A Department-Wide Culture of Competitiveness

InterviewCompetitivenessAthletic Department

Dave Harper recently sat in a meeting between one of his coaches and a student-athlete. The conversation ostensibly centered around an eligibility question but clarifying that issue took only a few minutes. Rather than end the meeting early, the coach instead extended the conversation, pivoting to a more personal chat about the athlete’s future.

The two talked about where he saw the athlete’s place at Duquesne, how the coach believed Duquesne could help him achieve his goals, and then asked the athlete what he needed from his school. "The kid left with his chest puffing out," says Harper, Duquesne’s vice president for athletics. "And all it was about was making our conversations more human."

It sounds simple, basic even, but college athletics can be - and often has been - a very transactional business, driven almost entirely by the win-loss column. With so much at stake, there is little time to waste on discussions that aren’t directly related to competition. At Duquesne, Harper and his coaching staff want to win as much as anyone. Competitive excellence is one of the departmental pillars.

But reaching that pinnacle, Harper has discovered, requires a far broader prism than the narrow focus usually taken within college athletic departments. Five years ago, Harper brought Profile, a comprehensive behavioral assessment system that bolsters traditional DISC with other additional tools, to his staff. Since then, he’s watched both his academic progress and athlete retention numbers soar. It is not, he knows, a coincidence. "It’s a really good tool to help our coaches better understand how to build competitive identity, a culture, and improve recruiting by really understanding young men and young women," Harper says. "So often in college athletics, you’re sprinting and thinking at the same time. This helps you understand how to interact."

Harper himself can attest to that. A former college football coach who helped start a program at Robert Morris, he found himself at a proverbial crossroads, interviewing for a position in athletic administration and as a defensive backs coach at the same time. Offered both opportunities, he opted to hang up the whistle, seeing it as a more manageable schedule for a man with a young family. He took a job at Dayton, where his mentor Ted Kissell joked that he was the "worst hire for advancement ever." Harper took a DISC assessment, looking for a way to better understand himself as well as how he could work with other people. It became sort of his North Star, finding it invaluable in his fundraising role to learn how to understand people and guide his conversations.

"It’s forging more relational capital with your teammates," he says. ‘It helps you better understand in depth who they are. It’s understanding their skill capacity and how they think and operate. You go beyond task orientation to people orientation.”

When Harper’s job travels - from Dayton to Michigan and back to Dayton - eventually led him to the boss’s chair at Duquesne, he started looking for something similar to use with his new staff. He wanted a tool to help his coaches with recruiting, and did a simple Google search. Profile popped up, and Harper dug a little deeper, impressed with the group’s extensive work with the NFL. He thought that association would give Profile a little more credence for the skeptics he anticipated he’d encounter.

Sure enough, not every coach was immediately onboard, even with the NFL’s rubber stamp. Some were simply uncomfortable with the concept of behavioral assessments. Others weren’t convinced it was worth the time or could help. Harper did not issue a departmental edict but let them come to it on their own and explore the various ways the assessment worked. "At first it was, ‘Oh, this is religion," Harper says of the skepticism. "We explained that it’s not. This is the clay you’re getting in a person, and this is how to best mold them." As coaches came around, most at first used it in recruiting. They developed a sort of prototype of the kind of player they wanted to work with and purposefully sought out high schoolers who had those traits. But as they saw the results there, they dug in more deeply. Soon coaches discovered that Profile made them better communicators and better leaders. It helped make the very vague notion of culture more concrete and also helped them better understand not only how they could succeed in the broad spectrum, but how they could specifically succeed at Duquesne.

"Organizational maturity," is how Harper classifies the evolving role that Profile has played at Duquesne. Essentially the more people understood what the assessments were about and how they worked, the more they bought in. "Particularly some of our more seasoned coaches had re-adapted who they are," Harper says.

Profile is now so ingrained in what Duquesne does that when members of the Maxwell Leadership group, the premiere leadership development organization, came for a recent campus visit and asked Harper if they used any sort of DISC assessment, Harper laughed. He not only happily told them how entrenched they were in the assessments but sang chapter and verse on the specifics of Profile. "I jumped into the conversation of motivators, values, and the reinforcement of the effectiveness of the tool you have," he says. "You sit back and look at your teammates, and you see how it’s almost ingrained in them. I’ve seen people become really strong leaders in our organization, and this tool has been tremendously helpful in that."

Though Harper has long been a believer in the value of the assessments, the generational tilt in college athletics has helped convert some of his reluctant coaches. Athletes are different. They have more of a voice and aren’t afraid to express what they need. The opportunity to transfer without sitting out gives them an out they didn’t previously have. It also, however, can create havoc for a program. Developing a culture, carving an identity, and competitive excellence all require stability and continuity.

That means the old coach/player dynamic no longer works. Coaches need to meet their athletes where they are, and just as he did in that private meeting, he’s seen how coaches who understand the value of relationships and mentorship succeed. "You’re not going to have a high level of success if you don’t understand the depth of what you have," he says. "The talent is on film, but when you spend time with a recruit, and you’re investing all that time and energy, why not ask a person to immerse in this?”

Even more critically, Profile has helped his coaches better understand how to ensure their athletes’ mental wellness. As he saw in that meeting, the more humanizing approach not only makes simple sense, it works. "We’ve become more caring," he says. "If we have a more humanizing approach, we can better get to the underlying issues that may be affecting someone. They’re more comfortable sharing this. We’re better-skilled professionals because we’re talking a different language than we used to."

Really, at the end of the day, Harper sees Profile as good old-fashioned common sense. Searching for a simple analogy, Harper lands in his father’s garage. As something of a handyman, his dad has a collection of tools filling the shelves. "He has a hand drill and then a modern, chargeable one," he says. "It’s the same tool, right? It’s just evolved quite a bit."