2 Issues with Modeling a Winning Coach

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If you followed this year’s college basketball March Madness Tournament, you were probably like me and were cheering for Loyola-Chicago, who was this year’s Cinderella story. Every year, there is that special team, but Loyola-Chicago seemed a little extra special, with their backstory and their team chaplain, Sister Jane, the elderly nun who stole the spotlight.

People love to follow and study the winning coaches in search of their “secrets” to winning. And this year was no different as Coach Porter Moser’s “Culture Wall” was popularized in the media, but it also became the topic of many Twitter and coaching forum discussions. In the same tournament, Jay Wright won his second National Title in three years, and everyone seemed even more intent on studying Moser and Wright than ever.

Let me be clear: I have profound respect for both Moser and Wright—not because of their winning, but because of “the way they do things”. With that said, I have two issues with the “flavor of the week” approach to learning from these coaches:

Issue 1: Winning is Largely Out of Our Control

“We are inclined to see history through the lives of great men. That inclination blinds us to the real complexity…”

—John Kay

When we see a desired outcome—such as two national championships in three years or a special Cinderella NCAA Tournament run—we often look for reasons why they were successful. But in truth, it is a multitude of reasons; some reasons the coaches can explain and some they cannot.

We believe that a good or bad outcome is the result of good or bad leadership decisions. But we ignore luck. In his book, Obliquity, John Kay reflects on the history of Winston Churchill, a man whom many would argue was one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century.

Churchill inspired a nation when he declared that Britain was set not just on survival but victory. He was inspirational, but the truth was that at the time, he did not have a realistic plan for how it could have been achieved without American participation. He could not have predicted or planned the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought America into the war.

Loyola-Chicago’s basketball team does a lot of things well in their culture, without a doubt. But I know there were a lot of other teams that did things well in their culture this season and didn’t make it to the final four—or even to the tournament.

This season, the South Carolina Gamecocks’ outcome was nothing like it had been the previous season (their first final four appearance in school history for coach Frank Martin’s basketball team). They didn’t even make the tournament this season.

The outcome of a game (winning or losing) is way more out of our control than most people choose to believe. Even as good as Loyola-Chicago was this year, how much of their success could have been impacted by their seeding, match-ups, time of the game, or even something as trivial as what the other team ate the night before the game? All those things are largely out of their control.

Everybody wants to buy the latest championship coach’s book; we are interested in how they did it and that is fine, but we need to approach these winning coaches with a grain of salt. Even if the way they do things is beneficial for them, this does not mean it will be the best approach for your context at your level. Whether it is the latest offense, defense, drill, or mantra, it may not be right for you.

Issue 2: Winning Isn’t the Ultimate Goal

We study coaches who experience outcomes that society desires (winning) instead of the coaches who share our values and a desired process. Yes, we can learn from Villanova’s Jay Wright and Loyola-Chicago’s Porter Moser, but we can learn from them because they are coaches with strong values and a great system (culture)—not because they won championships. Teams pull off upsets and teams win championships all the time, and often, those coaches have far less to teach us than a coach who has not won a championship.

Rick Pitino is one of the most successful coaches in NCAA men’s basketball history. While I’m not going to cast judgment on him as a person, I will cast judgment on his process and the undesirable outcomes it produced for him personally and for Louisville basketball.

I have a shelf full of books by Bobby Knight, the famous Indiana Hoosiers coach who was fired for his “uncivil, defiant, and unacceptable behavior”.  I ask myself, “What value is there in reading these books?” I know, I know… he was one of the greats, a brilliant coach, and a winner. But his winning record means little to me if I simply do not desire his process or the outcomes that he and his team experienced because of his process.

Put it into Action

How many basketball teams will build a culture wall next year? How many will look for a team chaplain like Sister Jane? How many will try to mimic Villanova’s offensive or defensive system? Far too many, in my opinion.

Once again, I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t copy or model winning coaches at all. I’m suggesting we shouldn’t copy these coaches just because they win.

It is easy to get caught up in the hype around the latest winning team. But we need to model coaches who model and build a high-character program—not just a winning program.

—J.P. Nerbun