In the sports world, the word “culture” needs a better … culture.
Its working definition seems to be something like “the organizational tenor that prompts maximum success,” but, like most buzzwords, “culture” has been co-opted by every shaman and hustler and used to excuse lengthy rebuilds and vague mission statements.
You’re losing every game and don’t have a plan? Tell people you’re building a “culture.” It’s like the word “marketing.” It could mean anything from putting a bumper sticker on your car to buying ads on the world’s most popular television show.
Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck loves to talk about culture, but the key moment in his tenure was firing his original defensive coordinator and promoting someone who can prevent average opposing running backs from running 70 yards untouched multiple times a game.
The new-look Timberwolves are embarking on another rebuild and promoting their culture. They should find a new word. What they are doing looks and feels too logical to require a clichéd label.
The Wolves play their home opener on Sunday night against the Miami Heat, who will be without the counterculture hero, Jimmy Butler. Despite having the opportunity to improve to 3-0, this is unlikely to become a defining season for the Wolves, but if you don’t like the buzzwords and have had your soul crushed by decades of Timberwolves ineptness, you should still like what they have attempted to do.
See if this sounds familiar: A professional sports team in downtown Minneapolis has hired an impressive boss who is invested in analytics and building a deep, collaborative organization.
That’s what the Lynx did to build a championship franchise. And that’s what the team across the street did, too.
The Twins won 101 games this year, despite low expectations and key injuries.
The Wolves shouldn’t be expected to shock the NBA with that kind of immediate winning, but the Twins didn’t win big until their new front office’s third season.
After the Twins lost 103 games in 2016, the franchise hired Derek Falvey and Thad Levine, two young, open-minded executives. They have dramatically expanded the team’s analytics department. They also hired a relatively inexperienced manager last year, and encouraged an, ahem, culture in which information is shared in a form easily digestible by ballplayers.
Similarly, the Lynx were a nonentity before hiring Cheryl Reeve to her first WNBA head coaching job, and she began looking for analytical advantages and building a strong staff.
In Gersson Rosas, the Wolves have a basketball boss invested in analytics and international scouting. He has filled the organization with a diverse set of thinkers, and kept coach Ryan Saunders despite his lack of experience.
The Twins didn’t exactly frighten the rest of the baseball world when they hired Rocco Baldelli, a 37-year-old who had never managed before. He emphasized communication with his players, transferring information in easily understood chunks to players and an atmosphere or collaboration.
That describes Saunders, who is 33 and is accused of inexperience only by those who don’t know him.
The kid can coach, but so can a thousand high school and small college coaches. What is vital at the professional level is being able to communicate with millionaire 20-somethings who also work for shoe companies, and being able to handle the pressure and scrutiny inherent in the job, and being able to adapt quickly to modernity.
Tom Thibodeau could coach. But he tried to be general manager and coach, and tried to win immediately, prompting mistakes — primarily, the trading for and misunderstanding of Butler — that would cost him his jobs.
Several Wolves employees who previously warned that Thibodeau’s stay would be short because of his stubbornness and unwillingness to communicate with others in the organization said this week that Rosas and Saunders, and the strong staffs they have assembled, have a chance to build a sustainable winner.
Just don’t call what they’re building a “culture.”
How about calling it “AI.” Adaptable Intelligence.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. Twitter: @SouhanStrib firstname.lastname@example.org