Since the afternoon in 1965, when Gary Cuozzo filled in for an injured Johnny Unitas and led the Baltimore Colts to a lopsided win over Fran Tarkenton and the Minnesota Vikings on the losers home field, I have been more focused on motivation determining NFL results than talent. When the point spread is factored into the equation, the advantage for the “wounded team” rises.
In 1980, I had an opportunity to talk to a legendary coach and find out why that theory didn’t work when his team was involved. That year, I was on the promotion team for the Daryle Lamonica Golf Tournament, an annual event the former Oakland Raiders quarterback staged for charity. One of the event’s sponsors, Home Savings and Loan, had their spokesperson on site for the two day tournament. That person was John Wooden, who had distinguished himself as one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all time during his years with the UCLA Bruins.
As a sports fan, I considered the assignment of serving Coach Wooden’s needs for the two days he was in the Bay Area both an honor and opportunity. I had learned from Keith Wilkes, who later changed his first name to Jamal, of his college coach’s routines while Wilkes was with the Golden State Warriors during the two years I worked for the team. Wilkes talked of Wooden’s precision in everything he did from the opening lesson he began each season with, teaching his players how to put on socks, to the exact timing of his practices.
For two days, I escorted Wooden from the golf course to tournament events to his hotel and even slipped in a stop at my brother’s house on the 14th hole. Spending those two days with the Wizard of Westwood was like a front row seat at the altar of greatness. He was soft spoken but commanded attention with each word he offered. He was also generous in relaying insights into the greatness his teams achieved. I was still one year away from opening Qoxhi Picks, but had already spent nearly 20 years charting team tendencies and motivational factors for the NFL, patterns that were based on human factors that applied to all sports at all levels.
On our second day together, I allowed myself permission to tell Wooden that I was interested in what drives a team to excel and what factors can put them in difficult situations to succeed. I did this, while contending that his Bruins were not susceptible to what seemingly governed other teams highs and lows. “How is it,” I finally said, “That your team can be prepared to play North Carolina in a huge game, and after winning it, come right back with a lopsided victory over a team that by my calculations should have been tough to conquer motivationally?”
“I never had my boys focused on their opponents,” Wooden said. “I wanted them challenging only themselves against what they knew was their very best. If we won by 40 points but one of my boys knew he hadn’t given all he had to contribute to the team, I wanted him to be restless on what prevented him from making his full contribution. If, conversely, my boys had given all they had to the best of their ability and we lost, I wanted them to sleep well that night knowing they gave all they had to the team goals.”
I had also prompted Wooden to reveal how his teams always seemed to bend scores in their favor down the stretch in close games. And he revealed, “If you watch a lot of players in close games after each score they will look up to the scoreboard to see where they’re at, and often if they pull a couple points ahead they relax with the lead. My boys were coached not to look at the scoreboard, but rather focus only on the court, knowing the scoreboard is only reflecting what is happening there.”
So simple, so clear, so precise, so inspiring, so what Wilkes had told me about Wooden before I met him. Why don’t all coaches just adopt the Wooden way? I suspect it is because, like their players, most coaches get tied into stuff that doesn’t really contribute to winning, but only shows their natural tendencies. That’s why we will see every week some coach toss a red challenge flag on a play that is obviously not going to be reversed and only serves to rob them of a challenge and timeout. Their emotions in the moment direct their actions, not a clear thinking strategy geared only to benefit their success.
Then there is the exception to the rule among NFL coaches, and not surprisingly, he is the most successful of the group. His name is Bill Belichick, he coaches the New England Patriots, and while other NFL teams have their highs and lows based on the weaving in and out of motivational factors that dictate results, he stands nearly alone in his ability to always, seven days a week, do what is best for his team’s prospects.
He is so good at it, some attribute it to cheating.
In fact, Belichick is simply working with a consistent approach that always puts his team in the best position to win. They are not scoreboard watching, or driven by where they are in the standings, they are only focussed on what is happening on the field. They know what happens there is going to be reflected on the scoreboard and final standings.
This week, they host the Dallas Cowboys, who come to town off a victory over the Detroit Lions that coupled with the Philadelphia Eagles loss last week to New England, puts them alone atop the NFC East Division. I bet Jerry Jones relishes this position, and his coach, Jason Garrett, is buoyed by leading in his race to the playoffs.
While Belichick, is a lot more concerned about what happens on the field tomorrow, knowing that will soon be reflected in the standings.
Qoxhi Picks: New England Patriots (-6) over Dallas Cowboys