Winning, Leading and Developing People

Larry Sternberg Larry Sternberg

Basketball Coach explaining the game play.

Robert Luther “Lute” Olson was the head coach of the University of Arizona’s men’s basketball team for 25 years. Respected both on and off the court, Lute’s long career boasted many achievements, including his impressive record of 700+ victories and his inductions into both the Basketball Hall of Fame and the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.

But more impressive than his winning record, were his skills as a leader.

In a statement obtained by ESPN and echoed throughout various media sources, President of the University of Arizona, Robert C. Robbins, was quoted saying, “Lute Olson was so much more than a basketball coach. He was an educator, a motivator, a husband, a father, a grandfather and a friend to so many. He was a true leader in every sense of the word and displayed such integrity and compassion in every endeavor. While Coach will no longer be with us, his presence will be felt for generations to come.”

At Talent Plus, the Science of Human PotentialitySM is the heart of everything we do. By studying top leaders and performers, our science know-how enables us to help organizations identify, select, and develop top talent, allowing companies and individuals to predict and realize their full potential.

Lute Olson was one of those leaders. We were saddened to learn of the passing of Mr. Olson, but celebrate the strong legacy and generations of leaders he leaves behind. We hope this glimpse into the man who positively impacted so many lives, leaves you inspired.

This is a previously unpublished interview with the legendary basketball coach, Lute Olson. It was conducted by my good friend, Keith McLeod, who realized that we could all learn a lot about leadership by asking highly successful leaders the right questions. Coach Olson’s responses are packed with wisdom and guidance about how to win, how to lead a team, and how to develop people. It is my distinct pleasure to share it with you.

If you start with good people, good people will find a way to be successful. 

Coach Lute Olson

A member of college basketball royalty; Hall of Fame Coach, 1997 NCCA Basketball Champion, 700+ victories, and 26 seasons of 20 or more victories. What did he say to his team after suffering a heart-breaking loss that led to winning the 1986 World Basketball Championship?

Coach Lute Olson finished his assistant coach, and team meeting to join me in his office for our interview. I asked: Starting from a farm in North Dakota where you were born to the present, were there any role models or leaders that shaped your life?

I was one of the fortunate people, who decided early what I wanted to do. It was when I was a freshman or sophomore in high school. We had a unit in our civics class about occupations, and the only thing I had ever thought about doing was being a coach. Having lost my father at a very early age, coaches had been very important to me in terms of their contact and their leadership. They were almost like a father to me, and that is the thing that got me into coaching. Once I became a coach, I’ve tried to provide for our athletes the same kinds of things that were provided by my coaches.

If I look back in my life, I lost my dad at the age of five, and then lost my oldest brother Amos. He was killed in a tractor accident eight months later. He had come back to run the farm, and was the only other male figure, just fourteen years older than I was. Marvin another brother who was four years older than me became sort of the on the premises guy. He was very helpful to me in a lot of ways. Once I got involved in basketball, starting in fifth grade, it became very important to me. We had a coach that was a special kind of guy. 

Once I got into a high school setting, there was a gentleman named Harold Poier who was the principal of the high school. Growing up in a small town the principal was the football coach, the basketball coach, the baseball coach, and the track coach. He and his wife were very important to me. Coach Poier had been a good athlete at a smaller school in Minnesota, and knew I needed the direction, because most of the other players had fathers that they could rely on. I think probably coach Poier, and when I went on to Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Ernie Anderson my basketball coach were the two most influential people in my life. Edor Nelson, who was the football coach and baseball coach, also had a big effect on my life. I think that when I look back on my life, it was always my coaches that I looked to for leadership and guidance. When I graduated from college and was out coaching, the biggest influences in terms of my coaching and how I dealt with athletes was Coach Wooden at UCLA, Dean Smith at North Carolina, and Pete Newell at University of California. Many of the things I respected I learned from these men. They were great role models for me, because not only were they outstanding coaches, they are great people.

Did you have an epiphany at a certain key point back in that time that crystallized?

From the time I was very young, I was always very interested in athletics. Before I ever played on an organized team, I had an active neighborhood where kids played football, basketball, and baseball outside of school. I’ve been asked many times, “Did you have this idea in your mind that you were going to be coaching in Division 1?” I never ever did. I started at a small high school in northern Minnesota; taught six classes, was head baseball coach, head basketball coach, assistant football coach, and lined the football field on game days. All I wanted to do was to coach, and teach on a high school level. And then as things happened and successes came about, then I had an opportunity to move up. But I never dreamed of being a Division 1 coach. All I ever wanted to do was to be a better coach this year, than I was the year before.

Another question I have, September 11th was a turning point for President Bush. According to reports from his top advisors, it was the days following 9/11 that he really became the President in the fullest sense of the word. Was there a similar experience in your journey, an event or situation that caused you to grow rapidly?

I was at a very young age when my father, 47, and died of a stroke. Eight months later my brother, who I had mentioned earlier, had been brought back from college to run the farm, was killed in a tractor accident. That really made it very obvious to me that we had our family, and that was about all that we had. During the time I was in coaching, I was fortunate enough the first year to be in a situation where we were successful. Then moved on to a larger situation. But I don’t know that there was any one event, other than the catastrophe in my family, I think back on as a defining moment. I had athletic ability, and I guess a person tends to do what they are successful at doing, and continues to work at becoming more successful. I was always a decent student, never a great student, but always good enough to make sure that I was doing the job and learning. The good thing was, we were in a small school. I got a good education, without things you have today going on in schools. 

