In 2017, I engaged in a project examining whether it is possible for universities to maintain elite performance in both academics and athletics at a critical juncture in time. I began with a story of a forest fire.
Norman Maclean’s famous book on the 1949 Mann Gulch fire in Montana tells the story of a young team of 19 smokejumpers that landed to engage what appeared to be a routine blaze in dense forest. In less than two hours, 13 of the smokejumpers were killed by what ended up becoming a 4,500 acre fire that required 450 men to contain. Organizational scholar Karl Weick analyzed Maclean’s findings and highlighted several factors that may have led to this disaster, including the group’s lack of understanding of the fire’s complexity in that particular forest, their insufficient trust in one another, and their underestimation of the scale of the fire. Weick noted that the firefighters were unable to adapt when an unexpected series of events quickly unfolded. They viewed the fire as just another “10 a.m. fire” where their typical protocol could be followed and their work would be complete by mid-morning of the next day. Tragically, the smokejumpers barely had time to realize the gravity of their situation before their cause was failed.
Weick’s analysis of Mann Gulch asked why organizations unravel and how they can be made more resilient. The case instructs leaders to appreciate the complexity of their changing contexts and encourages them to learn from—but also look beyond—their past experiences. The lessons are useful in the case of intercollegiate athletics, where a confluence of complex factors signal the arrival of an existential moment—where the very principles and foundations of athletic departments and the wider field of intercollegiate athletics will be called into question. In this time of change, I consider whether it will be possible for top-tier academic universities to field elite programs in athletics. Can they thrive while remaining true to their deepest institutional values and principles? And, if so, how? This paper describes some evolving aspects of the dynamic Division I intercollegiate athletics environment. Focusing on the University of Wisconsin context, I note some specific factors that will challenge the University’s capacity to sustain its run of success. I urge leaders to recognize the importance and complexity of the situation, to make sense of it in Wisconsin’s context, and to take adequate time to diligently prepare for a new reality. In the world of intercollegiate athletics, this is no “10 a.m. fire.”
Five years ago, we knew that college sports changes were coming. We did not know that a global pandemic would shake our very foundations. With fresh eyes, the "fragility swirl" described in 2017 rings truer than ever in 2022. And the notion of "connective growth" must still underlie our new directions. Here's the full paper from 2017: