If you’ve been a sports fan for any length of time, tuned into a post-game interview or a new head coach’s introductory press conference, you’ve likely heard “culture” thrown around - often accompanied by “winning.”
A quick Google search of “winning culture” will yield hot-off-the-presses quotes from across the sports world about players, coaches and teams wanting to establish a winning culture.
Often these quotes are heavy on the theory, and light on the practical, because a winning culture is nearly as elusive to explain as it is to actually establish.
However, when it is present and is working in full effect, it’s impossible to deny.
In my other life, I had the opportunity to work in the leadership and organizational development space listening to people much smarter than me attempting to explain and figure these kinds of things out.
And here are two things I’ve learned about this word “culture”:
A culture is always developing and building, the only question is whether it’s being done intentionally or not.
Culture defined is simply - “the way we do things around here”
Head Coach Vic Fangio was asked on Monday what kind of culture he wanted to establish here with the Denver Broncos. This would have been the perfect opportunity for the first-time head coach trying to win over his new team and fan base to launch into a speech about a “winning culture” and turning the team around.
However, Fangio answered in the most Vic Fangio way possible:
“Culture is kind of a new word in the sporting vernacular. Culture to me is getting a bunch of good players in here and getting a bunch of good coaches doing a good job coaching them, and then you win games and everybody’s happy. All of a sudden, we’ve got a good culture. I don’t know. We’re going to work hard. We’re going to play smart and try to be on top of things mentally.”
He is absolutely right. We as fans and media judge the final product, with often little understanding of the process that got it there, and when the result turns out good, we praise that as the answer. Every call looks like the right one when you win, and every culture looks like one to model when it’s winning games.
However, while Vic Fangio may shy away from the cliche “winning culture” phrase, or even “culture” in general because it is often thrown around haplessly, he is absolutely establishing a culture here in Denver. And it’s one that hopefully leads to a lot of winning for years to come.
You see, at the end of the quote, Fangio told us exactly what the culture, or put better “the way we’re going to do things around here in Denver” will be - and he’s been establishing it from the second he walked into the building.
“We’re going to work hard. We’re going to play smart, and try to be on top of things mentally.”
In other words, Broncos are going to play fundamental football - starting from the ground up. That’s the way we’re going to do things around here.
It’s holding everyone in the building to the same standard. Whether that person’s name is Von Miller, Chris Harris, Drew Lock, Don Barclay, or anyone else trying to make the roster.
Each of those players listed above have been specifically praised by Fangio, but also called out that they need to improve, keep working at their craft, can continue to get better, and will make the roster based on their merit alone, not their just their experience (something he said about Barclay just a few minutes after answering the question on culture).
And a culture or “the way we do things around here” isn’t just dictated from the top down. That doesn’t work – at least not for long. There has to be buy-in across the board from all players and coaches.
Fangio referenced this when asked about if he likes his veteran players staying on top of young players, like some were doing with Noah Fant one day at practice.
“I do. I didn’t particularly see it, but I like it. Peer pressure is better than coaching pressure, and the game is played—like I tell the players, if you notice here, most of the drills the coaches are off to the side. I don’t want them screaming and hollering instructions to the players. In the game they’re out there on their own. We can’t help them in the game, so don’t be helping them in practice. Your leaders have to come from those 11 guys that are on the field for you at any given time. They’ve got to work through it. I like that.”
That accountability among peers to not let the little things slide - no death by inches - is a huge piece of bringing the entire team around this idea of back to the basics.
Back to fundamentally sound football.
Peyton Manning understood the importance of that better than probably any other player to ever play the game. Doing the little things. Having a “way we do things” that’s not just focused on the result, but about doing it the right way. Every time.
Which is why his endorsement of coach Fangio when he was hired and what he’s bringing to Denver is particularly meaningful.
“He’s all football. He’s a grinder,” Manning said of Fangio. “This guy’s a football coach, we need to get back to playing solid, fundamental football around here. That’s what wins games. That’s kind of been the core of what the Denver Broncos have been about and I think Vic will bring that to Denver.”
What both Manning and Fangio understand is that it doesn’t do anything to label something a “winning culture.” It’s about actually doing the hard work it takes to get to the wins. It’s about the valuing the process as much as the outcome.
Keep doing things the right way and results will follow.
So don’t ask Vic Fangio about culture. He’s too busy leading and teaching about the way we do things around here in Denver to care much about what you call it.
But make no mistake, a foundation is being laid, and it’s one that, if done correctly, can set Denver to not only win a few games, but get back to being one of the top teams in NFL year in and year out that we all expect.