When you first became a coach what were your initial excitements, and what were your biggest fears or concerns?

The excitements really are you’re in a situation as the coach where kids are looking up at you, looking for leadership and support. I guess the first day we went out for practice; I realized my responsibility to a lot of young men who are looking at me. Kids learn an awful lot from coaches. I think they are important people in the discipline, and the direction that their lives will take. So when I stepped out there it was, okay, this is a responsibility, and it’s more than just winning or losing games. It is a responsibility that you have in terms of helping young people develop. The fears I think are probably the same as they are in anything else. You are concerned about whether you are going to be successful with what you are doing. I’ve always said, “In coaching you don’t lose a lot, because if you lose a lot you don’t ever have an opportunity to coach any more.” 

If someone is in business, the pressure is there to do well or else you are not going to be in business anymore. But I guess on the coaching end of it, you are always concerned. I mean there is no in between. Either you win or you lose. And one of the big things that you have to learn in my business is that if you are not successful; if you don’t win, then what you have to understand it affects young people playing for you in terms of their confidence and their self-esteem. As a coach, the time that you have to be the most positive is after there has been a failure. I learned that at a fairly early age from a number of people. Winning is great, but the times you win your players don’t need you as much as when you lose. 

You’ve had great success and are in the royalty of elite coaches. What was there about you that created that success?

Well, as it is with anything, you have to be lucky too. You have to be put in the right place at the right time, and I guess success begets success. In the coaching field, if you are successful you are going to move from one job into a better job and so on down the line. But as far as some of the key things, my mother had taught us discipline. She taught us responsibility. It was a case of our family situation; my mother had an eighth-grade education. All of a sudden, she was left without her husband, left without her oldest son, left with three kids and her father. He was blind and lived with us. So suddenly it became a case of this has to be, and I certainly didn’t think of it at that time. Looking back at it now, it became a case of we had to be strong as a family if we were going to be successful. 

One of the things I think that has led to whatever successes I’ve had has been discipline. We have depended on the players having the responsibility, just like we as the coaching staff have the responsibility. We have been successful in every place that we have been by creating a family type feeling. When I was on the high school level, it was not just basketball; it was because we were a basketball family. We did things together as a family. Everyone was going to pull for the good of the team rather than for their own individual achievements. 

I think that has been a strength in my coaching, hard work, a work ethic. I mean it was just something my mother always taught us. Do the best job that you can and be responsible for what you are doing. I think in terms of my strength as a coach, teaching and demanding discipline, demanding responsibility, and then making sure that everyone understands that there isn’t any “I” in team. That we’re in this thing together, and that if we are successful as a team, then each individual within that team will be successful.

Expanding on this, what would you say or identify as your leadership style?

Well, I’m not a yeller and a screamer. I’m not someone who uses profanity, and I’ve always felt that if someone has to be profane – to make a point with profanity – like I tell our players, if I ever hear any of them using curse words, hey it’s time they spend more time on their English and developing their vocabulary. If you can’t verbalize what you mean without using profanity to do it, then you need to concentrate more on your English. So, as far as my management style, I hire good people as assistant coaches. I help them define what their responsibilities are. I’m not going to be somebody that is going to get in the way of them doing their job. They know that I’m always available to talk with regarding what they’re doing, and how they can improve what they’re doing. When I hire staff members, it’s a case of I want someone who is self-motivated. If they weren’t good people, they wouldn’t be hired. That is one of the key things that I’ve always believed in. If you start with good people, good people will find a way to be successful. 

How do you locate these types of people?

Well, some of them have come up through our program, so I’ve gotten to know them well as players. Obviously I wouldn’t hire them to be staff members unless I felt they were going to be responsible, they were going to be demanding, they were going to teach discipline, but do it in the same way. I don’t allow my coaches to use profanity. We are teachers. The basketball court is our classroom. Coach Wooden has a statement that he makes, “Failing to prepare, is preparing to fail.” If you don’t do your work prior to the time that you are going to be dealing with the young people, you’re not going to be successful. 

We as a staff, just now as I met with the team, I indicated that there isn’t going to be a time that you are going to find our staff not prepared when we walk on the court. We are going to have been in meetings. We are going to have taken into account every minute of our practice session. We are going to do the best job we can for our abilities in preparing you for what you have to do. What we have to be able to depend on from you is your full attention and your full effort as well. So, we try to let them know very specifically what we want them to do. We are going to help them, but whether it gets done or not is going to depend on them. So, we can do everything possible, but if they don’t do their job we are not going to be successful; and that’s what team is all about to us. 

People will watch our games and say, “You look to be so under control and poised on the sidelines.” My feeling has always been that if I’m not under control and poised on the bench, then how can I expect our players on the floor to be under control and poised. If you could see my insides, you would see my stomach churning, just like everyone you see that is involved in a competitive situation like ours. But, when our players look over at the bench, I want them to see somebody that looks like they’re in control of the situation, poised, and ready to make the decisions that have to be made.

The coach is comparable to a CEO and the title of the book I’m writing is, “The Loneliest Job in the World,” and I’m asking do you agree with that statement? Or disagree? 

