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I’m often asked two related questions: How did I build the University of Connecticut basketball team into a top national program, and what’s made me a successful coach?
My first response is always that I alone ¬haven’t built Connecticut into a “name” program. It’s been a group effort, to say the least. I ¬haven’t scored a single point or grabbed any rebounds. The players have, and ¬we’ve had some exceptionally talented and dedicated student athletes. In addition, I’ve been very fortunate to have, over the years, a tremendous collection of assistant coaches who’ve spared no effort to help us win. Some are still with me, and others have moved on to coach at other schools where, to a man, each is doing an outstanding job.
As to what makes a coach successful, I confess that I’ve never discovered any mysterious secrets for building great basketball teams. There are no magic formulas that, if found, will lead to market dominance, a corner office, great wealth, or, in my case, an NCAA championship.
Winning lives are not built easily or quickly. Nor are ¬first-¬rate organizations. Sure, some Internet entrepreneur might hit on an idea that catches on and makes a pile of money. But the vast majority of successful companies are built ¬painstakingly—with blood, sweat, and tears. They are made successful over time by people who are strong, productive, ¬creative. People who burn with a passion for what they are doing and what they want to achieve. In turn, the found¬ers or original leaders hire others who are talented and share the boss’s enthusiasm for the business. I’ve always been a pretty intense man. Ask people who know me, and they’ll say I’m an emotional, ¬two-¬fisted Irish Catholic guy with the personality of a bulldog. That’s pretty much true. Maybe it comes from my roots in a ¬working-¬class suburb of Boston. George Blaney, one of my assistants at UConn, says that I wake up intense. Others joke that I get out of bed looking for a fight.
I don’t disagree. No question, I’ve got a lot of inner drive, and I’ve benefited from it. It’s my nature. I ¬can’t wait to get up in the morning. I curse the fact that there aren’t enough hours in the day to get done all that I want to do. I love spending time with my family, watching movies, reading novels, going to the theatre, and riding my bike. Friends joke that I can get excited about eating lunch. Hey, in the past, I did look forward to eating a meat loaf sandwich for ¬lunch—it was my favorite. I don’t eat meat loaf much any ¬more—too fatty. But I still look forward to just about everything on my schedule. How many other veteran leaders can say that?
It’s trite but it’s true: If you do not have a great passion for your job, or your life, the odds are high that you will not be successful at either of them. It’s my job coaching, and that’s where you can see the intensity. ¬Here’s what I’ve told my players countless times over the years, and a point that I make in almost all my speeches to outside groups: Find your passion. Nothing Great Is Ever Accomplished Without Enthusiasm
Passion is another word for enthusiasm, which translates into energy, which in turn produces action. The more passion and energy you have, the more things you’re likely to get done in the course of a day or a week or a ¬year—and the better off you and your or¬ga¬ni¬za¬tion will be. It’s called being ¬productive—and it means that you’re working harder than your competitors, whether you’re flipping pancakes in a New Mexico diner or trading bonds in Manhattan.
I ask our players all the time: “How did you feel at six this morning?”
My players don’t get up at six in the morning. How many teenagers do you know who do? The question is ¬rhetorical—my way of ¬letting the student athletes know that every day is full of great possibilities, if you have an optimistic attitude. What I’m really suggesting is that they take an aggressive, ¬can-¬do approach to life.
Success starts with wanting to be successful.
Forget about reaching goals. You ¬can’t even set goals if you don’t have an inner drive to succeed. I do. As long as I can remember, I wanted to be special and make a mark in life. Like most people, when I was young I didn’t have any idea what I might be good at, or how I’d succeed. But I wanted to get ahead in life. As I tell our players and others: Begin with an end in mind.
When you get up in the morning, you should have a pretty good idea of what you want to get accomplished that day. Think about what you want to get done this week, this year. Think about what you want to be doing in three years, or five years. Think ahead. Plan. Set goals, and then start to chase them.
Some people are born with drive. It’s in their genes. Others aren’t natural strivers and never seem motivated to do anything. Getting out of bed is a big deal for them. They don’t care a lot about challenging themselves. They’re lazy or unmotivated. It’s just the way some people are. Whenever my dad thought I was loafing, often when I was raking leaves in our yard, he’d fix his gaze on me and say: “Laziness, dare not I offend thee.” It was his way of reminding me not to take shortcuts in life.
A lot of people do, but I also believe that people can develop a desire to achieve.
* * *
People can be taught to think big.
For starters, they can be taught good personal habits that will help them realize their potential. They can be taught to set goals and not settle for what they are, but instead set their sights on what they might become—with more work and passion.
Why ¬wouldn’t I think that way? I’m a coach. I’m in the business of motivating ¬kids—and, importantly, trying to teach my student athletes to motivate themselves, so that after a year or two, perhaps, I can stop yelling at them.
In the late summer of 2006, we brought eight freshman players into the Connecticut program. That was the most new players we’d ever had. They came to Storrs from all ¬over—Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Mary¬land, New York, and Connecticut. One was a seven foot, three inch player from Tanzania, who’d moved to America three years earlier, when he was sixteen. Another kid, Ben Eaves, grew up in En¬gland and represented his country three times in international basketball competitions. Ben spent a year at Worcester Academy in Massachusetts, which is where we first saw him play. (He has since transferred to the University of Rhode Island.) Meanwhile, freshman guard Doug Wiggins grew up in East Hartford, about a half hour drive away.
