I have so much pride for what is going on across a number of our athletics programs right now, not just with the competitive outcomes, but with HOW we are going about doing business. Seeing these results from my seat as AD is a feeling I wish all members of #BraveNation could experience.
You may or may not be aware, but UNC Pembroke is not funded like most other Peach Belt Conference schools. As a matter of fact, our entire business model is drastically different. Who we are, however, and what we do is a fit for Southeastern North Carolina and Robeson County, and it is the best thing for this campus community which are the things that really matter.
To put it bluntly, right now our teams are outperforming the financial pecking order that exists in our league (they are punching above their weight, so to speak) through two big things — Coaching and Culture. I think that, when a program is on the rise, that is one of the most exciting times to be a part of it because the positive energy is palpable. From my chair, it’s easy to see that this energy leads you to the conclusion that the staff, coaches, and leaders on our teams are outworking and outsmarting their competition, not just beating them on the field. As a competitor, it makes you so darn proud to watch people excel like that.
As I think back on the accomplishments of the past few days, weeks, and months for Braves Athletics (no Peach Belt school has more championships or runner-up finishes in the past 12 months than the Braves do), it really brings some life lessons to mind that I think are a good correlation for our student-athletes and aspiring student-athletes to be able to make in their own lives.
I look at what women’s soccer just went through. Most people don’t realize that, a year ago, they were really given the “short end of the stick” in the NCAA selection process. In fairness, the women’s soccer selection committee in the Southeast has a tremendously difficult job with only six slots for all of the quality teams here (i.e. North Georgia missed this year’s tournament field and is a team capable of competing for a national championship. They are THAT good). But, there was no excuse for last year’s UNCP team with the resume that they had compiled not to be included in the top six (I’m biased, I know). There was nothing that Coach Andersson or I could do or say to explain to our young ladies how or why they were not included in the NCAA field. Looking back at the full painting now with how all of this shook out, it is such a great life lesson to be able to instill for young people that’s worth a moment to share.
It really starts with the simple fact that life is not fair. It just isn’t.
Policies, procedures, government, taxes, sports, education, whatever the institution you encounter in life, it is imperfect and, as such, the personal impacts to you will be unequitable or unfair from time to time. How you respond to that fact and how well you can compartmentalize that hurt and anguish of being “cheated” will allow you to see clearly to the truth. The plain truth is that your focus on what is in your power to control is really what is going to dictate your success in life.
For example, had you told our women’s soccer team last year that we are going to give up the NCAA selection in 2016, but you are going to be the 2017 Peach Belt Conference Champions (largely due to the lessons you learned the season prior, your dedication, and your perseverance), I think many on our team would have gladly given it up. It’s hard in that moment of hurt to see that big picture and to have that faith in future dividends. Those dividends (in this case, and in most) were created by hard work and a positive attitude. The secret that some people never discover in their life is that the reality is our only chance at overcoming the fact that life isn’t fair is to know it, accept it, and focus on YOU. Be the best YOU that you can be in spite of the circumstances.
What a lasting life lesson this can be for those young ladies in our soccer program now that they’ve come through it. And it’s a message that I really want all of our student-athletes to be able to hear because they are on that same journey, just at different stages. So, the only question for them is, do you have the faith and courage to let go of what is out of your control and focus on all the positive things you can do to turn today’s tragedy into tomorrow’s triumph?
A number of our programs are instilling this attitude all across our department. I look at what Coach Ormsby has done with our track and cross country programs. Our women’s cross country program has improved in the region rankings in each of the four years that he’s been here, including last Saturday when we ran predominantly freshmen and finished 9th in the region. What a bright future that program has. At the same event, it was heartwarming to also see all of the parents, families, administrators ( and pets) that came to the NCAA Southeast Region Championships to watch both the men’s and women’s teams compete, and then to see all of those groups unite with all of the student-athletes and rally around Silus (Kipkoech) to win the region championship. It was an unbelievable accomplishment in our storied history.
Off the field of competition, I think about the culture that is being reinforced on a daily basis by our coaches. A great example comes when you look at the leadership of Shane Richardson through a tough 2017 campaign. I caught up with our young football program (who is slated to play Carson-Newman on Saturday) earlier this week. I was so proud to hear that our team captains and coaches decided to alter their departure schedule to allow them to support our women’s soccer team who is also playing in Jefferson City, TN. While that might not sound like a big deal, I assure you it is such a statement about who UNC Pembroke is. It is extremely hard to look at citizenship and be supportive of others when you are going through struggles (human nature is to focus on yourself when things are tough). This young injury-plagued football team has been so consistent in their attitude and in understanding that the program is bigger than just a game. They have a role that extends well beyond the football field, and they are just great people to be around.
These culture-building decisions that many of our coaches are making are providing dividends they sometimes can’t appreciate fully. Why, and more importantly how, are our teams competing at such a high level? It’s because of the supportive philosophy that was instilled in Pembroke well before I had the privilege of joining this team. These squads have bought into the fact that they have to support each other to achieve what they are capable of. It is a concept that, when it begins to bear fruit, is so special to watch. It gets me choked up just thinking about it.
One of the most useful things I did for me personally when I came to Pembroke was to set up Google alerts. The alerts are just an automatic search engine each day for everything UNCP or UNC Pembroke in the news or on the Internet. Every day, I get to see the exposure and impact of what our teams are doing. That has helped solidify my view on what athletics can mean to a campus like UNCP if we can produce results like our teams are producing now.
Every day across the state and beyond, the name UNC Pembroke is mentioned in a positive light because some local student from Asheville, Swansboro, Asheboro, Columbia, SC, or wherever is doing big things for us on the field of competition, or, perhaps, carrying themselves well in a crucial leadership role. As a result, their local community is so proud of them that it’s covered by local hometown media outlets. Every time that happens, it changes the perception of the brand of UNCP and it’s a value that his hard to put a dollar figure on.
I mentioned earlier how our teams are funded right now, and I think about how many people in our campus community take pride in what these student-athletes are doing. I can’t help but think about what they would be capable of, or how sustainable this success would be, if we could get those community folks to understand that, just like the Rams Club or Wolfpack Club, we need them on an annual membership in the Braves Club. We need them on an annual gift or recurring payment. Even just $25 a month would make a huge difference in the experience we create for these young folks.
These funds directly help us to support scholarship and capital needs of our teams so that we don’t fall further behind our peers. There is a tipping point in athletics related to resources where you can fall so far behind financially that our outstanding coaches would not be able to overcome this resource deficit like they are now. If there are people out there that take pride in what we are doing and yet are not supporting these student-athletes in some way, as harsh as it may be, I say shame on you. The results occurring now don’t come along every year, or even every decade, without strategy. I’ve been in college athletics at the NCAA Division I and NCAA Division II level for 20 years and I can tell you, unequivocally, the results right now are not something consistent or sustainable without the support from every asset available to us. And, I say with great pride, you are our greatest asset.
To that point, women’s soccer gives us another great case study. Since LREMC made their significant support of our soccer program public last October and construction began, our women’s soccer program is 24-6-3. If we make these student-athletes feel supported, and we give coaches resources with which to work, they will make all of us very proud.
If you’d like more information on the Braves Club, don’t hesitate to contact Adam Hardin or myself. You can also get a membership started online at UNCP.edu/give. Please save the date for this year’s Cash Bash on Friday, April 20th. God bless you all, I hope you have a wonderful holiday season. Go Braves!