The following is the first part of a series in which I’ll be discussing the heartbeat of both sports and business, culture.
Culture in this sense is a combination of environment, philosophy, ideology, and the execution of them all at once. Culture is the ex-factor both on and off the field. Give me two teams of equal talent and experience and most times the winner will be the team with the best chemistry developed from a healthy team culture. The same is true in the business arena. Truly the concept of a sports team and business team are the same. You are all playing in you roles to progress the team or company. The goal is to win either the game or the bottom line.
Part 1: Oregon Ducks – Win The Day
There are several examples of how culture can either make or break you. One that is very close to me is that of the Oregon Ducks. I started going to Duck games when I was 8 years old when my parents got season tickets and I immediately fell in love. When I first started going to Autzen, it was before the renovation, the parking lot had pot holes that would constantly flood in rain, and the bathrooms were concrete, cold, and small with long lines. We thought 7 or 8 wins was awesome at that point. We had endured 100 years of awful football except for a handful of seasons.
How did Oregon build itself into a national powerhouse in college football? It changed and developed its culture. Most people from outside the area would automatically assume it was simply a matter of Nike opening its check book and they would be incorrect. Those first few successful years in the early 90s were built on the backs of blue collar effort, finding and developing 2 and 3 star talent, and playing a scrappy style. It really started with Rich Brooks who got his guys to buy into his system.
It wasn’t until Kenny Wheaton intercepted a ball on the goal line and ran it back nearly 100 yards for a touchdown against the Washington Huskies that they officially turned the corner away from their previous 100 years of bad football.
That play sent them to the Rose Bowl where they got creamed by Penn State but got their first taste of success in a long time.
The next turning point was the development of a marketing strategy around 2000-2001. Joey Harrington was the best quarterback Oregon had had in a long time.
Nicknamed the Comeback Kid, he led an overachieving team to wins, touchdowns, and attention during his junior year. Going into his senior year, Oregon decided that they had a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate. At this point, Oregon was not well known. Even their recent success did not mean any of the national media people could pronounce the name Oregon correctly. Oregone, oragun, and many other variations frustrated all Oregonians. This led to a merchandise with the correct pronunciation of “Ory-gun” being produced on bumper stickers and tshirts everywhere.
Oregon decided at this point that in order to get Joey a fair shot they needed to break the network of the “good ole boys club” by marketing outside the box. They spent thousands of dollars to put a huge billboard in Times Square in New York City for months to promote Joey.
There was an interview done where they would ask random New Yorkers what they thought of Oregon and Joey Harrington. Their lack of knowledge was pretty humorous. At the time, Oregon was looked at as crazy to spend that kind of money like that. However, Joey ended up a Heisman finalist and the 3rd overall draft pick in the NFL the following year.
At this point, Oregon had started changing up their uniforms but it was nowhere near the clip it is known for now. They probably changed them once every one to two seasons. But the next marketing genius idea Oregon had was to recruit players using comic books. Yes, comic books. Oregon would send a recruit a comic book featuring them as the hero so they could envision their life as an Oregon Duck. Again, people scoffed at Oregon but the recruits still came.
Oregon also decided to start replaying all their games on the YES network. The YES network was the New York Yankees network. Late at night New Yorkers were exposed to Oregon Football.
From 1995-2008 Mike Bellotti had been the Oregon head coach.
He was a consistent coach and one of his strengths was his ability to keep his assistants happy and around for long periods of time. Nick Alloti was the defensive coordinator forever and Gary Campell is still the running backs coach after 30 years. This longevity within the staff helped developed the culture of what it meant to be an Oregon Duck. At the same time Mike was consistent in his structure, he was innovative in his ideas and starting with Joey Harrington slowly developed a faster offense and was open to using the athletic ability of his players. The best thing about Mike was that he knew he could only take the program so far and so he recruited Chip Kelly, a little known offensive coordinator from New Hampshire, to come and install his fast tempo offense as the new coordinator.
That first year that Chip was the offensive coordinator you could see the change almost immediately. The following year Mike retired and Oregon named Chip as the new head coach. With Chip came the next level of culture. Chip introduced the mantra of “Win the Day” and “Fast. Hard. Finish.”
You see other teams that have adopted those since then. He also introduced the idea that speed kills and that everything Oregon does would be fast. They changed the way they practice. They practiced for only half the time other teams were practicing but would sprinting the entire time. They practiced in a break neck speed way that would condition them to play fast in games.
Chip also taught the devil is in the details. One of the first lessons he would teach incoming players was that they absolutely had to make their bed every morning. This sounds childish but he argued that if you spent the time to make your bed, you would understand the importance of details and finishing. Then you could take that and apply it to everything else. You would then understand that your blocking technique is just as important as scoring touchdowns. In fact, Oregon made a rule that if you were a receiver and could not block, you would not play, no matter how talented you were. Blocking on the edge was so important to the productivity of the offense that it was treated with reverence.
There became an ideology of what it was to do it “the Oregon way” and be an “Oregon son”. When reports asked players about upcoming big games their responses were all the same, “win the day,” “faceless opponent,” and “this is our biggest game (no matter if it wasn’t)”. The Oregon players bought in and it was working. Oregon was scoring points so fast that their defense had to create a new way to substitute so that they could remain fresh. Oregon scored most of their scoring drives in under 2 minutes. The offense was not complicated but it was fast and the execution was so efficient that they were deadly.
This culture tied nicely unto the uniform changes that literally changed every game now. New helmets, new jerseys, new pants, new technology, every single game. I watched a special on the Oregon equipment management team and learned that Nike now uses Oregon as its football R&D team.
Nike and Oregon sit down and literally plan out each game’s attire a full year beforehand. Nike comes to Oregon with their new ideas and Oregon reaps the benefits.
Now, not every Oregon uniform has been a hit. There were the God awful highlighter unis of the early 2000s,
the failed experiment of RoboDuck, the scary ugly band uniform changes of the early 2000s, and some other crazy combinations. The sports world laughed and enjoyed making fun of them. That is until Oregon used this is a genius marketing device to pull in 17-18 year old kids who thought it was awesome. The fact they were trying and would always be on the cutting edge with equipment and uniforms was a high school kids dream come true. Who doesn’t want to look bad ass when they play? Who doesn’t like new toys?
Fast forward to 2015 and many universities around the country now implement the same ideas. Pretty much every major program, save a handful that will probably never change their traditional look, I.e. USC, Penn State, has several variations of their uniforms. It has become a staple of a successful program.
Mark Helfrich took over when Chip Kelly took off for the NFL and people wondered if the culture would change. Mark has pretty much kept it the same with some slight variations. At the end of the day, Oregon took itself from 100 years of awful, and through scrappy football, creative marketing, and a culture based upon thinking outside the box, has transformed itself into one of the biggest powers in college football. No longer do people not know how to say Oregon.
Since 1994, Oregon:
Has been to a bowl game 19 out of 21 seasons
Has been to the National Championship Game 2 times in the past 5 years
Has a record (as of 11/24/15): 191-73:
Has a winning percentage of: 72.3%
Has 1 Heisman Trophy Winner and 2 Other Finalists
Is the 4th most winningest program since 2000: http://ftw.usatoday.com/2015/08/best-college-football-teams-past-10-years-best-record-boise-state-ohio-state-most-wins
Now, Oregon recruits with its amazing facilities.
None of that was there when I went to school there!
It is safe to say that Oregon’s tradition is to be untraditional and the culture is to be innovative.
Here is a nice video of Oregon history:
The next installment in this series, I’ll be looking at the culture of Penn State and try to articulate how hero worship culture bred an absolute nightmare.