Rams leadership lessons
Be like Plotkin.
That mantra of the Cornell College Rams wrestling team refers to Adam Plotkin, Class of 2020. For four years he was the first to show up for predawn lifts, holding the door for his teammates. His work ethic was unparalleled.
“Adam is the most dedicated student-athlete I have ever coached. He never missed a workout or showed up late in four years,” said Head Wrestling Coach Brenton Hamm ’15.
This is a story about life lessons learned on the playing fields at Cornell. For Plotkin, following came first, then he learned to lead.
“To be considered a leader, one must first exemplify the characteristics of a determined follower. I pride myself on seeking out the toughest tasks and simply never missing. I wish to instill the same discipline, integrity, and perseverance in my peers simply through leading by example. I was definitely not the best wrestler on the team,” said Plotkin, who had just five wins in his collegiate career yet was looked up to by his teammates. “I hold myself to a very high standard. After practice I’ll usually try to stay later, even if I have a ton of homework, and then I’m in the library all night doing my work.”
Plotkin graduated with majors in biochemistry and molecular biology and kinesiology and is a researcher for the National Institutes of Health. Combined with the intensity of One Course At A Time and the rigors of wrestling, Plotkin said he feels his success (he graduated Phi Beta Kappa) means there is nothing he can’t do with his life.
Former Rams student-athletes recently shared the lessons they have carried through life.
- Goal setting and confidence
- Priorities and time management
- It takes a team
- Seize opportunities
- Be a good person
- Mistakes are a learning opportunity
- Great leaders have a plan
Goal setting and confidence
Marie Schutte Feehan ’06, a recent inductee to the Cornell Athletics Hall of Fame, said her years on the tennis court at Cornell helped teach her the importance of setting high goals and believing she could achieve them.
“This past year I was able to take that lesson and demonstrate it to my kids during my marathon training,” Feehan said. “I set a personal goal to qualify for the Boston Marathon and they were there for the process: goal setting, physical training, and building mental toughness and confidence, and eventually accomplishing the goal. Believing in yourself is a lesson my husband and I emphasize with our boys in their sports, their academics, and in life.”
Priorities and time management
James Q. Swift ’76 wrestled for four years and played football for two years. “Being a two-sport athlete added challenges of time management to scheduling courses and laboratories before the advent of One Course At A Time. Every weekday from August to March for my first two years at Cornell, I needed to be in the Fieldhouse at 3 p.m. The academics came first. Priorities and time management are essential to function effectively in roles of leadership,” he said.
During his sophomore year the Rams wrestling team won the Midwest Conference championship, and all 10 varsity wrestlers qualified for the NCAA Division III Championships in Pennsylvania. Swift, who grew up in Manchester, Iowa, had never been east of the Mississippi River at that time. Two Ford station wagons with Cornell College branding were made available to the team.
“Our coach, Merle Masonholder, was in the lead station wagon with half the team. The rest of us were in the following wagon. The situation demonstrated to me that Cornell College had faith in us as student leaders to take on the responsibility that allowed us the reward of competing nationally after winning the conference. The leadership lessons were twofold: work hard and be rewarded. Being responsible results in unique and gratifying experiences,” he said.
Swift is a professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery at the University of Minnesota, and chairs three boards: Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons National Insurance Company (OMSNIC), Fortress Insurance Company, and the Medical Professional Liability Association.
It takes a team
As a member of the Rams volleyball team, Belinda Keever ’80 said five things quickly became apparent to her:
- You cannot do it all.
- You must trust your teammates to perform their jobs to the best of their ability.
- This will allow you to perform your tasks to the best of your ability.
- Together the whole is much larger than the sum of its parts.
- The glory of a victory is much sweeter surrounded by teammates.
“I work in the technology industry, and the project teams that get assembled to meet a corporate objective are not dissimilar to the members of an athletic team,” she said. “Our backgrounds are diverse, our skills are diverse, and our personalities can clash. But without each other, nothing gets accomplished.”
Last year Keever generously established an endowed fund to support the Cornell volleyball program.
Lessons learned as part of the Rams wrestling and football teams may have helped save the life of Dave Brezina ’75.
“Athletic experience is valuable for a lifetime. One can set and achieve goals academically and professionally in the office. On the mat, the field, or the pitch, and later on race courses on bicycles and sailboats, setting and achieving goals is physical, but the psychology is analogous. Winning a race or winning a lawsuit for a client is still winning,” said Brezina, a patent attorney.
“From a personal standpoint, the ability to combine knowledge of science and physical experience, especially in demanding sports like rugby, triathlon, and offshore sailing, had life-saving implications during cancer treatment. You can know that science can kill the bad cells, but you need to physically push through to the next day. The one certainty is that if you quit, you’re done. What did I plan during lymphoma treatment and execute when the treatment was behind me? After treatment was completed we raced, by sailboat, in the Leukemia Cup regatta to raise funds to help future cancer survivors. Don’t get mad, get even. And we won.”