I guess I’ll use the example of every once in a while, I’ll say something to one of the assistants, “It’s different making suggestions, than it is making decisions.” Someone who is a CEO, must understand that the buck stops here. Harry Truman said that very well, and it’s true. I’m responsible for what happens in this program. I’m responsible for how they do in the classroom. I’m responsible for how they act in the community. I’m responsible for them giving back to the community. I’m obviously responsible for what happens on the court, but the same is true with my assistants. I’m responsible for their actions and it can be very lonely. 

The CEO has to make difficult decisions. With the player’s, part of the assistant’s job is to be very close with the players. I then have a resource available to me to be able to tell me things about the young man away from the court, more so than I’ll know, but I’m the one that holds the hammer. I’m the one that has to make the tough decisions, and it can’t be a case of I’m buddy, buddy with the players. What I am is the person that’s in charge of directing them, disciplining them, and sometimes that’s a hard thing for CEO’s to accept. I rely on a lot of people for the success of this program, but in the end, it’s me. If we aren’t successful, I’m the guy whose head rolls first.

Well said. Coach, how do you define success?

I think it’s fairly simple. I think it’s being the best that you can be. I don’t think it’s how good a program do we have. I think with success there are so many things that come into mind. In terms of dealing with young men, it’s sort of interesting what happens. During the time they’re here it’s like Coach is really hard on me, and Coach is really pushing me, and what does he expect? I think my job is to make them better than they think they can be. It’s my job for them to raise their standards. It’s my job to motivate them in every way that I can, to make them the best they can be; and that’s not the best basketball player, it’s the best person. Somebody who is going to make a difference in this world in whatever type of occupation they do. 

I think how we’ve done; in terms of coaches how successful we are is really dependent upon how successful the people who come under our guidance become. Some of the guys that I’m the closest with are probably the guys that I was the toughest on when they came in, and maybe they needed that. I think a perfect example that people would understand would be Coach Wooden and Bill Walton’s relationship now. I’ve known Coach Wooden for a long time and he has said that no one gave him more grief when he was a coach than Bill Walton did. And yet, now, it’s a case of where Bill Walton will call Coach Wooden at least three times a week and talk with him. Bill Walton will say that other than his parents, there has been no one in his life that’s been as influential on him as Coach Wooden has been. I think that’s one of the difficult things about being the CEO. You have to do not necessarily what’s popular. You have to do what you think is going to have the biggest effect on the people with whom you deal. But I would say that my biggest responsibility is making the people under me the best that they can be. 

By your definition of success, how successful are you?

Well, it’s interesting in the coaching and teaching jobs. I coached on the high school level for 13 years and in junior college for four years. I was a high school teacher, and high school counselor. It’s amazing to me now how many times I get letters from people, and some people that I have a hard time remembering who they are, that have written and said what a profound effect I had on their life. Some of them were just in my physical education class, or some in my history class, or some were counselors. I did a thing back about five years ago, and the gentleman who introduced me was someone that I had counseled at Long Beach City College. He wasn’t one of my basketball players; he was in one of the other athletic programs. He had come in and talked about dropping some classes. He didn’t think he was going to be able to do the work that needed to be done for him to graduate with his degree. So, we had a talk and he decided not to drop the classes. He went on to become a very successful doctor, and I was totally unaware of that until his introduction at this speech. He said that if it hadn’t been for Coach Olsen the counselor, I don’t know what I’d be doing. 

Just recently a guy that I had on my first team got his doctorate degree and is president of a community college. He sent me a copy of his address to the student body, little did I know that he went on and got his doctorate. It was something, where his self-image wasn’t very good, and through something that I said or did just hit the right button to get him going. That is one of the great things that I think about coaching and teaching are the number of people that probably you’ve hit a button, and it’s made a real difference in their lives. I try to bear that in mind in everything that I do, it may be somebody that I have very little contact with, but yet it may be somebody that I can have a huge influence on in their lives. 

Your answer will surprise a number of people, because you didn’t touch on your many basketball successes and awards.

I’m certainly proud of the job that our guys have done through the years and winning, but in my opinion that is not how I would describe success. In the end I think it’s what kind of effect you have had on the people with whom you’ve come in contact. And, that may be in the coaching end of it, it may be in the things that you do in the community, or it may be charities that you are involved with. That is one of the things that we tell our players when we are recruiting them. You could go somewhere else and it would be a lot easier on you. You are going to live in a town where you are in a glass house. We are going to require things of you. You are going to learn to give back for the opportunities that you have. I’m proud of what our teams have accomplished, but in the end, I don’t think that’s the measure of a person’s success. 

I would agree. You’ve been involved in business as well as coach. Compare the CEO of a business to the coach as CEO. What are the similarities? What are the differences?

Well, actually, in terms of being a CEO of a business, I haven’t had that opportunity. My son ran a restaurant here, and I was the financial advisor and some other things, but the success or failure of that business was going to be based on the job that he did as the CEO. I’ve had an opportunity to speak to a lot of business groups. I’ve had an opportunity to visit and get to know people in the business world. I’m continually amazed at how closely tied the CEO of a company is with what the CEO is of a basketball program. 

I’ll go back to some of the points that I tried to make in terms of keys to leadership, and I think the first one is you start with good people. If you start with good people, they are going to find a way to be successful. I think you have to open lines of communication. The CEO can’t sit in his office and not get out to really find out what’s going on. A good friend of mine, a CEO, refers to management by walking around. I mean it’s a very simple thing, but it’s telling you something. That it’s important your people see you, know that you are interested in them, and not just as one of the people that work there. You are interested in their family, and you want to know as much about them as you can. 

