Think, act and play like a winner

If there is one lesson that Year 2015 taught me, it was to “think, act and play like a winner.” Don’t wait to be declared a winner … just be one!

Winning is an attitude. Have it!

Last year, I witnessed this attitude in three very different areas of the university. I saw it among a group of faculty who found 50 industry partners to establish a consortium in order to compete for a national research center. Those of us in the field know that it is hard to find even one industry partner, let alone 50! But these faculty did not care.

I also experienced the same winning attitude played out among a group of dedicated administrators and faculty as they coordinated efforts to bring a chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa (PBK) honor society to campus. The 30-month evaluation process is as rigorous as one can imagine. I was told that the first attempt to bring PBK by the University of Houston was made 30 years ago! But these people did not care.

Finally, I saw this attitude among our football players as they toppled the higher-ranked former national champion Florida State University team to win the Peach Bowl in front of a national audience who were scratching their heads and asking, “Who are these Cougars again?” I was told that the last time our team played in a major bowl game was 31 years ago! But our players did not care.

In each case, we, as an institution, dreamed bigger than ourselves. People undertook challenges with all the odds stacked against them.  They were shooting for the stars despite being told repeatedly that the stars were made for others.  Facing historical odds, they chose to become their own stars, make their own tracks and write their own history.

In each case, people—faculty, administrators, students—knew that they were winners long time before they actually won anything. They held no doubts and asked no questions. They never whined, they never complained, and they never paused.

How befitting it was that such a special year ended with the Peach Bowl win on December 31, when the Cougars, led by a first-year head coach, won by 14 points while they were projected to lose by 7! From the first play, they dominated the game as if they did this kind of thing every day.

I followed the national media throughout the season as they put one team after another on the pedestal and as they predicted “anyone but Houston” to win it all. Every single time, I said to myself, “They just don’t know Houston Cougars.”

I had the honor and the pleasure to be in Atlanta the day Houston won the 2015 Peach Bowl Championship. I will never forget the colorful rain of confetti, the deafening sound of the band, the joyous screams of players, but most of all, the sight of an elderly couple in embrace with tears streaming down their faces at the end of the game. I nearly cried as I heard the husband say softly to his wife, “I never thought I would see this day again.”

As memorable as the day was, it was the day of rewards, not the day of winning. The day our players became winners was the day when Coach Tom Herman first made them believe that they could be champions. Since that day, they thought like winners, acted like winners and played like winners.

I have noticed that very often we are too focused on what we don’t have rather than focusing on what we do have. If we cannot even see, feel and touch what we have, how can we build on it?

I am inspired by people around me who think, act and play like winners. It may seem fearlessness, foolishness or naïveté, but I believe anything is possible in the “Land of the Red.”  We have done it before, and we will do it again.  Happy Winning Year to You!

 

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.

Uniquely American: College Athletics

Many foreign delegations visit our university each year and almost always, the topic of college sports, particularly, American football, comes up.  They walk in to my office, notice signed footballs and basketballs, helmets and trophies and bring up the topic before leaving the office.  Our friends are intrigued, amazed and confused about our obsession with college sports. Many have studied in America and have experienced the craze first-hand, but they want to know my views as an administrator. They ask:

Don’t you find it difficult to manage sports?

Do your faculty support it?

It has to be distracting. Isn’t it?

They know that I studied in India and therefore would understand where they are coming from.  I always smile and tell them the truth. Yes, it does take a lot of my time. And yes, it can have a life of its own. And yes, it can feel distracting sometimes.  But, no, I will not have it any other way.

Then I go on and explain to them two fundamental points.  One, student athletes do get an opportunity to get a great education, but more importantly, they get an opportunity to learn life skills, like leadership and teamwork.  I have personally seen the transformation in young athletes.  When done right, the experience of being a student athlete can be one of the most transformative experiences in life.

Secondly, I tell them that college sports engage students, alumni, and communities like very few things can. When we search for coach or athletic director, everyone knows about it and has an opinion about who should be hired.  During the football season, I cannot go anywhere in town without people stopping me and giving me an expert analysis of our performance.

If teams are doing well, I get all the undeserved credit as if I am the one coaching them.  And if the season is rough, I get bombarded with email and social media advice.  Over the years, I have received some interesting suggestions, of which my favorite ones are:

“Fire the coach, fire the AD, and while you are at it, fire yourself.”

If you don’t fire the coach, I will never give another dime again.” (We are still searching our database for the first dime he claims to have given.)

“If you don’t fire the coach, you will be personally responsible for my death.”

These are not the usual feelings, but I will take negative feelings over no feelings at all. As long as alumni are engaged, they care, and as long as they care, there is a chance that they will find positive engagement with some part of the university.

I know that the world of college sports is getting financially and administratively challenging.  Many institutions are questioning the value of having a major sports program at all. Some of them may decide not to have one in future.

