Wednesday, May 6, 2009

David vs Goliath: Get your slingshot, you're going to need it

Extraordinary author and columnist Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote an excellent article, "How David beats Goliath: When underdogs break the rules". The May 5, 2009 New Yorker piece weaves together details about 12 year-old girls basketball, war throughout history, and a game between UMASS and Fordham in 1971 that featured Dr. J. and had a significant impact on Rick Pittino's coaching career and the biblical story itself to describe how underdogs were able to beat prohibitive favorites.

He shows that the upsets aren't nearly as surprising as one would believe. They happen at a far greater rate than you might expect. Why? The willingness of the "Davids" to think differently about their situation by ignoring the "rules" and norms that intentionally or unintentionally support the "Goliaths" is a common theme. The importance of hard work, agility and flexibility to overcome adverse situations also comes through. In the words of Hall of Fame basketball coach Pete Carril, "The strong take from the weak, but the smart take from the strong" It's the type of thinking that Andrew Oliver's attorney Rick Johnson from Cleveland, Ohio used in his lawsuit against the NCAA, challenging the NCAA in a way that hadn't been tried before.

It's the type of reading anyone in athletics can enjoy.

These themes appear increasingly important as the Goliaths in college athletics put more and more distance between themselves and their Davidesque competitors, driven by the topic that is dominating discussion right now, budgets and the economy. The budget situations facing departments across the country are real and ultimatesportsinsider.com has chronicled the devastating cuts. But within those cuts are some notable moves by a small subset of athletic programs that show significant budgetary strength and the ability to put distance between themselves and others, both within their conference and nationally. Some have shown strength (e.g. Arkansas, Florida) by providing significant funding to the academic side of the University. Others, like Ohio State, have found major cash infusions through media rights deals.

The gap between those who have sufficient resources and those who do not will grow wider than we've previously seen. This is certainly the case between the 6 major conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big Twelve, Pac 10, SEC) and everyone else in Division I. But it is also occurring within conferences as institutions with bigger stadiums, better brands and stronger traditions draw from the goodwill on their balance sheet to weather tough economic times.

The number of "Davids" is growing. Simultaneously, the relative stature of the "Goliaths" is also growing. Gladwell's article won't tell you what to do, but it may give you some insight about casting aside the rules about what you're "supposed to do" and encourage you to make decisions that are agile, differentiating, and winning. Get your slingshot. You're going to need it.

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