December 3, 2004

Building a Winning Culture

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It was like nothing I’d ever seen before and nothing I may ever see again. Sitting, standing, jumping, and praying on Saturday afternoon, I watched my alma mater win the Missouri Class 3 State Football Championship in one of the best high school games in the history of the sport.

Despite scoring first on a 40-yard field goal, my Rams found themselves down by 25 points after the first half. But in a turn of events even most former Country Day players could not foresee, the team erased the deficit to defeat the defending state champions from Harrisonville, 45-42, in double overtime — the largest comeback in state championship history. The win gave the team a perfect 14-0 record, including a regular-season win over the larger Class 4 state champion (that team’s only loss of the year).

After the game, as the guys gathered around their trophy for pictures and an encore salute to the crowd, memories of the winning culture that imbues the school stirred in me. It was a feeling of pride I haven’t felt much in the last four years, and it reminded me how easy it is to fall behind, to become complacent with the status quo, and how hard it is to come back and end up on top.

Cornell, whose ranking in the annual U.S. News report is 14th overall and has slipped to lowest in the Ivy League, finds itself mired in that dilemma right now. Though we have several marquee programs, such as hockey, wrestling, lacrosse, and polo, many of our teams routinely finish their seasons near the bottom of the Ancient Eight totem pole, and many of our students don’t even notice, because they simply don’t care enough or are too busy with their own agendas to attend the games.

Unlike Country Day’s players and fans who expect to be the best at all they do all the time, Cornell’s students often appear to settle for mediocrity or fail to realize that individual accomplishments, though important, will not create the collegial atmosphere of excellence necessary make this entire place great.

We’re a backup school: the easiest Ivy to get into, the hardest to get out of. We’re a League middleman, finishing atop the standings in some areas, filling in the bottom rung in others, but occupying the middle tier in most. We want to take pride in being part of the Big Red, but we frequently fail to act on that desire.

But, like the Country Day Rams, whose hopes of a state crown seemed out of reach in the first half their game, Cornell, too, can rebound. On the eve of our own winter halftime, we have a chance to take a breather, to regroup, to come out next semester with a renewed commitment to becoming the best. With a little heart, a lot of guts, and a different attitude, we can instill a winning culture in this place and put Cornell back on top where it belongs. On a microcosmic level, head football coach Jim Knowles ’87 and his team proved that such a turnaround is indeed possible. Not once this season did Knowles allow his staff or players to utter the word loser; in fact, he never even let them think about words like weak — a term he struck from the team’s vernacular by renaming a safety position “whip.”

Instead of getting down after a loss, Knowles focused on winning the next contest. Instead of bemoaning defeat, he inspired his team with motivational quotes and speeches. And instead of explaining failure, he worked to avoid it in the future.

That style of coaching, while perhaps rare here or anywhere, is the only kind the football players at Country Day have ever known, thanks to a venerable man named Ron Holtman.

For four decades, Holtman has paced the sidelines as the head coach of the Rams and taught history to countless freshman and sophomores at the school. With steadfast confidence, infallible character, and unrelenting determination, he has guided Country Day to 38 winning seasons and 382 total wins — the most for any active coach in the state.

Though this may have been his last season at the helm of the storied program he helped build, the tradition of excellence he established at the school will carry on forever. It’s a tradition we could learn from here.

Right now, Cornell finds itself far behind in a higher-stakes game with its national reputation on the line and at least 13 other top-quality schools fighting hard for that coveted number-one ranking. There’s no reason we can’t win out.

Two weeks ago, Knowles’ squad came close against Penn. Though unable to complete the upset, the gridders showcased the kind of persistence and heart it takes to make a champion — the same kind of mettle and mindset each person at this school must demonstrate if we want to pull ourselves up from the bottom and climb to the top again.

The process starts with a commitment from each of us, because winners beget winning.

Whether you decide now or on New Year’s Eve, resolve to make this a university where everyone expects nothing less than the best, where people think not only of their own goals but those of the entire team. The challenge begins in January, and it may be difficult, but come May and each month afterward, we will all reap the rewards.

Have a great break. See you next year.

Archived article by Everett Hullverson