Athletic director Kirby Hocutt and coaching legend Marsha Sharp shared a vision for student-athlete development at Texas Tech that was ahead of its time. Philanthropy secured its future.
Shortly after Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers refused to stand during the national anthem — igniting a torrid national controversy — a group of captains from different Texas Tech teams came to Director of Athletics Kirby Hocutt.
“They were bothered by what they saw and wanted to unify, not divide people,” said Hocutt, recalling the conversation more than a year ago. “We discussed how we could do that in the region where we have influence.”
The student-athletes asked if they could invite Lubbock and Texas Tech’s chiefs of police to sit down for a conversation on the topic.
“At the meeting they learned a lot of about law enforcement. I was so proud listening to the thoughtful questions they asked Chief Greg Stevens and Chief Kyle Bonath,” said Hocutt.
The student-athletes then reached out to the Ted Phea Boys and Girls Club in Lubbock about creating an event at Jones AT&T Stadium with Texas Tech student-athletes and local law enforcement.
The purpose was to introduce children and teens to a college education and build relationships with local law enforcement.
“They wanted the kids to emulate what they saw and see police are here to help when we face challenges. It was a fascinating event — educating and serving others. It was a very productive experience and made a difference,” he said.
“It was their idea; they were driving it.”
The J.T. & Margaret Talkington Leadership Academy is in it’s sixth year.
Many student-athletes who’ve gone through the program have excelled athletically, including:
- Patrick Mahomes and Davis Webb, former Red Raider quarterbacks who now play in the NFL.
- Matias Dominguez, who competed in the 2015 Masters Tournament.
- Elin Arvidsson, who played in the 2017 U.S. Women’s Open.
- Trey Culver, senior high jumper and winner of back-to-back NCAA titles.
- Catcher Tyler Floyd, who played in the College World Series twice.
- Justin Gray, a senior starting guard for the first Texas Tech basketball team to advance to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament.
Some of these accomplishments were the byproduct of what these Red Raiders learned in the program.
But it’s not the leadership academy’s main goal.
When asked for a story that best exemplifies the academy, Hocutt immediately mentions the captains coming to him about the national anthem controversy.
Developing great people is what Hocutt and leadership academy co-creator Marsha Sharp wanted to accomplish.
“It’s fun to have them become such a great version of themselves because they’re so capable. They should be the best leaders this country produces,” said Sharp, who led the Lady Raiders basketball team to the 1993 national title.
“The guiding principle is to do the right thing. That can sound so simple, but we talk a lot about it…”
Hocutt added, “The guiding principle is to do the right thing. That can sound so simple, but we talk a lot about it — whether you’re performing in front of 60,000 people or when no one is watching.”
The athletics director said when he came to Lubbock six-plus years ago he felt Texas Tech was a special place and worked to get the resources and support to compete for championships. Part of that effort was building a winning culture.
The J.T. & Margaret Talkington Leadership Academy is a big step toward that goal.
“We’re not there yet, but we’re on our way to the greatest years in Texas Tech history,” said Hocutt.
Genesis: A shared vision
Hocutt’s experience as a football player at Kansas State laid the academy’s groundwork.
“It produced lifelong friends, relationships and opportunities,” he said. “It teaches you life lessons and prepares you to be successful in life — as a husband, father, athletics director or whatever your profession, if done the right way.”
“How do we create an incremental advantage for student-athletes when times get tough and give them an edge — a competitive advantage?”
Those Kansas State connections opened doors for him to have a career in athletics administration.
After Hocutt came to Texas Tech, he had “great conversations” with Sharp on how to emulate what she accomplished.
“I listened to her talk about the ’93 team. How do we create an incremental advantage for student-athletes when times get tough and give them an edge — a competitive advantage?” he said.
The academy came out of those talks — then Sharp was running with it.
“When Coach Sharp believes in something, her vision is larger than most people’s,” said Hocutt.
“Her nurturing of that vision is what has become the J.T. & Margaret Talkington Leadership Academy.”
“Ours is unique and one-of-a-kind in the country — being developed and administered within the athletics department,” he said.
Sharp added, “We frequently get calls to see what we’re doing. Now you see something in the NCAA paper for someone wanting leadership and wellness for major schools. The academy was ahead of its time, and now we’re finding them all over the country.”
Sharp quickly discovered Hocutt shared her passion for helping student-athletes grow as people beyond their sport.
