Monday, August 09, 2004

FAILING TO PLAN = what, class?: Slate doesn’t publish a sports feature every day, but when they do, it’s usually fun reading. I may resolve to post a commentary on every “sports nut” piece they run…

Today’s, by Jeremy Derfner, is “Coach Lit: How to Succeed the Riley way. And the Coach K Way. And the Shanahan Way…”

Oh my God, this guy is so right. First, his overall mission of skewering coach lit is a worthy one. The word “leadership” appears in the name of the office I work for, so I suppose I should take the field of leadership literature seriously, but the fact that the field seems to rely heavily on the wisdom of basketball and football coaches, makes me dismiss the whole enterprise as utter bullshit. This is unfair, I know, but it seems like every leadership talk I’ve ever heard has climaxed with a Vince Lombardi quote. A man I know who teaches leadership at Duke’s Public Policy Institute, a good and smart guy, has a refrain about “making the .240 hitters into .250 hitters.” That’s a perfectly sound organizational concept, raising the performance of mediocre workers, but distilling it into a sports metaphor cheapens it for me. I’m as big a sports fan as you are likely to meet; my head is crowded with baseball trivia and the names of each NBA champion in the shot-clock era. But I’m deeply skeptical of sports as a mine of generally applicable wisdom. It’s a diversion, people--a form of entertainment. Aaron Spelling and Marty Scorsese don’t write leadership tracts; neither should basketball honchos.

And speaking of the latter, Mr. Derfner mentions Coach K (I’ve been following his career for 20 years but damn if I can spell his last name), specifically Coach K’s recent flirting with leaving Duke University and taking a big-money job with the Los Angeles Lakers. K kept Duke and the entire ACC basketball audience holding its breath for the long July 4th weekend, wondering if he would accept the L.A. job offer. That was an interesting study in human nature, I thought; so many sports reporters and fans leapt to the conclusion that K would take the Lakers’ money and run. In retrospect, we all should have known better. What Coach K has at Duke is better than money, he has demi-god status. He gets a faculty slot at Duke business school; he gets his own institute for leadership and ethics; he gets distinguished lecturer gigs at the Divinity School; he hosts the Duke Children’s Hospital radiothon. His financial package is no disgrace either; it dwarfs that of the university president (actually, President Brodhead is ranked about number 10 on the list of Duke salaries; a bunch of medical center bigwigs exceed his tax bracket as well. Supply and demand, baby.). The marketing value of the Duke basketball program to Duke University, in real terms like TV money and merchandising and the pool of prospective students, is massive. For building that program, for amassing a championship record without disgracing the academic reputation of the place, Coach K is the de facto mayor of Durham and the goddam grand wizard of college basketball. His perch at Duke confers riches, intellectual respectability, heavyweight celebrity, and something akin to sainthood.

Here is an observation that I haven’t seen elsewhere. I don’t think Coach K engineers these job offers from the NBA; he probably gets feelers every year. But he can dismiss the inquiries quietly, or he can play them to the hilt. About 12 or so years ago, when Nan Keohane was new in the Duke president’s job, she called Coach on the carpet over some matter; I think it was a summer exhibition tour of Europe that she thought was a little extravagant. K’s response basically was, I’m sorry you feel that way, Dr. Keohane, and by the way, I have the Portland Trailblazers on hold on the other line. I don’t believe for a minute he was tempted to jump to Portland; that was a power play. And to both parties’ credit, the two K’s (Krzyzewski and Keohane) developed a good working relationship. But I find it curious that this Lakers job offer coincided, pretty much to the day, with the arrival of Nan Keohane’s successor. Krzyzewski (ok, I looked it up) emerges from his dalliance with the Lakers clutching a contract extension and a powerful message to Dick Brodhead about what’s what and who’s who. I don’t fault the guy for strengthening his position; that’s his right. I just offer it as an observation on our local demi-god.

Come to think of it, the current issue of Sports Illustrated has a good profile of pro football coach Bill Belichick (only subscribers can get it online). I suspect a business exec or other leader could get some valuable lessons out of it, namely: Pay attention to detail, work hard, don’t let success go to your head. And don’t take time out to write a frickin’ leadership manual.

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