Inside the locker room…

Coach Tom Herman invited me to join him in the locker room after the first football game of the season, University of Houston against Tennessee Tech.

“Locker room? Me? Are you sure?” I had never been inside a locker room so I was surprised, but also curious at the same time. I paused at the door until the voices of alert, “Stay dressed! The president is here,” subsided. I walked in behind the coach.

This was not the locker room scene that I had seen in the movies. There were no high fives, no victory chants, and no hearty embraces. Even though they had just played their hearts out and had won their very first game of the season, all the young student-athletes were crouched calmly on their knees.  

Coach walked to the front and stood before the players. His voice was still hoarse from coaching the first game of his head coaching career. I was sure he would start out by saying, “We did it! …yeah! …we won! …now, go out and celebrate!”

Instead everyone bowed their heads as one of the student athletes led a prayer of thanks. Then Coach Herman began, “I am proud of you…you did well today, but now, I want you to think about how blessed you are to be in Houston, a city that supports you. I want you to think how blessed you are to be at the University of Houston, a university that gives you the opportunity to be educated…” Silence settled over the room, and everyone was tuned into the coach.  

“…Think how blessed you are to have a brother playing next to you and giving you everything he has got… for you…so that you could do what you need to do…so that you could win,” Coach continued and then paused for few seconds. There were just the murmurs of “Yes sir, yes sir!”

Coach then called out his assistants who, in turn, called out the best performers of the game. Each player stood and received rousing cheers and applause as he walked to the front of the room. Then each one expressed his gratitude for his football brothers who helped him and the coaches who guided him. Many thanked God, and many thanked their families. Everyone seemed to be competing to give credit to others, and there was no “me and my win” attitude in the room.

During the next 15 minutes, I witnessed what is often rare from anyone, let alone from younger people: the courage to show gratitude! Gratitude is a virtue that only the strong can have. A weak person is busy basking in the glory of his success because doing so makes him feel stronger than he is. But a strong person does not have the need to feel strong because he knows the depth of his inner strength. The source of his strength is not external validation, but his own belief. Because he has no need for the credit himself, his natural reaction is to share it liberally with others.

I had heard that a coach is more than a skills instructor; he is a father figure, a leader, a guide and a role model. I witnessed it first hand in the locker room that night.

To my surprise, Coach also called out my name, handed me a football and expressed his gratitude for my support. I was overwhelmed and fumbled for words – but not the football! – though I do recall telling the team that with this kind of attitude, they can take on any Power Five team and even beat them on their home field. Seven days later, they did exactly that in Louisville.

Coach concluded the session by congratulating the team again and said, “Now, go and enjoy with your family, but remember that tomorrow is a work day. We all need to be here, working!”

I cringed slightly at this order because I had planned to take the day off and do nothing. I thought I deserved it after nearly five hours of walking, shaking hands, cheering, and screaming during the game.

The next morning when I woke up, I saw the football resting proudly on my dining table, and it reminded me of a night full of blessings, brotherhood and gratitude. But most of all, it reminded me of the potential that was being unlocked in that locker room. These student athletes will win games on the field, but more importantly, they will win the game of life.

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From avoiding to dancing in one week…

I met her at Cougar Village, one of the residence halls at the University of Houston, four days prior to the beginning of the new academic year. Accompanied by her mother, sister and a cousin, she seemed unusually shy for an 18-year old freshman. I had gone to Cougar Village to help students move in, a ritual hundreds of staff and faculty members do at the beginning of each year.

As I got out of my car, I saw several volunteers, all dressed in red, waiting outside the residence hall under a temporary white tent in the late morning drizzle. The place was filled with luggage carts and water coolers. A rickshaw carrying two people pedaled by with a sign offering a “Free Ride.” Welcome banners were hanging everywhere, and some upbeat pop music was filling the air with excitement.

Overall, it felt festive and fun.

