During summer workouts, senior safety Ian Simon noticed a gulf developing in the Missouri football team.
“There was a disconnect, because we have so many young guys on our team, and our older guys are really experienced,” said Pat Ivey, the Tigers’ associate athletic director for athletic performance, who oversees the team’s summer workouts.
Simon was on the hunt for solutions to connect Missouri’s veteran players with its younger players, many of whom will be counted on this fall.
Two years ago, before Missouri enjoyed a breakout season and won its first SEC Eastern Division crown, the team spent a weekend on a military base, bringing the players closer together.
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When the Tigers’ staff organized a weekend trip in late June to visit the Army National Guard at Camp Clark in Nevada, Mo., Simon jumped at the chance. He also went with a greater purpose in mind this time.
“The first time we went down there, we got something out of it,” Simon said. “It was a really positive experience for the team. But I just knew that going into this season, I’m going to take on a big leadership role. Our military is some of the best leaders in the world. They train people to go in and defend our country on a day-to-day basis, so who better to learn from about leadership than them.”
The guardsmen’s message about servant leadership particularly struck Simon.
“They (the Army National Guard) showed me different ways to be a good leader,” Simon said. “Leading is not just about being the rah-rah guy who takes charge. Being a leader is about serving others and being the best teammate you can be.”
As a program, Missouri is fairly set in its ways. Coach Gary Pinkel has a proven system built on the principles imparted from the late Don James and refined during a 25-year head coaching career.
Pinkel’s 186 wins, which rank 25th in Football Bowl Subdivision history and are the fourth-most among active FBS coaches, are a testament to program’s effectiveness.
Traditionally, the Tigers line up in stretch lines by depth chart during the season or seniority during summer workouts, when there are roughly 10 lines of 10 guys.
Simon suggested interspersing the veterans at different levels of those warmup lines.
Younger players would move to the front of the lines and lead the warmups with the veteran players echoing their calls.
“They decided to put those guys who will be next year’s leaders and the leaders after that up front, have those guys lead and then support their leadership,” Ivey said. “That demonstrated what supportive leadership is. … Instantly, as a team, we became more unified.”
The younger players now in a position to lead — like sophomore safety Anthony Sherrils or redshirt freshman wide receiver DeSean Blair — felt empowered and more confident.
It also fostered more communication between the Tigers’ veterans and the newest generation, which spawned friendships that made the team even more close-knit.
The Army National Guard “taught me that leading is not always being in the front,” Simon said. “I’ve always wanted to be the kind of guy who leads by example, so I’ve always wanted to be in the front and kind of show the guys how it’s done.
“But sometimes, you need to fall back and let others step up and be the ones that are vocal. … It gave them an opportunity to be heard. I know when I was coming up, sometimes you don’t feel like your voice is heard as a young guy, but this gave them an opportunity to be heard and take charge.”
The impact was profound.
“At the end of the day, it brought team cohesion,” senior linebacker Clarence Green said. “Then, we started believing in each other and we knew the underclassmen were on board. They had confidence, they had focus and they knew what we we’re trying to do. Sometimes, it takes the younger guys a longer time to get on board with what we’re trying to accomplish.”
It didn’t this summer as evidenced by the eight true freshmen and two junior-college transfers who made the initial depth chart for the 2015 season.
“It definitely helped, because there was some times where our focus wasn’t great,” senior left tackle Connor McGovern said. “The better the recruiting class the more they kind of know it all. By us going back there and saying, ‘Hey, I’ve been around the block a time or two’ and demonstrate how to be more of a servant leader, showing them how to do it instead of telling, I think that helped us a lot this summer.”