Ryan Kane is Athletic Director and men’s basketball head coach at Ripon College. This blog addresses remarks made by Coach Kane regarding his leadership roles on and off the court. Questions for the interview were prepared by Elliott Holt, Esteban Borja Pena, Clark Cunningham, Jaylen Mahone, and Jacob Zuehlke, all members of the Ripon College Business Leadership course in the fall semester of 2021.
What drives you and keeps you motivated year after year?
This one is pretty easy. When I was in the corporate world I worked in, more or less sales, the year would end at the end of every fiscal year. After that, you would start over. Management would say, “OK, here’s your new goal. Go out and get it.” It would sound so monotonous. It was as if to get the same people and the same clients to get more from them. Maybe we would try to grow and get a few more clients. That was kind of what my life was like in the corporate world and I desperately hated that. It was a continuous cycle where the game doesn’t change. That’s not to say that it’s much different in the coaching world. In every year it’s recruit, recruit, recruit, get your players, get your posts – but every year has a different story and that is what I love about it. Every year, you see, there is just a different attitude, a different vibe with every team. Team one through team ten, they all have their own story. They all have their own identity and that for me is really fun to see. The individual progressions and then to see within a given year how a team starts and how they finish and their general dynamics as a team is not just what kids can tangibly achieve. I think those things really keep me going. No question year in and year out, that is for sure.
Is that part of the satisfaction for you?
I said the other day [in a presentation to the Business Leadership class] that the satisfaction for me is seeing the satisfaction from a team achieving a goal or an individual player achieving something that they set out to do and really, it’s continuing to grow the relationships.
Coach Kane strongly demonstrates his position in the fifth level of Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs. The fifth level states that a person has reached self-actualization and deeply cares for the greater good of the people around them rather than themselves. The idea of motivating himself with the success of others shows that Coach Kane wants to see others succeed and not just himself. When the team wins, he wins, and when the team loses, he loses. Coach Kane is also generating great success in his students and athletes by passing this mindset onto them. Erik Erikson states that between the ages of thirty and seventy people either generate or stagnate. Coach Kane truly demonstrates his generativity through his empowerment of athletes and Ripon College as a whole.
Coach Kane leads not only the Ripon College men’s basketball team, but also the whole athletic department. He mentioned that “you just can’t shut off leadership” and “when the eyes are on you, they’re always on you.” Coach Kane has to have the team ready to play by providing the players with opportunities to build skills through training. He has to guide the team not only during practices and games, but also during times outside of “playtime.”
Being head of the athletic department, Coach Kane has to exercise leadership especially when making decisions on behalf of the department. He needs to make sure everyone is aware of their role and what is trying to be accomplished. He also states that “you can never say things that could tear at the fabric of the culture that you’re trying to create.” Even when Coach Kane is outside of the workplace, he can’t say or do things that are contrary to the values of the department. Overall, it sounds like always having a positive attitude and expressing yourself in the most positive way you can will be beneficial for everyone you are leading and the organization you represent.
When it comes to recruiting, Coach Kane has a few key aspects that he focuses on. He specified that he wants players for “who they are” more than “what they are.” He particularly notes, “I often look for guys who play on very successful teams who are good at being surrounded by other good players.” He also looks at the way the athletes treat their parents when they visit the College. This aspect can help him sense the level of respect an athlete demonstrates. Also, if Coach Kane knows any friends of a particular athlete, he may pull those friends aside and ask them what they think of so-and-so. Overall, he does end up recruiting lots of athletes and points out “I don’t know who’s going to be any good or not.” Recruiting lots of athletes can be a good thing because it will result in a diverse team of players who bring a variety of important values.
When it comes to hiring staff in the athletic department, Coach Kane indicates that he looks for what stands out from everyone else. He says “one of the challenging parts about that is sometimes somebody might be really outgoing and charismatic, but they might not be the analytical person that you're looking for.” He says he often jokes with his staff that he’s not that good of a talent evaluator, and that goes back to why he recruits a lot of athletes.
Please talk about your most memorable moments as a leader.
I think it's easy to say, you know, like the championships, but that's so ephemeral, you know those things die quickly. I think some of the most rewarding things are the moments when somebody was really struggling and you found a way to get him out of it. I think that's it for me. You know, when a kid comes to you and they're going through some really tough stuff. And that's the one part of this job that I'm ill-prepared for that I don't know unless you take psychology classes, and I've often joked that I wish I would have taken more because you really do need to become a psychologist, not just with my players, but with my staff too. You know, really helping people through tough, difficult times in their life. It could be a death, a breakup, or just stress and anxiety around expectations that they have for themselves or that others have on them about their academics. All of that stuff like helping people through those times. You know is what it's about for me like I've had so many guys over the years where it's been all right you're a 4.0 [perfect grade-point average] you're so motivated already. You are probably better at managing your day than I am. I could probably learn something from you. You know you're just kind of giving them the course they were going to do whether you were here or not. It's the ones where they really need some guidance, and they're looking to you for that help and you give it to them. That's the stuff right there.
