The Brutal Facts of Good to Great Student Sections

I should shut down Biggest Fan Consulting and quit.

After recently finishing the book Good to Great by Jim Collins, I realized the findings from his study of companies who evolve from good to great apply directly to student sections.

So if you really want to build a great student section, go read Good to Great.

Now, because I’m not shutting down Biggest Fan Consulting and quitting, I will spare you time and explain the “Good to Great” principles and apply them to a student section.

I will refer to the term “Good to Great” as G2G.

Here are the key principles:

First buildup…

Level 5 leadership

All G2G companies are lead by Level 5 leaders, who “embody a paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will”. Essentially, they are the most ambitious person in the room and will do whatever it takes to succeed, but will give credit to others and turn attention away from themselves.

Any great student section needs Level 5 STUDENT leaders. Students who want to build a great student section and are willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen. But, Level 5 student leaders display humility, give credit to other students and build up other leaders.

They understand their legacy is in the hands of future leaders.

They replace themselves.

It’s easy to bask in the spotlight and glory of student section leadership, but very difficult to defer credit and build other student leaders.

I wish I would have learned this earlier in life as our student leadership team was building the Havocs.

Student sections who are lead by non-level 5 leaders crumble and lose momentum after that leader graduates, because it was completely dependent on him or her.

In the Biggest Fan Accelerator, we call these level 5 leaders, “Top 1% student leaders”.

Takeaway: If you want a great student section, you need top 1% student leaders.

First who, then what

G2G companies focused more on “getting the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and then figured out where to drive it.”

Schools ask me all the time: How many student leaders do we need? What specific positions do we need for our student section?

Answer: Get the right students on the bus and the wrong students off the bus.

Don’t worry about the number of leaders or types of positions, worry about finding top 1% student leaders who have all the ambition in the world to build a great student section but display humility to build up other leaders.

And yes, that also means removing student leaders from the student section who are not top 1%.

In the Biggest Fan Accelerator, we discuss the specific behaviors and attitudes that make a top 1% student leader.

Takeaway: If you want a great student section, get the right students into leadership and figure out their responsibilities later.

Confront the brutal facts

G2G great companies confronted the brutal facts and pivoted as needed. They were not scared to be honest with themselves about what is working and what is not.

A student section must evolve with the culture of students. Incoming freshman bring a new set of standards, expectations, interests and a student section must confront the brutal facts by answering, “is this working?”

Just because this worked last year, doesn’t mean it will work this year.

The most relevant example is current marketing strategies to students I.E. free pizza, free shirts, giveaways and incentives.

If you want a great student section, you must confront the brutal facts. You must ask questions like, “Is this marketing strategy building a great student section, empowering students to attend and engage at games?”

If the answer is yes, keep doing it. If the answer is no, confront the brutal facts and stop.

Takeaways: If you want a great student section, you must be honest and do more of what actually works, and stop what doesn’t.

Hedgehog concept

G2G companies all formed what Collins tags as their “Hedgehog Concept”. It is a summary of the three questions:

What are you deeply passionate about? (Values)

What can you be the best in the world at? (Goals)

What drives your economic engine? (Practices)

Essentially, they had a deep understanding of their values, goals and practices and made decisions based on that deep understanding.

Great student sections have a deep understanding of their students and campus culture. They determine their values, goals and practices and let those three things guide decision making.

Takeaway: If you want a great student section, student leaders must deeply understand not only their campus culture and students, but also their internal values, goals & practices.

Then breakthrough…

Culture of discipline

G2G companies have a culture of discipline. They have “disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought and who then take disciplined action”.

There is freedom and structure simultaneously.

For a student section, this comes back to student leadership. If a student is a top 1% leader, they are disciplined. They don’t need external motivation to work, they will just be disciplined in their thoughts and actions.

I see athletic departments struggle with trusting student leaders with big tasks and “handing over the reins”. There are three likely reasons why your student leadership strategy isn't working:

You don’t have top 1% level-5 student leaders

You don’t have systems and structure for student leaders

You don’t give student leaders the freedom to create and fail

Takeaways: If you want a great student section

1. Create an infrastructure for student leaders and set expectations

2. Find top 1% student leaders (they will be disciplined)

3. Give them the freedom to create and fail

Technology Accelerators

G2G companies use technology to accelerate momentum, not create it.

This was my favorite principle when I thought of student sections.

“Indeed, thoughtless reliance on technology is a liability, not an asset. Yes, when used right - when linked to a simple, clear, and coherent concept rooted in deep understanding - technology is an essential driver in accelerating forward momentum. But when used wrong - when grasped as an easy solution, without a deep understanding of how it links to a clear and coherent concept - technology simply accelerates your own-self demise.”

Well that sums up technology nicely when thinking about student sections, marketing and the game day experience.

Since I previously wrote a whole blog about this whole technology concept, you can imagine why this was my favorite principle.

Technology doesn’t change culture, people do. Technology doesn’t build a great student section, leaders, culture, branding, game day events, systems do.

Brutal fact: Too many schools have thoughtless reliance on technology to build their student section.

Exciting opportunity: When you build a solid foundation of a student section and understand and implement these previous principles, you can utilize technology to accelerate the momentum your student section.

Takeaway: If you want a great student section, you must tread cautiously to not fall into thoughtless reliance on technology.

The Flywheel & Doom loop

G2G companies often look like dramatic overnight successes. But those on the inside know it was focused hard work, an “organic, cumulative process”. There is no such thing as an overnight success. It’s like pushing a flywheel over and over and over to build momentum

Speaking from personal experience, when the Havocs hit “Breakthrough” and started gaining national attention, people thought it was this overnight success and came out of nowhere. Not the case. We were very focused and had been working hard for years.

Or when people look at some of the other top student sections they think “they have always been that way”. Not the case.

Great student sections (those that continue to be consistent and dominant year after year) have top 1% leaders, the right leaders on the bus, confront the brutal facts, have a culture of discipline, use technology as an accelerator and ultimately just keep working towards their goal.

Takeaway: If you want a great student section, understand the following concept…

“Like pushing on a giant, heavy flywheel, it takes a lot of effort to get the thing moving at all, but with persistent pushing in a consistent direction over a long period of time, the flywheel (OR student section) builds momentum, eventually hitting a point of breakthrough.”

The doom loop is the opposite of the flywheel, where companies (OR student sections) try to skip steps, expect overnight success, jump back and forth with ideas and do not deeply understand what they are trying to accomplish.


Read the book if you find these concepts interesting and practical.

The similarity between businesses and student sections is striking.

With the right people, vision and disciplines, building a great student section is possible!

This is by far my longest blog, congrats if you made it this far.

It’s time to get out of the doom loop and build a Great Student Section.

Want to know how we help schools build great student sections? Watch this case study video.

Great Student Sections Case Study

To your success!