He wanted her to rejoin the athletics department after retiring from coaching.
They started working during the summer of 2011, having brown-bag lunches with coaches and staff that fall.
“One thing coaches wanted to work on was resiliency and mental toughness when they go through tough stretches in the Big 12,” Sharp said.
Texas Tech brought in Mark Tribus, a graduate of West Point who served in Afghanistan and also graduated from Harvard Business School. He’d done work for Duke University, and their famed basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski was one of his first clients.
As they developed the curriculum, the opportunity to help with life skills, leadership and career development became obvious.
Then came fundraising.
When Hocutt announced The Campaign for Fearless Champions in 2014, the leadership academy was on the short list of three priorities, despite its nascent status.
In addition to funding facilities upgrades and adding to student-athlete scholarship endowments, Hocutt wanted to raise a $5 million endowment for the program that was beginning to demonstrate its potential.
He and Sharp understood the academy’s long-term promise.
Donors were quickly on board.
“Don and Kay Cash and Mickey and Rene Long were great, then the J.T. & Margaret Talkington Foundation gave us $2.5 million,” said Sharp, recounting the academy’s early benefactors.
After seeing the leadership academy’s impact in the community and the lives of student-athletes, the foundation doubled-down with an additional gift of $2.5 million.
The total gifts of more than $5 million surpassed the campaign’s endowment goal and put the program on strong financial footing.
Recognizing the significance of the investment, Texas Tech Athletics named the J.T. & Margaret Talkington Leadership Academy in honor of Lubbock community leaders J.T. and Margaret Talkington, whose foundation continues to make a lasting impact on Texas Tech University and Lubbock.
“Such amazing examples of philanthropy in this community,” said Sharp, stressing the importance of the programs’s endowment and the donors who made it possible.
Gifts to endowments are invested by the university system, and only part of the interest earnings may be spent each year, growing the fund over time.
Underwriting leadership programming and academy operations with an endowment ensures that long-term funding is in place for a program central to the department’s mission to educate, serve and grow fearless champions.
“One of the things we all wanted was for it to go on forever, and as an endowed project it ensures its future — and we’re really proud of that,” said Sharp.
Impact: Changing lives
With the future of the program secured, the leadership academy turned its focus toward growth, expanding its impact from select student-athletes to the whole department.
However, it’s no longer just Hocutt and Sharp running the show.
Former Texas Tech basketball player Gionet Cooper joined the staff as assistant athletics director in 2015 to oversee the leadership academy’s programming and curriculum. Last summer, Amy Heard was promoted to senior associate athletics director for leadership development to direct the academy’s growth and day-to-day operations.
What Coach Sharp once did for 15 basketball players, Texas Tech Athletics can now do for more than 450 student-athletes.
Like helping with life skills.
“Kids come out of difficult situations growing up. Some kids come with baggage, and you hope you can move them past it. When you get a student-athlete to move forward and put those things behind them and start over — those are some of my favorite stories. But they need help to move past that,” said Sharp.
She recounted how some students don’t know what to do with a debit card, how to work within a financial budget, what to eat to maintain healthy nutrition or how to get enough rest.
“It’s not a good idea to throw a parking ticket in the back seat and forget about it,” she added.
“Fear makes cowards of us all. We work to make them unafraid, and their confidence as a student-athlete and person improves dramatically.”
Sharp also likes how the academy helps students face fears.
“Fear makes cowards of us all. We work to make them unafraid, and their confidence as a student-athlete and person improves dramatically. It’s not that they can’t do it — they just haven’t done it yet,” said Sharp.
Both Sharp and Hocutt agreed that in the six years the academy has been building fearless champions, they’ve seen fewer problems.
“There’s no question there have been fewer problems,” said Sharp. “The lights are going on. Maybe they did not realize what could happen if they stepped over a line. And they know we care about them as people and as athletes.”
Hocutt added, “We haven’t had a lot of off-field, off-track issues. But that also speaks to the caliber and character of the student-athletes our coaches are recruiting and our coaches’ leadership and ability as educators. It gets back to education in the classroom and we hope the leadership academy can support and contribute to that education about making right decisions.”
The J.T. & Margaret Talkington Leadership Academy has helped make Texas Tech student-athletes more confident and competitive.
But it’s improved them in other, more important ways that will last long after their playing days, creating the kinds of men and women equipped to lead in their careers and make an impact in their communities that can make all of us proud to be Red Raiders.