A Tribute to My Mentor


I would like to dedicate this week’s blog to one of the most successful coaches I have ever known at any level. We all have mentors and people that have made a significant impact on our lives. After a three year battle with cancer, my college coach—David Icenhower, or “Ice” as he was affectionately known, lost his life Saturday morning to a blood infection—he was 66.

I know he thought he stopped coaching me after my final match some thirty-three years ago, but nothing could be further from the truth. I still refer to the lessons taught both by his actions and through his words. Ice was many great things to many different people. To me, he was a teacher, a mentor, a role model a coach and a friend. I will always treasure our relationship.

He was never an “in your face” coach, but rather the equivalent in business of a “participative leader”-- always seeking input before making tough decisions. I firmly believe his style of leading helped me to be a better leader.

Like George Baily in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I always considered Ice the “richest man in town.” People truly loved him. He was great to me and my family. He had an incredible run as a coach. I would like to share with you his statistics and just a few of the life lessons he taught me. First, his accomplishments as a coach:

  • 585-80-4 dual meet record (ranks third of all time in NCAA Wrestling)

  • 5 NCAA Division III National Championships—18 top ten finishes

  • Six undefeated seasons

  • 26 Metropolitan Conference Championships including 14 in a row

  • 20 individual NCAA Division III National Champions

  • 124 NCAA Division III All-Americans

  • 1 individual NCAA Division I National Champion

  • 1981 Hall of Fame Team finished 14th in NCAA Division I Championships (click for video)

I could go on, but you get the picture.

Now, on to just a few of the many lessons Ice taught me. First off, a wrestling coach and a business leader is not all that different. Business, like wrestling has an individual component and a team component (department, branch, division, company). Here are just five of the lessons I learned from Ice:

  • Recruiting and retention: It is the foundation of everything in both business and sports. Whether a wrestling team or a company, you are only as good as the people who represent it. Ice was a great recruiter. Why?... Because he listened more than he spoke. He understood that you could learn more about a person by listening than speaking. He was a participative coach and while he reserved the right to make the final call—you always felt heard.

  • Develop values as well as skills: As a coach, he used competition as the virtual classroom. Working with you to analyze your shortcomings and striving for the elusive “perfection.” He taught me firsthand that “progressive improvement was better than postponed perfection,”--both with the utilization of core values and my skills as a wrestler. By putting our personal development as the top priority over winning, he created tremendous loyalty. Creating positive habits was the mantra. “If we work to do what we are capable of doing, the scoreboard will take care of itself.”

  • Diversity adds strength. Ice was “color blind.” He never wanted a team of look-alikes, act-alikes and think-alikes. Our teams were highly diverse—with people from different socio-economic, ethnic and demographic backgrounds. He understood that differences add depth, create strength and bring balance to a team. We all learned from each other.

  • Nurture internal motivation. The great leaders encourage us to develop internal motivation without the need for external recognition and rewards. Leadership guru John C. Maxwell used to say, “Great leaders put their people in position to do great things without them.” Because of his participative coaching style (which was rare back then), he developed leaders who could ensure the team could do great things without him. Thankfully, we never had to test that statement, but I have no doubt we could have risen to the occasion.

  • Building a great team is not something you can take a step back from and admire when complete. It is an ongoing process of design, laying the foundations, recruiting, developing, adjusting, building, bonding, changing, detailing, refining and renovating. We never quite get it right. It is never perfect and it is always under construction. The same applies to a department, branch, division or company.

I could go on and on, but I will not. It makes me feel better to reflect on the impact this great coach, leader, mentor and friend has had on my life and the lives of so many. Thank you for indulging me.

My last communication from Ice was a couple of weeks ago when he sent me a congratulatory email on being named one of the 100 Most Influential People in Staffing. He said simply:

“Mike, well deserved and awesome…ICE”

He was still patting me on the back thirty-three-years later. I miss him already.

Someone once asked me if I were to put out a t-shirt that would describe my years at TCNJ under Ice, what would it say? While most would think it would say something about the 47-1 record or the two national championships, my shirt would say simply: “One of Ice’s Boys” over the words “Under Construction.”

Thank you for taking the time to learn more about this incredible man and the impact he has had on the lives of many.

#communication