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Thursday, June 13, 2024

A Jump Shot, an Idea and Some Belief. How a Student-Athlete Took What He Learned on the Court and Applied it off the Court

By: Adam White, @FOSAdam

Vin McCaffery, CEO of Game Plan

“Your basketball playing days as you know it are over.”

These were the last words that Vin McCaffrey wanted to hear the fall before his senior season at Lehigh.

To this day, those words still sting, but it is that memory and those words that have pushed McCaffrey further than he ever imagined.

A kid from southern New Jersey with a typical suburbia upbringing, McCaffrey picked up the game of basketball from an early age and continued with it throughout high school, finding himself playing for Lehigh University. Looking back on his childhood, McCaffrey was honest about his love for the game saying, “Growing up as a kid I ate, slept and drank basketball, so for me to go play at Lehigh was a dream come true.” His time on the Lehigh team, while unexpectedly cut short was the, “time of my life,” according to him.

When we spoke about some of the defining moments he had as a student-athlete that he still carries with him today, he focused in on his childhood and the moment he was told he was cut from the team at Lehigh his senior year.

“When I was starting the company, there were a few things I always looked back at in terms of athletics. Growing up, I always remember shoveling the snow off my basketball court in the winter to go shoot. It was a labor of love. It was not easy but something I loved to do. That just sticks out in my mind because with starting Game Plan, there feels like a lot of days where you are shoveling snow. But I love every day of it.”

“The other thing that comes about is the conversation I had with the coach when he told me that my playing career was over. To hear, ‘Your basketball career here is over,’ was one of the toughest moments for me. It was a kick in the teeth that I had never imagined.”

It was these two memories that Vin credits as to why the student-athlete experience is such a crucial one, both growing up and in college.

Vin during his playing days at Lehigh.

“In my opinion, the student athlete experience trains you for things that you don’t expect. It makes you ready for those times when you are alone and no one else is watching, but you have to work hard. Those times can be hard, but as a student-athlete you are trained to pick yourself up and grind.”

After graduating from Lehigh in 1998, Vin faced a different job environment than many do today.

“At that time, the job market was a little bit different then it is now. I remember having several job offers waiting for me when I graduated. Just the opposite of what it is now.”

After reviewing the offers, he took a position at Lexmark and stayed on for six years. Ready for a change, he transitioned to New York City where he worked for the Marwood Group.

“I stayed at Lexmark for six years and the day I was engaged was the day I resigned. From there, I went and worked for the Marwood Group in New York. There, I ran their healthcare business development side of the operation.”

After working for Marwood for a couple years, he found himself ready for another change and made the move to Ricoh where he was put in charge of a smaller team and was able to have the opportunity to go back to school and get his MBA.

Shortly after finishing his MBA, Vin began exploring his options outside of corporate America.

“The year was 2008, my wife, Julie and I had just had our son and we believed that if there was going to be a good time to really go after making this thing work, that this was the time to do it.”

A closer look at the Game Plan platform.

Fast forward eight years and that idea that Vin had, known today as Game Plan, is a comprehensive student-athlete development platform that unifies the student-athlete experience and aligns athletic departments, athletes and employers for the good of all. Since founding Game Plan in 2008, Vin now has six full-time employees, three full time interns, several contractors and over 40 colleges and universities nationwide are using his product.

“We took a leap and nearly nine years later, here we are. It has been an incredible ride that is just going to keep getting better.”

Like many successful business owners, the journey is not always the smoothest and being able to pivot on what you have built to make it even more successful is crucial to the long term sustainability of a company. For Vin, this pivot happened in 2010.

“The pivot for us kicked in around 2010. When we launched the company, it was built on the model that student-athlete had great transferable for the employers. Which they absolutely do. The challenge was pooling the candidates together to present to the employers in a way that feeds into their process.

In 2010, the model shifted. We recognized employment was a process and not a transaction. Having jobs was not enough. You needed to create an engagement model for the candidate with the outcome being employment.

We created a software application that focused on the development of the student-athlete. In 2010, we started out with six schools. Game Plan, the software platform, had an an assessment and 6 e-learning modules that were all designed to help freshman transition to college. The focus was to help the student-athletes become more self aware, particularly when selecting a major.

We had amazing customers who were early adopters, schools like Michigan State and NC State. They saw results where the athletes able to identify majors that matched interests. It sounds simple but it is very profound. As we were able to prove that model, soon six schools became, 12 and 12 became 24 and so on.”

“In the last six years, the market has matured, moving quickly to integrating life skill development with academic performance. We call it comprehensive student-athlete development. As that occurred, we thought it was a perfect time to move through a branding process. With now nearly 50 clients, having the relationships you had early on when you only have six becomes tough. At that point, we asked each other, ‘How is the market viewing us and what is our value?’

“At the same time, we were being asked questions about the journey the student-athlete goes through to acquire a job. The NCAA and the schools know chapter and verse on the student-athletes’ academic performance. APR and graduation rates are not new and schools have the model down very well. Career success is different. Just because you are graduating college does not guarantee employment. In a sense, graduating and getting a job had been mutually exclusive. The movement right now is to unify the processes around the student-athlete experience.

This idea for us came in 2010. But now that the market was moving there and we wanted to better reflect that with our brand.

The idea of unifying this process is incredibly powerful. It improves the student-athlete experience. The stakeholders of the student-athlete become more efficient. We even see awesome benefits in the areas like recruiting and fund raising. The model of comprehensive student-athlete development is very valuable.”

Six years after his first pivot, Vin found himself ready to embark on a rebrand, something that he has been working on for the past several months.

“I don’t think I anticipated how much I bit off when it was time to go through a rebrand. There were a lot of sleepless nights leading up to the launch.”

“We started this process in January and it consumes you. We looked at our product, our customers, our competitors and our people. Pretty much everything we could analyze we did. We were really able to find out what we were doing well, what we could do better and where we were headed.”

When it came down to the rebranding process, Vin wanted to make sure his brand continued to stay as strong as possible in the minds of his customers.

After running Game Plan for eight years, Vin has picked up many valuable leadership traits. One of his main goals as a leader is to make sure that when he has people who work for him, they enjoy what they are doing, they are able to use their strengths and that they find value in everything they do for the company.

“When someone asks my team what they do, I hope they are able to define their role as something where they find value and something that is using their strengths. If not, then as a leader I believe I am doing something wrong.”

“When people are allowed to play to their strengths everything gets better. The team gets better, work gets better and people enjoy what they do more.”

“Shaquille O’Neal is in the Hall of Fame, but if he was a point guard, he clearly would not be where he is today. Good leaders are people who can put you in a place where your strengths are magnified.”

Having come from a start up environment, Vin knows what it is like to not only put people in places to succeed, but show direction, which in his opinion is one of the hardest thing to do in a start up setting.

“As the company has matured and we have brought people on board to help continue building what I have started, that, while although the leader has to show direction, they also have to find ways to allow people to play to their strengths. In the start up setting that can be the hardest thing to do.”

He may have never turned pro, he may have never been a four-time All-American, he may not have made millions of dollars in endorsements, but Vin’s student-athlete experience prepared him for a successful life after college. A life that he is using to help other student athletes experience the same success he has.

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