That along with being the CEO of a business, in terms of what I’ve heard, communication is critical. We look at it as the key thing with us is starting with good people and keeping the lines of communication open. We make sure we let our people know that we care enough about them to create a personal relationship with them. I think it’s critical in a leadership position that you are prepared to help them in any way, and they know that you are there to help them; whether it be something in business, or something in their personal lives, they have enough confidence in you they can discuss things of that type. With us and our practice plans, as I talked before, I feel that I owe every guy that comes on our court, I owe him the best preparation from my end of it that I can give them. I think what’s important to the CEO of a business is the planning and the strategies that are involved in helping to make that company successful. So many of the things that are key to me in my job, I think are very key to CEO’s of companies as well.

You’ve been on boards of directors, any observations there?

Many of the same things that I see in boards I’ve been on, are the same kinds of things that I see on the coaching end of it. If you are in a leadership position, I’m not sure it makes any difference what area you are leading or providing the leadership. I think it’s similar. It gets down to the communication part of it. People want to know they are not just a pawn that you’re moving around. They are human beings, and you are interested in them. More than in how many cars they sell a month, or whatever business they are in, how successful they are in their sales or whatever. I think the key to success comes down to how you deal with people, and the concern that you have. Caring enough about them to create an atmosphere of concern. They know you are concerned; you are interested in what they are doing. Yet you have to understand you are not going to be successful all the time. It’s how you deal with failure I think speaks volumes for what kind of a person you are. 

I think back on my experiences. I had the great privilege of coaching the U.S. team in the world championships in 1986, and we weren’t expected to do anything. It was a great group of guys that really bought into the team aspect of it. I’ll never forget. We lost one game in the semi-final round. We had won our first set of games and then we went on to the next set. We lost a game to Argentina, and after the game was over, I went into the locker room just searching my mind for what in the world could I say at this point. I needed to buck them up at this point; we needed to get that confidence level back up.  I went in and talked with the team and said, “You know what, when we’re in Madrid, and the king is hanging the gold medal around our neck. We’re going to look back and say the reason that we won this was the fact that we lost to Argentina. Because this is going to bring us more together, and we’re going to be more focused on what we need to do as a team.” I’ll never forget. We beat the Soviet Union in the final game. They had the team walk off, and then you line up, and come back in again for the ceremony. As I was walking back one of the players said to me, “You know what Coach, the most important thing to happen to this team was that loss to Argentina.” I thought, wow, sometimes you wonder if they are really hearing what you are saying. But I think learning to deal with adversity is a real key, and how you react to that adversity. Does that linger with you? Or do you look at it and say, okay what can I learn from this, and take it to become better at what you are doing.

You’ve explained your coaching philosophy managing players in your program. Yet as the U.S. coach you had a collection of talented individuals with different influences, and different coaching models. Then they had to deal with Coach Olson. How did you orchestrate or harness them to be successful?

One of the biggest problems when you take an all-star team like that, you’ve got guys that are the best players from various teams around the country. All of a sudden you have five starters, you probably have three guys that come off the bench getting some time, and another four guys that probably aren’t going to see a lot of game time. From the start, I said to the team, “The guys that prove themselves every day in practice are going to be the guys that play. I don’t care about your reputations, or what you’ve accomplished. I care about your performance here, and whether you can make every guy that’s on that floor better because of your play.” In selecting the team, we had trials in Colorado Springs. The attitude and character of the players was the key. We wanted the best players that we could find, with great character and with great work ethic. If someone was a really great player, and I didn’t feel like he was going to be someone to accept the team attitude that we were going to have to have to be successful. Then we didn’t pick him. There were players who were better players than the players that we selected. 

I go back to what one of Bobby Knight’s assistants said when he had the “Dream Team.” He said, “We are going to have eight players that are going to be our mainstays. The other guys that we pick have to be great guys that can play some in case we need to have them there. But the critical thing is that they need to know what is expected of them.” They selected eight good players, and then they picked guys based on their character. We try to do the same thing in recruiting our players here. We’ve had guys come in here for visits who were really good players. I rely on my team to tell me if they are going to fit in to this family atmosphere here. If they are not, I don’t care how good they are, they are going to ruin our program. So, when we selected our team that year, we got guys that I felt would represent the U.S. the way the U.S. should be represented. They would not only be guys that would be looked at as good players but would be looked at as good role models. 

We tell guys we are recruiting here, “If you don’t want to be a role model, then you shouldn’t be at the University of Arizona. Because we are going to demand that you become role models. We are going to demand you do the things that should be done. So little kids, around the state and around the country, that watch you are impressed with the kind of person you are. Not just how good a basketball player you are.” 

That’s what went into our selection of that team. When you got into it, there were some that were probably disappointed in the amount of time they had. But in the end, when they went up there and got that gold medal, that takes care of things. I look back on my experience here at Arizona. If our team has been successful, then guys on our team have gone on to be successful playing in Europe, playing in the NBA, or going into business. In 2001 the interesting thing was, the guy who was our third or fourth leading scorer on the team, was taken in the draft before anyone else on the team. It’s not about the points. It’s about can you make that organization a better organization by your presence. 

