count winning teams and special bowl victories or playoff games, which are important aspects of their success. As my brother Charles notes, “There is a reason we keep score.” For those of us who are major sports fans, there is something very special about celebrating a Rose Bowl victory or joining an after-game party on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill.

There are other ways these coaches mark success. Patterson, Schlossnagle and Mittie live the elements of success:

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emphasis on fundamentals, hard work and commitment to excellence; importance of the team; supporting causes that are important to them and their community; caring about the people around them; and valuing education and helping students find a path to success.

Dean Smith believed in the concept of team and was a champion of human rights. Some people talk about his practice of having freshmen carry team equipment and compare it to the oft-repeated story of Michael Jordan carrying the film projector and canisters of game film shortly after making the shot that won the national championship for North Carolina. This practice wasn’t about hazing, but rather about being part of a team community. Smith also championed many social and political causes, perhaps most important was his commitment to civil rights. In the 1960s he took a strong stand against segregation, integrating a well-known restaurant in Chapel Hill and recruiting the first African-American player at the University of North Carolina. Reflecting back on being that first recruit, Charlie Scott has been quoted as saying, “Coach Smith never made it a point of conversation. Dean Smith taught us about life.”

Some might say Randy Walker was always the underdog, yet he led Miami University and Northwestern to highly successful winning records and major bowl victories that surprised many experts. He lived the adage espoused by John Wooden in his book, They Call Me Coach: “Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can.” I had a personal connection with Walker. He and I coached youth baseball together for several years. There were times when we faced frustrating challenges with players regarding attitude or inappropriate behavior. My initial reaction was to want to remove them from the team. Walker would say, “What would he learn from that? Let’s help him find a path to success.”

Successful coaches realize there is importance beyond the game: caring for the well-being of players and honoring the many persons whose lives they touch. I knew Coles as a colleague when I served on Miami’s Committee on Athletic Policy. What I remember so fondly about Coles is that he always asked about my family and remembered a previous conversation. We remained in contact for many years well after I left Miami. You could say he had no particular reason to care about me, but his devotion to the individual was a major part of his success.

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As for my father, I never had the opportunity to play for him. By the time I was old enough to play youth sports, he had retired from coaching and was teaching mathematics and science. But the lessons were still there. “There is no I in Team.” “Be the first on the field and the last to leave the field.” “It starts with the fundamentals; everything else follows.” Commitment to achievement and excellence was apparent in everything he did; however, the lessons I learned from him were broader and more profound. His devotion to family and friends was deep and very tangible. When I visit his former players in Brenham, Ed and Howard Kruse, there are many fun recollections of football victories. But they are quick to point out just how tough a chemistry teacher Coach Erekson was and how he prepared them to succeed as students at Texas A&M.

As a business school dean, I see many parallels between the world of athletics and the field of business. Success measured in terms of profits or return on investment is important, but fundamentally business is about creating value. Healthy businesses know that creating value involves leadership, teamwork and the pursuit of excellence. It also requires business leaders who are committed to their employees, customers and other stakeholders.

The best business leaders recognize that they are coaches as well. They may never lead a team on the field, but it is their responsibility to find ways to help each individual unleash their human potential. J. Luther King Jr. is a great example of a leader who has committed his life to building a great company while also to serving as a mentor for employees and student interns. They may not call him coach, but his employees and interns recognize that he is a teacher and role model who lives the Wooden Pyramid of Success: “Success is a peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”