Liberal Education

Beyond Carrots and Sticks: Toward a Transformative Model of Division I Athletics

The old expression about the carrot and the stick, which refers to the application of reward and punishment to induce action, dates back to the days when pack mules were used for transportation. The mules would move toward carrots that dangled just ahead of them—and move all the faster because they feared drivers with sticks behind them. In 2012, a carrot-and-stick method of motivation is prevalent in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I college sport. At many schools, marquee coaches chase the carrot of big-dollar salaries and short-term wins, and they work to avoid the stick of being fired for losing. Athletics directors are responsible for leading multi-million dollar units and are expected to generate revenue in order to build a budget and sports that win; if they fail, they too get the stick.

While there are philosophical and operational differences among various intercollegiate athletics programs, the race for resources and the industry’s evolution toward immediate return on investment are challenging institutions’ fundamental purpose of educating student-athletes. At Drake University, we confront the same sets of issues and mindsets, but we are working strategically to align the daily athletics focus with the core fundamentals of the university mission. We are focused on attracting athletically gifted students who desire excellence in academics and athletics. We understand our efforts to increase competitiveness in athletics to be rooted in efforts to ramp up learning experiences and outcomes in the classroom.

Our athletics program reflects the purpose of our university, which is to educate students in an environment that integrates liberal education with preparation for careers, by teaching student-athletes to become ethical leaders and responsible global citizens who are prepared for meaningful personal and professional lives. The athletics department is strategically and intentionally leveraging the power of Division I athletics to align with, and advance, the academic mission of the university. Athletics staff are partnering with faculty to create a culture of excellence that integrates athletics with the liberal arts curriculum—a culture where carrots and sticks are relegated to their proper roles as crunchy orange vegetables and small pieces of wood.

The dirt on carrots and sticks

In his bestselling book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink explains that performance based primarily on rewards and punishments can foster short-term thinking, encourage cheating and unethical behavior, and lead to poorer performance. Football and men’s basketball often shape the culture of a Division I athletics program on a campus. In those sports, head coaches draw salaries that rival the highest-paid faculty, and athletics departments rely on coaches’ success for millions of dollars to support the entire enterprise. As a result, some people will do almost anything to win. Penn State’s handling of the recent Jerry Sandusky case is the most recent example of this behavior. The outcome for student-athletes can be the polar opposite of what we hope to accomplish through Division I athletics and contrary to what our institutional missions promise to deliver for our students.

The role of intercollegiate athletics

At Drake, the intercollegiate athletics program brings what is perceived as “traditional” value to campus. It serves as a gathering place and source of pride for students and alumni, provides connection and entertainment for the community, brings media and television exposure, and generates revenue. Without sacrificing these outcomes, Drake is working to demonstrate that NCAA Division I athletics can and should be primarily focused on enriching the educational experience of student-athletes, and that it is possible to do this and still win.

This effort started by discovering how athletics can serve as a direct, rather than peripheral, expression of the university’s mission. As a result, we intentionally integrated the athletic strategic plan with institutional strategic priorities for student learning, and we focused on the university mission as a guide. Drake’s goal for athletics is stated in the university’s 2008–2012 strategic plan as follows: “To transform intercollegiate athletics from an extracurricular to a cocurricular experience.” Our goal is to bring the fundamental purpose of intercollegiate athletics closer to the core of the academy. To that end, the university’s intercollegiate athletics strategic plan identifies ways in which student-athletes can push themselves academically, embrace the tenets of global citizenship, and develop as extraordinary leaders—all priorities identified in the institution’s overarching liberal arts–based academic strategy.

Academic theory suggests that our early initiatives are valuable not only for the enrichment of students, but also for the general health and well-being of the institution. In the article “Dealing with the Future Now: Principles for Creating a Vital Campus in a Climate of Restricted Resources,” Alan Guskin and Mary Marcy (2003) assert that “transformative actions” are necessary for universities to survive into the next generation. They suggest that universities ought to develop curricula around current student activities that make positive, significant contributions to student success. Intercollegiate athletics presents a unique experiential learning opportunity for student-athletes to know, understand, and develop themselves as world-class leaders. But first, we must create a new institutional view of intercollegiate athletics.

Rethinking athletics from an institutional perspective

As the early discussions regarding Drake’s development of a new paradigm for Division I intercollegiate athletics continued, the athletics department became one of the catalysts for pulling together campus efforts related to leadership learning. To develop an institutional definition for leadership and establish related learning outcomes, the provost’s office created Drake’s Council on Leadership Development. Every academic and cocurricular area on campus that touches leadership learning, including athletics, is represented on the council, which continues to meet monthly. In addition, as director of athletics, I sat on a faculty committee charged with developing an academic concentration in leadership, which includes experiential learning as a key requirement for completion. This academic program entered its second year in the fall of 2012.

Perhaps most remarkably, the athletics department is partnering with a faculty member (who is also currently a fellow in the academic affairs division) to create Coaching in the Classroom, a coach-faculty collaboration that will explore ways of using the team-building and accountability strategies employed by coaches in order to motivate active, engaged, and collaborative learning in the classroom. Coaching in the Classroom pairs coaches of the institution’s marquee programs with faculty in diverse academic programs.