On every level, high school, college, university, you’ve been a winner. There is one other arena of basketball, and that is the pros. Has that ever appealed to you?

No, it really hasn’t. There are a tremendous number of egos to deal with. You have the players, you have the agents, and you have all the rest of it. I don’t feel that I have the disposition to handle that. It’s not a case of where I could look the other way. I’ve talked with enough coaches who told me, you just have to not hear some things that are said. 

I love the fact that we get young men coming in here at 17 or 18 years of age. When they leave, whether its two years, or you hope four years, they really leave as young men who have to be ready to face whatever they are going to face in society. It is such an enjoyable job to see this kid coming in at 17 or 18, he has no clue of what is ahead of him, and to help him to make the adjustments that he’s going to have to make to be successful in whatever he chooses to do once he leaves. It is something that is really important to me. I feel an even greater sense of achievement from what you see these guys do after they have been out and away. We just had a bunch of our players back for, we do this every two years, where they come back in for what’s called the Lute Olsen Classic. We have a dinner at our house. We had over 100 people there, players, their wives, their families, and managers. It just makes you feel really good when someone comes up and says, “You really made a difference in my life.” There are not a lot of people who have an opportunity to claim that as something that they’ve accomplished in the course of their life. That’s the reason I love being on the college level. You really see a tremendous change in kids from the time you get them here and until they leave.

It’s a part of your DNA, a part of your fabric. How has your coaching changed over the years? 

It’s like I said. When I first started, my goal was to be a better coach the next year than I was the previous year. I also get asked this a lot, “How have kids changed in the time that you’ve been coaching?” My feeling is that the kids haven’t really changed that much. I think their surroundings have changed. We used to have kids who had both parents at home; there was a family kind of situation they were coming out of. There was more discipline and more fundamentals. Today the fabric, and the schools around the kids have really changed. But my feeling is I don’t think the kids have changed. I think they come in here, they want discipline, they want direction, and they want to be made responsible for what they do. The freshman year is always a time of huge adjustments, because many of them haven’t been faced with this kind of discipline. The fact is a lot of the kids are from one-parent homes, or if they have both parents there, both parents have to work to make ends meet. I think now it’s more important with Christine and I, as it was with Bobbi and I, that we provide a real family kind of feeling. If they haven’t had much of a family situation before, then we take as part of our responsibilities to make sure that we get them through this program. When they leave, family is really important to them. 

It is great to see some of the guys that did not have great family situations, become very, very good family men. I think that has happened, somewhat from the developmental years here. As far as changing with coaching, I had a guy that was on my first basketball team back in Minneola, Minnesota that comes out to Phoenix during the winter. He came down, watched practice and said, “Coach you haven’t changed a bit.” I replied, “Al, you’ve got to be kidding me.” He said, “Nope, it’s the same way it was when I played for you. Do things the right way, do things with maximum of effort and this game is all about team.” I had almost the same kind of comment made by Coach LaRoque who was a coach a Durango High School in Las Vegas. He played for me at Long Beach City College back in 1979 and 1980; he came in and watched one of our practices. He said, “You’re still teaching the same thing.” Basketball is a game of fundamentals. It’s a game of how well you can execute the fundamentals. It’s a game where the team is going to determine whether you are successful. There is no way to success other than hard work. The same things that were critical when I first started, I think are still critical.

Let me throw out certain words, and comment on those as being a coach; executive team members.

In terms of the basketball program, it would generally be our team captains. They would be our executive managers; they are the ones that know they have more responsibility than anybody for success as a player of that team. It’s up to them to help us develop the kind of camaraderie you have to have, the team chemistry, as it’s referred to. They are my sounding board. If I feel like maybe things aren’t headed in the direction we want to head; or maybe it’s a case of where there may be members of the team that I’m not sure are buying in to what is going on, they are the ones that I rely on. Like this year, one of our captains will be Hassan Adams. Hassan will come in and we’ll just sort of have a conversation. But in the end, there will probably be some key things that I want to get to in terms of my talk with him; getting him to understand the other guys are watching him. 

The young guys coming into this program don’t really know what college basketball is all about, or what the expectations are. You have to have that senior leadership, or executive leadership, to help the young guys in their development. When you say executive management, I think immediately of our captains and our upper classmen. It’s interesting in talking because I brought up Hassan Adams. He goes back to his freshman year when he came here, when we had Luke Walton, Jason Gardner, and Ricky Anderson. They had similar kinds of help when they got here as freshman. When I talked with Hassan about becoming a captain he said, “Well, I think I know the types of things I need to do, based on what guys did for me when I came in the program.” So, that’s what I think of when you use that term.

What about company culture, values, personality?

I think if we look at the Arizona program right now, I think the program has great respect throughout the country. We try to make that central point with our players. As a matter of fact, I just talked with them about that when I came down to meet with you. It’s not just you being responsible for yourself, or to yourself. You are responsible to every guy on this team. You are also responsible to each of us as coaches. You are responsible to each of the managers you are seeing in here. You are responsible to Steve Kerr, who was on the first team that we had here. You are responsible to Sean Elliott. You are responsible to Damon Stoudameier. So, it doesn’t make any difference if these guys played 20 years ago or not. The guys on this team have a responsibility to them, to continue the tradition of the Arizona program. You are going to be respected for what you do. You are going to be respected for your effort. You are going to be respected for the character you bring that other people see. We try to put it on them.

