TCU’s football team gathered at practice one day to hear an announcement from head coach Sonny Dykes. Alongside Dykes was a policeman in uniform who summoned a player named Gunnar Henderson to the front. Henderson, a 2021 Second-Team Academic All-Big 12, non-scholarship, walk-on student-athlete who had won the respect of his teammates through his work ethic, looked apprehensive as he approached the policeman.
In a somber tone, the officer asked Henderson, “Do you drive a white Toyota Tacoma?” Henderson confirmed. What was going on? The officer’s next words caught Henderson and his teammates by surprise: “You have been awarded a TCU scholarship.”
This moment and the team’s euphoric celebration that ensued immediately after was captured on video and posted to Twitter, where 30,000 people have already viewed it. Camaraderie like we see in this video is common to group sports teams, but what the TCU football program is fostering on and off the field is much more than that.
The Horned Frogs’ culture of connection
Achieving high performance takes more than a focus on task excellence. To be sustainable, and a truly rewarding experience for those involved, it requires a focus on relationship excellence as well. The relationship piece is all about connection.
Leaders who are able to consistently bring out the best in others through tapping into the power of connection have this in common: they communicate an inspiring vision that unites the group, they value people as individuals rather than thinking of and treating them as mere means to an end, and they give people a voice to share their opinions and ideas on matters that are important to them. Vision + Value + Voice = Connection.
In Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding, I describe TCU’s culture of connection as a university. (Full disclosure: Victor Boschini, TCU’s longtime Chancellor, wrote the foreword to the book and I’ve had the honor of being a longtime consultant to the TCU Center for Connection Culture). When a new head coach was selected to lead the TCU football program as of the 2022 season, I suspect one of the reasons the university was attracted to Coach Sonny Dykes is that he is a strong connector and he has a track-record of cultivating a culture of connection.
Coach Dykes cares about people and has a vision about how to win championships. When Dykes was new to TCU, he traveled to meet with many of the players so he could get to know them and they could get to know him. He has said, “Players have to believe that you care about them off the field as much or more as you do on the field … I really believe that’s where all this success comes about, that trust has to happen before you have any success on the field.”
Max Duggan, TCU’s quarterback, has said “[Coach Dykes] did a great job getting to know everybody and know their story and their ‘why.’” Recognizing the connection among team members, Duggan also talked about “the love that we’ve got for each other, the love that we’ve got for this university, you know, for this school to be proud of the team that’s out there on the field. You know, I know we came short [in the Big 12 championship that TCU lost to Kansas State], but this team competes, they fight, they fight for each other, they fight for this university.”
“[Sonny is] adamant about treating everybody the same,” a coach on Dykes’ staff observed. “Our players are going to see him thank everybody that serves the team a meal. They are going to see him eat last. They are going to see him pick up paper when he leaves the building. He’s a common man who treats everybody with respect and it spreads through the organization.” A former coaching colleague described Dykes as a “unifying-type of person. He’s real and you can believe him. Those are great qualities in a coach.”
The strong relationships Dykes and his staff have developed with each other and with players and their families make them coaches who are approachable and safe for players to express any concerns they have. Coach Dykes emphasizes the importance of frequent, in-person, private, one-on-one conversations among coaches and teammates that foster a shared understanding, accountability, and a calm emotional environment where people are even-keeled, not too emotionally high and not too emotionally low.
Kate Dykes, Coach Dykes’ wife, also contributes to the team’s connection culture. In addition to the Dykes’ three children, she has said, “I have 120 young men that I think of as my own.” Beyond building relationships with the players, she also connects the football staff and coaches’ wives by organizing retreats.
Winning on and off the field
TCU has been called the ultimate underdog in college football. Picked to finish seventh in the Big 12 in the preseason with a 1-in-200 shot at making the College Football Playoffs, by the end of the regular season TCU was ranked third in the country. The Horned Frogs have become the first school in the football-crazy state of Texas to make the College Football Playoffs and, after defeating the University of Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl, the first team in Texas to play in the National Championship. Coach Dykes has received seven major coach of the year awards for what he has accomplished in his first season leading the Horned Frogs and Max Duggan was the recipient of the Davey O’Brien Award and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award as well as being the Heisman Trophy runner-up.
Can the Horned Frogs defeat the Georgia Bulldogs on January 9? My opinion, admittedly biased, is yes. Talent matters (and Georgia has lots of it, with 68 four- and five star recruits compared to TCU’s 17), but so does team culture. I don’t know what kind of culture the University of Georgia football team has so I’m unable to comment on that, but the research indicates that the kind of culture TCU is building is one that can achieve and sustain long-term success.
Like other successful sports teams I’ve written about, including the Golden State Warriors, Chicago Bulls, and Duke Men’s basketball team, TCU’s Coach Dykes and his leadership team are harnessing the positive chemistry of human connection. TCU may not be favored to win this battle for the College Championship title, but in many ways, TCU has already won by creating an exceptional football program that, in the words of sportswriters, has “mastered human collaboration.”
Michael Lee Stallard, president and co-founder of Connection Culture Group, is a thought leader and speaker on how effective leaders boost human connection in team and organizational cultures to improve the health and performance of individuals, teams and organizations. He is the author of “Connection Culture” and “Fired Up or Burned Out,” and teaches the LinkedIn Learning course, “Creating a Connection Culture.” To receive a 24-page “90+ Ways to Connect” e-book, sample chapters of “Connection Culture” and Stallard’s monthly Connection Culture email newsletter at no cost, sign up here.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.
Subscribe to SmartBrief’s FREE email newsletter on leadership. It’s among SmartBrief’s more than 250 industry-focused newsletters.