Owner’s Circle

At Marquette University, Head Coach Tom Crean teaches his players to take ownership of their team—both on the court and off.

By David Hill

David Hill is an Assistant Editor at Coaching Management.

Coaching Management, 12.6, August 2004, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1206/ownerscircle.htm

It was early January, and Marquette University’s men’s basketball players were huddled together in a film room. They had split into teams of three and were watching film of the Houston Cougars, the team they would soon face to open the 2003-04 Conference USA season. The athletes’ job: come up with a scouting report, complete with plays to run on the floor.

Not a lot of coaching staffs would delegate this task to players, especially for the first conference test of the season. In fact, it was the first time Marquette Head Coach Tom Crean had done so. But it succeeded so well that he plans to do it again.

It’s a chance for players to learn the art of devising a game plan, Crean says. Perhaps more important, though, it forces the players to work together off the court for a common goal. "We’re not going to win many games if we’ve got players who don’t want to spend time with each other and try to help each other become better," says Crean.

Team events like the scouting-report session are at the heart of Crean’s coaching philosophy at Marquette. He calls it "team ownership," and it has become a big reason behind the program’s success. When players see themselves as part of a larger enterprise whose success will lead to their individual achievements, everyone will focus more, work harder, help each other—and win.

Creating a team mentality is hardly a new idea in the coaching world. What coach doesn’t want players to focus on team goals? Crean, though, has taken the ownership idea farther, including student fans, alumni, and athletic department employees in the picture. They’re made to feel a part of a larger enterprise, which in turn inspires the players. That larger enterprise has benefits in itself, but the central point is to build team togetherness that’s like no other.

"When you don’t get a pass or someone shoots too much, you have the kind of relationship that you can say, ‘Hey, that’s not helping,’" explains Brian Wardle, who played under Crean for two years at Marquette in the late 1990s and rejoined the program as Director of Basketball Operations before the 2003-04 season. "You can get on each other when you have a strong enough relationship. When you get 10 guys buying-in, the sky’s the limit."

Crean puts it this way: "There is no way truly great things can be accomplished if you don’t have a team of people who are totally trying to work for each other. You bring players in and they have to understand that personalized attention comes from helping one another raise their games. It is an awareness, or alertness, to what needs to be done.

"That’s when you see true benefits on the floor," Crean continues. "When you have a team that can go on the court and practice, can go to the weight room or the film room and talk to each other about what needs to be done and point things out, then you’re on the way to some serious ownership, and that transfers right to the floor."

Start Early
Crean says ownership begins during the recruiting process. As a program with a championship pedigree and one that’s been to the Final Four as recently as 2003, Marquette typically has its pick of statistical standouts. But what sets true prospects apart in the recruiting eyes of Crean and his staff is the ability to put winning ahead of immediate personal gain.

"The three things we’re always looking for in trying to build our program are unselfishness, toughness, and character," says Crean. "And someone’s character directly relates to how they help others attain their goals. At this level, you’re recruiting a lot of leading scorers and rebounders. Well, are they also great teammates who are trying to move the ball? Are they also guys who spend time with the younger players?"

The willingness to sacrifice self for team gain is getting harder to spot in high school players, says Crean, given NCAA restrictions on recruiting and the increasing focus among younger basketball players on the highlight-reel professional game. But it’s a crucial part of building a cohesive program.

"I don’t think someone who’s totally concerned about himself from top to bottom is going to change in college in a way that will enable your team to win at a high level," he says. "There has to be a certain ability to give of yourself, even when you’re in high school and leading the team in scoring and winning all-state awards."

Once on the team, Marquette players are asked to take ownership in subsequent recruiting efforts. Crean says current players’ opinions of whether a prospect would fit into the team are crucial in deciding which players to offer a place in the program. "When a young person comes to campus, we want him to spend more time with the players than he does with the coach," Crean says. "He’s going to play with the players, and they’re all going to live together."

Crean points to Golden Eagles alumnus Dwyane Wade, now of the NBA’s Miami Heat, as an example of what he looks for. "He always talked about winning championships when he was here," Crean says. "You’ve got to get players who are talking about winning championships as much or more than they are about individual goals. The great ones realize that the more they win, the more their goals come to life. It’s our job as coaches to keep looking for that."

Team of Leaders
Like most teams, Marquette has a team leadership structure. Crean names summer captains for offseason preparation, as well as pre- and in-season captains in the fall. But Crean prefers to see team leadership emerge organically from the players. If athletes are a part of a team of mutual trust and knowledge, they’ll each take on some leadership responsibility in their own way.

"The loudest and most vocal players aren’t always the most respected," Crean says. "You can have as many captains as you want. The players are going to respect the teammates they feel deserve it."

