Cat Scratches Feature: Changing the Culture

May 18, 2009

Sitting at a lavishly decorated table with this team, Jon Lipsitz stared at the stage in front of him.

Lipsitz watched one athlete after another trek across stage, make their acceptance speech and carry their award offstage with them. He watched highlight after highlight on the massive projection screens without barely noticing a clip of his own players.

The first-year head coach didn't like what he was seeing at the seventh annual CATSPY Awards, an end-of-the-year banquet that honors the student-athletes of the Kentucky athletic department.

“If you look at all the major awards, women's soccer was not considered as a team or individual for any major award,” Lipsitz said. “That's not OK.”

Truth be told, the women's soccer team did take home the hardware for Female Academic Team of the Year for the third year in a row, an honor Lipsitz is extremely proud of.

But that's not enough. As student-athletes, Lipsitz expects his players to live up to both ends of the bargain. They're succeeding in the classroom, but in his first year on the job, Lipsitz knows he has a rebuilding job on his hands to repeat that success on the field.

“This athletic department truly cares about every sport,” Lipsitz said. “If you want to be in a department that cares about every sport, you have to carry your weight, and we're not pulling our weight right now.”

That's the assessment Lipsitz offered to his team following the completion of the spring season, in which the Wildcats posted at 1-2-4 record. Decent, but not good enough, Lipsitz said.

Lipsitz has been pleasantly surprised and impressed with his team's ability to soak in all the information he threw at them this spring. In terms of the learning tactics and the style of the game, Lipsitz said the Wildcats exceeded his expectations. He admitted to over-coaching them this spring, only because he wanted them to get a little bit of everything.

But their mental toughness has to get stronger, he said. The former Charlotte head coach said he never felt like they were going to lose a game this spring, but too often when things got tough, players would hang their heads.

That's the change in culture Lipsitz is trying to make in his first season over from Charlotte, where his teams were known for being tough-minded and defensively strong. Lipsitz said it's about breeding a culture of competitiveness on a daily basis.

“It's not an issue of stubbornness, it's not an issue of a lack of desire,” he said. “My players want to be champions.

“I think the hardest thing to impress upon them and the hardest thing for them to figure out is being a champion doesn't happen on game day. In fact, the last place that it happens is on game day. It happens in training on a daily basis. It happens when they are totally on their own. What do they decide to do on a day in the summer when no one is watching? That's where champions are really made.”

Nobody is expecting the Wildcats to become immediate champions. Anytime there is change, there are going to be bumps along the road, and you can likely expect a few once the fall season rolls around.

But Lipsitz does expect them to compete harder, and he's been hard at work changing the culture of the program since setting foot on campus in December.

“I'm a person who wants to know the challenges ahead of me,” Lipsitz said. “If you put the challenges ahead of me, I'm willing to break down walls and break down doors to do whatever I have to, to solve those issues.”

Changing the culture is the biggest challenge, but he's also still dealing with the task of learning about a team that he initially knew very little about. To his own admission, Lipsitz didn't know the current players when he took the job and didn't even recruit the 11-player recruiting class coming in this fall.

With only four seniors leaving and 11 freshmen coming in, there could definitely be a roster shakeup when the regular season rolls around, which Lipsitz said is a good thing. With depth comes the uncertainty of playing spots, which in turn fosters competitiveness, Lipsitz said.

“I want players to feel that every single day they're battling for their position,” he said. “I believe people grow the most as players and as human being in times when they're most uncomfortable.”

Among his many other changes he's already made to the program, Lipsitz has named two new captains – Julie Hull and Giuleana Lopez – and has finalized the adoption of a team logo.

In the center of the logo reads “UK 24/7.” Around it, three words embroider what Lipsitz hopes the program will be about.

The first word, and most important to Lipstitz, is “family.” During his search for a house in Lexington, Lipsitz had a requirement that it had to have a backyard with a patio or deck so to that he could have the team over to eat and hang out.

“Everything I do, I'm thinking about my family,” Lipsitz said.

The second word is “legacy.” With legacy, Lipsitz hopes to build a bridge to link the past and future. He wants to reconnect with the special times and players of the past, but he also wants his current crop of players to leave a legacy.

“When you get here, your job is to leave it a better place then when you came,” Lipsitz said. “Your job is to serve the people that come after you.”

And finally, a word that is quickly becoming a department wide motto, is “finish.”

If the word sounds familiar, it's because Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart used that word – along with family – during his final speech at the CATSPY Awards for the entire athletic department.

It's no coincidence, Lipsitz said. Those words, especially the word finish, were a big part of the interview process when Lipsitz became interested in the job nearly six months ago.

“Finish was something we both felt was incredibly important,” Lipsitz said. “Finding a way to get over the top, finding a way to do more, finding a way to be more successful and finishing the work you've done.”

Lipsitz has just started putting his mark on the program, but it might not be long before people begin to see some finishing results. If everything goes according to Lipsitz's plan, we'll see the results on next year's CATSPY Awards' stage.