We are Ramily: Cornell’s alumni coaches discuss the meaning of team

In 1979 the Pittsburgh Pirates won the National League East division title, the National League pennant, and the World Series. And through it all, they listened to one song over and over again, Sister Sledge’s disco hit “We Are Family.”

When Cornell Report writer Lisa Gray Giurato sat down with Cornell’s three alumni coaches—Women’s Basketball Coach Brent Brase ՚90, Softball Coach Jackie Serneck ՚14, and Wrestling Coach Brenton Hamm ՚15—she wondered if their idea of a team was a lot like the Pirates or if they had a different perspective. 

Gray Giurato: What does ‘team’ mean to you?

Wrestling Coach Brenton Hamm ՚15
Wrestling Coach Brenton Hamm ՚15

Hamm: The first thing that comes to mind is team family. You care about each other. It’s not about yourself, but what can I do to help my teammates perform at their best. I have team dinners at my house; my wife’s there and my dog’s there and we talk non-wrestling. You develop relationships. Maybe you coach a student for a year and you have them over to your house, and now your relationship is twice as strong. I think team and I think family and that we are all focused on the same goal. 

Gray Giurato: That transcends beyond playing a game.

Brase: That’s hard to do. To tap into individuals and ask them to put themselves aside when you want high achieving individuals but you do it for the common team goal. For me to be happy for you when you’re achieving what I want to achieve, and I’ve got to fully support you. To have that environment where all these roles, which are obviously so important, to focus on the team, that family—they have to celebrate it. 

Softball Coach Jackie Serneck ՚14
Softball Coach Jackie Serneck ՚14

Sernek: I read something the other day and I think it hits home and touches on this point. From the perspective of a coach, we create a team atmosphere and what we do is 25% teaching a skill to the students and three-quarters of our time is spent building relationships and teaching them respect, responsibility, and accountability. They can have that after college and that is more rewarding than anything. We have a unique community here that I didn’t have at other schools. Coaches here are more involved in each other’s programs.

Brase: Absolutely. And that’s one of the really neat things that Cornell athletics has, is that we’re really close as staff. In fact, I’ve had assistants go to other colleges and that’s the first thing that they tell me. 

Hamm: Why do you think that is? 

Sernek: At other schools, I felt like everybody was so involved in their sports. I was in Division I for a couple of years and they were just worried about winning. You didn’t really mingle with other sports. There was never any extra connection there.  

Women’s Basketball Coach Brent Brase ՚90
Women’s Basketball Coach Brent Brase ՚90

Brase: The same thing that can impact a team, coaches aren’t immune to it either, and that’s human emotion—jealousy. That impacts coaches and why coaches do or don’t speak with each other or why you’re helpful or why you’re not helpful. It’s hard for coaches if your program is struggling to be supportive of other programs. That’s just human behavior. 

Gray Giurato: Oh, that’s a good point. In a way, it’s like siblings. If you feel like your big brother is getting all the attention and you’re like, look at me!

Hamm (laughing): You don’t want them to be successful!

Gray Giurato: What do you think leads all of you to be the counterpoint to that norm? Sports teams equal competitiveness and rivalry, but you’re not like that amongst each other. 

Sernek: There is a sense of community here, not only as an athletic department. I’m from Chicago and I remember my first day walking down Main Street in Mount Vernon when somebody said hello to me. Where I’m from, you don’t talk to anyone you don’t know and later when I’d go home and visit my parents, I would say hello to passing strangers, and my mom would say, “I can tell you’ve been in Iowa.”

Everyone in the room laughs. 

Gray Giurato: What do you hope for your student-athletes?

Brase: A lot of personal growth, lifelong friendships and memories, and that they’re going to be successful in life. If they’re successful, our program is successful.