As I often do, I had ESPN on the other night in the background while doing some work. Engrossed in my thoughts about district leadership teams we are helping to transform learning, I wasn’t paying much attention to the TV until my attention was drawn to a coach talking about overcoming tremendous challenges. It was a documentary about the University of Miami Hurricane football team. The program got my attention when I heard then-newly hired head coach, Butch Davis, talking in 1995 about transforming the program. The difficult situation Davis found himself in instantly reminded me of the seemingly insurmountable challenges many of our school leaders face in our most troubled districts.
Let me provide a little context. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a University of Miami financial aid officer was providing kick-backs to more than 80 student athletes through falsified Pell Grant applications. Unbelievably, this only scratched the surface of the illegal and unethical practices happening within the football program. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were paid to players directly through the team’s leadership, or through its sponsors. Drug use amongst players was commonplace, and the school ensured that the required drug testing program was implemented in a way that would not disqualify its players. Many players didn’t go to class and grades were rigged so that these students could keep their eligibility. The coaching staff and other school leaders even turned a blind eye to criminally violent behavior to protect their star players.
Finally, after an investigation in 1995, the NCAA announced that the university had lost institutional control over the football program. Sanctions were handed down in the 1996-1997 season. The edict: the Hurricanes would lose 31 football scholarships, they would not be allowed to play in the post season, and more than 60 people were charged in the wide spread wrong-doing. Sports Illustrated even ran a cover story that year calling for the University to disband the football team.
So who would want to step into that mess and coach a team that was destined to fail? You may ask yourself the same question about our failing schools. Who would want to step into the leadership of a school or district that is grossly underfunded, that is continuously losing enrollment, that has facilities that are crumbling around the students, that has instructional materials that are a decade or more old, and that has students that often face enormous social and emotional issues in and outside of school? How can even the best leader face these kinds of challenges and be successful? And how can an educational leader possibly be successful in the incredibly short time frame the government and public demands?
I was glued to the TV hoping to see some of the leadership practices that OTO has been advocating for in the eager coach’s approach to transformation. The documentary showed clips of Butch Davis talking to the media about his strategies for transformation. In the back of my mind, I kept thinking this guy must be crazy. Why would he take this job? Did he really believe he could transform the culture, or was he just desperate to break in as a head coach? I thought to myself, nobody is going to have the courage to stand up and do the right thing to transform that culture. It would be political suicide. And even if someone has the courage, they are not going to be given the time it will take to transform. As I continued to watch, I figured Davis was doomed to failure and would be fired within a couple of years.
I continued to listened as Davis talked about the importance of intelligence on his team. “Smart teams win out predominantly over other teams.” His commitment to this ideal was evident as he made his players go to class and legitimately make their grades if they were going to play. But it wasn’t until the story turned to the beginning of the 1996-1997 season, that I realized the level of Coach Davis’ courage. He decided to suspend nine starting players prior to the beginning of the 1996-1997 season. He was ridiculed for this, and the media asked why he wanted to lose, as others began to call for his job. The suspensions were a strong statement, but in the face of almost unanimous opposition in the Miami community, from that moment on, everyone knew he was serious.
His metal would be tested, again, as the Hurricanes suffered the worst defeat in the team’s history against their arch rival, Florida State. The team also posted the worst record in decades. There was a torrent of fans calling for blood. Someone even went as far as to hire a plane that carried a banner over the Miami skies proclaiming what an idiot Davis was.
In the face of all of this opposition, Coach Davis stood tall. He could feel things begin to slowly change. The team grade point average went from 1.9 to 2.8. Players were actually graduating. Davis also knew that it was important to recruit students that had character and strong leadership skills, not just athletic ability. There was now a different atmosphere in the locker room – one of mutual respect. Coach demanded it, and the players lived up to it.
The fans and the college football community, however, didn’t care about any of that. They were angry. The community was still angry at what they believed were the bad boys of football. The fans were angry that the team was an embarrassment. There were continued calls for Butch Davis’ job – well, some people called for a lot worse – but let’s just say, Coach Davis was definitely the most hated man in Miami.
Thinking back now to my work with school leaders, I thought that, under this type of community pressure, a superintendent would definitely be fired. This is a major problem in education. The average tenure for superintendents is now around 3.5 years. The statistic is dramatically lower in troubled districts. We know from our work and from the research that transforming a culture takes at least 3-5 years. It is no wonder, then, that many districts seem to be in a continuous cycle of mediocrity when the leaders keep changing before any transformation can be institutionalized.
The University of Miami administration, on the other hand, hung in there with Coach Davis. They could see the positive impact he was having and they knew it would take time for real transformation to happen. And that is exactly what did happen. By 2000, recruiting had recovered and they had depth on their team. Four years of determination began to pay off, not only in the locker room, in the lives of these kids, and in the classroom, but things began to change on game day. The defining moment of the transformation happened on October 7, 2000 when Miami beat Florida State 27-24. They knew at that moment that the transformation was real.
Unfortunately, in 2001 Butch Davis left Miami for the NFL. The culture he built drove the team to win the National Championship in 2001, in Miami, with an undefeated season, but things would quickly change. Without his courageous, intelligence, and visionary leadership, the team would quickly revert back to their old ways. Within a few years, there would be more scandals, corruption, and criminal activity from which the program has yet to recover.
There are so many leadership lessons to learn from the history of this once mighty program, both positive and negative. I have to admit that, by the end of the documentary, I was inspired. I believe more strongly than ever in the leadership principals we employ in our work with schools, and I have renewed faith that, with the right leadership, a complete transformation of the American education system is actually possible.
Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.
Chief Operating Officer