No matter how many times Nathan Cox watches the 2000 Disney movie “Remember the Titans,” he still savors the locker-room speeches delivered after the Titans have endured a first-half pummeling by their opponents.
The film, based upon a true story, follows a Virginia high school football team during a harrowing first year of integration. In it, head coach Herman Boone, who is African American (and played by Denzel Washington), has been told that he will be fired if his team loses even one game, and he has avoided the hatchet and achieved a championship berth. In his speech, he salutes his players for bridging a wide racial chasm and tells them it’s OK if their season doesn’t end in victory.
It is one of the players and assistant coach Bill Yoast, a white man who chose to work with Boone toward integration, who deliver the rallying cry and insist upon a victory.
That moment shows the powerful potential of organized sports to teach life lessons to people regardless of their ages or their differing ideologies, said Cox, who oversees the Sacramento market for U.S. Bank. Cox owes his success, he said, to the competitive spirit, the leadership skills and the discipline he achieved playing basketball on courts around Los Angeles.
Cox sat down with The Bee to talk about the path that led him to his role at U.S. Bank, where he oversees commercial lending and community affairs for the Sacramento region.
Q: What shaped your work ethic?
A: I played basketball seven days a week as a kid and played for St. Monica High School in Los Angeles. I went to my high school coach my senior year and I said, ‘Coach, I still want to play basketball. Where could I go, walk on to a team and play basketball?’
My head’s this big. (He holds his hands 6 inches out from his head to illustrate.) I say, ‘UCLA? Georgetown?’
He said, ‘Nah, you’re not going to be good enough to play at any of those big schools. Go find a small school somewhere in the Midwest because you’ll never be good enough to play Division 1 basketball.’ That stuck with me. That was my primary motivation to walk on at Loyola Marymount. It was to make the Division 1 basketball team, which I did.
I literally walked up to the coach at Loyola Marymount. I said, ‘Coach (Ed) Goorjian, I’m Nathan Cox. I just enrolled in school. I want to try out. What do I do?’ I tried out and I made the team.
Q: You said you struggled academically in your first year at Loyola. How did you make an improvement?
A: Diligence, persistence and hard work.
Q: What does that look like?
A: That means when your friends are out partying, you’re in your bedroom studying for your finals, studying for your test. There were many times where we’d have road trips, and after the game, we’d go out and eat. Some guys would go hang out after that, but a good friend of mine and I would crack the books and start studying. Or, we’d be on the plane studying while everybody else was stretched out and sleeping. We’d have the little light on above, reading and studying.
Q: How do you motivate your team?
A: When I played at Loyola, my folks were in the stands every game: Section 102, row L, seats 10 and 11. You’ve seen basketball games, so you’ve seen the order of seating – you’ve got the coaches, you’ve got the primary players and the players that don’t really play. I was always the last guy on the bench. I was a walk-on and I never played. It was me, the trainer and the Gatorade container. But my folks showed up every game. They never missed a chance to see me sit on the bench.
I think I practice what I call servant leadership, where it’s more about the team than me. I learned that from my mom and dad. I never got off the end of the bench in 24 games in the 1983-84 season, but my mom and dad were always there to support me.
I want to do that for my staff. I want to coach them up. As individuals, we see our plateau, but if I stretch someone in a good way, they take that next level up and achieve more than what they thought they could. I collaborate, and we have mutual accountability.
I get their perspective on how to improve results. What are their ideas? What are their thoughts? What can be done differently? What can I do differently to help? This is a relationship here. We both have a vested interest. It’s not just about the employee doing things differently or better. It’s what I can do differently or better as a manager who wants to help them grow.
A former manager used to tell me, ‘If you put your team first and do it in a sincere way and have them know that you want them to be as successful as you, you’re going to get people to be on your side.’
I really, really did take that to heart. We’re in a very competitive industry, and if you just walk up and down Capitol Mall, I think there’ s like 11 different banks within six blocks or in downtown, something like 19 banks. So at the end of the day, people don’t do business with businesses. ... They’re not a customer of U.S. Bank. They’re here because they want to do business with Nathan. They’re doing business with an individual.
Q: Why did you go into banking?
A: I really, really enjoyed being a banker, not because of the industry or because banking is sexy. I’m helping people, and I’m changing lives. I get to do loans up to $100 million, but after the first number, it’s all zeroes. The thing I’m really doing is helping somebody change their lives, helping them make a difference.
My first foray into banking, I realized there was so much more to it than just walking into a local branch and making a deposit. It reminded me when I went with my dad into the branch to make deposits for his business. I would see the people sitting up on the platform, and I’d wonder what they were doing. They’d be sitting up there behind their desks, working away.
Well, that was my first job in banking. I went through retail banking, business banking, commercial banking, private banking, I really worked in so many different areas. It really showed how banking has an impact on our community, on our economy and how I can be influential by being a leader in my community (and) in this industry. That’s really the fun part.
Q: What advice do you have for young people?
A: Early on, one of my first managers asked me: ‘Do you have any plans to go back to grad school?’
I said, ‘Not really. I’ve got my undergrad. I’m good.’
We went back and forth on the subject, and finally I asked him why he thought I should do it. He said, ‘Here’s the deal. Go back and get an MBA in the area you performed the worst in when you were an undergrad.’
I thought, ‘I’m a marketing guy. Why would I go and get an MBA in finance?’
He knew where things were going. I didn’t. I was too young and dumb. He said, ‘If you get an MBA in your worst subject, you’re going to be more well-rounded. Every part of the business world – HR, marketing, banking, operations – it always comes back to finance. The other reason you go back to get an MBA is you never want to be in a situation where you’re competing for a job and you’re more qualified, smarter and a better performer than the other person, but the only reason they got the job was because they have an MBA and you don’t.’
I got my MBA in corporate finance from Golden Gate University in 1996.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and space.
Title: Senior vice president and market manager for U.S. Bank in Sacramento
Sports coaches who have a style he admires: “Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors attended high school about 5 miles from where I went to high school. We played against each other in summer league. As the coach of the Golden State Warriors, he lets his players be themselves, and he coaches them up in the way they want to be coached, not so much the way he wants to coach them.
“Another is probably John Thompson back in the Georgetown days with Patrick Ewing. He really took an interest in all his players and made sure all the players were model citizens off the court. They were academically inclined. They graduated on time. When you’re raised to do the right thing, it pays dividends.”