One ways Crean allows that leadership to emerge is through film study sessions. To start, he quizzes players to bring them into the fold. "He wants each player to feel a part of what’s going on," Wardle says. "For example, he’ll show film of a guy on the opposing team, then ask one of our players to explain what the opponent is doing. They understand quickly that they’re not going into the film room to just stare at the screen and listen to the coaches’ words."

The assignment last January in which players were asked to come up with a game plan completely by themselves was an extension of a previous film study. "Everybody had a different area of responsibility to watch for in the opposing team," says Wardle. "They pretty much ran practice the next day. They were extremely prepared, and if one guy wasn’t, the others said, ‘Weren’t you paying attention?’ They knew everything about that opponent, and it turned out well. We won that game.

"We also found that the guys really enjoy it. They’re like coaches in a sense, and it keeps them on their toes," continues Wardle. "They enjoy feeling a part of the preparation process."

Along the way, coaches constantly reinforce the team ownership theme and the values associated with it. For example, Crean says, "It’s important that your team understands that the two most important expressions are ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ When players get away from that, it’s your job as a coach to get them back in line. And when the leadership of the team shows that’s what is important to them as well, they police each other. Then you’ve got a chance to really grow."

A Larger Circle
Part of Crean’s ownership strategy involves going beyond the immediate basketball team. He wants others to feel ownership in the program, too. That, in turn, helps players see that they’re part of something larger.

The primary circle of connections is right in the athletic department. Crean makes it a point to talk up the program with everyone. "Tom Izzo [Head Men’s Coach at Michigan State, where Crean was an assistant] taught me something a long time ago," says Crean. "He said it about the secretaries, the athletic trainers, the manager, the coaches, and the entire support staff: When the team wins, everybody wins, and you really want to try to understand that as much as is possible."

The next circle is on campus. Wardle remembers feeling perplexed when Crean took over and told the team they had to take ownership. But he and his teammates soon began to see what their new head coach had in mind.

"It means you’re on campus promoting the program, associating with fellow students—almost a marketing type of thing where you’re taking ownership of getting students to games," he says. "It’s the little things you do, and it’s everything you do to benefit the program. It’s realizing that you’re part of a program, and that you’re trying to take it to another level—but that you’re trying to do that as a team."

Crean organized Fan Appreciation Day for students and meet-the-team nights for alumni to personalize the relationships and thank both groups for their support. There were burgers and fries for students and more formal settings for alumni, but the thrust of the nights was to have players introduce themselves.

"There were three, four, five different events where he wanted the players to represent the team in a good way and see what we could to sell the program," Wardle says. "He just said, ‘Go around and shake hands, be social.’ From there, everybody started feeling a little closer to the program and they’d come to the games a little more."

The point was to personalize the program—to give it a face. That helps others buy in. "Students and alumni and fans don’t get to interact with a lot of head coaches," Wardle says. "But Coach Crean came in with a hands-on approach. He said, ‘I’m going to get out there, talk to everybody, and we’re going to make a big buzz around campus about the program. And you guys will, too.’" Student season ticket sales went from about 800 to 5,000 within a couple years, Wardle says.

The responsibility for building relationships doesn’t end at the Marquette campus edge, however. The Golden Eagles have taken on numerous community-service projects, including cleaning up a Milwaukee neighborhood, visiting hospitals for cancer patients, children’s wards, and nursing homes, and telephoning sick and shut-in people in the area. These activities pay off in several ways: They help players make connections to the greater world while promoting their program and university, and they build perspective, camaraderie, and the mutual trust that enables the athletes to play basketball as a team.

"When you go and do those community-service things as a team, you learn more about each other," Wardle explains. "For instance, I remember when I went to visit children with cancer, I found out one teammate’s aunt died of cancer and another teammate’s sister-in-law had cancer at one point. It’s like, ‘Hey, he’s had a tough life going through these health issues with his family.’ It’s little things like that you pick up on that might help you as a team and as a teammate."

Talking It Up
Whether in a film session or at a booster club function or during a community service project, the key comes down to one simple component, says Crean: keep athletes talking. That’s what team ownership really is about. Crean wants players who are concerned about the program they own and are interested to talk about its welfare.

"As coaches, our number one Achilles’ heel is getting our athletes to talk enough—and to talk about the right things that make each other better," Crean says. "Most teams aren’t going to be shy in the locker room. But it’s amazing—all the lips can get tripped up when they’re in the film room or when they’re forced to talk about things they’re not comfortable with. It’s our job as coaches to help them learn to deal with things that they may not be comfortable with and express their feelings about them.

"If you’re not teaching your athletes about each other, and you’re not allowing them the opportunity to learn about each other, then you’re not only shortchanging your team, you’re shortchanging yourself as a coach," Crean adds. "Because it’s a lot of fun to watch a team grow up. It really is. It’s a lot of fun to watch your athletes learn about each other."