Phi Slama Jama

Phi Slama Jama

For the University of Houston, we find a historical need and a valuable impact of college sports on educational experience. Our alumni are still inspired by the magic of Phi Slama Jama, the glitter of Olympic gold decorating Carl Lewis, and the weight of Heisman Trophy in the hands of Andre Ware. They are part of our tradition but they are also part of our identity and pride.

Legendary Coach Lewis

Legendary Coach Lewis

 

We cherish our student athletes and will keep on working hard to make it a positive learning environment for them. We also treasure our alumni and will continue to find ways to make them proud of their university.

 

 

Oooops…I lost track of time. It is time for me to take our delegation members to the baseball game. Go Coogs!

 

The “Good Old Days” came back for a day!

I was not at the University of Houston when Coach Guy Lewis and his Phi Slama Jama team became a national sensation. Nor was I here when Coach Lewis made history by playing UCLA—and winning—in the first ever nationally televised basketball game. But from the day I arrived on campus in 2008, I started hearing about that magical time.  I could see it in the eyes of those who told me, with intense fondness, stories about the “good old days.”

So, when the time came, it didn’t take me any time to decide to make the trip to Springfield, Massachusetts, for the induction ceremony for Coach Lewis, and experience the magic myself.

I arrived in Springfield already on cloud nine since our Cougars had defeated Temple in a hard-fought game just a day before.  As I walked into the hotel lobby to check in, it was clear that celebrities were staying there. A line of visitors was already gathering behind ropes to catch a glimpse, or better yet, to grab their autographs.  A while later, I came down from my room to join our group, and sure enough, I soon saw who the fans had been waiting for –Elvyn Hayes and Clyde Drexler were in the middle of the commotion, hugging their Cougar fans, giving high-fives to each other, and signing autographs.

Decked in red, we all accompanied Coach Lewis, who was in his wheel chair, to the nearby hall. By then, Hakeem Olajuwon had also joined in the group.  I must admit that it felt like a Hollywood premier!  People were standing on both sides of the street, clapping and cheering for our icons.  Cougars had brought the biggest line-up of stars for this ceremony.  Our players were being stopped left and right by every television and radio station for a quick interview.

We then arrived at the buffet given in honor of the inductees.  The ballroom ceiling appeared awfully low and my neck soon started to hurt.  And then it dawned on me that the room was full of 7-foot basketball players!

For the next one hour, the event seemed like a big celebration for Cougars (no, I am not biased).  If anyone wanted to find Coach Lewis and his players, all one had to do was to look in the direction of the biggest and loudest group in the crowd.  Reporters, players, coaches, referees—all wanted to take photographs with Coach Lewis and his former star players.

The induction ceremony began with the pump and show of a live television awards program. At the appointed time, a short video was shown to introduce Coach Lewis, and then from the left of the stage Elvyn, Hakeem and Clyde wheeled Coach Lewis to center stage. Everyone in the hall jumped to their feet.   The applause lasted for what seemed like an eternity.  There was so much pent-up joy and gratitude in crowd’s heart, and it felt like they wanted to pour it all out that minute, right then and there.

On his face, Coach Lewis had the smile worthy of an artist’s brush or poet’s pen!

We all had teary eyes!  It truly was a special moment!  Thank you, Coach Lewis, for once again putting the University of Houston on the national map! It was a long time coming, but we are all happy that you finally honored the Hall of Fame by being a part of it!

Winning is not important in sports

Winning is not important in college sports. It is VERY important. And it is important not just on the field, but also in LIFE.

Take the story of a freshmen who was recruited to the University of Houston in 1997 as a running back. In his first semester, he received many awards and became an instant star.  And that same semester, his GPA was 0.44.  No, that is not a typo.  But by the next semester, after coming under the wings of an angel, he completed 17 hours with the GPA of 3.22!  He graduated in 5 years, went on to play professional football, and is now a very successful businessman.

Who is that special person? Who is that angel? She would never tell you about this story or any other story, although there are too many to be told.  She is Maria Peden and she joined the Cougar family in 1996.  Since then, she has transformed the lives of student athletes every day and every way.

I first met Maria when I toured the Athletics department upon my arrival in Houston.  She was engrossed in her work, eyes fixed on the computer screen, files opened on her desk, and three students sitting silently in front of her. The look of anxious anticipation was evident on their faces. They were waiting for Maria to solve their problem.

When Maria saw me, she stood up politely to shake my hand.  I could tell that I had broken her concentration and that she would rather be back with her students than exchanging pleasantries with me.  She introduced each of the students to me. At that time, I did not know Maria, but this brief encounter was enough to make a lasting impression on me. I made a mental note to learn more about her.

Next, I met Maria in my office when she came to get my signature on a report. After this second encounter, I knew that we had a gem among us. Maria knew every single student athlete by name, what courses they were taking, where they were struggling, and what each one of them needed to succeed!  Since then, I have heard her praised by more people than I could keep track of.

Last week, a student athlete told me how Maria had gone over and beyond the call of duty to see her through. “She met with me on Sundays,” the student told me. “Weekend?”  I asked.  “Oh yes, Ms. Peden is in her office every Saturday and even Sunday,” She replied.

