What the Gophers Can Teach Business about Winning: Coach Kill to Keynote PENworks 2015

As winter winds down (eventually) and spring approaches, many sports enthusiasts have moved from the gridiron to March Madness.  But football season is not quite over for the Performance Excellence Network, as we are pleased to announce our fifth and final keynote speaker at PENworks 2015: Jerry Kill, head coach of the Minnesota Gophers!  Why Coach Kill?  Because under his leadership, the Gophers football program is undergoing one of the biggest transformations in its 133 year history.  And what Kill is doing to rebuild an athletic program almost certainly translates to any business, nonprofit, or organization desiring to perform at a high level…

I know many of you cheer for other colors, but insights from the Gophers’ turnaround transcend football, which is why Coach Kill will make a great speaker at our conference.  Consider how far the Gophers program has come in four short years.  Under Kill’s leadership:

  • The Gophers are 16-10 the last two years, the best stretch for the program since 2002-03.
  • The Gophers have back-to-back 8-win seasons, only the third time this has happened since the national championship 1940-41 seasons.
  • The Gophers played in a coveted New Year’s Day Bowl game this year, the first time since 1962.
  • But perhaps the most important statistic to Kill: the Gophers Academic Progress Rate (APR), a comprehensive NCAA measure of academic eligibility and retention, was 994 (out of 1000), the highest single season rating in Gophers history.

The turnaround is significant and quick.  And the league has taken notice: Jerry Kill won the Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2014, beating out Ohio State’s Urban Meyer (who went on to win the national championship, by the way).

But this article isn’t about Kill, so much as about what he’s done to turn around the program.  On April 27 at PENworks, he will share some of the most important reasons for his program’s success – best practices that any leader can apply in any business, school, hospital, governmental agency, or nonprofit:

