The Suzy Merchant Test

By Scott Westerman
“Character is what you do when nobody is watching.” – H. Jackson Brown
“Someone is always watching.” – Scott Westerman 

Suzy Merchant is one of my favorite people. She is competitive but humble. She embodies the Spartan Work Ethic, but always tries to prioritize family first. She has a terrific sense of humor but can focus intensively on the task at hand. She wins basketball games, but understands that winning is secondary to developing successful, self actualized young women. She is the real deal.

So whenever I can spend time with Suzy Merchant, I jump at the chance.

Friday was Colleen and my 33rd wedding anniversary. There were many things we could have done to celebrate the most important priority in our lives, our union. We were excited to be with Suzy and her husband, Gary Rakan.

We were all working, of course. Colleen always reminds me that, “MSU is not a job, it’s a lifestyle”. And it’s a lifestyle we cherish. Our dedication to the ideals of The Spartan Life are only surpassed by our love for our family and our closest friends. When we have the opportunity to spread that love, we always try to do it.

And so it was that the four of us found ourselves at a country club in Brighton, Michigan. Suzy and I shared the keynote for a scholarship fundraiser sponsored by our Livingston County Alumni Club. Her gift to the audience that night was, “The Suzy Merchant Test”.

The three characteristics Suzy looks for in a basketball recruit are these:

Work Ethic

The NCDub only allows coaches to have a brief glimpse into the faces of the kids we hope to attract to our athletic program. Suzy would tell you that you can dig into the statistics all day long, but it’s really all about the person behind the numbers. And since her time watching a potential recruit is very limited, she’s developed a test that quickly gives her a handle on all three of these key dimensions.

What does the kid do during the warm ups? – How you practice says a lot about how you’ll play.

How do you behave when you’re sitting on the bench? –  You may be a star in high school, but it’s likely you’ll ride the pine during your early years in the big time. Are you attentive and engaged? Does your energy when you’re not a in the spotlight inspire others who are?

Do you cheer for your teammates? – Unfortunately, more and more of our elite athletes focus beyond the lessons that can be learned in college and have an eye on the pros from the moment they sign a letter of intent. It sometimes becomes a “me” thing. If you want to make the cut on Suzy’s team, it had better be all about “us”.

How do you behave when the game is a blow out? – If you’re way ahead, are you still giving it the best you’ve got? And if you’re way behind, are you still playing to win, even when winning seems impossible?

Do you look your coach in the eye? – Paying attention to someone who is there to help you is key, even when you’re hurting or angry. Eye to eye is also the ultimate lie detector.

What happens after the game when you come out of the locker room? – Suzy recounted her final visit to watch a highly touted recruit play a big game. The Coach travels incognito to these things. The kid’s don’t know she’s there. She watches for all of the traits listed above and computes the score. But the ultimate question is where your true priorities lie. On this particular evening, the recruit’s team pulled off a come from behind win. The fans were ecstatic and so were her parents, who were in attendance. Suzy quietly followed them down to the locker room area. When the young superstar came out, her father was beaming with pride, “You were terrific! We are so proud of you,” he said.

“Give me the car keys. I want to go over to Amanda’s,” was her response.


Whatever your aspirations, you will eventually be faced with the Suzy Merchant Test.

  • How well have you prepared?
  • Do you use your time on the bench as the learning experience it is supposed to be?
  • How do you interact with those around you, especially your so-called subordinates?
  • Are you magnanimous in victory and humble in defeat? Do you stay focused when you’re out in front? Do you learn from your mistakes?
  • Do you pay attention to feedback?
  • Are you honest and ethical?
  • And where are your priorities? What are the most important things in your life?

Whatever your game, there will come a time when you’re no longer the star. How you have treated everyone you meet along the way will determine whether you continue to prosper or crash and burn. Because, in the end, the game we’re all playing is the game of life. How you perform the smallest tasks says a lot about how well you’ll do when it’s your turn to lead the field.

Suzy Merchant’s team won the Big Ten Championship outright in 2011. She was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year. Ask anyone on the team about this achievement and they will say, we did it together. This last point is really what it’s all about.

The MSU Women’s Basketball Team wins because they are in it for the collective good. They are prepared, focused, coachable, supportive, tenacious, humble and attentive. They also realize that when the athletic experience is at it’s best, it is a microcosm of the larger life they live, before, during and after they set foot on the court. The lessons they learn about work ethic, passion and character can help assure that they will be successful in every chapter of the Spartan Life.

And that’s the ultimate objective of the Suzy Merchant Test.