Skip to content

Coach Pat Summitt and the Modern Workplace

During my years at the University of Tennessee, I often attended the games of the Lady Vols basketball team coached by Pat Summitt, who passed away this week. Coach Summitt’s ferocious stare for any player who displeased her was downright frightening, and the law students watching the game from the tenth row all agreed that none would have survived law school had Coach Summitt decided to become a law professor instead of a basketball coach. The tough love that Coach Summitt dealt to her players is legendary: Past players would recount stories of her removing the team from the primary locker room because they were not playing up to par or warning her players at half-time that they would be walking home if they lost the game. Yet, those players universally loved Coach Summitt, won more basketball games than any other NCAA basketball team — men or women — and possibly most importantly, every player who completed their playing time at Tennessee also graduated.

If results matter — and they should — the modern workforce manager has much to learn from Coach Summitt. Any manager would be lucky to have the loyalty and commitment to excellence that she so consistently inspired. However, any manager attempting to channel Coach Summitt in today’s workforce, particularly one filled with millennials, would have difficulty retaining any employees. Not only that, the manager might find that the company now has a full slate of harassment lawsuits to defend.

Employees in today’s workforce are far more mobile and are more willing to move than in the past. Unlike NCAA athletes who have limited eligibility years and limits placed on them by the NCAA with regard to movement, most employees have no such restrictions. As many states continue to place more restrictions on the ability of employers to enforce non-compete agreements, including a vote this week in the Massachusetts legislature and the New York attorney general’s recent targeting of workplaces that use non-competes extensively, the issue of how a manager in today’s workforce gets the best from employees — without driving them to seek other employment — has become more difficult.

What managers in a modern workplace can learn from Coach Summitt is good communication. Coach Summitt’s teams were rarely unsure of the broader game plan and each player’s role in executing that plan. Just as important, Coach Summitt gave immediate feedback, something that many managers today are loath to do. Coach Summitt’s players knew when they had done something well and when they had not, and quickly. While she was tough, she cared about everyone involved in the organization and showed — by example — the dedication necessary to be successful. Being a great basketball coach is about good communication and immediate feedback. Your managers may want to soften the approach — and be a “gentler” coach — but a good manager can learn much from a proven winner like Pat Summitt.

This information is provided by Vinson & Elkins LLP for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended, nor should it be construed, as legal advice.