Monday, March 29, 2010

With a Name Like Wooden, It Has To Be Good

If you watch the TODAY show, you may be familiar with a segment that honors special Americans on their birthday. They aren’t politicians, athletes or celebrities, but they have achieved something significant: 100 years of life. The host, Willard Scott, speaks of the centenarian’s “interests, hobbies, secrets of longevity, vocation, or anything the audience might like to know about this amazing person” as their photo is featured full screen inside a Smucker’s jam label. I am always amazed at these folks, where they come from and what advice they impart. On October 14, I hope I will see the photo of John Wooden, born in Hall, Indiana. Perhaps this is what they will share...

Wooden’s interests could be captured in one word: success. At large, it seems that people know one of three things about Coach Wooden:
1) the 88 game winning streak of his UCLA teams (broken by none other than the Fightin’ Irish in South Bend)
2) his maxim: Failing to prepare is preparing to fail
3) his Pyramid of Success.
The pyramid identifies the skills that Wooden believes leads to and serves as the foundation of success. He chose a pyramid because it is a timeless example of stability. He gave his players a copy of this pyramid, explained it, and most importantly, he constantly affirmed each ideal. Although I often hear people scoffing at the Midwest, in the four plus years I lived in one of the “fly-over states” I was often impressed and humbled by the work ethic of many. Perhaps it is the influence and close ties to those agrarian roots, but it came as no surprise to me that “industriousness” is a cornerstone of his pyramid. I recommend looking at and noting which virtues resonate with you. Do any surprise you? Personally, I love that he placed “friendship” at its base. I know I will go the extra mile for a colleague or administrator that is also a friend.


When I read the Stanford men’s basketball report in the January/February 2010 Alumni Magazine, I was amused by its report from the Cardinal’s media guide. The personal section on team captain Landry Fields points out that his hobbies include, yes, "playing basketball." My guess is that Wooden would list a similar hobby.

Although the “Wizard of Westwood” is best known for the 10 National Championships he led the UCLA Bruins basketball teams to, it should be duly noted he is the first person enshrined in the basketball hall of fame as both a player and a coach.

Secrets of Longevity:
I recently told my students that I want to live to be 100. They looked at me with varied responses—why? Some had never thought about living to 100 before, some were mildly entertained by the idea, some understood and held an appreciation for the wisdom that comes with age, whereas others thought only of the complications. I asked them: Why not?

The more pressing question about Wooden’s longevity however is: could his incredible record winning of 10 NCAA titles in his last 12 seasons happen today? Men’s college basketball is dramatically different. It is increasingly rare that a team will play together for more than one year. The preseason report out of Westwood said, "Coach Ben Howland, in his seventh year at the helm, has essentially been conducting Basketball 101 at Pauley Pavilion." Last year, UCLA made an appearance in the Big Dance's second round. This year, they returned one starter and did not even qualify for the NIT. "Jrue Holiday jumped to the NBA after his freshman year and is now a Philadelphia 76er." Early departures have clearly hurt UCLA in recent times, a fact that is not unique to them. It is only fair to raise the question WWJD? What would John do? When I read in the New York Times “Across 36 sports monitored by the N.C.A.A., men’s basketball has the lowest graduation rates, with fewer than two-thirds of players earning degrees,” I wondered how Coach Wooden, a man of discipline and total integrity would navigate these waters. His secret to longevity might look different, but so too might his pyramid.

I was thrilled to read that even Willard Scott embraces the idea of vocation over career. Mick McCarthy, SJ writes in his article Education for The Discovery of Vocation "Let me be clear that “career” and “vocation” are not mutually exclusive terms. “Vocation,” though, suggests a quality of discernment and reflection on the mystery of our lives before God that “career” fails to capture." You could argue, no, Wooden is known exactly for his career. In fact, he was recently voted The Sporting News' greatest sports coach of all time. But the lessons he has distilled from the game, his players, and his success transcend the basketball court. Wooden is more than “The Wizard,” a coach, and a leader. Or is that what vocation points to—your life’s work is totally consistent with who and what you are. You cannot separate one from the other.

