Chance leads to collaboration between coach, prof
June 28, 2007
By Mary Reed
A book and Ohio University helped Brian Townsend and Amy Taylor-Bianco overcome a few degrees of separation. What led to a collaboration between this coach and academic, however, was their shared dedication to helping young people become their best selves.
Taylor-Bianco, an assistant professor of management, teaches Management 480, Managing Organizational Transformation and Change. One of the books she uses for this class is "Letters to Garrett: Stories of Change, Power and Possibility" by Robert E. Quinn and Garrett T. Quinn. The younger Quinn was part of the 1998-99 Michigan boys high school basketball championship team coached by Townsend, who is mentioned in the book.
This past winter quarter, one of Taylor-Bianco's students made the connection that the Townsend in the book was the same Townsend who served as the Bobcats' assistant basketball coach. Soon, the coach found himself in front of Taylor-Bianco's class.
"They loved him," she says. "He embodies the qualities of leadership development and change."
Taylor-Bianco wasn't surprised that the students responded so well to Townsend. "Most of them have experience of playing a sport or being on a team," she says. When she asks the students to list people who have had influential leadership roles in their lives, she adds, about a third mention a coach.
Though by all accounts a natural-born leader, Townsend credits his leadership skills to the culture of success he experienced with his family and as a college athlete. His parents taught him that because he's a black male, he would have to work five or 10 times harder to succeed in society. "They were teaching me to be a fighter, not a victim," Townsend says. This expectation of hard work and success also was the culture of the University of Michigan football program, where Townsend played on four Big Ten championship teams.
Townsend went on to play pro football with the L.A. Rams and Cincinnati Bengals before beginning his career coaching a different sport: basketball. He took the Pioneer High School boys basketball team from a 5-35 record to the state championships in just two seasons. Then he came to Ohio University and helped lead the men's basketball team to the first round of the NCAA championships in 2004-05.
"Brian was a very positive speaker and a very motivational speaker. I feel I left the class more prepared to take a leadership role," says Mark Mace, the student who brokered the first meeting between Townsend and Taylor-Bianco. "His leadership skills are based on relationships, so he's very focused on the interpersonal relationships and helping people - he leads by helping them meet their needs." Mace also is an Ohio University employee, and he worked with Townsend's wife at Alden Library when he made the connection.
Although her background is quite different from Townsend's - she came to Ohio University via Price Waterhouse, JP Morgan and Columbia University - Taylor-Bianco says the two share a mutual desire to develop their students into leaders.
"My goal as a professor is to provide a learning environment conducive to the students' needs," she says. "I want to give them every opportunity possible to gain as much knowledge and insight as they can - to give them tools necessary for a successful future as leaders of organizations.
"Certainly people aren't going to take a class and become Brian," Taylor-Bianco concedes, "(but) I think that people can learn a lot of leadership skills regardless of their natural ability."
Townsend is a perfect example of good leadership for change, Taylor-Bianco says. "He's changing as he leads - he's growing as a leader. A lot of people can't do that; they can't allow themselves to be vulnerable with their connection with other people."
Taylor-Bianco mentors business students involved in the Society for Advancement of Management and the Corporate Leadership Fellows. "From the time I see them as sophomores to the time I see them as seniors, I see significant growth in their confidence and their leadership capabilities - and that's everything from public speaking to knowledge to skills. Fortunately, I've seen a lot of them go on to good jobs."
Townsend also has gone on to a new job - as manager of basketball operations at his alma mater. But he says he'll visit Athens to keep in touch with the many people he developed relationships with during his time here. Taylor-Bianco is counting on that, since she hopes to have him back speaking to her next group of Management 480 students this fall.