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Loyalty lesson from Northern Iowa basketball coach

Dan Leidl

Joe Frontiera
Daniel Leidl, Ph.D. (left) and Joe Frontiera, Ph.D. (right) are Managing Partners at Meno Consulting, a firm that specializes in leadership and organizational development and they co-write the blog My Generation Leader.

Last month giant-killer University of Northern Iowa shocked the sporting world when they ousted the overall top seed and perennial powerhouse Kansas in the NCAA Tournament. Head coach Ben Jacobson prowled the sideline during the game, young, full of energy, and confident in his team's chances.

It was clear to those watching that Jacobson was a special coach -- and we all know that special coaches don't stay with smaller programs. They prove themselves by winning with underdog squads and then leave for bigger schools, more established teams, and fatter paychecks.

The news that Jacobson signed with Northern Iowa for 10 years, then, came as a shock, especially for Gen X and Y sports fans who have come of age watching the coaching carousel spin. Could Jacobson be a new kind of sports leader, the kind who puts team loyalty ahead of his own career?

In the past year, we have seen coaches leave their teams in the lurch as they sought bigger contracts elsewhere. Brian Kelly abandoned his Cincinnati Bearcats -- prior to their bowl game -- for the head football job at Notre Dame; Lane Kiffin deserted the Tennessee Volunteers after one mediocre season for the sunny skies of USC; and, John Calipari signed a lucrative deal with Kentucky five days after Memphis got bumped by Missouri in the NCAA tournament. From Rich Rodriguez leaving West Virginia before the team's Sugar Bowl appearance to Bobby Petrino's team-hopping antics throughout his career, we've grown accustomed to watching coaches come and go.

When these coaches jump from one school to another, they rarely come clean about their motivations. As in politics, the "family guy excuse" is a big favorite. Just this past week, Marshall University head coach, Donnie Jones, told his team that he was leaving for the head coaching position at University of Central Florida "for his family." Really? His family was struggling to make it on his $400,000 annual salary along with additional contractual incentives? Perhaps the coach would be better served with a financial planner than a new job.

Yeah, we get it. There are a lot of reasons the family could be a valid excuse, and there have always been coaching changes. And to be fair, today's athletic departments are much quicker to fire a coach who doesn't win. But now, more than ever, coaches seem to lack loyalty to the universities that hire them. Sadly, the ones hurt most by this process are the increasingly skeptical student-athletes who are left behind. The athletes' worlds are turned upside down when a new coach introduces a new system, new rules, and assigns new roles.

Yet, while coaches ask their players to commit to the team and sacrifice individual accomplishments for team goals, they may not be walking the talk. How can a coach be fully committed to his program when searching for coaching vacancies elsewhere or negotiating his salary at the next stop?

In making his decision to stick with Northern Iowa, Jacobson might be setting a new standard. He reupped with Northern Iowa at a fraction of the salary he could have collected at a larger school. While the university is located in rural Cedar Falls and is neither an established basketball program nor part of a power conference, Jacobson didn't use these as excuses to bolt. He didn't tell his players he was staying while taking phone calls about the next "dream job," but instead committed to the university and the players who had committed to him. He can look his players in the eye when he demands more from them, knowing he has given more of himself.

The University of Northern Iowa's Cinderella story ended abruptly when they were defeated by Michigan State in the Sweet Sixteen. Northern Iowa players were obviously disappointed, but they have every reason to be hopeful -- they have a coach who is sticking around for the long haul.

Jacobson's dedication is an inspiration to the Northern Iowa basketball program, its fan base, and its players. And, just maybe, Jacobson can inspire other leaders to examine their own commitment to followers and stay in it for the long term.

READ ALSO: Joe and Dan wrote previously about Title IX's impact on women's leadership, and a Canadian ice cream company's unlikely recovery.

By Joe Frontiera and Dan Leidl

 |  April 5, 2010; 6:36 AM ET |  Category:  Sports leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I admire the fact the Jacobson is staying with his underdog team for another ten years. However, Jacobson may see something in his players / assistant coaches / and upcoming recruiting class that he may think would be stupid to leave for a bigger school and paycheck, because of its potential for great success. As Joe and Dan said about how Jacobson paced his area on the bench confidently I believe Jacobson knows something those not closely involved with the program doesn't know. Until the next few years if they make some noise in the tournament.

And as for the comment about whether it is Rick Petrino or Bobby Petrino, it is definitely Bobby. He coached at Auburn as an offensive coordinator, Louisville, Arkansas, and the Atlanta Falcons along with many other coaching positions throughout his career.

Posted by: Sirbaugh3 | April 14, 2010 2:16 PM

Izzo makes about 3 mil a year (salary and other Nike deals), Jacobson makes about $450,000 (after his raise this year). Not really comparing apples to apples.

It is Rick Pitino, not Petrino or who the article was referring to was Bobby Petrino who used to coach the Falcons for 5 minutes (along with various other college teams, Louisville now Arkansas).

Posted by: mmorris3 | April 6, 2010 2:04 PM

Rick Petrino, not Bobby Petrino.

Posted by: jbowles | April 5, 2010 11:24 PM

Why is it disloyal to switch jobs? We feel that coaches "owe it" to the kids in their program to stay put. Sometimes that can be true. Kids make choices to attend one school or another because of the recruiting process with the implicit assumption that nothing will change during their four years on campus. But coaches are real people who have a number of reasons to switch jobs. Yes, money can be a factor. But so can work environments -- from how you're treated by the Board of Trustees and Athletic Director to how the fans treat you at the grocery store. Some people want the opportunity to win championships year in and year out, and big-time programs have that potential. And some people want to live in Florida rather than Ohio or Los Angeles instead of Knoxville. Leaving a team "in the lurch" - no. Is it a bummer for the kids? Sometimes, yes. Sometimes the student-athletes are more excited than the coach about the change. But these are adults making hard decisions – huge, life-changing decisions that are not made lightly. But pursuing your own dreams -- be it an NCAA Championship, a larger salary, a palm tree in your front yard, harmony in your family -- those aren't disloyal decisions. Leadership isn't about blind loyalty; it's about making tough choices and having the cajones to back it up.

Posted by: jess9 | April 5, 2010 9:33 AM

What about Coach Izzo.

Posted by: shobha1 | April 5, 2010 9:07 AM

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