They ¬were a diverse group, each unique in his own way. But in one respect they ¬were no different than every other group of ¬first-¬year players ¬we’ve had: They all thought, when they arrived, that they ¬were good basketball players. They all thought, when they arrived, that they understood the meaning of hard work. They all thought they knew a lot about basketball, and school.
They ¬were all wrong. They all do have athletic potential. They’re all good kids who certainly energized the coaching staff last year. And many of them have good study habits. But college is a major adjustment for everybody, and most students don’t realize that until their heads are spinning after week one.
That’s especially true for freshman basketball players at UConn. Quite frankly, they don’t have a clue about how challenging their new lives will be. They don’t realize how busy they will be. They don’t understand yet how hard we will work ¬them—and how much we expect them to work on their own.
As I tell the players: To whom much is given, much is expected.
The freshmen don’t know yet how tough it is to become a good player in the Big East Conference. They don’t comprehend how or¬ga¬nized they’ll need to be to handle the many new demands on their ¬time—academic, athletic, and social. They are starting an entirely new phase in their lives, heading in a new direction, and they need a few people with compasses to point the way.
That’s where the coaches come in. We are teachers, first and foremost, and our first task is to let the new student athletes know immediately that things will change. Life will be different.
College life is more demanding than high school life. Before, the players ¬were living at home, maybe coddled by their friends and parents. They ¬ were fawned over, given things. If they messed up, Mom or Dad would be there to clean things up. In college, nothing will be given to them. The freshmen are away from home for the first time, and will have to solve problems on their own. They can still talk to Mom or Dad on the phone, but they aren’t around anymore to fix their mistakes.
A lot of freshmen student athletes come to college with a sense of entitlement. That’s a bad thing. My coaches and I try to get rid of that attitude, but you ¬can’t change an ¬eigh¬teen-¬year-¬old ¬mind-¬set in six months. It takes longer than that.
Going to college is all about learning how to become a responsible adult. I tell my players constantly: You are accountable for your actions. Before, schoolwork may not have been really challenging. In college, the academic requirements are more rigorous. Before, athletic success came pretty easily, and everybody adored these players. In college, the competition will be much tougher, and the kids will have to work far harder to earn accolades from me or the other coaches.
The faster the freshmen get the message that being a student athlete will not be a stroll in the ¬park—that they’ve got responsibilities—the better off they and our team will be.
The transition to college can be a jarring experience. Even the most confident or headstrong student athletes can seem a little confused. There is uncertainty, lots of it. The players are suddenly immersed in an entirely new environment: new school, new scenery, new teachers, new coaches, new responsibilities, new and better competition on the basketball court. It can be overwhelming, especially for kids who have had things easy for a while, and it can chip away at the ¬self-¬esteem of an ¬eigh¬ teen-¬year-¬old.
I do not want that to happen.
I tell our young players all the time that they ¬wouldn’t be wearing a Connecticut basketball jersey if they ¬weren’t special players and special people. I tell them they ¬wouldn’t have been offered a scholarship if we didn’t have confidence in them, as students and as athletes.
I want every kid who plays for us to believe in ¬himself—totally—even as we break him down a bit to start the pro¬cess of making him stronger. My message is this: “I know you want to be special, and you will be. But you’ve got to be willing to sacrifice to reach your goals.” As the sign reads in our locker room: Connecticut basketball is a commitment.
The golfer V. J. Singh ¬wasn’t exactly teeming with confidence when he was a poor young man growing up on the Pacific island of Fiji. But he had an absolute passion for golf, and an equally strong desire to be good at it. The locals don’t play much golf in Fiji, and for a long time the people there ¬couldn’t watch the Masters or any other golf tournaments live on TV. Singh would ask friends in other countries to send him videotapes of the Masters and other tournaments, and then watch them.
For years he dreamed of winning on the famed Augusta, Georgia, golf course. He knew that there was only one thing he could do to make it ¬happen—practice. No, more than that: Practice like a man possessed.
When he was in his twenties, Singh spent hours every day hitting golf balls on the practice range. In ¬ninety-¬five-¬degree heat, he’d hit hundreds if not thousands of balls. He was fanatical about practice, even after coming to America to play in the ¬mid-¬1980s. At tournaments, Singh’s competitors would hit balls for an hour after a round and then go out to dinner. Singh hit for two or three hours, until it was too dark to see, and skipped dinner. Commitment.
In 1999, after being on the PGA tour for a few years, Singh decided to get even more serious about winning the Masters. He got in better shape, started eating healthier food. He also watched tapes of himself hitting golf shots in tournaments. He analyzed his game ¬completely—and kept practicing. Commitment.
The following year, he won the tournament that meant the most to ¬him—the Master’s. Asked how he accomplished the feat, Singh replied, “I wanted it badly that year and was prepared to pay the price. That is what made me a champion. It was not luck.” He’s been one of the world’s best golfers for the last de¬cade, and has now won three major ¬tournaments—all because he was willing to sacrifice to fulfill his dream. As he said, it was not luck. It was commitment. Copyright © 2007 by Jim Calhoun with Richard Ernsberger, Jr. All rights reserved.