Anything the audience might like to know about this amazing person:
I think it’s important to note that John Wooden is a man of faith. In The Essential Wooden: A Lifetime of Lessons on Leaders and Leadership he writes:
I never prayed for victory, never asked God to let our team win the national championship, never offered up a prayer that UCLA would set some record or win a particular game. To my way of thinking, God has more important things on his mind. My own Christian faith however has given me great strength. I believe those of faith—and not just my faith—have something powerful and true they can draw on.

That’s why I encouraged those under my supervision to believe in something—a faith that gave them inner strength: I don’t care what religion you choose, but I think it makes you a better person to believe in something.

When Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabaar) became a Muslim, he did so after careful consideration and study. It didn’t bother me. He is still a Muslim and his faith has given him strength over the years just as my Christian faith does for me. Occasionally I wonder how those who don’t believe in something get by.
I love the simplicity of Wooden’s words. And there are so many others worth mentioning (from The Essential Wooden).

Go Get The Ball! I want it this way: “Go get the ball!” That’s the attitude I want to see. “Go get the ball!” That’s’ the positive approach. That’s what gets something done on and off the court. Don’t wait for things to happen. While you’re sitting around waiting, somebody else will “go get the ball!” And then what? Suddenly, you’re playing catch-up.

Sound of enthusiasm Don’t judge enthusiasm by how loudly somebody talks. Noise is not necessarily enthusiasm. Sometimes it is; sometimes it isn’t. An effective leader knows the difference.

Play Tall I had a very clear request of those I taught: Give me complete commitment and total effort. An individual who is willing to deliver those two powerful assets to your team is a prized player whether he’s seven foot two or two feet seven. Many times I reminded those I coached, “I don’t care how tall you are. I can how tall you play.”

There is nothing fancy about many of his ideals. They are tried, timeless and true. They only point back to this leader, coach, and Christian that with a name like Wooden, it has to be good.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Here Come the Irish! and the Colonials, the Gaels, Jayhawks....

It’s tourney time and with that comes an education or reminder of some of the colorful and crazy mascots that will join in “The Big Dance.” I’ve always wondered what it would like to wear a Spider to support  Richmond or cheer “Go! Demon Deacons!” for Wake Forest. With all due respect to their institutional histories and contributions to society, how many of us learn about some schools, like Denison University, because of past March Madness performances? Indeed, there are some great mascots. 
Take the Cal Bears, for example. The Bear is the central focus of the California State flag; it is a creature of strength and beauty. Many people outside of the Golden State are unaware that the University of California at Berkeley is the original California School. That signature “Cal” logo and mascot affirms it. I hope this gives more context for the deep-seated rivalry (and hatred, which I fully endorse) between Cal and USC. North vs. South, Good vs. Evil, Right vs. Wrong. And as someone who grew up following the Pac-10 (now Pac-12), I have a hard time NOT saying “Roll On You Bears.” Go Oski!

Or you have the Georgetown Hoyas—Hoya Saxa, symbolized by that salivating bulldog. Is a Hoya a Bulldog? Not exactly. In its rough translation of the short answer is “what rocks.” When “Jack” the live bulldog tares at and frees himself from a box labeled Syracuse, you can’t help but say “yeah, that rocks.” 

I know Georgetown students and alums are loyal followers of their men's basketball program, but I have often wondered how many of them actually can play the game? I dish this out as an alum of a school that has the world's largest 5-on-5 Basketball Tournament: Bookstore Basketball. One can retort, "What else is there to do in South Bend?!" and my response is simply "take it to the hole, baby." 
This March Madness is all about trash talking. But today, St. Patrick’s Day is a day for the Irish. I have always loved my alma mater’s mascot. Perhaps it is because I am Irish and being Irish means many wonderful things. Despite the changes that many schools have made to be more culturally sensitive, the Fightin’ Irish has stood since 1927

Occasionally, the colors that represent Notre Dame confuse sports fans. The Irish implies a wearing o’ the green, and over the years certain teams have. However, blue is the color of Our Lady, Notre Dame, and the gold symbolizes light. Jesus, the light of the world, is the son of Notre Dame. These two colors remind us of that incredible, mysterious and beautiful relationship. I suppose this gives credence to what Coach Lou Holtz told his team “God does not play favorites. God does not care who wins today…but his Mother does." Go Irish.

