Monday, November 22, 2010

Coach Ferentz Provides Classy Variety of Wins

November 22, 2010, 11:20 a.m.; November 29, 2010, 9:30 a.m.

Winning Isn't Everything
(bought to you by*)

Packers Coach Vince Lombardi is often credited with Bruins Coach Red Sanders' line, "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing."
[It is attributed to UCLA Bruins football coach Henry Russell ("Red") Sanders, who spoke two different versions of the quotation. In 1950, at a Cal Poly San Luis Obispo physical education workshop, Sanders told his group: "Men, I'll be honest. Winning isn't everything. (Long pause.) Men, it's the only thing!"[1] The phrase is quoted in the 1953 film Trouble Along the Way by John Wayne's character, Steve Aloyosius Williams. In 1955, in a Sports Illustrated article preceding the 1956 Rose Bowl, he was quoted as saying "Sure, winning isn't every thing, It's the only thing."[2] . . . The quotation is widely attributed to American football coach Vince Lombardi; who probably heard the phrase from UCLA coach Henry Russell Sanders.[3] Lombardi is on record using the quotation as early as 1959 . . ..]
"Winning Isn't Everything; It's the Only Thing,"

Now don't get me wrong. I'm as competitive as the next guy -- or woman. We may overdo competition (especially with the emphasis on test scores and grades throughout our educational system; as I remind law students in "So You Want to Be a Lawyer: A Play in Four Acts"). But the fact is, the military awards medals, seemingly every profession or endeavor has awards of some kind -- and all sporting events have winners, losers, and "championship" designations of various kinds.

In sports, winning determines in large measure which teams go to bowl games, how teams are ranked nationally, which players (and coaches) "go pro," the judgments of sports reporters, broadcast rights revenues, and the loyalty and enthusiasm of fans -- including their willingness to make contributions to the athletic program and buy season tickets for the following year. And although hopefully outside the purview of collegiate athletics, winning also determines who ends up with the tens of billions of dollars wagered on sporting events through the online and conventional gambling industries and privately among acquaintances.

Lest there be any doubt about the importance of winning to "the academy" (as university professors refer to themselves and their institutions), consider the content of their football coaches' contracts. Take Coach Kirk Ferentz' Feb. 1, 2010, contract for example. There is, of course, a brief section 3 on "compensation." But it is followed with the much lengthier section 4 on "supplemental compensation" for the really important part of his job description in working with "student-athletes." These are the "incentive bonuses" based on how the team ranks nationally (up to and including "National Champions"), within the Big 10, BCS and other bowl games, and various awards as "Coach of Year." (In fairness, there's also a modest payment (roughly 2%) if 70% of the players who could graduate do so.) Needless to say, insofar as the more significant of those payments are concerned it is indeed true that "winning is the only thing" insofar as the signatories to this contract are concerned -- the University President and Athletic Director (with the subsequent approval of the State's Board of Regents).

I watch fans leave a stadium during the third or fourth quarter of a football game their team will handily "win" or "lose." It always seems to me they are short-changing themselves by putting so much emphasis on final scores. There's a beauty, and a thrill, to every play, every move, in the game -- the foreplay that only culminates in a final score. Sure it's nice when the home team wins. But it's also nice to watch a quarterback place a pass with pin-point accuracy into the arms of a receiver accompanied by three opponents, an offensive line that gives him plenty of time to pass, the fast-forwarded ballet moves that enable a hard-charging runner to seemingly slip out of the grip of defenders during a long run, a well-placed kickoff or an especially skilled, long field goal.

Not only do we have a cultural emphasis on winning in all endeavors, and especially in collegiate athletics, but it is at a minimum just nice to win -- especially for a coach.

But there was so much more to write about that Iowa-Ohio State game than the sports writers' focus on the loss, what caused the loss, how it compared with other losses in this and prior seasons, the probability of losses in future seasons, and what the consequences of Saturday's loss would be. See, e.g., Andy Hamilton, below; Pat Harty, "Iowa Rarely Stays at an Elite Level," Hawk Central/Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 22, 2010, p. B1; Marc Morehouse, "8-4? Better than 7-5," The Gazette, November 22, 2010, p. B1.

[Nov. 29:] You can concentrate on the team's losses this season if you want to. Admittedly, November was not a good month for those whose football focus is myopically limited to the numbers on the scoreboard at the end of each game. But if you focus on how the team does throughout each game you discover that (I think this is true) they were winning or tied in every one of the 12 games they played -- an unbeaten season record -- at the 55-minute mark. That's not chopped liver. Of course, that's not 12 "wins" either; this isn't horseshoes. But it does rather neatly narrow the nature of the "wins" problem, and reflects the skill and strength of the players.

I have no doubt that Iowa's Coach Ferentz would have been much happier after the Ohio State game Saturday had his team had the larger score. A lot turned on the final score in that game.

All of which makes his post-game comments even more remarkable. As Andy Hamilton reported,
“You know, I’m not real big on that ['wouldas, couldas and shouldas'] game, especially since the guys played hard and competed,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “I don’t know that they could have played any harder. Our guys couldn’t have. We didn’t do some things well enough to win. They played hard and competed, and that’s all you can ask against a very good team.”
Andy Hamilton, "Ohio State Loss Feels Like Deja Vu for Hawks," Hawk Central/Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 22, 2010, p. B1. The Iowa team couldn't have played any harder "and that’s all you can ask against a very good team.”
Nov. 29: More quotes from our Coach Ferentz before and after the Minnesota game, Nov. 27:

On sitting in outdoor stadiums in below-freezing weather: "'It's really not bad for coaches and players,' Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. 'I've never understood why fans go. Coaches and players are working. It's not that big a deal. Would I go to one of those games? I don't think so.'" Mike Hlas, "Only Winning Makes New Stadium a Home," The Gazette, November 27, 2010, p. B1.

And the no excuses, no blame game response to the Minnesota loss? “They were more ready to go than we were today. They got what they deserved and we got what we deserved.” Andy Hamilton, "Iowa’s loss to Minnesota: ‘Something’s not going right,’" Hawk Central/Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 27, 2010.
I just thought that was a valuable, useful, compassionate and classy response to a major loss (just like his taking some public responsibility for an earlier one). I don't mean that the Pope should add him to the list of new Cardinals or anything like that. There are a lot of possible reasons for his saying what he did.

But it represents a useful observation, and orientation, we can all benefit from applying to ourselves, our children and our students.

President Lyndon Johnson used to say occasionally, "They call me 'Lucky Lyndon.' But I always find the harder I work the luckier I get." It's true in the study of law, and it's certainly true in athletic performance. That's what "strength training" is about. It's why and how Ricky Stanzi benefits from his four-hour sessions studying game videos.
[Andy Hamilton, "The education of Ricky Stanzi; Hawk QB a student of the game," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 23, 2010 ("Stanzi is a quarterback major this semester with a minor in football film study. His classroom is a dark chamber inside the Hayden Fry Football Complex where, in an average week, Stanzi spends nearly 20 hours — sometimes up to four a day — watching film and studying Iowa’s next opponent.").]
But once you really have worked at preparing yourself, and you're performing up to the level of your ability, whether you're a high school student with special needs in a play, or a star quarterback making plays on the field, "that's all you can ask" -- of yourself or of others.

"Winning" games really isn't everything. It does make a difference "how you played the game" [Grantland Rice: “[It's] not that you won or lost but how you played the game,", supra], and what you said and how you behaved after the game.

Full effort, plus class, counts, too.

In fact, in the greater scheme of things it's probably the most important "win" of all.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself.
-- Nicholas Johnson
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