“I learned that when an opportunity you never expected presents itself, take it,” said Fred Holtz ’86,
Holtz was not a star swimmer on his high school team and had no thought of competing at the collegiate level. But when he arrived on the Hilltop and met his roommate, Jim Munson ’86, who was, in fact, a star swimmer at Ames High School, they decided to check out the program.
“It turned out that we were both welcome to participate. While we drove around the Midwest for meets, I knew at the time that I would appreciate that experience for the rest of my life,” he recalled. “Three years ago I got back in the pool on a regular basis. Again, I never thought I would be competing as an old man, but I went for it and have had decent success on the U.S. Masters circuit throughout the Carolinas.
“There are not many Division III schools in the South. When I tell my friends and neighbors that I was a college athlete, they always think it is cool. In their minds, college athletics is only for a select few. At Cornell, it was for everyone who wanted to participate, and I am so glad that I made the choice to take that opportunity.”
Be a good person
Cornell athletics placed Diamond Boyd ’17 in leadership positions for both the Rams women’s volleyball and basketball teams, preparing her for her positions as the Rams assistant volleyball coach and the Lisbon (Iowa) high school girls basketball head coach and track & field assistant coach.
A lesson she learned and now teaches, she said, is simply to be a good person.
“Being a good teammate and surrounding myself with good people—my fellow teammates—showed me how love and acceptance for one another can win games,” she said.
As an athlete, she felt she was looked up to and respected for her hard work and resilience.
“You’re making a difference for someone that you don’t even know. The number of little girls that I got the chance to talk to, and who have looked up to me, was inspiring. Now as a head basketball coach myself, I talk a lot to my team about what it means to be a part of something bigger than you. Be a good person first. Be a good athlete second. And the drive to compete and win is third. Playing as a team will win us games and working hard to get better will win us games. You can be really good at sports and also be a really good person.”
Mistakes are a learning opportunity
Four years on the Rams football team, including as captain his senior year, provided John Crane ’02 many valuable life lessons, most of which he said he didn’t fully appreciate until later in life. Primarily, he learned the value of teamwork.
“In my current job as a firefighter, I trust my life with my coworkers (teammates), so I’ve come to value the mutual trust that we have to have with each other,” he said. “I look back at all the successes and, probably more importantly, failures that we had as a team, and I use those lessons as I coach my sons’ sports teams. I try to instill the idea that every mistake should be viewed as a learning opportunity and not necessarily as a failure. I want them to know there are lessons to be learned in both victory and defeat.”
Great leaders have a plan
No story on Rams athletics leadership lessons would be complete without Hall of Famer Steve Miller ’65. A standout, three-sport athlete and later a Cornell football, swimming, track, golf, basketball, and baseball coach, Miller’s undefeated 1992 football team won the Midwest Conference championship. He and Matt Miller ’94, who played on that undefeated team, are the first father-son tandem who both received the coveted NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship.
“Having been involved in athletics for 16 years as a player and 37 years as a coach, I’ve had so many lessons on leadership presented to me,” Miller said. “At Cornell, playing for Jerry Clark in football, and Paul Maaske in basketball and baseball, one aspect of leadership occurred numerous times. This was the realization that your true leaders surface when you are being tested the most. They are not always your appointed or elected leaders, but they are those that the group will follow. It enabled me to broaden my view of who my leaders were as I moved into the coaching profession.
“The second lesson I learned, and probably from Barron Bremner more than anyone, is that a great leader always has a plan, and should have more than one, and he or she has great empathy for the group being led. The leader would fight for and defend the group in any situation.”
Miller tells a story of how leadership from within his football team brought the team closer. This happened at the end of practice drills when players had to run the length of the field and back, going down to a three-point stance each time the whistle blew.
“The faster you ran, the quicker you finished and could rest for a bit until everyone had finished. Clearly this was easier for the smaller, lighter, and faster players, not so easy for the bigger, slower, and heavier players. Every time, we would have some of the early finishers return to the field and run in with the slower players, encouraging them as they went, so the whole team could finish together. This developed a feeling of togetherness and support for each other that I believe made those teams stronger during the tough times we would face during our games throughout the season,” Miller recalled.
“The impressive thing to me was that the players who were giving the support and encouragement were back up players as well as starters. It made no difference what your position was on the team. You were there to help your teammates when they needed you.”
Teammates congratulate team captain Lucas Larson ’19 after scoring a run against rival Coe College in 2018.
Cornell women’s soccer players share their enthusiasm after scoring a goal during a home match in 2015.
Daniel Burford ’22 (center left inside circle) leads his teammates in a ritual to build spirit prior to a 2020 men’s basketball game in the Small Sport Center.
An enthusiastic home crowd applauds Cornell’s volleyball team following a 2016 Bremner Cup victory over Coe.
Cornell’s strong legacy in wrestling continues as Evan Husko ’23 competes at the 2020 Lower Midwest Region Wrestling Championships.