By Gino Blefari
This week my travels find me working from Northern California thanks to the fourth Nor’easter that derailed my East Coast plans while on the way to the airport to catch a flight to New Jersey. Snowed in or not, like much of the country, I’ve caught a serious case of March Madness. The tournament is exciting, fast-paced and most importantly, filled with surprising lessons on leadership.
And no match up this year—perhaps no match up in the history of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament—came replete with as many lessons as did Friday’s game between the No. 16 seed UMBC Golden Retrievers and the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, the University of Virginia Cavaliers. If you didn’t watch the game or haven’t yet heard, the Retrievers not only beat the Cavaliers, they blew them out of the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, N.C., 74-54.
The win wasn’t just stunning, shocking and all the other adjectives used by major media outlets everywhere; it also established a significant first. Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, no 16-seed had ever overthrown a No. 1 seed. Before this game, there were exactly 135 No. 1 vs. No. 16 matchups and the No. 1 seed won every time.
So history wasn’t on the side of UMBC when the Retrievers took the court but neither were the facts. The school barely made the tournament—it took a 3-point win during the American East Conference title game to secure its berth.
On paper, the Retrievers were undeniably outmatched: shorter, less talented, and far less experienced on the national stage under the bright lights. UMBC’s point guard K.J. Maura was officially named the lightest player in college basketball, measuring a mere 5 feet 6 inches and weighing just 140 pounds. UMBC was ranked 177th in defensive efficiency and 212th in offensive efficiency coming into Friday’s game.
But the greatest-ever sports upsets, (and yes, this was one of them) can only happen when insurmountable odds play against one side and everyone in the world agrees it just can’t be done. It can be done—it was done—and the Retrievers’ win will forever be memorialized as a classic David and Goliath tale, a true Cinderella story that sprang to bracket-busting life.
Still, how did UMBC win? The team, led by head coach Ryan Odom, ignored the long odds from the opening tip, playing full out, putting their whole selves into the game – possession after possession. With the score tied at half, the scrappy, little Retrievers became the big dogs in the fight who simply wanted it more than anything or anyone. They wore down the Cavaliers by constantly attacking and scoring. You could see the determination on their faces through the second half; the players were totally in sync.
Although, it wasn’t just great teamwork and desire that secured victory for the Retrievers. It was also the strong leadership and coaching by Odom, son of former East Carolina, Wake Forest and South Carolina coach Dave Odom. (His dad was in the stands watching.) In a turn worthy of you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up, Ryan Odom also used to be the ball boy for UVA’s basketball team.
Now Odom is one of the most talked-about coaches in the NCAA and he achieved his status, according to his father, partly based on an unbending willingness to always get better. “When he made the commitment to coach, every waking day has been spent trying to improve himself,” the elder Odom explained.
If you watched Coach Odom during the game against UVA, he was confident and calm as his team scored basket after basket. After the game, he took no credit and instead, said a combination of hard work and teamwork allowed the impossible to become possible.
So, what’s the message? Maybe this week we can take it from the head coach himself, who even before the team claimed their epic victory, spoke about preparation, determination and working relentlessly to achieve your goals. “We have a saying in our locker room that’s posted up,” he told reporters. “[It] says, ‘The work you do in the dark will reveal itself in the light.”