The term “culture” has become so ingrained in the sports world that it now stands at the peak of buzzwords.
Every new coach hired talks about installing his or her culture every 30 seconds. Executives tasked with leading organizations sound as if they get paid handsomely with every mention of the word.
Pick a sport. Any sport. It’s inescapable. Culture this, culture that, culture, culture, culture.
Guess what? It’s true. Culture is a real thing that matters, however nebulous the concept or application of it might seem.
Lindsay Whalen is learning that reality in the same manner as every other new or young coach — the hard way.
Whalen’s best player, junior guard Destiny Pitts, announced a few hours before the tip-off of Thursday’s game against No. 22 Iowa that she is leaving the Gophers women’s basketball program via the transfer portal.
Whalen had suspended Pitts for what she described as “conduct unbecoming a member of the team” earlier this week. She offered no details in punishing her leading scorer and all-Big Ten guard, but Pitts shed light in a social media post, saying she was suspended for exhibiting bad “body language.”
Pitts also revealed that twins Taiye and Kehinde Bello skipped the Illinois game in protest of Pitts’ suspension. The Bello sisters were back in uniform Thursday.
Pitts’ situation coincided with a losing streak that increased to five games with a 76-75 loss to the Hawkeyes at Williams Arena. The Gophers blew a 15-point lead in the second half.
This qualifies as Whalen’s first dose of crisis management as coach. Her second season started promisingly, but losing a star player in a public and ugly split while dealing with other disciplinary matters as well as losses on the court, this is all so … predictable.
Past and current Gophers coaches see what’s happening, raise their hand in unison and shout, “Been there, done that.”
Culture is basically a fancy way of saying, “This is how I do things.” Implementing that way as a new coach can be messy because players are accustomed to a different approach, or a different voice, or a different personality.
This is not to assign blame or pick sides, but rather an acknowledgment that new coaches rarely enjoy smooth sailing.
Former Gophers football coach Jerry Kill made players who skipped class or showed up late for study hall wear shirts to practice that read: “Minnesota Loafers” and “I let my teammates down.”
Players who dodged their responsibilities were forced to clean barns of police horses and pull weeds at a community garden on Saturday mornings. His tough love fixed a lot of problems.
P.J. Fleck strives to make his program a standard bearer for the power of culture. His coaching style was met with skepticism initially. Some players bolted. Others who stayed required convincing. Fleck benched, suspended or demoted players for falling short of standards.
New coaches face a delicate dance because they didn’t recruit their players. They inherited them. That can lead to clashes because neither side signed up for that relationship. In the best scenario, they click right away with no issues. Then there is the other side.
Pitts wrote that she was “blindsided and shocked” when Whalen suspended her. Without knowing specifics, it’s hard to imagine a suspension comes completely out of the blue without things festering for some time.
Whalen had no coaching experience before her alma mater hired her. In that regard, every situation — good and bad — is a learning opportunity.
She probably witnessed many different personality clashes and coach-player disagreements throughout her Hall of Fame playing career. Running an entire college program in a power conference is a different animal. She’ll need time to recruit players that fit her style and vision.
Losing a player of Pitts’ caliber is a blow. Not many teams can remove their leading scorer without taking a step backward.
“We’ll continue to battle,” Whalen said after her team’s last-second defeat.
No one should be surprised that growing pains are part of the process. Just because Lindsay Whalen the basketball player is a beloved icon in Minnesota doesn’t mean Lindsay Whalen the coach will be immune to tough times.