Creating the Commodore Culture

by Chad Bishop

How Vanderbilt bonded together with the help of coach Molly Grisham

 

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The word culture, or the ideal of culture change, has become a theme intertwined into modern-day athletics.

Coaches, student-athletes, organizations and programs refer to culture as something that is strong, improving, different, winning, losing, nonexistent – or even toxic.

Vanderbilt head coach Stephanie White recognized a few years ago that the culture on West End fell more toward the negative side of the spectrum.

“We all bring a lot of baggage to the table,” White said. “(It’s about) unpacking individual baggage, unpacking collective and team baggage, things that have potentially been passed on from team to team to team or class to class to class and then figuring out, ‘OK we have all of this on the table. What can we do to move forward? Are we willing to do the work to move forward and how do we move forward?’

“The first, probably year to year and a half, was incredibly difficult because we are human, and just like anything else, we want a quick fix. If it’s not a quick fix then are we really willing to it and do what’s necessary to get us to where we need to be.”

Vanderbilt, fresh off a 63-47 victory over Mississippi on Sunday, is 13-10 on the season. That’s a modest win-loss record on the surface to be sure, but one not to be shrugged off considering the Commodores won a total of just 14 contests in the two years prior combined.

Bigger than those win totals, however, has been Vanderbilt’s ability to change, to rebrand itself and to reform its own narrative of a program stranded on an island of infighting to a locker room now as close-knit as any in the country.

“The proudest thing for me about those moments is that you can see the trust that has been built,” White said. “At the end of the day we can’t do anything if we don’t trust one another. We all know that trust is about relationship building. We also all know that doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time.”

THE FACADE OF 2016

The 2016-17 season wasn’t bad for the Vanderbilt women’s basketball team. It wasn’t great either.

White’s first campaign at the helm saw the Commodores go 14-16 and 4-12 in the SEC. The head coach said because of great leaders like Marqu’es Webb and Minta Spears a lot of the disgruntled attitudes behind closed doors were masked and hidden from coaches and even teammates.

“It’s actually like day and night,” Vanderbilt junior forward Autumn Newby said. “We, as a team, at first would bicker and would be talking about things in the locker room that have gone down … we weren’t in a really good place.”

The bottom fell out the next two seasons. Vandy combined to go 14-47 and 5-25 in conference games. There was a six-game losing streak in 2017-18 and an eight-game skid in 2018-19.

Something needed to change.

“We have definitely had some emotional meetings,” Vanderbilt redshirt-senior Mariella Fasoula said. “Especially the first two years of being here, we were not where we are right now, so those emotional meetings happened because everyone was just frustrated. Nobody wanted to be losing.”

HELLO, MOLLY

Molly Grisham is a former soccer coach and Belmont graduate who has turned her leadership ideas and methods into palpable results.

Example A: Vanderbilt women’s basketball.

“Anytime I come in and work with a team, my first task is just to assess and see ‘Where are we?’” Grisham said. “It is really hard to figure how to get to where we want to go if we don’t know where we are starting. That first year was really an assessment year, trying to get some clarity around what are the things this team is struggling with and what are the good things that this team can build on. I think for me as a facilitator, both of those roles are very important. What’s the stuff we need to get better at and what’s the stuff we can build on?”

Grisham began meeting with the Commodores during the 2017-18 season. She slowly and surely became a confidant and coach in instructing everyone associated with Vanderbilt basketball on how to deal with all the issues holding the program back.

But it wasn’t just the student-athletes who needed guidance. White, her assistants and her staff needed to hear from the other side of the room on what they could improve and how they could better relate to the young women who they were molding for the future.

“For us, Year 1, we didn’t realize where we were from a culture standpoint. We had heard a little about it but didn’t quite grasp the concept,” White said. “It was really exposed for us, Year 2, what we had. Those first couple conversations, I still may not have really known the depths of the things we were dealing with.

“So my conversations with (Grisham) weren’t that tough – the conversations with the team once we brought (Grisham) in were really tough.”

Grisham said she knows when she starts working with a team (Illinois, Georgia Tech and Indiana are just a few of the programs she has relationships with) that it’s imperative she earns the trust of that team. Student-athletes and staffs naturally are a bit distant from a stranger imploring them to try something new.

As a former athletic coach, Grisham explains how she understands the space everyone involved is working in while also acting as a neutral facilitator – she’s not on one side or the other. She said she noticed immediately when her work started with the Commodores how guarded they were and protective of their own opinions and personal experiences.

And they weren’t exactly thrilled to be corralled into a room to speak with one another as teammates.

“I feel like when she first came in it was kind of like, ‘Oh my gosh, we are having another three-hour long Molly meeting today,’ ” Newby said. “We were just at a time when we weren’t winning games, we weren’t happy, so it wasn’t something we just wanted to sit down and talk to each other about … we didn’t really want to sit in a room and talk for three hours.”

BUILDING TOWARD A BREAKTHROUGH

Grisham, of course, isn’t the sole reason Vanderbilt has found more wins on the schedule during the 2019-20 campaign. The Commodores at the end of the day still have to execute for 40 minutes between the lines.

There was certainly an indication, however, that things may be different this season.

Grisham often gives her more advanced teams an exercise designed to build teamwork and communication. Each member of the program is handed a single photo that only he or she can view.

The team then has to put those photos in order.

“I’ve seen some executives crumble under the weight of this task,” Grisham said.

White’s team? They finished the exercise perfectly before the start of the 2019-20 season.

“That was probably my proudest moment since I’ve been here,” White said. “It was a very difficult task and it took individual, big picture thinking but micro thinking in terms of how we put it together. Lots of different people stepped up from leadership positions, lots of people took a step back and became followers.

“We trusted one another, we communicated with one another, communicated through different perspectives in that exercise. And we got it. Dead on – not close, but dead on.”

For upperclassmen like Fasoula and Newby, witnessing a culture change has been remarkable. Fasoula joked that a couple years ago she would have never dreamed of spending time off the court with Newby – now the two are great friends.

The program’s current freshmen and sophomores came in already open to Grisham’s ideas mainly because they had been recruited for years and already developed such strong relationships with the current staff. Now the two groups have melted into a group closer than anyone could have ever expected.

“We are all a family,” Fasoula said. “We talk about it all the time how we are sisters and it shows. You can tell by the season we are having – obviously there are a couple factors of adversity that we are facing, but you can feel how fun it is to hang out outside of the basketball court with the team which is not something we have had in the past couple of years.

“Doing that has built our chemistry on the floor – and we’re just having fun with it.”

Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com. Follow him @MrChadBishop.

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