Later that afternoon, I met with Dr. Richard Scamell, our Faculty Athletics Representative, and I casually asked him about Maria.  And then I could not stop him. He had the same excitement in his voice as was evident in the student’s voice.  Two hours later, several pages of typed notes about Maria signed by Richard arrived at my desk. Clearly, Richard did not want to take a chance.  Below is an excerpt from Richard’s note:

“The pastor at my church once gave a benediction that I have never forgotten. He said, “Go and share the gospel with others, and, if necessary, use words.” Maria is the type of person for whom words are seldom necessary as her actions make a difference to young people in many ways.”

Maria, I am glad that you are a part of the Cougar family!  It is because of your and your team’s dedication that the graduation rate of our student athletes is higher than that of the university as a whole. Furthermore, they are completing more than 13 credit hours a semester, higher than the university, and nearly one-quarter of them are on the Dean’s List, again beating the university average. Like our so many of our former student athletes whom I see having won the game of life, these student athletes will also be winners.

Yes, winning is VERY important!

My most memorable moment from UH vs. UT Basketball Game

Last Wednesday, the Houston Cougars beat the Texas Longhorns in men’s basketball with the score of 73-72. I hope you were there in person to experience the most poignant moment of the game.

No, I am not talking about the alley-oop pass by Danuel House to kick off the game, although it did set the tone for the rest of the evening.

No, I am not talking about Joseph Young’s buzzer-beater 3-pointer to end the first half, although that did bring the entire house down.

No, I am not talking about Cougar’s 72-seconds 11-0 run, although that did bring UT’s momentum to a screeching halt.

And no, I am not talking about House’s dazzling shot with 17.7 seconds remaining on the clock, although it was the winning score of the night.

My poignant moment came at the conclusion of the game.  Cougar players did not take pictures of the scoreboard, they did not hug each other and danced on the court, they did not run to their coaches and lifted them on their shoulders.  Instead, these Cougars ran toward the student section, jumped up in the stands, joined them in  victory chorus and danced with them.  The rest of the fans delayed their exist and watched this touching moment. The band played on, the cheerleaders cheered, the spectators stood mid-court. All eyes were on the student section!  Students–they filled two entire sections–had stayed and supported their team like never before.  They cheered. They chanted. They screamed. They waved their hands. And they created a thundering noise.  Undoubtedly they were a big factor in swinging the momentum of the game. The players knew it, too, and now it was time for the players to be with their supporters to express their gratitude and share their joy.

To me, that is what college athletics is all about.  Winning and losing?  Of course!  But most important, learning to bind as a force and belong as a community.  At that moment, those players were the heroes and they could have easily huddled together and celebrated themselves, but they did what Cougars always do. Share their joy with others!

To me personally, who never had a chance to play any sports (my high school and college, like most in rural India, did not have any), this was a magical moment!

Congratulations Team!  The win was good, but the winners were the best!!

It is more than March Madness

College sports have a way of taking over our lives. Each year, I vow to remain calm, but each year I get more emotionally vested than the year before. Day-long tailgates, red-hot rivalries, logic-defying superstitions, post-game dances, post-loss depressions, pre-game butterflies, nail-biting anxieties–I have lived it all. I thought I was a real serious fan until I met Murray and Sharon Stinson.

Since the day they settled in Houston 35 years ago, Murray and Sharon have attended every single University of Houston Cougar football and basketball game–at home or away–except 8. Eight misses in 35 years! Yes, it makes for nearly 1,600 games! Whether the football team was 0-12 or 12-0, whether the basketball team was the famous Phi Slama Jama or filled with yet-to-be-proven new recruits, whether the game was in California on a Tuesday night or in Orlando on a Wednesday afternoon, or whether the weather was subzero or above 100°, they were at the game. They were simply there.

Sometimes at away games, Murray and Sharon were the only two people in the stands wearing red, but they were there.murray and Sharon Stinson

I sat next to them at my first Cougar basketball game in 2008. Murray was intense, but mostly quiet. Sharon, on the other hand, was animated, calling out players by name, yelling at referees, and signaling the crowd to make some noise. They knew every coach and cared for every player. They even knew all about the referees.

Since then, I saw them at every game and every Cougar sporting event. No bragging, no egos, no grandstanding, and no sideline coaching…they were at the games for the simple joy of the moment. In all of my years as president, which included major athletics decision points like recruiting an athletic director, a football coach, and a basketball coach, I never recall Murray or Sharon telling me what I should do or who I should hire.

Just like a rainbow, their support comes in different colors. They have endowed scholarships for student-athletes. Murray introduced the Helmet Buggy which runs on the field after every touchdown. On senior nights, Sharon bakes cupcakes for the entire team. They do so much and all of it for the simple joy of supporting their team.

During this time of March Madness, Murray and Sharon remind us that there is more to athletics than the few weeks of madness, that there is more to the games than winning or losing, that there is more to college sports than being a fair-weather fan.

Real madness is loving your school 1,600 times over!