Sweatpants General on Changing a Football Team's Culture

From the Basement Recliner of the Sweatpants General:

By Koopdog, Commander of HHB Ground Forces, South Pierce/Lewis Counties


"As you know, you go to war with the Army you have. They're not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time."

-        Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, 8 Dec, 2005

When the former Secretary of Defense uttered these words during the height of the Iraq/Afghanistan wars, he was speaking on the issues that faced the leaders of an Army at war in multiple theaters while simultaneously undertaking an unprecedented transformation.   In my nearly two and half decades of training and leading Soldiers, I never once inherited a perfect situation, nor led a unit that I would have judged 100% prepared to undertake a deployment or large scale mission.  To prepare any large organization for change and success requires Herculean effort, consistency, reliance on key subordinates, and above all, building a culture that breeds success.  Now, I’m not saying I’m like Chris Petersen, so don’t be a twister.  But by any measure of leadership that I am familiar with, Coach Petersen’s historical record and early tenure at Washington shows he is a leader of amazing prescience, knowledge, and tenacity.  The first and most important step in his formula for success is culture change.

Changing an organization’s culture can be relatively simple or incredibly difficult based on several factors, one of the most important being the competency and methodology of the predecessor. Culture change is the most important and permanent tool that a leader can implement and is entirely dependent on the concept of cohesion.   Xenophon, the Greek historian, soldier, student of Socrates, and Spartan by choice asserted, “You know I am not sure that numbers or strength bring victory in war; but whichever Army goes into battle stronger in soul, their enemies cannot withstand them.”   Much has been made of the difficulty that faced Steve Sarkisian in inheriting an 0-12 Washington program in 2009 from Ty Willingham.   Further, representatives of certain Husky fan websites have lamented that Chris Petersen, rather than building on the robust foundation of teams that displayed mediocrity, lack of discipline, ability to fold in tough situations, and multiple plungerings every year, is “blowing things up”.  

I would argue, however, to change the culture of an organization such as the 2009 program that completely lacked identity and any sense of cohesion after the ground zero Ty years is a much simpler task than Coach Petersen’s burden of changing the loose and undisciplined culture instilled by a coach that was coddled by the local and national media for five years and that achieved at best a moderate level of success.   Paradoxically, the early stages of positive culture change often manifests as deceptively backward steps to those on the outside.   Rebuilding a foundation requires a true leveling process.  Identifying personnel that have “buy in” to the method and vision of the organization as well as exorcising the locker room of personnel that will erode cohesion always causes growth pains. 

Fortunately, in a meritocracy such as college football or the military, even the most alpha of males will more often than not set aside ego to be part of the best rather than most of the worst.  Those that don’t buy in will be identified rather quickly and replaced in the broader process as the culture and organization matures and successes begin to emerge.  Sarkisian was the master of self promotion and covering up weaknesses with smoke and mirrors.  Petersen is well known for developing players, honesty, and reliance on fundamentals.  The result of these disparate philosophies of Coach Petersen and Sarkisian can be summed up nicely in a report from the Roman author Flavius Vegetius Renatus writing to the Emperor Valentin in his review of the state of Rome’s military in the landmark work “Epitoma Rei Militaris”   During his lifetime, (late 4th Century BC) the Roman Army had grown weak and undisciplined, and many Romans become agitated about the loss of the Army’s success and glory (Does any of this sound familiar?  Perhaps Vegetius was the original Halfbrain).  Vegetius stated that “Victory in war does not depend entirely on numbers or mere courage; only skill and discipline will ensure it.”  He stated that the great Roman Armies of the past were built not on recruiting the four star centurion prospects, only to finish second to Persia, but on building cohesion, reliability, and confidence through tough training:

            They [Roman Armies of the past] understood the importance of hardening them by continual practice, and of training them to every maneuver that might happen in line and action…The courage of a soldier is heightened by his knowledge of his profession, and he only wants an opportunity to execute what he has been perfectly taught.  A handful of men, inured to war, proceed to certain victory, while on the contrary, numerous armies of raw and undisciplined troops are but multitudes of men dragged to the slaughter.”

A healthy culture will be built on integrity and truth.   The light of truth shined in dark corners that were hidden by past regimes exposes the organization and will also often look like a step in reverse.  For example, a coaching staff may have used a zone scheme and an uptempo offense to hide flaws in the fundamental ability of the offensive linemen.  Exposing the lack of fundamentals and re-teaching from the ground up takes time---and to the untrained eye can look like bad coaching or lack of leadership when observed on the field.  A leader knows that at times it is necessary to build an actual foundation (or blow it up) and not build over rotten ground, or in the case of the 2014 Washington Huskies (and to quote the words of a famous Seattle area author) wash out the “stench of Sarkisian.”  This is a necessary and painful process that is crucial to the future health of the organization.

In the end, the opinions of local media, fan web-sites, chicken littles, or Joey’s waitresses do not matter.  True leaders are resolute in word and action, consistent, lead by example, and are largely immune to the rumblings of outsiders.  We have an adult and leader in charge of the Washington football program and it will take some getting used to.  What we are witnessing on the flat spot across the cut from Montlake is a true leader who is in the early stages of creating an organization in his own image.  One built on discipline, tough training, cohesion, and a sense of pride and purpose.  And this sweatpants General is grateful and completely optimistic.

An Army that maintains its cohesion under the most murderous fire; that cannot be shaken by imaginary fears and resists well-founded ones with all its might; that, proud of its victories will not lose the strength to obey orders and its respect and trust for its officers even in defeat; whose physical power, like the muscles of an athlete, has been steeled by training in privation and effort…such an army is imbued with true military spirit”

                                    ~General Carl Von Clausewitz