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The Power of Polis

In the Fall of 2010, while I was still living in D-FW, I sought out the opportunity to volunteer at my alma mater. Reaching out to my former high school baseball coach, I asked him if I could conduct an 8-week Leadership Workshop for the team. The idea was to teach the players how to practically apply military leadership principles to their upcoming season. It was my belief--well, it *is* my belief--that leadership remains the most underappreciated and underutilized aspect of high school athletics. To that extent, while most teams give certain players the designation of being a "leader," that doesn't necessarily mean those players will be good leaders. In fact, one of my primary goals for the workshop was to help the players understand the nature of good leadership and recognize (and subsequently avoid) the traits of bad leadership. Because, as demonstrated time and time again, having a bad leader can be worse than having no leader at all.

The structure of the Leadership Workshop was simple. In addition to weekly lessons over leadership, the team also read segments of the book "Gates of Fire" by Stephen Pressfield. With the movie "300" being such a smash hit and cultural phenomenon, I thought "Gates of Fire" would provide a nice contrast towards exploring a different perspective of Leonidas and his leadership. As we went through the book, I tried to highlight various themes and perspectives over the Spartans, their culture, and their military success. As the workshop progressed, I found that one theme from the book resonated more clearly than anything else. It was the key concept that the team latched onto very quickly and was probably their biggest takeaway from the entire workshop. That theme, as I'll flesh out below, was the power of polis.

After the jump, I'll actually attempt to connect this thought to the Texas Longhorns. More specifically, I'll attempt to connect it to the 2013 Recruiting Class and Spring Football...

I imagine that most of you are probably confused over the phrase "the power of polis," and how it potentially applies to leadership. The most normal definition and understanding of the phrase "polis" is simply the ancient version of the Greek city-state. However, during the workshop, I gravitated towards an expanded definition of the term utilized by Stephen Pressfield within the book. When the story's narrator Xeones was bemoaning the destruction of his home Astakos, he said:

Our city no longer existed. Not alone the physical site, the citizens, the walls and farms. But the very spirit of our nation, the polis itself, that ideal of mind called Astakos that, yes, had been smaller than a deme of Athens or Corinth or Thebes, that, yes, had been poorer than Megara or Epidauros or Olympia, but that existed as a city nonetheless. Pressfield, Steven (2007-01-30). Gates of Fire (p. 19). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

In reading the book, that concept leapt out at me. The idea of viewing polis as not just the actual Greek city-state and citizens, but also as its overall "spirit" and "ideal of mind." In doing a bit of Googling last night, I found a few other similar references that also utilized this broader conceptualization of "polis." One article discussed this wider definition of polis in a few different sections:

Polis is generally defined as a city, a city state and also citizenship and body of citizens . . . However, polis is something more than that. Polis is in fact something that cannot be defined in single word or sentence . . . "the question of what the polis is has no simple and straightforward answer. In fact, it is implicit in this collection of essays that there is not nor can there be any satisfactory, all-inclusive definition of a polis."

Poleis were city-states established by the group of Greek people who proudly termed themselves "Hellene". They liked to distinguish themselves from other groups of people for they thought to have superior culture than others. For this reason, indeed poleis were not just place where Hellenes lived in but the pride and spirit of Greek people.

Another article went even further in explaining this broader understanding of the term:

Our word "politics" is derived from the Greek word polis. Sometimes this word is translated "city-state." But it means more than just "Los Angeles" or "New York City." The Polis was part of an ideology.

In teaching the lesson over "polis" during the workshop, I challenged the players to embrace the opportunity to revise the polis--or the overall "spirit"--of their program. I challenged them to try to reach out to the community, to the JV/Freshman teams, and even to the former players of the program. Furthermore, and most importantly, I wanted them to completely revitalize the overall core concept of what it meant to be a member of the program. If done properly, the effects of forming such a powerful identity can be almost limitless. As we discussed at the end of the book, there were several characters who chose to fight and die alongside the Spartans simply to feel like they were a part of something special. Of something great. Of something that represented an ideal far more important than any individual goals or desires.