It’s just like when I talked about opening the lines of communication. We have evaluations of the team, by the team members three or four times a year. What they have to do is they have to evaluate themselves in comparison to their teammates. If they are the eighth best player on the team, then I want them to express the fact that they are the eighth best player. If they are the best player on the team, I don’t want them to be, well I know I’m the best, but I’m not going to say I’m the best kind of thing. If you are the thirteenth guy, you’re the last guy on the squad. Then you need to be aware of that. But, on the other hand, I want you to understand that if you’re number 8. What are the things you need to do to become number 7, or number 6, or number 5? We sit down. What I want when they come in the office, a half hour or forty minutes later, I want them to walk out understanding what they need to do to make this a better team, and what do they need to do to make themselves a better player. I also want them to walk out with the feeling that hey, there aren’t any secrets between the two of us. I want to know what you’re thinking, and you want to know what I’m thinking. So, when you’ve finished with this, you’re going to have a much better idea, and I’m going to have a much better idea, so we can be more successful in dealing with one another. That’s one of the ways we open the lines of communication. And I think, when I made this statement earlier about my friend saying management should be management by walking around. Our doors are always open to our players. We tell them we want to see them every day, not down on the court. We want them to stop by the offices, and we want them to understand that we are not just concerned about them as basketball players. We are concerned about them as people, and we are concerned about their development. I don’t know if that hits on what you are talking about.

That’s wonderful. I can definitely see the similarities between business and coaching as you talk. Share with the readers the difference between coaching at the calm times and the crisis times.

We have, I guess when I look at the calm times and the crisis times, our season is really divided into three parts. It is the non-conference season, which is the calm time; because at that point you win or lose the game, you win or lose the game. But the key thing is what you gain from that time. I’ve told our media that I’d rather lose a game by 2 than win a game by 40. They look at me like I’m crazy. In that non-conference time period, we’re going to learn more from that adversity than we are going to learn from having an easy win. It gives them a false feeling of security in how good they are. Whereas with a loss, it is going to get them focused. Because, what are we going to have to do, to be able to come into the locker room and not feel like we’re feeling now? 

Then the conference season, it becomes more of a crisis. Every win or loss is going to have a determination whether you win the conference or not. That’s always our first goal is to win the Pac-10 title. The crisis comes when you enter the NCAA Tournament, because now it’s one and done. You have to perform, or your season is over. 

However, from the CEO standpoint, you have to make certain that the kids don’t feel it’s a crisis. We don’t do anything differently in preparing for an NCAA opponent than we do for, let’s say, a conference opponent. The same preparation goes in for us for every game, from the start of the year in terms of the breakdown of tapes, the scout team and on the court. We want them to feel comfortable with the way we prepare, and for what needs to be accomplished. The worst thing that you can do in our business is to make the kids feel like this game is bigger than life. If you do, then all of a sudden they’re going to tighten up and they are not going to do things that they’ve been doing all along. It’s like if you’re a golfer, you step up to the ball and you’re thinking I’ve got to hit this thing well. You’ve got all these thoughts going through your head, all of sudden your muscles freeze up on you, and you don’t do the thing that you need to do. You need to do what you do with the confidence that you’ve done everything that needs to be done in the preparation. 

Let me interrupt. In a big game, a U of A ball player is standing on the foul line when the opposing coach says, “time out.”

Yeah, to freeze the shooter. So, what would I do if they came over to the bench at that point? One, we’d make sure that we didn’t put any more pressure on the kid than what he is already facing. What I would do in that situation is say, “Well, okay now, after Joe makes these free throws, we need to make sure that we are aware of time, score and that kind of thing.” But never bring into his mind any thought of missing. So, it’s a given that you’re going to hit the free throws, but not by putting more pressure on. What I try to do is just say, “Now, after you hit these free throws, this is what we need to be aware of; what the score is, how much time is left, and what we need to do to execute in the late stages of the game.” Of course in practice situations we go through those things on a regular basis; the last two minutes of the game, the last three minutes of the game, the last five minutes of the game – just for them to get accustomed to knowing that hey, we have to execute what we would normally do. We can’t now start thinking about doing different things than we’ve been doing all along. 

Does this spill over into the NCAA tournament? Generally, when being very high ranked, so there are teams there that want to knock you off.

I know I’ve experienced it. Like every other coach has. When we prepare for the NCAA games, we honestly just try to go about the same kind of preparation that we’ve gone through all year long. They already know. They watch TV, they read the papers, and they know what’s resting on it. I think it’s important that we don’t put more pressure on them by the things that we do. I think back on our 1997 team when we won the national championship. We were going to play Kansas, and Kansas had been rated #1 all year long. We had our local media, conference media and some national media people there. I remember Michael Dickerson, one of our wingmen, when one of the media people came up to him and said, “Kansas is favored by 8 points, or whatever.” He said, “You mean they’re favored?” It was like you’ve got to be kidding me! I know that we’re the team to beat. And that’s the kind of attitude that you hope that you’ve developed with the team. Hey, it’s the other people that need to be worried.

Talk about a sense of humor with coaches or players.

