WINS, LOSSES, and LESSONS
From Chapter 11, Getting Rid of ExcusesBuy at Amazon.com
pp.199-201 – Getting the ND job
If I didn’t already understand the strict standards at the University of Notre Dame, I got a quick lesson in my first conversation with Father Joyce. After he offered me the job as head coach, he said: “Before you accept, there are a few things you need to consider. We have certain rules that might not apply at other universities, but that are nonnegotiable here at Notre Dame. First, we will not redshirt an athlete, and we will not accept a transfer from another school or junior college. The head football coach has nothing to do with admissions. In order for a student-athlete to be accepted at Notre Dame, he will have to have good college boards and solid grades with at least sixteen core curriculum credits. Our athletes live in the dorms on campus, and come under the sole jurisdiction of the dorm rector. Also, you will never be able to talk to a professor about a student’s academics. That is the job of the academic counseling office. Do you understand?”
“I do,” I said. This came as no surprise: I knew that the standards at Notre Dame were high and the rules were rigid; still, to hear them laid out in such cut-and-dried detail made me realize what an exacting and different place the university really was.
“That’s not all,” Father Joyce said. “We will always play a difficult schedule, the most difficult we can find. And we expect to win. Your players will miss or be late for practice if it conflicts with classes or labs. And finally, the head football coach will never make more than the president of the university.”
I gulped at that last one. The president of Notre Dame, Father Hesburgh, was a priest who had taken a vow of poverty.
“If you can accept those terms, we would love to have you join us at the University of Notre Dame,” he said.
I could certainly accept the terms. In fact, I looked forward to working in an environment where the rules were that clear and nonnegotiable. Father Joyce was right: the things he had outlined did not apply at many other universities, but very few universities could compare with Notre Dame. The rules he had just outlined were based on Christian teachings, Church doctrine, and standards of conduct that made Notre Dame one of the most highly respected institutions in the world. Notre Dame was not a place you attended to learn to do something; it was a place you attended to learn to be somebody. The rules reflected that. I couldn’t wait to get there. In addition, he did not mention a single thing that would keep us from winning. He didn’t say we must play with only eight players while the opponent could use eleven.
But I had to talk things over with my family. As much as I had always wanted to be the head football coach at Notre Dame, I still had a daughter in high school and a son who had enrolled at the University of Minnesota at our insistence. Kevin had been a diabetic
since age fifteen, and had to take insulin injections four times a day. We wanted him at Minnesota so we could be close in case he needed our help. We had to make sure he was mature enough to handle his own medical needs. Plus, accepting the job at Notre Dame meant moving a second time in just over two years. I had to make sure the family agreed to all of this before I accepted. I knew Skip would be excited, because he was a junior at Notre Dame.
Father Joyce understood completely. Notre Dame had one more game against Miami, and even though they were not going to renew Gerry Faust’s contract, they were in no rush to make any announcements. I took the call from Father Joyce on Monday morning, and
promised to call him back on Tuesday.
I could never have expected the kind of reaction I got at home. Liz was thrilled. Not only did she insist that I take the job, she said she couldn’t wait to finish her senior year of high school in South Bend. Beth was equally ecstatic. She knew this had been my lifelong dream, and she was overjoyed that it had finally come true. Kevin assured his mother and me that he would be fine, and that he could indeed handle his own health-care needs. With the decision made, I went back to the bedroom to make some notes about things I needed to do and people I needed to call.
pp.205-207 – Arriving in ND
Monday morning, I arrived in South Bend and got to work. The team sat in the meeting room, kicked back. I could tell they were either feeling sorry for themselves after their big loss, or taking a lackadaisical attitude toward my arrival. Both were unacceptable.
“Sit up, gentlemen!” My tone wasn’t quite a shout, but I got their attention.
Junior quarterback Steve Beuerlein looked stunned. He turned around and made eye contact with wide receiver Tim Brown. Both young men had “what’s this all about?” expressions on their faces.
One of the players who didn’t respond was center Chuck Lanza, a great young man who would go on to be an All-American and our team captain. He had his feet propped up, and was examining his fingernails. I stepped toward Chuck and said, “Young man, how
long have you been playing football?”
He looked up and said, “I don’t know . . . ten, eleven years.”
“Well, if you ever want to play another down, you will put your feet on the floor, sit up straight, and pay attention.”
Then I addressed the entire team. “That goes for every man in this room. I want you to sit up straight, put your feet on the floor, keep your heads up, your eyes forward, and get ready to talk about winning football games. As a team, we have two purposes for having
meetings: one is to gather information, and the second is to disseminate information.
While I’m not a particularly good speaker, I do expect your full, undivided attention for the duration of any meeting we might have.”
I could tell that it had been a while since these players had been talked to like this, if they ever had. But I had to make a statement early. The only player in the room who knew me at all was a junior fourth-string flanker named Skip Holtz, whose mother happened to
be my wife. The rest of those athletes knew of me—some might even have seen me telling jokes and doing magic tricks on television—but they had no relationship with me, and no idea what to expect. It was important that I set the tone of my relationship with the team from the outset. I cared about each of them deeply, but I was not going to be their friend. I wasn’t going to hang out and joke with them; I was going to be their coach. I would love them and treat them fairly, but I would also keep a professional distance. I would be there for them when they needed me, but as an authority figure, not as a pal. This team needed to know that there was a plan, my plan, and they could either get on board, or get off. Either way, the plan was going ahead with or without them.
After he’d hired me, Father Hesburgh had said, “Lou, I can name you the head coach, but I can’t name you the leader. Titles come from above. Leaders are selected by those under you. They will follow you if you have a vision and a plan.”
“I know you did not select me to be your football coach,” I said to the players. “In fact, if you had any say in the matter, I would be the last person you would select as your coach. That’s not important. What is important is that I selected you. I came here because of you. I want all of you to know that I did not come here to try to change Notre Dame, and Notre Dame did not bring me here to try to change me. This institution will not compromise, and neither will I.
“The standard has been set for us at Notre Dame by Knute Rockne, Moose Krause, Ara Parseghian, Frank Leahy, Dan Devine, and all the other fine coaches and athletes who preceded you and me here. That standard is: We are going to play the best, and be committed to being the best we can be. We are going to do it the right way, with honesty, integrity, class, and togetherness, not only within the letter of the law, but in the spirit of the law as well.”
I had their attention, so I talked about the direction we would be heading in the upcoming year, and what was expected out of each and every one of them. We would set the bar high. And I let them know, in no uncertain terms, that we would accept no excuses. The time for making excuses was over. The time to become a team, and perform as a team, had begun.
“I ask each of you to follow three basic rules: Do what is right. Do your very best. Treat others like you’d like to be treated. Those rules answer the three basic questions I’m going to ask of each of you, and I expect you to ask me and the other coaches. The questions are: Can I trust you? Are you committed? And do you care about me? This is what I believe and what I practice.
“These three rules are all you need, whether you are a coach, a player, a parent, a child, an employer, or an employee. Everyone you meet asks three questions mentally: Can I trust you? Are you committed to excellence? Do you care about me? The three rules answer these three questions positively. If you can trust someone, know he is committed to excellence, and cares about you, hug him and never let him go, because he is a winner. It would behoove you to remember that these are the same three questions everyone asks about you. For this reason, it is imperative that you always follow these three rules also.
“We’re not going to win football games because I’m here any more than someone can fix a flat tire by changing the person driving the car. If we’re going to be successful, we have to get rid of excuses for why we can’t win.”