During the 1949 Princeton football season, sophomore John McGillicuddy, a gutsy player who wasn't blessed with exceptional size, speed or agility, was not on the field for a single down. But by his senior year, McGillicuddy was starting at defensive back and returning punts for a team that would wind up 9-0 and be ranked sixth in the nation.
Today, at 50, McGillicuddy is the youngest chief executive officer in the history of New York City's Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company, the country's fourth-largest bank, with which he has spent all but eight months of his business career. Everything about him—from his gold tie pin and French cuffs to his softly lighted, spacious office overlooking Park Avenue—exudes success, and he is held in the highest regard in the financial world. In McGillicuddy's opinion, his playing days at Princeton, particularly those bench-warming Saturdays of 1949, helped him achieve the success and respect he enjoys today.
"When I look back on it now," he says. "I feel as much a part of the '49 team as of the '50 and '51 squads. I've come to realize that it's often the enthusiasm of the guy sitting on the bench that gets things going. The same is true in business. Leaders have to make a conscious effort to lend a sense of identity and purpose to each person's job. Otherwise a malaise develops; people begin to think that their doing good work is not important to the overall effort.
"The ability to make everybody believe that all the cogs are necessary to get the bigger wheels turning is what sets the very good teams and companies apart. Our Princeton teams had it; IBM has it; the Japanese have it in spades—a sense of pride in being part of the organization. I don't know whether the managers at IBM have thought of themselves as coaches, but that's the role they've played. I'm certain I better understand this because of what I went through my sophomore year."
Many people, including some sports psychologists, are suspicious of claims that athletics can inculcate social values. They maintain there's no hard evidence that just because a youngster is exposed to discipline, teamwork and competition on the playing field, he'll turn out to be any more disciplined, team-oriented or competitive than a non-athlete. Perhaps, but you'd have a difficult time convincing men like McGillicuddy that sport doesn't at least reinforce, if not actually instill, valuable traits.
"And that's especially true if the participant isn't a gifted athlete," says McGillicuddy. "He derives a certain stick-to-itiveness from trying to improve that the exceptionally talented player, for whom everything comes easy, often doesn't get.
"Athletics also develop a sense of continuum in a youngster, because everything doesn't neatly fall into place. The star of today can be the goat of tomorrow, and you live with losing as well as winning. So you learn to keep yourself on a plane that's realistic from an emotional standpoint. The same holds true for business. There are periods when things go well for you personally and for the corporation, and periods when they don't, but you know that you can't afford to get down or walk away from the problem.
"Finally, I don"t think you make the kinds of sacrifices sports demand without becoming competitive and result-oriented. Athletics, of course, aren't the only way to hone the competitive spirit, but most of the people I've been associated with who were athletes are very competitive, and competition is one of the things business is all about."
But not the only thing. Though McGillicuddy is regarded as a hard-nosed banker—could anyone who returned punts without having the option to signal for a fair catch be anything else?—he has never acceded to the win-at-all-costs syndrome. He deplores the perversions of competition, whether they appear in little league or at USC, and in speeches he frequently dwells on the importance of sustaining one's familial and religious values in an increasingly competitive world. "John is a prime example of someone who has not compromised himself climbing the corporate ladder," says 1951 Heisman Trophy winner Dick Kazmaier, who roomed with McGillicuddy at Princeton and is now a Boston-area businessman. "In fact, he has risen to the top because of his high ideals, and he expresses them as he discharges his responsibilities."
By any standard, the Princeton teams on which McGillicuddy played were special: five All-Americas, 22 straight victories, two consecutive Lambert Cups. Yet whenever the players meet to reminisce, one of the first things they bring up is that the football team performed better in the classroom than the student body as a whole. Many went on to graduate school—McGillicuddy took a law degree at Harvard—and to distinguished careers in business, education and medicine.
"None of us feel that we are hot stuff now just because we happened to have been good football players," says McGillicuddy. "But I think we showed that a school doesn't have to bring a bunch of stevedores in the back door to be competitive with the best."