I think that’s an important part of the make-up of a team, and maybe of a coaching staff. With our assistant coaches, I don’t want them all the same. I want them to be different. I can look back at like my first years here. I had Ricky Birdsong, who unfortunately was shot and killed by a white supremacist. Ricky was one of those guys who always kept things loose. We had another guy that was really intense, and another guy that was sort of soft spoken. The players felt very comfortable coming in and talking with him. I think in putting together a staff, you need to make sure that you’re not putting four people out there that are super intense, or at least show intensity, but rather somebody that’s calm and relaxed. 

Miles Simon was the MVP of our 1997 team, and he is now on the staff. There are a number of reasons why I offered him the job, but the number one thing is the amount of confidence he develops in players. Like the year that we won it, the front-line guys, the most experienced guy we had played only eight minutes a game the previous year. Of those top four guys inside, two of them had not even been on division 1 level the year before. We had a freshman point guard. It was the first time ever in the history of the NCAA a team won it with a freshman point guard. Of course, it was Mike Bibby, and he is an unusual player. Miles just had, some people refer to it as cockiness, but I think its confidence in what he’s doing. He has the ability to develop that same kind of thing with the players. In putting the staff together, there are different things that I look for, but the key thing is that they are not all the same. 

So, you’re making a conscious effort. Do you have a laundry list of the different type of personalities or management styles?

I do. I want one guy who is very organized, a detail guy that will take care of all the little things that need to be done. I want another guy that is really intense on the court. And the third guy, in this particular case, is a guy like Miles Simon. He just makes everybody; when they step out on the court, feel like they are really good at what they do. Miles this last year would sometimes work out with us with the scout team. They would beat our starters probably as many times as we beat the scout team. When Miles wasn’t there, it was an absolute blow out. So, it was a case where he made guys, that weren’t great players, feel like they were great players. It was never a negative thing unless somebody wasn’t working hard. Then he would say something. Guys that weren’t shooters would shoot the ball really well, because he’d always say if they’d miss the shot, “Hey that was a great shot; we’ll hit that one the next time.”  You could just see the kind of confidence he would develop. In putting together the staff, generally speaking, I want somebody that is really intense, I want somebody that is a detail guy, and then I want somebody that the players have great confidence in; that can develop great confidence in the players. With my job, my job is to make sure that we tie all of those things together, providing the leadership that is going to tie the whole thing together. 

Over your years of coaching, have any betrayals occurred? And if so, how did you get past them?

There have been betrayals; and sometimes, depending on the circumstances, you have to make hard, tough decisions. Sometimes, it’s been a case of where something happened. I thought was really going to be detrimental to the team, and I would have to talk with the young man. Just tell him that we just can’t have this. I want to wish you good luck at what you are doing, but learn from this experience. Then there have been other cases where I’ve had the young man come in, talk with him, and tell him I’m not going to allow you to practice. After I see how you react in a week to this, then I’ll make a determination as to whether you are still on the team, or not on the team. I’ll try to make it clear to him that what you did is wrong, and you can prove to me that you recognize this is wrong, and you are going to correct that. Invariably what happens is that the young man realizes is that the team needs him less than that person needs the team. 

The nice thing is through the years we haven’t had very many of those situations. I think part of that has to do with our selection process of making sure we are looking at the character first. Another reason why we haven’t had a lot of that has been the caliber of the players in the program when that young man comes into the program. I think that they adjust, and they see this is really fun. It’s fun to be a member of a family, and fun to be a member of the team. But when something like that happens, the number one thing is we need to sit down and talk in private about what has happened. There are very few times the young man isn’t well aware that what he’s done is not the right thing.

You have a reputation for being a tireless recruiter. What about the young man that you’ve spent hours with says, “Coach, I want to join you and be a player.” Then you read in the paper he is going somewhere else. Do you want to comment on that?

You’re talking about the ones we lose? After they say they’re coming? If someone comes into this program, they come of their own volition. It’s not a case of where we’ve done anything other than what the rules allow us to do. I think every person has the right to make the decision what they feel is going to be the best decision for them. For example, this summer I got a call from a young man that we’ve been recruiting a couple of years. We talked for a little while and he said, “Coach, I wanted to call you because I’m going to go in a different direction. I’ve narrowed my choice of schools, and the schools are…” He told me Arizona was not one of them. The first thing I did was to thank him for his honesty, and that he would call me. What bothers me is if we’ve been recruiting a kid for a long time, and when he says no, he has somebody else do that for him. To me, I see that as a little bit of a character weakness. When this young man told me, I told him I appreciate your calling me. I want to wish you the absolute best of luck. I will follow your career with interest, but the reason I appreciate your calling me is now we can get on to guys we think we have a chance to get into our program. Some coaches don’t react that way. They’ll start getting on the kid and start putting more pressure on. It’s just like if a kid wants to transfer. You hate to have him leave your program, but when that time comes, it’s not a case of where I should be upset with him. It’s a case of where he’s made a life decision. I just make sure that he’s talked with people, and he’s thought this out for some time before he makes that decision. 