Photo Credits
Cal Bear
ND Leprechaun

Sunday, March 14, 2010

What's It Mean to Be Catholic in America?

I was recently interviewed about this blog by former SF Chronicle writer John Wildermuth. I was thrilled that the title of the article included the question, What does it mean to be Catholic in America? It is one that I hold for myself and that I present to my Seniors with total sincerity. To me, answers like “Catholic guilt,” "not eating meat on Fridays during Lent" and "being one of eight children" are dated and short-sighted. I hope that my students’ answers are much deeper than these and/or simply “Christmas and Easter.” I hope they recognize that they are called to bear witness to the challenge of the Gospel—to be selfless, loving and forgiving and to bring comfort to the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. If they add wearing a basketball jersey that reads the name of a school like “Most Precious Blood” or ashes on their forehead once a year, well that’s fine too.

My question has been a pressing one in the Jewish community for some time. In her book Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish, journalist Abigail Pogrebin interviewed over 60 people to unpack the complexities of Jewish identity and the emotions they engender. For Jews in America, being Jewish is a primary component of one’s identity, even among those who are not practicing. I wonder to what degree is this true for Catholics? Catholic San Francisco’s article reveals my personal answer to that question, but I am curious to know more. Tolstoy once said, “Certain questions are put to us not so much that we should answer them but that we should spend a lifetime wrestling with them.” This is one I am willing to wrestle with; it is one however that I hope to find life-giving answers to.

Better version of the article is available on page 17
NB: I love the photo that SI's Director of Communications, Paul Totah chose for this article. It features one of the Wildcats' most talented and grace-filled runners on the Polo Fields in Golden Gate Park, our home course. Rachel also happens to be my student; getting to know your students as athletes and your athletes as students is a true gift!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Paradox of The Blind Side

It’s Oscar time! And Sandra Bullock is favored to win “Best Actress” for her role as Leigh Anne Tuohy in “The Blind Side.” The movie, based on the New York Times best-selling “The Blind Side: The Evolution of the Game” is the first book to hit the big screen by Michael Lewis—author of “Moneyball” and a fantastically witty memoir “Coach: Lessons on the Game of Life.” Lewis fans will recognize the greatest discrepancy between the two is the film’s lack of emphasis on the game of football and the over-emphasis on the efforts of Leigh Anne Tuohy in Michael Oher’s “salvation.”

Lewis thoroughly yet artfully explains how Bill Parcell’s defensive minded genius and Bill Walsh’s “West Coach Offense” changed the game. Enter in one Lawrence Taylor, a hall of fame linebacker who played 8 years for Parcells and the philosophy “defense wins games” becomes truth. Find a fast and furious left tackle to against such a player, one who can defend “the blind side” of the quarterback and we have another story. In fact, we have this story. While my dad, the son of a football coach, and my uncle, a Pac-10 referee read the book and reveled in its technical details, after all—they speak English as a second language, I needed the example and testimony of “LT” to understand it. It’s a shame the movie relegated the “back story” to nothing more than the opening credits. This is a loss not only because Taylor is a maniac,
After his first NFL season Taylor became the only rookie ever named the league’s most valuable defensive player and he published a treatise on his art. "I don’t like to just wrap the quarter back" he explained "I really try to make him see seven fingers when they hold up three….So long as the guy is holding the ball, I intend to hurt him…If I hit the guy right, I’ll hit a nerve and he’ll feel electrocuted, he forget for a few seconds that he’s on a football field.”
but also because anytime you learn a foreign language—even in the form of “x’s and o’s”—you broaden your perspective and appreciation of what you already know.