I shook hands with the volunteers, thanked them for their service, commented on their rain ponchos and stood by the doorway. “It is a little slow because of the rain, but you should have seen it yesterday,” said one of the many volunteers who were understandably full of pride for their contribution. Two cars and an SUV drove in. Driver of the first car popped open the trunk. Before the driver could even walk around to the trunk, volunteers had cleared the trunk and loaded the luggage in a moving cart—a bean bag, a suitcase, a guitar, a bag full of shoes, a cube filled with wires and CDs, a pillow, a wooden bookcase, a large picture frame and two dozen hangers with clothes. One volunteer shook hands with the student, another one handed every family member bottles of cold water and with the greetings of “Welcome to the University of Houston! Welcome to Cougar Village!” everyone proceeded toward the entrance.

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Welcoming Team of RAs from Cougar Village II

At that point, one of the volunteers shouted, “Here comes Erin” and a chorus of cheers and claps erupted from the welcome team standing just inside the door with banners and posters. Blushing, Erin’s face turned red – and not to match all the Cougar red around her. Within minutes, Erin was checked in and her luggage was delivered to her room. Half an hour later, Erin’s family came down the elevator and her mom walked straight up to me saying, “This is not the UH I remember. Wow! This is amazing.” We talked for about five minutes, and I said a few things directly to Erin to which she shook her head, but did not say anything. She was even avoiding an eye contact. She was either shy or uncomfortable – possibly both.

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The Cat’s Back organized by Student Affairs

I happened to run into Erin again on Monday, the first day of classes. Our Staff Council organizes Cougar First Impression (CFI) on the first two days of classes, providing cool water and much needed help to students. Erin was standing under one of our temporary CFI tents in front of the library asking directions. I had come to thank the volunteers for standing under the hot afternoon sun with the temperature feeling like 106 degrees. After answering her question, the CFI volunteer handed Erin some UH goodies. At the very next tent, someone handed her an ice cream that melted away the anxieties. I saw Erin give a polite smile.

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Simon Bott’s Chemistry, one of the classrooms I visited

What a coincidence that I spotted Erin again two days later in the hallway of a classroom building. She was late and rushed in to find a seat. I had come to the class to personally greet students and tell them that the university was committed to one and only one goal, i.e., their learning. At the beginning of my remarks, I tossed some personalized t-shirts to the students. Most raised their hands eagerly to grab a shirt, as did Erin although there was hesitation in her movement. She was still feeling the strangeness of the new environment. At the end of my remarks, I offered students my email address and told them they could write to me if they ever had an issue that they could not resolve on their own. In all, I made 28 classroom visits in two days to make sure that I reached out to every new student in an intimate setting.

The next day was our big event, The Cat’s Back, a celebration filled with fun, food, free t-shirts and lots of prizes. More than 500 student clubs set up booths with information to inform new students of their activities. Although I was not looking for Erin, my eyes spotted her again in front of Women in Business table. By now, she was with two other students and they were chatting away, eating hot dogs.

On Friday, I was coming out of a lunch meeting when I saw a long line of waiting students across the street in front of the Student Center. Out of curiosity, I decided to walk over. “What’s up?” I asked the waiting students.

“Free t-shirts and Ice Cones!” The student at the front of line said with excitement.

“The line is too long. How long have you been waiting?”

“Half an hour, but I don’t mind. Can I get a photo with you?” She asked as if she knew the answer would be yes.

“Of course, you can.” I posed for her selfie, which she posted on Instagram instantly. Others followed suit. Thirty photos later, I started to leave when I saw Erin again. She was a little behind in line, but was waving her phone. I walked over and asked, “Is everything all right? How was the first week?”

“Oh, my God… Oh my God,” she said, “this is the best school ever. I love everything here. My dad wanted me to go to ____ but I wanted to come to UH. I knew I was right, I knew I was right. Thank you for everything. I love my classes, and I love you too.” This was our first real conversation, and she was literally dancing with excitement.

What a transformation in one week! Erin was over her apparent anxieties and ready to learn. This is what Making a Good First Impression is all about, I believe. It can be critical in defining the success of a project or partnership. First impression, however unintentional or seemingly benign, gets imprinted in our memory. It becomes a screen through which later information gets filtered and used. Yes, it may take some effort on our part to create one, but creating a bad one has a much bigger cost.

I thank our faculty, staff, and students for volunteering their time and giving our 42,000 students—12,000 of them new—a good first impression so they could take pride in their school, in their learning, and consequently, in their own potential.

[Name and some circumstances have been changed to protect identity.  All photos are from my IPhone]