The campus community has welcomed and embraced our new approach to college athletics. However, our experience has taught us that the transition to a new model can only happen when the people inside the athletics program think differently about their roles as instructors and embrace their leadership roles across campus.

Refining the strategic planning process

Preparing for significant change takes time and intentionality. Shifting the culture can be the most challenging part of the process. The first step is to help people start thinking differently.

At Drake, the entire athletics department staff read the book Raving Fans by Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles in order to get everyone thinking about “who we are” as an athletics program and about whom we serve. Facilitated discussions ensued. We engaged consultants to help the department identify its core values and clarify its mission, help team members discover whom the department serves, and assist in both the articulation of the vision for athletics and the preparation of the strategic plan. In the first draft of the intercollegiate athletics strategic plan, the vision was well captured and a plan was clearly outlined; however, we were overly aggressive in outlining our overarching goals. It became clear during the first year of implementation that too many goals had been articulated and that the focus needed to be reduced to one or two major, primary targets.

Subsequently, Drake Athletics’ senior management team spent a number of hours debating, arguing, and refining the five goal areas into just two to be completed by the end of fiscal year 2012–13: (1) to create a measurable culture of excellence, and (2) to establish a sustainable business model. The leadership team knew that these two goals must be implemented in order to realize its distinctive vision to be a competitive NCAA Division I intercollegiate athletics program that cultivates world-class leaders. We agreed that if we do not have a culture that promotes success, we can achieve only pockets of academic and athletic excellence, not overall programmatic excellence. Moreover, without a business model that supports the needs of the department and makes sense for Drake University, all our efforts will fail. Narrowing the scope of the strategic plan significantly helped the senior management team learn how to lead the transformational change.

A transformational model of sport

The athletics department is embracing sport as a platform for experiential-based leadership education for Drake’s student-athletes. The vision is to develop world-class leaders who are dedicated to stewardship of, and take responsibility for, the common good. Teaching leadership alongside Division I athletics is not new; however, Drake is taking a new approach. In addition to the academic study of leadership, our coaches—the strongest influencers of student-athlete behavior—will serve as core leadership educators in the classroom of sport.

We believe that ethical leadership starts with character development, and character is shaped through culture. Therefore, Drake Athletics is focusing significant human and financial resources to intentionally shape a defined culture of excellence and ethics that will produce more consistent and outstanding outcomes. At the core of the organizational culture is “The Bulldog Way,” our touchstone statement that is signed by all coaches, student-athletes, and staff and that defines how we will live out our organizational culture (see above).


More specifically, through a partnership with the Institute for Excellence and Ethics, a nonprofit organization based in upstate New York, we are working to establish an organizational culture that is measurable and to improve the consistency of results. Consequently, our organizational culture/leadership program, which is being implemented in two phases, has five major components: (1) education for coaches and integral support staff, (2) academic curriculum for student-athletes, (3) student-athlete experiential leadership learning through sport and in the community, (4) a student-athlete service requirement delivered to middle school children, and (5) an assessment process with measurable outcomes.

Phase one: In progress

Coaches/staff development. The coaching and key support staffs are essential to meaningful leadership learning for student-athletes. Each staff member engages in focused professional development and receives a custom “play book” to be used by all student-athletes, coaches, and staff as the foundation for our organizational culture. Athletics department officials share weekly updates, discussions, and examples of implementation. Additionally, all full-time staff and coaches participate in an annual two-day retreat.

Student-athlete curriculum. Student-athletes are oriented to the organizational culture and the leadership curriculum through Bulldog Foundations, a seminar program that is taught during a student-athlete’s first semester at Drake. This program consists of a three-hour orientation session followed by four one-hour sessions every three weeks throughout the semester. Student-athletes are directed toward the academic leadership concentration designed for the general student population, Leadership Education and Development (LEAD). Students learn leadership theory and practices, and study how to intellectualize what they are learning about leadership through sport.

Experiential Learning. Experiential learning enhances student leadership education through sport for those student-athletes engaged in the LEAD concentration and through special projects. The Global Kilimanjaro Bowl, a historic trip undertaken by the Drake University football team in the summer of 2011, highlights the powerful impact of experiential learning. The “Kili Bowl” included athletic, service, and academic components: sixty-five student-athletes from Drake played (and won) the first-ever collegiate game of American-style football on African soil, worked with their on-field rivals from Mexico to build classrooms and orphanages in Tanzania, held football training clinics for hundreds of children, climbed to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, and completed an academic course on leadership titled “Leading with Emotional Intelligence.” How often does an institution leverage the power of sport to give students a chance to engage in international service, to climb a nineteen-thousand-foot mountain, and teach a new sport to children in a developing country? It’s just these types of life-changing experiences that we pursue—at home and abroad—to help our students become ethical leaders and responsible global citizens.