Make no mistake about it; the viewer of the movie will know that Leigh Anne Tuohy “speaks football;” she has a strong understanding of the game and the skill sets each player needs. But in terms of the human interest focus of the movie, with all due respect to Sandra, or should I say Leigh Anne (?) many more than she extend a hand to Michael. It’s true, Leigh Anne urges her husband to pull over when they see Michael dressed in shorts, walking in the snow and it is because of her tenacity that the one dream Michael clearly, almost forcefully articulates—to get his driver’s license is made possible. Such focus on Leigh Anne however, leads the viewer to believe her husband, Sean Tuohy was at best, nominally involved in all of this. In actuality, Sean understood Michael like few others because he knew
what it meant to be a poor kid in a private school, because he’d been one himself. First off, none of the rich kids realized that one big difference between public schools and private schools is that in public schools, lunch was free. Every day for several years in high school Sean arrived without lunch, or money to buy it, and bummed what he could from friends. "When food is finite" he said, "you’d be surprised how much time you spend thinking about it." He also knew what is like to think of sports as a meal ticket. He knew what basketball was able to provide.
Without the “back story” you have a Christian family extending their hand to a needy foster child; without Sean Tuohy I’m not sure you have this story.

Perhaps it is because Bullock is the producer, but the director decided to focus on the “strange and wonderful relationship” that emerged between Michael Oher and the Leigh Anne Tuohy and her family. When asked about it, the real Leigh Anne remarked “Michael moved in to live with us full time and it had a much greater impact on our lives than we did on his life.” I hear her words and I think "of course he had a big impact." In fact, few people are bigger than Michael Oher. Lewis reports “One of the coaches took him into the gym and put him on the scale, but he overloaded the scale. The team doctor drove him away and put him on what the Briarcrest coaches were later informed was a cattle scale: 344 pounds, it read.” When it came time to clothe Michael, imparting a Corporal Work of Mercy, Leigh Anne contacted one of her clients, Patrick Ramsey—then quarterback of the Washington Redskins.
She “gave him Michael’s measurements….A few days later he called back “You’ve got these measurements wrong, he said, matter-of-factly. She explained that she had taken the measuresments herself, and written them down on a piece of paper. It must be Patrick who had them wrong. He read them back to her—20 inch neck, 40-inch sleeve, 50-inch waist, 58-inch chest, etc. nope, he had them right. “There’s no one on our team as big as he is,” Ramsey said.
And then, I think Leigh Anne is a incredibly generous and loving human being; she is a devout Christian. Of course she would say that. But the reality is Michael was “couch surfing” at best; he was homeless. He had been to 11 different schools in 9 years. Among his peers, he was one of the few to leave the projects in East Memphis where he grew up. Because of the Tuohys, he had his first “real” bed, he was privy to a tutor who helped him graduate from Briarcrest Christian High School and he earned a full athletic scholarship to Ole Miss. In 2009, he was the twenty third player taken in the NFL draft.

Yet, Leigh Anne’s testimony speaks to paradox that colors our world. As a teacher, I am often the learner, when a man or woman becomes a parent they are often transformed to a better son or daughter themselves. And paradox is at the heart of Christian faith. St. Francis said “it is in the giving that we receive,” scripture is rife with it “the first shall be last,” and Jesus’ entire life modeled it. He came as a servant leader, in His death we have new life.

Michael Oher is one giant paradox. Despite his sheer mass, he is fast and incredibly agile. I could go on and on with chronicles from the book--he could throw the football over 70 yards with ease, he lost interest in throwing the shotput and discus because it was "too easy." He has everything it takes to excel as a left tackle; to protect “the blind side.” And once again here lies the paradox, he needed his own to get there. We are all the quarterback in "the Game of Life." We all need someone to protect our blind side.