The ones probably bothering me the most are the ones where you get a commitment, and then all of a sudden he doesn’t live up to the commitment. But if we get a commitment, number one we want to talk with the parents, the high school coach, and other people to make sure they’ve discussed this, and it’s a decision they all agree with. We then require that they contact somebody in the media and get it out. We won’t take a commitment from somebody we don’t feel is of high character and morals. We want the people around them, especially the parents, to be the same kind of people. When they give their word, it’s just as good as having their name signed on the sheet. But it has happened to us a couple of times, but not recently. It happened before, and as a result we developed a policy to cover that. They need to get it out in the paper and not take another visit. It’s not fair to the other schools that visit. Now we’ve become more direct in terms of what happens before we’ll take a commitment from them. I think in the whole time I’ve been involved, it’s probably happened twice, which is an indication of the quality of people we’ve received commitments from. Interestingly enough, in at least one of those cases, the other school ended up going on probation for recruiting violations. It’s going to happen occasionally, but when it happens you just have to deal with it and go on. 

Coach, what are you doing to promote your own personal growth?

I watch a lot of basketball tapes. Not just the teams that we play, but if I have a great respect for a certain coach and how his team is playing, I’ll review tapes of that. I read a lot of books. I enjoy talking with people who are not in coaching, and that are successful in their respective areas. Maybe they have something that I can steal from and learn from it. I know there is a lot out there I can learn. Every year that I’ve been in coaching, I think I’ve learned things that have helped me be more effective at what I do.

Talk about significant others, family, non-work activities outside of being CEO. There is another life you live.

With basketball, it seems like it’s all consuming, outside of your family. People ask what do I do from the end of the season to the next season? I always joke with them and say, “Well, I sit around and eat bon bon’s.” Other than all of the charity stuff, all the fund raising, the camps, and the recruiting; all of a sudden you’re back at work again. Most of the things that I do when I’m not working are really family involved things. I enjoy playing golf, but I don’t play a whole lot of golf. When I finally do get time to spend with my family, it’s not a case of I’m going to give up four or five hours to play golf. With Christine, Christine plays golf. She likes to play golf, and her two boys like to play golf. Once in a while we’ll do it as a family. But most of the things I do are really involved with the family. I like to fish. I go fishing once a year with a group of boosters that have put a lot of money into the athletic program here. I enjoy that. But really, I guess I live sort of a boring life. I work and then I spend time with the family. 

I think that’s a positive thing. Share your advice for budding coaches. What qualities are needed? What psychological make up is needed to be a head coach?

When I think about what a person needs to have, I think of my comments speaking at a commencement here a few years ago. I said the most critical thing that you do in choosing your life’s work is you are passionate about it. If you don’t have a passion for what you’re doing, your chances of being successful are not very good. Plus, you’re not going to be a happy person if you’re not passionate about what you do. 

When I talk at clinics to young coaches, I point out that there is no easy way to success. It’s hard work. You have to have a lot of qualities in terms of being able to communicate with people. You have to be driven in what you’re doing. My master’s degree is in educational psychology, with a counseling certification. If there are guys still taking courses, I recommend to them very strongly that they take some psychology courses. It will enable them to understand a little better what makes people tick, and how you can improve your communication skills. You are going to be dealing with people in the coaching profession. It’s not just going to be the kids. It’s going to be the kids, parents, grandparents, and the media. You have to be a people person if you are going to be successful in the coaching end of it. 

I’m just trying to think of anything else I’d have to say in that regard. I think it starts with a passion, and you have to want to be the best coach you can be. You have to listen to other people. You have to learn from other people. You’re going to be dealing with people you can’t have such an ego that it’s all about you. It’s got to be about us, and the success that we can have as a team.

Looking back over the years, what did you learn about yourself?

I think back on my first year as a coach, and I wonder how in the world we won any games. Thank goodness for the talent we had. I use this statement every now and then: It’s what you learn after you know it all that really counts. I think you probably come out and try to act confident; to overcome the lack of confidence you may have. The fear of failure is a great motivator for a lot of people. 

But what I’ve learned about myself is I’ve had to work very hard at communication skills. As a young coach, I don’t think I was as good a listener as I had to be. I try to use that as an example to young coaches in this business. You have to have a close awareness of what the other person is thinking, and the only way you’re going to find that out is by talking with them. I think when coaches come out; they sort of want to feel like I’m in charge of this thing. The more I’ve been around, the more I’ve understood that you’re not as much in charge as you think you are. There are a lot of people that are going to be involved whether this is a successful organization or not. It’s important to be a good listener. I always tell coaches in clinics that people really like good listeners. You say something and they nod their head, they show agreement with you. I say that if you’re a good listener, not only are you going to be very popular, but you’re also going to learn something. You are never going to learn anything with your mouth open. The other thing I tell young coaches is what you are shouts so loudly in my ears that I can’t hear what you are saying. You have to be the example. You have to lead by example. It’s not what you say should be done; it’s what you do. It’s a case of you leading, but you are really pulling people along, rather than pushing people. 

As you address the coach requirements, I hear you saying there is no elevator; you have to take the stairs.

That is a great statement. There isn’t any easy way to success. It’s hard work, dedication, and being willing to recognize what your weaknesses are, and make the adjustments that need to be made. 

I’m grateful for what you’ve shared with me. One last thought; what would you like your legacy to be?

My legacy? “To help find a cure for cancer.”

Larry Sternberg

Larry Sternberg

Larry is a Fellow and Board Member at Talent Plus where he helps people and organizations grow by using the Talent Plus science to select high potential people, put them in the right fit for their talent, and make them feel valued and significant.

“I help managers and leaders make a lasting positive difference in the lives of their employees.”

Talents: Conceptualization, Relationship, Ego Drive, Individualized Approach, Growth Orientation

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