Coach Kane is not only coaching men’s basketball, he is coaching his players on how to live life. His goal is to get all of his players a life after basketball is over. In division 3 basketball, virtually no players go on to play professionally, so he is trying to help his players get jobs or job opportunities so they can be successful in their future. He believes the most rewarding things are the moments when a player is struggling and he helps them get through it, whether that is a recent death, depression, anxiety, or other struggles they may be going through. Coach Kane does enjoy winning games and championships, but he says those triumphs die quickly. He mostly enjoys guiding his players through school and watching them turn into men.
What kind of encouragement did you get early on?
Honestly, I felt like I didn't have a road map. I was the first generation in my family to attend college. Nobody played sports in my family. I literally was different from everybody in my family. They mostly drove milk trucks. That's what they did and I had different plans. I wanted to play college basketball. I wanted to see things. I wanted to live in a big city. I wanted to do all those things and was just completely different. By saying I didn't get any encouragement, nothing held me back from it either. My parents were very trusting of me. My parents had both been divorced and previously they had kids prior to them getting married and having me, but I was like their only child and the nearest sibling I had was twelve years older so I didn't have a ton of guidance from siblings either. I was quite honestly just a product of my peer group and my friends I hung out with and that really kind of guided me.
To summarize, coach Kane had no particular road map from home. He felt different from other family members. He received little significant encouragement or setbacks either. Guidance came from external factors. Coach Kane demonstrated great initiative and courage from an early age to go against the grain, in this case his family norms, and truly pursue what he wanted for his life. In other words, he won his battle in the life stage of identity formation versus role confusion, as described by Erik Erikson. His initiative started him on the path which he had visualized for himself and his courage kept him from straying from the path which would put him in a position of leadership.
Please talk about the biggest disappointments or frustrations in your coaching career. How do you typically deal with disappointments or frustration?
My frustrations and my disappointments as a head coach are really easy. I deal with those a lot easier than I did when I was an assistant. I have control over it. I got no one else, you know, it's this idea of internal locus of control versus external locus of control like I am in complete control of the program. So when it doesn't meet expectations, that's on me. I don't look at anybody else, it's not anybody else's fault except mine and I'm OK with that. We weren't successful when I was an assistant. It's when I had harder times and because there was so much that was out of my control. You know, I knew. I thought at least anyways, how we could be better, but it wasn't my call. And that was harder for me, and that was the last stop before I got here. This job couldn't have come at a better time for me because I was so frustrated at the spot I was in and I wasn't sure if I could continue there. And I was just so ready to do it my way. I really wanted to see if the way that I viewed how to run a basketball program would work. And so it's funny, like I’ve got a lot of colleagues who can't sleep after a loss. I'm fine. I mean, there's been a few that have really, you know, they really get to you, but by and large for me it's ho hum. One of my board of directors said one time “oh man, sorry you had a really tough game.” But nobody died on the operating room table. And you know it's like, OK, I can get down with that. You know what I mean? You know I walk into Roadhouse, win or lose. They still know me and they still think I'm a good dude. They could care less and I sometimes gotta remember that yeah, it's not always about the outcomes with this stuff. So you guys know this? [Speaking to his players interviewing him] I showed you the Kobe Bryant video, which was a real eye opener for me. The idea that he never viewed failure? He felt that he never failed. In his opinion, he competed to learn. He said every game was a learning opportunity and that's how he viewed it. Whether he scored 81 or he had three airballs in the playoffs as a rookie against the Jazz, it was about him learning how to be better in those moments, and that's really what is fun for me.
Coach Kane has again learned from his outside environment. For example, when he talks about Kobe Bryant, he notes that every seeming failure is actually a learning experience and that’s how his perspective has shifted. As a head coach, Kane feels personally responsible for all the losses the team suffers, but he also feels that he is in control to take the program in a new direction as needed. Coach Kane has shown that leadership isn’t just about implementing values and expecting the team to automatically follow, but that leadership is about “walking the walk after talking the talk.” Our project team feels that he has taken leading by example to a new level.
Please check out our podcast featuring a brief excerpt from our interview with Ryan Kane.