This phenomenon was further explained on the eve of the final battle by a character named Suicide, who was a Scythian squire for one of the Spartan officers. Speaking to the other troops, he said:

For what can be more noble than to slay oneself? Not literally . . . But to extinguish the selfish self within, that part which looks only to its own preservation, to save its own skin. That, I saw, was the victory you Spartans had gained over yourselves. That was the glue. It was what you had learned and it made me stay, to learn it too. "When a warrior fights not for himself, but for his brothers, when his most passionately sought goal is neither glory nor his own life's preservation, but to spend his substance for them, his comrades, not to abandon them, not to prove unworthy of them, then his heart truly has achieved contempt for death, and with that he transcends himself and his actions touch the sublime." Pressfield, Steven (2007-01-30). Gates of Fire (p. 328). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

So, as I'm sure most of you are story, Hansel. But what this have to do with Texas? Well, maybe not a lot, but it's what I keep thinking about when I talk to others about the recent commitments to the 2013 Recruiting Class. While Texas has always snagged their fair share of early blue-chip recruits, I keep noticing a slightly different rhetorical tone from the most recent commits. And it's these minor differences that reiterate and solidify the idea that Texas has completely altered the core identity, the spirit, the ideology--the "polis"--of its football team.

To wit, a few years ago, Wescott wrote an entire recruiting article based around the idea that recruits were either "with us or against us." Like all articles from Wescott, this article was well-written, insightful, and nailed the current narrative surrounding the football team. It was also a great precursor to the "Texas Gang or Die" movement from last year. But, after following the past month of recruiting, I think this overall message has been slightly adjusted.

To me, the new message is "you're either with us or you're not with us." This nuanced distinction is a bit more powerful than it might first appear. Instead of an "us against the world" mentality, the new message appears to be more inclusive rather than exclusive. It's the idea that the current Texas program--and its polis--is truly special and anyone who goes somewhere else will be missing out on something great. The idea isn't that a recruit will necessarily become an enemy of Texas by going somewhere else, but that they will instead miss out on the opportunity of being here. So far, the confidence associated with this approach has been correlated with its execution. Instead of pressuring recruits to commit in his office, Mack Brown and the staff have been encouraging recruits to go home and think through their decisions. More specifically, they are essentially challenging the recruits to analyze whether or not they can think of another place where they would prefer to play college football. So far, for nearly all of these recruits who have gone home to think about their decisions, the answer has been a resounding "no."

However, while the last month of recruiting is what drove me to start thinking about the concept of polis, that's really only a starting point for discussing the larger tonal shifts that have taken root within the program. Even though the coaching purges after the 5-7 debacle were the beginning of these tonal shifts, the widespread changes didn't immediately take root with all the troops. Like most holistic shifts in philosophy, attitude, spirit, and/or ideology, the changes to the football program were initially met with some resistance. I mean, it's no secret that the team harbored some malcontents throughout last season. But, as we enter the Spring Football season, it appears that the team and coaches are truly embracing and exemplifying the new attitude, concepts, and spirit permeating throughout the program--in short, they are embracing the new polis. And, as Longhorn Scott taught all of us a few days ago, it's one thing to read about a new spirit or attitude, and it's something entirely different to see it.

In fact, the more I read about the recent practices and workouts, the more I think Wescott's phrase is actually applicable to the current players. For the players already on the Forty Acres, perhaps the most prevalent question heading into Spring Football remains "are you with us, or are you against us?" Because, on this current team, with this current attitude, with this current mindset, with this current polis, any player who decides to be a malcontent or a slacker will stick out like a sore thumb. Any such malcontent or slacker will have to answer to their strength coach, their position coach, their coordinator, their head coach, and a whole host of their teammates (Demarco Cobbs says hi!). Essentially, the changes that were taking root have taken root, and the new polis represents a clear abandonment from any vestiges of the previous complacency or stagnation. Iron will sharpen iron at every single level of the program, and anyone who isn't going to buy into the new mindset is going to have serious issues. Which, in all seriousness, is exactly how it should be.


I want to end this article by hearkening back to one of the previous quotes over polis. This quote explained that the separate groups of city-states were created partially due to the "pride and spirit" of the various groups. Basically, each of these groups thought they had a "superior culture than others."

I don't mean to say that the Texas coaches, players, or fans necessarily believe that the Longhorns have a superior culture to any of the other fine programs across the country. But I do think there is something within the nature of the program (and the University itself) that gives rise to a similar "pride and spirit." And this pride and spirit makes me think of the recent quote from Quan Cosby in the Texas Sports feature over Mack Brown being inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame. In case you haven't seen it, Cosby said "I told [Mack Brown] after winning a National Championship and the success that we had, was that we did it the right way." And, above all else, that's what I truly think Texas fans value the most: doing things the right way.

I don't know if this team will win 10 games next year. No one does. There are too many unresolved questions surrounding certain key positions to feel confident about that type of prediction. But, while I don't know how many games we'll win next year, I feel confident and comfortable in saying that program has officially entered a new era with a new polis, in which things will be done the right way. And, for now, that's good enough for me.

Hook ‘em!