Service requirement. In the community service–driven curricular program, Seeds of Success, student-athletes are being trained to take habits of excellence, leadership, and performance as well as core values, ethics, and moral and character development into middle school classrooms. For the training component of this program, student-athletes visit classrooms for four sessions throughout a semester. Seeds of Success is beneficial to our student-athletes and to Iowa’s middle school students. Preparing for and teaching in the program encourages the student-athlete to engage with and absorb leadership concepts. Our students also learn to harness the credibility afforded them by their athletic jersey in order to teach young people lessons they might not otherwise be receptive to learning. The success of the program, which was created in collaboration with the Drake-based nonprofit Character Counts in Iowa, hinges on strong collaboration with classroom teachers as well as a supplementary follow-up curriculum.

Assessment. The Institute for Excellence and Ethics has created the Bulldog Index of Conditions for Excellence and Performance (BICEP), which combines several performance indicators into an aggregate score for benchmarking overall conditions for excellence in school, sport, and beyond. The BICEP combines several performance indicators together into a single score for each team, which, in turn, is combined to determine an overall BICEP score for the athletics department. Those performance indicators include: individual and team culture, which is evaluated through a student-athlete and coach survey; academic performance, as demonstrated by semester and cumulative grade point averages; team performance, which is indicated by finish in the conference (the departmental goal is to have each team competing in the top third of their respective conference); student eligibility and retention, which is determined using the NCAA Academic Performance Rate; and program resources and support, a measure of organizational resources and support dedicated to a program as measured by budget, facilities, and coaching support as compared to programs within the department, across the conference, and other appropriate comparisons.

Phase two: On the horizon

In phase one, we have begun to see a program-wide shift in behavior and a separation from the traditional indicators of success within our Division I athletics. As we move into phase two, we are exploring the development of a certificate program, A Champion for a Better World. This citizen-athlete program is being designed to complement a student’s central program of study by maximizing the cocurricular varsity athletics experience. Undergraduate student-athletes from any school or college will be encouraged to apply. The purposes are to provide students with

  • a combination of concentrated study, personal experience, and reflection that will inform their understanding of sport and its power to influence local and global communities;
  • the leadership skills that will enable them to use sport as a platform to unite people and improve the condition of populations through sport participation.

These elements reinforce the liberal education expectations Drake places on all its students. Upon completion, student-athletes will receive a certificate. During the 2012–13 academic year, the athletics department will explore moving this program to an academic unit in order to ensure its academic rigor and to enable us to seek approval for a notation on the academic transcript acknowledging successful completion of the program.

Benchmarks for success: Beyond wins and losses

From a qualitative standpoint, this new model of integration will be deemed a success when student-athletes perceive the value of their athletic experience as a significant component of their curricular education. As the paradigm for integration shifts, student-athletes will recognize that their athletic involvement parallels the classroom experience; they will understand that the valuable knowledge, skills, and practice gained through the sporting experience significantly contribute to their professional preparation and promote meaningful personal lives. Student-athletes will recognize these powerful leadership and life lessons through sport when coaches view themselves as master teachers.

When the Drake model is successful, student-athletes will graduate with meaningful and competitive degrees, and they will have intellectualized important leadership lessons from their sport experience. Student-athletes will understand the leadership, analytical, critical-thinking, and teamwork skills they have developed through their experiences within both our intentional culture of excellence and ethics and the corresponding curriculum. This understanding, coupled with a championship-level athletic experience, will ensure that Drake student-athletes become some of the most highly sought graduates in the nation.

As administrators, we are also looking beyond anecdotal outcomes to identify measureable indicators for the development of our “culture of ethics and excellence.” The BICEP assessment tool described above provides a new way of evaluating programmatic success for Division I athletics. The 2011–12 academic year was the first year of data collection. Although only partial data were available last year while we developed the tool, we were pleased to learn that the tool is going to provide appropriate evaluation feedback. Our consultant from the Institute for Excellence and Ethics is now working directly with Drake’s office for institutional assessment, and we are excited about collecting our first full year of data in 2012–13.


If it is human nature to be motivated by carrots and sticks—by rewards and punishments—then we must strive for the reward of enriching our student-athletes’ learning experiences and fear the consequences of focusing too much on revenue and win-loss records. At institutions committed to providing a liberal education, with an emphasis on interdisciplinary study and lifelong learning, athletics programs can and should be key partners in helping students reach the hallmarks of a liberal arts experience. Significant change will only occur and be sustained, however, if it is clearly aligned with the values and mission of an institution, and if the athletics program is implemented strategically with broad engagement and accountability. Otherwise, we risk being regarded merely as pack mules.


Blanchard, K., and S. Bowles. 1999. Raving Fans: A Revolutionary Approach to Customer Service. New York: William Morrow and Company.

Guskin, A., and M. Marcy. 2003. “Dealing with the Future Now: Principles for Creating a Vital Campus in a Climate of Restricted Resources.” Change 35 (4): 10–21.

Pink, D. H. 2009. Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us. New York: Riverhead Books.

Sandy Hatfield Clubb is director of athletics at Drake University.

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