Can a coach help you win the game of life?

The stadium scene.
Aug. 6 2004 11:15 AM

Coach Lit

How to succeed the Riley way. And the Coach K way. And the Shanahan way…

Helping you win the game of life
Helping you win the game of life

When the Lakers offered Mike Krzyzewski $40 million, a lot of people assumed he would take the money and run to L.A. But anyone who had read Leading With the Heart: Coach K's Successful Strategies for Basketball, Business, and Life—or just happened to skim over the title—could have predicted how the whole thing would turn out. "You have to follow your heart and lead with it," the touchy-feely Krzyzewski announced as he rejected the Lakers job, "and Duke has always taken up my whole heart."

For the last 10 years, sports fans shopping for normal books about two-minute drills or half-court shots have run the risk of accidentally bringing home coach-authored leadership lit. Pat Riley's The Winner Within: A Life Plan for Team Players, published back in 1993 when the then-Knicks coach was better at summoning his inner winner, started a plague of coach lit. Now every meathead who ever blew a whistle has a lesson about that next corporate takeover, keeping your marriage healthy, or your relationship with God. They won a game. You'll win the game of life.

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It's truly dizzying. Dean Smith's The Carolina Way or Bobby Bowden's The Bowden Way? The Bowden family's Winning's Only Part of the Game or Lou Holtz's Winning Every Day?(Or perhaps Holtz's A Teen's Game Plan for Life?) Rick Pitino wrote Success Is a Choice in 1997, the same year he signed a 10-year contract with the Celtics. In 2001, after apparently choosing four seasons of failure, he resigned just in time to promote a new testament to achievement, Lead To Succeed. There are lots more: John Wooden's Wooden, Wooden's My Personal Best,Mike Jarvis' Skills for Life, Mike Shanahan's Think Like a Champion, Pat Summitt's Reach for the Summit, Bill Russell's Russell Rules, Phil Jackson's Sacred Hoops, Joe Gibbs' Racing To Win, and Brian Billick's Competitive Leadership, to name more than a few. Former part-owner and president of the Philadelphia 76ers Pat Croce is not a coach per se, but he just came out with Lead or Get Off the Pot! Forget Chicken Soup for the Soul;Croce gives you fiber for the motivationally deficient colon. And it's really fast-acting—there are 16 exclamation points on the dust jacket alone!

For some reason, baseball has been relatively immune from the genre. There's Joe Torre's Ground Rules for Winners, and Tommy Lasorda wrote the foreword to Notre Dame scrub-turned-inspirational-figure Rudy Ruettiger's Rudy's Insights for Winning in Life. Obvious motivational candidates like Bobby Cox and Tony LaRussa have remained silent, though. Maybe baseball just doesn't have that mark of overachievement. Baseball fans aren't on the fast track; they're spending three hours a day watching pitching changes and foul balls. And who's going to take advice from a pot-bellied old guy with hat head who spits sunflower seeds and tobacco all over himself?

Apart from those inspirationally challenged baseball managers, sports and motivation go together naturally. What red-blooded American doesn't cue up the meat-pounding scene in Rocky for inspiration? Who hasn't memorized a few of Vince Lombardi's most rousing quotations to get themselves through tough times? But by transforming the guy on the sidelines into a low-rent motivational speaker, coach lit negates their greatest moments. Now, instead of channeling Pat Riley's me-decade mojo as the boss of the Showtime-era Lakers, I've got to consider his advice about what to do "When a successful organization becomes infected with the Disease of Me."

The coaches' claim on the motivational genre—what separates them from the fourth-rate Dale Carnegies out there—is their vast store of sports anecdotes. But somehow the parable of Mike Shanahan's ruptured kidney is a little less exciting with a bullet-point list attached to it. So, what do these coachivators offer? The usual, mostly. Plenty of inspirational sayings (Wooden's "the choice you make, makes you"), italicized mantras (Riley's "keep reminding yourself that attitude is the mother of luck"), and 12-step programs. Actually, only Pat Summitt's "Definite Dozen System" has exactly that number of steps; Croce reveals "seven secrets," Russell makes 11 rules, and Pitino teaches 10 traits in each of his books, raising the question of whether they're cumulative.

Most coach lit is targeted at high-powered businessmen, but it's relevant only by implication. You won't find any specifics about P/E ratios or warehouse security in the superconductor industry. Dean Smith does try a bit harder than the rest—he co-wrote The Carolina Way with a UNC professor who chimes in at the end of each chapter with a short section filled with business jargon. But typically, the coach's business bona fides are noted in a blurb or two from, say, the chairman of Starbucks, who praised Croce's book ("pour yourself a cup of Starbucks, and fill yourself with inspiration, motivation, and some serious secrets of successful leadership").

The rest mostly preach self-actualization via the coach's standard bag of tricks: work hard, play smart, think positively, don't be a greedy showboat jerk—stuff like that. One popular theme: There's no "I"—or "me"—in team. Pat Riley has the "Disease of Me." In Pat Croce's version, "The moment 'me' changes to 'we' is the genesis of your adventure to fulfill your vision." According to the less New Age-y Dean Smith, "It was all about 'we,' not 'me.' " Krzyzewski, who conned Duke into pouring $5.1 million into the Coach K Center of Leadership and Ethics, rejects his colleagues' snappy me-we jargon altogether. "It's important to begin using plural pronouns right away," he says, demonstrating the seriousness of purpose that earned him a spot on the faculty at Duke's Fuqua School of Business.

But when the coachivators aren't ripping off each other's best platitudes, they're contradicting each other, leaving the poor reader with inspirational blockage. Krzyzewski hates rules because they reduce flexibility. Riley tosses out dozens of "Riles' Rules" ("When you face a fork in the road, step on the exhilarator!"). Dean Smith doesn't believe in criticizing his players in public. Pat Summitt cuts hers to pieces. Phil Jackson (whose Sacred Hoops is, to be fair, more creative than the other coach-lit entries) never gives grades to his players. Smith grades every play. Come to think of it, I wonder what kind of marks he gave Jordan's clutch jumper against Georgetown in 1982? Granted, it won the NCAA championship, but I think it deserved no more than a C. That ball-hogging kid still hadn't overcome the "Disease of Me."

Jeremy Derfner is a former Slate editorial assistant.