March Madness Moments: Lessons from Winning Coaches

An estimated 81 million Americans will lose productive time at work because they are involved in that uniquely American pastime known as March Madness, resulting in a loss to American businesses of around $2 billion.

Go ahead and take a break from filling out those brackets to review a few quotes from some of the most winning coachs in the NCAA. When your employees do check back in to work, you’ll be ready and motivated.

Roy Williams, head coach at UNC since 2003, spends a lot of time during the basketball season recruiting for his next crop of players. While he doesn’t love the travel that entails as he darts off between games, he does watching the young men play. But when he recruits, he’s not just looking for talent. He is looking for character.

“When I decide that a kid has the talent I am looking for, then I try to find out about his character. I once had an elementary school principal in Wichita, Kansas, tell me, ‘Coach, I wish you’d say academics is the second priority.’ ‘No ma’am,’ I said. ‘because if he’s a great player and a 4.0 student but he’s going to be a pain in the rear end, I want it to be somebody else’s rear end.’”

Coach Williams also has great advice for dealing with critics and negativity that is equally adaptable for business owners. “If the mailman stopped to kick every dog that barked at him, he’d never deliver the mail,” he said.

Down the road a bit, his rival coach Mike Krzyzewski has been head coach at Duke since 1980 and racked up more than 1,000 wins. He shares something in common with Roy in that they both believe in knowing about the people they work with and those they coach.

“A common mistake among those who work in sports is spending a disproportional amount of time on ‘x’s and o’s’ as compared to time spent learning about people,” he said.

That’s a philosophy I follow in my work as the turnaround authority. When I go to lead a company, of course I look at the books and survey the entire financial picture of the business. But I also take time to talk to employees at every level to determine what’s working right, what’s not and how to leverage their skills, knowledge and talents. The employees of a company are one of its biggest assets, and it’s my job to learn all I can about that asset.

Coach K., as he’s called, has experienced plenty of losses as well. After a humiliating 109-66 defeat to Virginia in the ACC tournament in 1983, he was at a restaurant with a few friends. One offered a toast of sorts: “Here’s to a night let’s soon forget.” Coach K. lifted his glass and said, “Here’s to a night we will never forget.”

That doesn’t mean you have to dwell on your losses. But remember them. And learn from them.

The late John Wooden was head coach at UCLA, where he won ten NCAA national championships in a 12-year period, including a record seven in a row. He had several motivational quotes, many of which apply well to business leaders.

“A coach must never forget that he is a leader and not merely a person with authority,” is one that I keep in mind. And for their simple truth, I like, “Nothing will work unless you do,” and “Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.”

One of my favorite quotes is from the late coaching legend Dean Smith, who coached at UNC for 36 years. “If you make every game a life and death proposition, you’re going to have problems. For one thing, you’ll be dead a lot.” I remember that in times of extreme stress to try to put things into perspective.

That’s another thing Coach Smith did quite well, as player Peter Budko once recalled. “On the occasions when we didn’t win, he would tell us there were two billion people in China who didn’t care one bit about the outcome of our game. Perspective!”

Remember that perspective in a few weeks if your bracket doesn’t turn out so well. The two billion people in China don’t care about that either.