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Art of the turnaround: How long shot like Leicester City becomes a winner

Leicester City has had a lot of fun this season flaunting the forbidding 5,000-1 odds against it winning its first English Premier League title and now stands seven points ahead of second-place Tottenham with only five matches to play. When it comes to the art of the turnaround, the 132-year-old club's worst-to-first rise is being called perhaps the most unlikely in the history of sports.

Adding to the revelry is the talk that Leicester has supernatural forces it's contending with, similar to the Chicago Cubs' struggle with the Curse of the Billy Goat. The Foxes were in the Premier League cellar when they suddenly started winning late last season only four days after the bones of King Richard III -- the ruler whose Machiavellian rise to power was famously portrayed by Shakespeare -- were finally given a proper burial at Leicester Cathedral 527 years after his death on the battlefield and three years after his remains were discovered under a parking lot in the city. Leicester won seven of its final nine games to narrowly avoid relegation, but nobody expected the Foxes' tear to continue into this season.

Former Foxes striker and Leicester native Gary Lineker, now the host of the BBC TV's "Match of the Day," was so sure in December that his old club wouldn't stay atop the standings, the 55-year-old put out a tweet saying he'd present the first episode of next season's show in his underwear if Leicester City finished the season in first place.

Any regrets?

"Well, it was a bit of fun at the time," Lineker told The Guardian this week. "I think a lot of people will switch off [their TVs]. Crikey, it's going to be a bit of a cringe."

People straining to put the Foxes' turnaround in context for American non-soccer fans have likened it to the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team's Miracle on Ice.

But is it really a "miracle" when such a sustained show of excellence happens in sports over a long season (or seasons) as opposed to just a buzzer-beating shot or bottom-of-the-ninth homer that lifts an underdog to a title?

The answer is usually no, according to folks who know something about the Art of the Turnaround in sports.

They say certain traits of winning seasons and franchises can be isolated, installed, managed and tweaked to make winning less of an "accident" than on the surface it might seem.

Theo Epstein (Boston Red Sox and now Cubs), Andrew Friedman (Tampa Bay Rays and now Los Angeles Dodgers), and Larry Brown -- the only basketball coach to win both an NCAA and NBA title -- are just a few of the executives or coaches who have reliably proven that success travels.

If you know what you're doing.

"I absolutely believe you can move the model," says Tom Wilson, a longtime Detroit sports and entertainment executive who has overseen organizations that won a total of seven NBA, NHL and WNBA championships. Wilson is currently president and CEO of Olympia Entertainment, which operates the Mike Ilitch-owned Detroit Tigers and Red Wings. Before that, he presided over title runs by the Detroit Pistons, Detroit Shock and Tampa Bay Lightning for Bill Davidson's group, Palace Sports and Entertainment.

A consistent theme from the experts is that what turnaround teams usually need first is a culture change. That can entail anything from articulating a new vision to changing how the roster is constructed to choosing the right leaders to improving what information is used -- and how -- to make intelligent decisions and carve out a competitive edge.

For example, rather than treat his team's 107-season drought without a World Series win as a burden, Epstein, president of baseball operations, hands out a manual to players that details the Cubs' way and the path they will take. "When it happens ..." is the motto on which players in Chicago's minor league system are reared.

Brown has preached to his players at every stop about playing basketball "the right way."

Despite moving from low-budget Tampa Bay to the spendthrift Dodgers, where he is president of baseball operations, Friedman has resisted making moves to "pacify in the moment," even after fans and media were griping that he let pitcher Zack Greinke leave this offseason and wasn't a big player in free agency.

"So much of last year was reactionary, for all of us," Friedman explained before spring training. "Now, hopefully, we'll get to a point where we can exhale a little bit and focus on organization building ... kind of unifying the organization and creating systems and processes."

Pro Football Hall of Famer Bill Polian says he and Buffalo Bills head coach Kay Stephenson had a similar philosophical decision to make when they found themselves at a crossroads before the '85 draft. The Bills, fresh off a 2-14 season, had accumulated eight picks in the first four rounds, including the No. 1 overall selection. The dilemma: Should they trade some, or even all, of the picks for a quick fix of veteran talent to improve their chances of saving their jobs, or should they build the franchise more methodically and shoot for sustained success?

