I just read The Legends Club by John Feinstein which documents the competition amongst interstate rivals Jim Valvano, Dean Smith, and Mike Krzyzewski. In addition to some interesting stories about that era, there is a consistent theme that made all three coaches successful. All of them delayed instant gratification through high character decisions.
Dean Smith Sent Well Wishes to Players that Did Not Commit
Dean Smith was professional when he lost a recruit to another school. He made a habit of writing a good luck note to all players that were close to committing. These players were eighteen years old, and for many of them this decision might have been the most agonizing decision of their lives. Reaching out in a positive fashion instead of being critical shows a high degree of class and sportsmanship on his part.
Although Smith’s intentions were in the best interest of these players, they also proved to be self-serving. Word got out from these players who inevitably moved up in the basketball world. And when these players were questioned about Smith, they spoke glowingly of him. As any affirmation will tend to do when you are vulnerable and indecisive, these players did not forget Coach Smith.
Looking back, Coach Smith’s actions appear to be common sense. In the moment of losing a potential player, even a rational person might be tempted to lose control. As anyone in sales will tell you, the pressure to convert potential leads is high. When a prospect takes their dollars elsewhere, how many salespeople take the opportunity to thank the prospect anyway? Or worse, lash out at that prospect. If they took a perspective that the prospect will eventually be back they would never handle it this way, but unfortunately most people live to make ends meet in the short term. It is similar in the competitive landscape of college recruiting. Coach Smith’s greatest strength came in recognizing that long term class outweighs unleashing short term frustrations.
Mike Krzyzewski Needed the Right Athletic Director
Duke is a power house today, but when Mike Krzyzewski started, it did not look so promising. Coach K was hired after coaching Army to a 9-17 record the previous season. In his first three seasons at Duke, the team compiled a losing record of 38-47. There were rumblings from alumni and media that a shift in leadership was necessary. Despite the uninspiring results, Duke athletic director Tom Butters decided to give Coach K a five-year extension. If Butters was interested in serving himself in the short term, he could have appeased the outside forces. Instead, he trusted the process that Krzyzewski put in place and doubled down on his original gamble to hire him. All he has done since then is establish himself and Duke as the premier coach and program in college basketball.
Similar to his AD, Krzyzewski also demonstrated an ability to delay gratification in the short term. Two stories from his earlier teams illustrate this ability best.
Act Like You’ve Been There
Feinstein quoted Krzyzewski saying the following before a meeting with North Carolina, “Just do what we do after any other game – walk off the court. Don’t act as if you didn’t expect to win, because I expect you to win and you should feel that way too. You’re the better team. Now go out and prove it.”
Duke lost two competitive games to Carolina earlier in that season, and were meeting a third time in the ACC tournament. Carolina at this juncture in the rivalry was dominating and Coach K had never beaten them. That day the Blue Devils started to take the trend in the other direction by defeating Michael Jordan and Carolina. Unfortunately, the win was the only part of his pre-game speech that the team executed. Coach K got caught up in the moment, hugged one of his players and the team proceeded to celebrate. The leader failed to act like he had been there.
Coach K’s emphasis on delaying the celebration was strategic. Virginia awaited them in the ACC Tournament final the next day. Duke lost and Coach K pointed the finger at himself as the culprit for that loss. His words were profound, “You don’t build a program based on beating one team – any team.” Even if that team was led by Michael Jordan. Delaying celebrations when there is a quick turnaround established a lesson for Coach K.
Duke shocked the country by defeating 34-0 UNLV in the national semifinal years later. This time, he acted like he had been there. Coach K reminded his jubilant team to calm down and humbled them before the final that they eventually won.
Embrace Late Game Player Mistakes
Early in his career, Christian Laettner missed a front end of a one and one with his team trailing by two. Coach K raced to pick up Laettner’s spirits immediately after the free throw clanked out. This was Coach K’s message according to Feinstein, “I want you to remember one thing: You didn’t lose the game. You gave us a chance to win the game. Hold your head up high.”
Most college basketball fans remember the incredible shot that Laettner hit against Kentucky in the regional final. He also hit a game-winner to keep Duke alive against UConn. Coach K did not let his emotions get the better of him in the short term and convey frustration in that moment after defeat. Instead he planted the seed for Laettner to feel like he could not fail in future late game opportunities. Duke eventually won two national titles with Christian Laettner being their best player.
There is nothing less helpful than a coach yelling at players for missing free throws in the moment. Talking at practice about the proper form or repetitions is more appropriate. In my experience coaches lose patience with players all the time in big moments at the line. And even if they do not lash out at a player, by saying nothing they are not supporting the player.
Jim Valvano Delivered Timeless Speech Under Duress
The iconic moment to this day remains Coach Valvano’s ESPY speech in 1993. And with good reason. Feinstein documented the story leading up to that speech. Valvano’s grit and determination to go on stage cannot be understated. Coach K flew up to New York with him and recounted how Valvano threw up in his wife’s handbag. Valvano asked Coach K to walk him off the stage because he was not physically strong enough to do it alone. Coach K and John Saunders (his broadcasting partner at the time and close friend) believed Valvano was too sick to deliver the speech. Valvano went ahead with it anyway. And he absolutely crushed it. Coach Valvano’s reason for speaking that night was well-articulated. Even in a life and death moment, Coach Valvano opted for the uncomfortable path of seeking to make the world better in the long term.
Forgiveness and Being Human
One less well known story that Feinstein documented about Valvano’s character came from a referee. In 1989, the official blew a call in the Sweet Sixteen. Alonzo Mourning appeared to commit his fifth foul against NC State according to the broadcasters and head of officials. Instead Mourning remained in the game and the Wolfpack lost. The following season, the official apologized to Valvano and the player who had traveled on the play. Both Valvano and the player handled it with extreme class, accepted the apology, and moved on.
The same official, Rick Hartzell, saw Valvano in an airport three years after that during Valvano’s broadcasting career. Here is the story as Hartzell tells it in Feinstein’s book:
“It was just the two of us. I couldn’t help but think about the call in the Meadowlands. I started to say, ‘I hope you know that I’m still sorry’ – I never finished the sentence. Jim put up his hand and said, ‘Stop. I don’t want you to ever think about that again. I mean that.’ Then he gave me a hug. That’s a moment I’ll never forget.”
As far as accepting apologies goes, it does not get any more convincing than that. Today, players and coaches are constantly whining about the officiating. Sure it feels good in the short term, but in the long term what is controllable and what is not? Like his competition in the Triangle, Coach Valvano possessed the self-control necessary to move past what he could not control.