  • Excellence begins with people.  Much of the Gopher’s success can be attributed to having the right players (resulting from strong recruiting) in the right positions (resulting from accurate assessment) with the right skills (resulting from solid player development and practice). Kill and his staff spend most of the off-season watching film and paying visits to living rooms across the Midwest (and the US), selling 18-year-olds and their parents on the merits of coming to the U of M.  Part of the goal is to find kids who can play positions of need for the team, but an equally important challenge is to find those with strong character who can blend with the chemistry of the team.  Which brings us to the second driver…
  • Excellence requires teamwork and a focus on culture.  Kill is nothing if not masterful at building a team culture.  Not long ago, it was somewhat embarrassing to don the maroon and gold uniform.  Now, players (and fans) have a sense of pride in the program.  According to Kill in a November 2014 Pioneer Press article on why the Gophers program has turned around so quickly: “I guess the number one thing is the culture, trying to get everybody on the same page.”  The Gopher’s culture seems to be defined by academic performance first, hard work on and off the field, and trust in your teammates and your team’s system.  Kill has proven that building a sense of “team” and establishing and nurturing a strong culture can serve as a foundation of the program’s success.
  • In other words, excellence requires great leadership.  In collegiate sports, that means having a strong coaching staff as well as strong leaders on the field.  Seven of Kill’s coaches have been with him for at least 12 years (spanning universities).  Staying together so long has created chemistry among the coaching staff – they know each others’ strengths and weaknesses, they have relationships on and off the field, and they share similar philosophies and common vision.  Obviously, great leaders and a great leadership team translate to success in the business world as well.
  • Excellence requires vision.  And a plan.  It was clear from the beginning that Kill had a “system” for his turnaround – not just the x’s and o’s schemes for the field, but a methodical approach to rebuilding the organization, first starting with academics and strong coaching, then “sealing the borders” with better recruiting (for the first time this year, no high school players with a scholarship signed with Wisconsin or Iowa), then developing and nurturing players, then improving facilities, which would create a better environment for today’s players and provide an asset for better recruiting tomorrow’s players (the U of M Athletic Department is in the middle of a $190 million fundraising campaign for a new practice facility).  He also has a plan for success on the field: a strong running game, good defense and special teams, good fundamentals like blocking and tackling.  It’s not exactly sexy SEC football, but it can be a highly effective winning combination in the Big 10; he’s proving it is.  Kill is sticking to his plan, and every year the program gets better.
  • In other words, excellence requires a focus on the bigger picture.  So many leaders are focused on the short term – next month’s or next quarter’s financials, today’s operational challenges, today’s competitive threats, next weekend’s big game, and so forth.  But what sets great leaders apart is their ability to balance today’s short-term challenges and priorities with a focus on the future – a recognition that you need to invest (in your people, your facilities, your infrastructure) today to have a winning program tomorrow.  This applies to football programs; this applies to businesses and other organizations.
  • Excellence requires persistence.  There will be failure along the way: the Gophers were 3-9 in Kill’s first year; they lost three scholarships due to academic performance the year Kill arrived (and 20 other players were at risk of losing eligibility); they’ve have suffered blowout losses (such as losing 30-7 to TCU last year and 42-13 to Michigan the year before); they’ve suffered injuries and early departures to their starting quarterbacks and other key players; and they’ve dealt with the serious medical challenges (epileptic seizures) that sidelined Kill for big parts of the 2012 and 2013 seasons.  But Kill and the program move forward with dogged determination – with what quality guru W. Edwards Deming called “constancy of purpose.”  Strong leaders, strong organizations learn from failure, rebound from challenges, and continue to advance toward their visions and goals.
  • Finally, excellence requires a focus on customer.  In sports, it’s somewhat debatable who the real customer is – the ticket-paying fan, the institution’s students and alumni (who recognize that the value of their degree in some ways is based on brand recognition and other intangibles), or the broader community (the residents around a university, the tax-paying public who “own” a piece of the institution, the business community who donate and who receive direct value from universities in terms of educated workers, research, other utility).  I’d argue all of the above: there are many segments of customers who have a stake in the outcomes of a higher education institution (especially a land grant institution).  And Kill seems to recognize that it’s not about winning next Saturday’s game, so much as it’s about putting a compelling product on the field that leads to civic pride and stakeholder satisfaction.  All NCAA Division I head coaches give press releases, make public appearances, and interact with their community.  But there is something different about Kill and his program: he has established a meaningful relationship with the community.  He recognizes the symbiotic connection between a university’s athletic program and its fans and other stakeholders.  And he appears to be sincere in understanding the community’s needs and building a program that attempts to satisfy them.  Sounds like customer focus – sounds like good business – to me.

Running a collegiate athletic program isn’t much different than running a business: both require strong leadership, workforce (or player) competency and engagement, customer (and fan) focus, a compelling vision and a plan that can take you there, a focus on culture, and unwavering persistence.

And, in both sports and business, winning seems to breed more winning – there’s a momentum that builds when successes start to mount. “We’re gaining credibility that we’re moving in the right direction,” Kill has said. “Winning solves a lot of problems.”  Both in football and in business.

To hear more about the Gopher’s turnaround and Coach Kill’s insights to performance excellence, attend PENworks 2015 April 27-28.  Coach Kill is joined by the CEOs of all four 2014 Baldrige National Quality Award winners: PricewaterhouseCoopers Public Sector (VA); St. David’s Health Care (TX); Elevations Credit Union (CO); and Country Memorial Hospital (TX).  Our five keynotes will be joined by more than 15 speakers from other organizations on the journey to excellence, such as Seagate Technology, Mayo Clinic, SD National Guard, DuFresne Manufacturing, Hennepin Technical College, Olmsted Medical Center, Centennial Public Schools, Andersen Windows, Olmsted County, State of Minnesota, and many others.  The event should offer deep learning, rich networking, and energizing motivation to continue – or to accelerate – your organization’s improvement efforts.  We expect the conference to sell out, so register today!  For information and registration, visit here.

Never stop improving!

Brian S. Lassiter

President, Performance Excellence Network (formerly Minnesota Council for Quality)



Catalyst for Success for 27 Years!