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The Elements of Success

The lessons of a football coach, another kind of football coach, and a baseball statistician.

by James Leroy Wilson
November 13, 2003

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The Elements of Success_James Leroy Wilson-The Lessons of a Football Coach, Another Kind of Football Coach, and a Baseball Statistician Matt Welch reviews in the December Reason magazine the book Moneyball which explains how the analytical, statistical approach of baseball statistician Bill James influenced Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane into becoming one of Major League Baseball's more successful General Managers. Year after year, Beane is sending a low-budget, small-market team into the play-offs. The reviewer Welch said that two of his friends changed their entire approach to life based on the book.

My Reason magazine came to my doorstep this past Monday. Today (Wednesday), I received my Sports Illustrated, which included the story of John Gagliardi, the head coach of the St. John's (MN) football team. I've seen stories on this fellow before. He's been coaching for fifty-five years at the college level. Before that, he coached his high school team at the age of sixteen because the previous coaches happened to be old enough to be called upon to help fight World War II.

Gagliardi's coaching philosophy was always - and this is my interpretive summary (not something he may have actually said): "Do unto no player what no player would have done to another."

As his wins piled up at the small-college level - now playing at NCAA Division III - his notoriety began to rise. Just about everyone marveled at, but never copied, his philosophy. Very light calisthenics if any at all. Frequent water breaks at practice. No tackling in practice. To keep in shape, play other sports in the off-season, as opposed to arduous and boring workout regimens.

Just about anything Gagliardi hated about practice when he was a player, he banned in his own practices.

I've been reading about this man for several years in different publications. There's no disputing his success, but we must also understand that his success came at a minor-league level. If anything, St. John's attracted more-talented natural athletes than any other Division III school precisely because their coach saw football as fun-oriented rather than discipline-and-sacrifice-oriented. Maybe Gagliardi got his record 409th college football victory not because of his morals or excellent teaching of the X's and O's of football, but because he attracted higher-caliber athletes than his small-college coaching peers because he didn't demand so much from them.

Maybe so, but this in itself demands two replies:
1. So what? Football, like all games, is meant for fun. Gagliardi made it fun for his players. Most people, even at the Division I-A level, do not make a living from professional football. Gagliardi should not be blamed for "under-achieving" for his supposedly lax methods which attracted better-than-normal-talent to his college, which (by the way) earned three national championships and many play-off berths. Rather, he should be credited for making football fun. Which leads to the second response:
2. It would have been logical for coaches in higher divisions to adopt his methods of practices in order to attract the highest-caliber athletes. The traditional methods of coaching, far from making saints of mere mortals, actually accomplish no more in terms of character-building than the United States Military could for Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Unless we see Gagliardi's teams producing the jail inmates that such paragons of coaching virtue like Bear Bryant, Joe Paterno and Tom Osborne produced, we might conclude that the world of fun and games is the worst place, instead of the best place, for harsh discipline and physical suffering.

Gagliardi's approach to sport as fun, rather than as deadly-serious, big-money business, may have actually been a calmer, less destructive influence on many a high-profile college athlete.

Higher-division coaching would, logically, be more knowledgeable strategically and fundamentally sound, so that teachers in practice would actually teach their players to improve, all in an atmosphere of fun. If we had more Gagliardi's at the highest levels of coaching, then those athletes most willing to learn, and most willing to pay the price to compete and excel, would defeat all comers.

Which brings us back to Bill James and Billy Beane. Ultimately, success doesn't come from the fear of perform or else you’re replaced but rather in teaching how individuals can perform. In any sport, it means coaching, teaching how to look at, say, the ball coming your way, and how to respond and/or not respond to it. It is by superior instruction that players of average talent can equal or exceed those with more talent, and that's what coaching is all about.

Bill Parcells, the current head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, embodies this vision. Some think that he rules by fear, that his anger and intimidation force players to play beyond themselves. But that's as likely to stultify or panic a player as anything else. What Parcells really does, because he is so knowledgeable of every facet of football, is teach his players how to play the game in a physically-fundamental better way. Parcells doesn't win because his players are better, but because they're smarter mentally and fundamentally superior.

The same applies to baseball. The role of the coach is to teach better physical mechanics and an overall better tactical and strategic vision for the game. Then, the James/Beane style will rise to the surface.

Bill James and John Gagliardi both had it right. Both seek best performance. For James it relies in the cultivation of natural talent, which requires coaching. For Gagliardi, it requires a spirit of "play" and "fun" in which one seeks to improve, not out of fear of losing games or loss of prestige, but because improving as a player actually makes the game more enjoyable.

I think not just the best athletic coaches, but the best teachers all-around, would inspire, not fear, but rather anticipation and ambition. And also, technical, mechanical, instructions in fundamentals. All in an atmosphere of enjoyment in which the best rise to the top not out of the desire to out-do others, but because the very tasks they are asked to do so fit their own loves and talents.

Competition's standard is not in who wins and who loses, but from how many can we inspire peak performance. And to get the best picture, we need not only the Bill Parcells's of this world, but also the Bill James's and John Gagliardi's.

The important thing is to love what you're doing. That is the foundation of better performance. To this cause, it is the Gagliardi's who provide the motivation, the Bill James's who provide the inspiration, and the Bill Parcells's who demand the perspiration.

Love what you're doing, know why you're doing it, and know how to do it. Those are the elements of success.

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