Imagine you’re an accounting firm trying to land a local client and find yourself going head-to-head with PwC, which is also vying for their business. What would your response be?
Would it be, “Well, there goes the Penske account!”
Or, “That’s not fair. Why’s PwC picking on us little guys?”
Head Coach Tobin Anderson encountered a similarly outsized challenge when his team, Fairleigh Dickinson University men’s basketball, found itself facing Purdue in the NCAA Men’s National Tournament. Fairleigh Dickinson was seeded 16th, and Purdue seeded 1st, but even that disparity barely conveys the apparent gap in quality and, certainly, in expectations of the two teams.
Purdue was the reigning Big 10 Champion. Fairleigh Dickinson were runner’s up to Merrimack College in the Northeast Conference. Purdue’s team is built around a seven-foot-four, 305-pound megalith named Zach Edey who is not only very big but also a National Player of the Year candidate.
Of the 68 teams playing in the tournament, Fairleigh Dickinson was the shortest, which might not count in accounting but usually matters in basketball. It mattered to the odds folks who made Fairleigh Dickinson 23.5 underdogs. FDU’s best hope to try to limit Edey was to put six-foot-four Sean Moore, their best defender, against him. No, suffice it to say the hoopsters from Hackensack were literally not supposed to be in the tournament and only made it in because Division-1 newbie Merrimack was still ineligible to participate.
But when Anderson scouted Purdue before their game, he saw something in his mind’s eye that was kind of crazy: he saw a scenario in which his quick, high-pressure Knights might be able to make things very “uncomfortable” for the powerful, half-court focused Boilermakers. And like any skilled leader, he shared his discovery with his team in a pep talk that went viral. “The more I watch Purdue, the more I think we can beat them,” Coach Anderson told his players. “Let’s go shock the world!”
Did he really believe they could beat Purdue? Well, as he explained later to interviewers, sometimes your job as a leader is to say things enough times to convince your team to believe the unlikely. And Anderson definitely believed in the power of belief. “You’ve got to get your guys to believe. When you’re seeded 16th, you’ve got to get them to believe they can win the next game.”
The Knights took their coach-inspired belief into the contest and hounded Edey relentlessly while pushing the ball quickly up the court. At halftime they found themselves with a one-point lead. In the second half, the Knights resumed their constant pressing and defensive pressure, but if they were tiring out from all the effort—at one point holding Purdue scoreless for five-and-a-half minutes—you’d never know have known if from Anderson’s exhortation to his troops.
Ever the psychologist, Anderson was shouting from the sidelines and reassuring his squad during timeouts that it was Purdue who was tiring, not them! Was Anderson seeing something nobody else was? Not in the least. If anything, his players would indeed be the ones feeling the burn. But the best way to counteract that little problem was to give the Knights a big dose of psychological adrenaline that comes from believing the other guy’s the one on the ropes.
In the end, Edey got his 21 points and 15 rebounds, but he was never allowed to dominate the game or, more importantly, demoralize the Fairleigh Dickinson players who kept nipping at his ankles until the final buzzer sounded, the fans rushed the court in celebration and the Knights had secured a 63-58 victory locked up as a neat as a pin.
Even as Anderson recognized the enormity of becoming only the second sixteenth-seeded team to upset a number one seed in NCAA playoff history, he was also wise enough (and classy enough) to be humble in a victory nobody, including his players at first, truly believed in.
“If we played them 100 times, they’d probably beat us 99 times,” coach Anderson said. “Play them 100 times, we have one win. But tonight’s the one …we had to be unique, we had to be unorthodox. We had to make it tough on them, just be different.”
Anderson was savvy in choosing to put David’s slingshot against Goliath’s size—in other words, to choose a style of play that could exploit his opponent’s weakness—but his true accomplishment was to win the psychological game by convincing his players they could go toe-to-toe in the first place.
And that is what made Fairleigh Dickinson true Penske material.