Lessons from Coach Elliot Uzelac that Every Leader Should Learn

Lessons from Coach Elliot Uzelac that Every Leader Should Learn

The Benton Harbor (MI) Tigers made headlines across the country during this past football season. They were featured in Sports Illustrated, ESPN, and Good Morning America for their historic run at the state playoffs.

I first heard about this story from my sister, Louise Wrege. She is a reporter who covers news in the St. Joseph and Benton Harbor area for the Herald-Palladium.

Part of what makes this such an amazing story is the complete turn-around in the Benton Harbor football program. The Tigers had never been in the playoffs. They hadn’t had a winning season since 1989. They went 0-9 in their last two seasons. This year, the team was 5-4 for the regular season and they went on to win their first playoff game against a team with better record.

But more than the football program is the turn-around that is happening in people’s lives. Leading this team with the storybook season is former NFL, college, and high school coach Elliot Uzelac. Uzelac had been retired from coaching since the 2010 season, but a restlessness brought him back to coaching in 2015, making a difference in the lives of his team members.

How did Coach Uzelac do it? He effectively provided sound leadership to his team in several areas:

1. He set a clear vision.

At the first team meeting, Coach Uzelac wrote the word “Playoffs” on the chalkboard. That was the goal — to make the playoffs.

Could they really do it after all the failure season after season? Regardless of what happened in the past, getting into the playoffs was Uzelac’s vision for the team, and all their efforts for the 2015 season would be directed toward it.

2. He expected excellence.

In an interview with my sister, Uzelac said, “If you have low expectations, then that’s what you’ll achieve. If you have high expectations, you’ll do much better. That’s why I didn’t lower our expectations. Our goal in August was to make the playoffs… If our goal was less than that, then I was selling the kids short, and I didn’t want to do that.”

He believed in his team, and he expected that they would deliver the results that would earn the goal that was established from the start. They didn’t fail him.

3. He created an environment that made success possible.

Some students at Benton Harbor High School have had to work to provide financial support to their families. At times, they were the primary source of income, which meant that football practice took a back seat. Others struggled academically, didn’t have enough food to eat, or were getting into trouble.

To give these student athletes an opportunity to succeed, he worked on creating solutions to help break down the barriers that would otherwise hold them back. By worrying less about what was happening all around them, they could then focus on improving their skills during practice, which led to better game performances.

4. He provided them with the right tools to do the job.

Previously, the team members didn’t have enough equipment to be able to work out. Nor did they have safe drinking water when practicing on the field.

Coach Uzelac changed that. Through his position and his network, he made changes and brought in support that allowed them to purchase equipment and provide other resources that allowed them to prepare for their games just as other teams would be able to do.

5. He held his team accountable for their choices.

Early in the season, the starting quarterback was injured and stopped coming to practice. Because the expectation he set was for every team member to show up regardless, Coach Uzelac dropped him from the team when he continued to skip practice. He was a great athlete, but for Uzelac, that didn’t trump the fact that his quarterback wasn’t meeting expectations.

6. He gave the credit to his team.

“Elliot Uzelac wants the story of the 2015 Benton Harbor Tigers to be about the kids, not their coach.” This quote from the Sports Illustrated article sums up how Coach Uzelac put his team front and center. They were the ones on the field making the plays, while he was in the background figuring out the strategy and providing the support for his student athletes.

7. He promoted a positive culture.

Trust and respect are two characteristics Uzelac modeled to every team member, and he expected trust and respect for the coaching staff in return.

In the first game, a player who had blown a play responded disrespectfully when a coach tried to talk with him. At the team meeting the next day, that player was no longer with them. According to one of the other team members, Coach Uzelac told them, “‘If he’s not trying to accept coaching, there’s no reason for him to be here.'”

“Tiger Pride” is the message the team got from Uzelac at every practice. Give it everything you have, and take pride in your work.

Trust, respect, pride — three factors that made the culture on the Benton Harbor football team so great.

8. He faced adversity with the team.

Prior to the first playoff game, a friend and cousin to the players was shot and killed. Knowing the impact that this surely would have on his team, Uzelac took the time to talk about the situation to help them process it and make smart decisions that would help them find success in both football and their lives.

9. He cares about his team.

Coach Uzelac wouldn’t have made the transformation in the team he did if he didn’t truly care about his players. But he got to know what was happening in each of their lives. He helped them break down barriers to be successful, not just in football, but also in other areas of life. That caring is a foundation of his team’s success.

Now, think about your business or department. How can you, as a leader, put Elliot Uzelac’s principles into action with your team to find success?

Image courtesy of StockMonkeys.com

Melissa Cooley of The Job Quest, LLC unearths clients’ career examples to showcase the talents and results that make them must-hire candidates. Click here for more information on ways to partner with Melissa for your career success!

Melissa is a contributor to the book Nourish Your Career, has been quoted on Monster.com, The Daily Muse, Dice.com, and Quintessential Careers, has interviewed numerous times for The Voice of Job Seekers podcast, and has written guest posts for multiple job seeker blogs.

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