As I write this article, there are only three colleges and universities in all divisions that have better combined winning records for men’s and women’s basketball than Illinois Central College. Only three colleges in all divisions of the NCAA and NCJAA have compiled more wins than ICC. ICC’s record is fourth nationally and is the best in the Midwest.

While it’s wonderful to have bragging rights like these, there’s an important lesson to be learned from the teams. Both programs at ICC cultivate a culture of excellence. These programs demonstrate high levels of achievement not only on the basketball court, but also in the pursuit of academics and in building character.

ICC’s athletic program, for example, includes ongoing monitoring of academic progress. Students have assigned times in study labs and can get help in classes when they need it. And if a student athlete doesn’t make grades, our coaches have the integrity to make the player sit out until academic achievement matches expectations.

Okay, so lots of programs do the same kinds of things, but there’s something more that Coaches Lorene Ramsey and Tony Wysinger do. In spite of their strong finishes at the end of the season, both coaches and athletes continue to want more. It’s not just that they want to win one, or even multiple, championships. They want students to be successful in academics, sports, and life. They want student athletes to be recruited by four-year programs. They want students to complete their degrees. They want students to get good jobs and have happy lives.

We learned in our last strategic planning session that we can simply "settle" by providing the minimum in programs and services to get by. Or we could satisfy and meet the basic needs of our students and constituents. Or we can surprise our students and constituents with a college experience that exceeds their expectations.

After some soul-searching, some minor stalls in our thinking, and lengthy discussion, we’ve decided to pursue surprise. It’s not the comfortable choice to make. In fact we’ll probably feel anxious, overwhelmed, and frustrated from time to time. But from our sterling basketball program, we can learn some valuable lessons.

First of all, both basketball programs clearly set goals in their minds in the beginning of the season. They had a defined vision of what they wanted to achieve and they repeated it to themselves over and over again. Tony Wysinger’s vision even showed up on T-shirts.

Second, both programs believed they could do what hadn’t been done before. Lorene Ramsey believed ICC basketball games could be broadcast on local radio. This belief was reinforced by two other characteristics of excellence: persistence and responding to opportunities. Fox Sports Radio provided ICC with some opportunities for broadcast and both national tournaments offered us ways to get our games on the air.

Making the broadcasts happen included the efforts of multiple people during all hours of the day, all days of the week and from long distance locations. This involvement demonstrates another characteristic of excellence—it becomes infectious. As the season developed and the teams demonstrated how good they were, interest and pride increased. Next, both teams showed a sense of urgency and an insatiable appetite to be better.

Both Coach Ramsey and Coach Wysinger, after disappointing losses, instilled a sense of urgency in their teams to succeed now, not to wait until next year. Both teams picked themselves up after defeats that might have frozen the abilities of lesser teams and won their final games. That sense of urgency met the moment’s needs, but not future needs.

Both coaches and teams want to do better next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. Perhaps that highlights the last characteristic of excellence, hard work. We know that without hard work, day after day, our teams would not have achieved the level of excellence they did.

Thinking big, defining and repeating a stretch vision, belief in doing things we don’t think we can, persistence, seizing opportunities, creating momentum, having a sense of urgency, always wanting to be better, and committing to the drudgery of simple hard work—this is the stuff of which excellence is made. At ICC, we’re fortunate to recently have had wonderful lessons in excellence from our women’s and men’s basketball teams. IBI