Polian, who went on to build the Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts into Super Bowl contenders after he left the Bills, was then a first-time general manager. "I told Kay we'd be crazy to not at least consider trading the picks," he says. "But to his credit, he said, 'No, no, we owe it to ownership and the fans to build this the right way.' So we kept the picks. We took [eventual Hall of Famers] Bruce Smith, Andre Reed and a few others in that draft that became integral parts of our four Super Bowl teams. And Kay never got enough credit for that."

Choosing a philosophical path is one matter. Executing is quite another.

Wilson says in his experience, different franchises react to the insistence on culture change in different ways. When he arrived at Ilitch's organization, the city of Detroit was deep in a recession and the Red Wings weren't selling out their downtown arena anymore.

"One of the things we said right off the bat was we're going to sell out every game, and you should've seen the stink-eye and everything else we got from people around here," Wilson says with a laugh. "But we got one sellout, then two, and we're sitting at around 220 straight sellouts now, and counting."

The common theme? In both cases, Wilson says, setting expectations and having leaders and athletes that hewed to the message was vital.

"What you want to do is create this understanding and common cause that people can buy into ... and a sense within the organization that everyone has a role to play," he says. "Pretty soon, what you find is success tends to feed on success." Once players, employees and fans start feeling "something special is happening," Wilson says, that positive aura is likely to spread because "people work a little bit harder because it's not gonna fail on their watch."

Finding innovative ways of thinking -- not just abandoning old mindsets -- is important to any turnaround, too.

Wilson says: "We would have people coming to us and say, 'Let me tell you what the Lakers are doing or the Nets are doing,' and we'd say, 'Great. They're in sports, we're in sports, but what is McDonald's doing or Apple doing?' Let's learn from them, not just ourselves in sports. What's the next paradigm? The next shift?"

Paul DePodesta caught the analytics wave when mining statistics for trends or markers that can predict performance in undiscovered ways was the new hot thing in sports. He has spent his career trying to take chance out of the rebuilding equation as much as possible. He worked in the front office for Billy Bean's "Moneyball" Oakland A's and, more recently, the New York Mets -- two teams that outperformed expectations despite comparatively low payrolls (same as Leicester has done this season).

After the Mets lost to the Kansas City Royals last fall in the World Series, DePodesta took the new position of chief strategy officer with the Cleveland Browns -- another franchise badly in need of a rebuild -- because he was intrigued by using analytics to inform decision-making in the NFL to gain a competitive edge.

"How? I can't tell you that," DePodesta says with a laugh.

DePodesta says analytics are another useful tool that franchise turnaround artists can lean on to help achieve the culture changes and end-game goals. But he stresses it's important to understand that numbers forecasts have limits, and that's where luck and the human element come roaring back in -- allowing a surprise like Leicester City to happen. (Claudio Ranieri, in his first season as the Leicester's manager, has bucked conventional measuring sticks of success such as time of possession and instead has the Foxes playing a defensively conscious, counterattacking game. He emphasizes a long-ball passing style that he feels better fits his team.)

While he and his baseball colleagues felt they were getting better every year at the predictive sciences, DePodesta says he and Beane nonetheless used to joke all the time that they were "glorified HR managers" because "at the end of the day, you're still making decisions on people. And people aren't robots."

DePodesta likens the job of predicting individual or team performances to being a card counter at a casino. "When you count cards, you still lose a lot of hands, but you can still win big hands -- or win when it matters," he says. "Basically, you're just making informed decisions based on knowing when the odds are in your favor. And what ought to happen. It just doesn't always guarantee it will happen. Or when. ...

"[But] I can go to sleep at night when I know I've done everything I can to stack the odds in our favor. Stacking the odds to make better decisions is really what it's about."

And when everything does come together? DePodesta says it's rarely as immediate as Leicester City's worst-to-first turnaround has been.

"In baseball, anyway, it usually looks something more like you're at 72, 79, 68, 75, then -- whoa -- 95 wins!" he says. "It's like suddenly there's this fundamental change of state that occurs that's almost like water turning to ice at 32 degrees. When you're just looking at water at 55, 52, 50 degrees, you can't tell any difference at all, you know? It's still water. But all of sudden you hit 32 and something magical happens."

Leicester City needs the magic to last a few more weeks.

ESPN.com's Doug Padilla contributed to this report.