Leadership Lessons—March Madness

I love watching kids grow, mature and become great leaders. Some grow as athletes. Others grow as leaders in other areas. March Madness is upon us. The once-a-year event is when we all get into a pool to watch and cheer for teams where we can’t name even one of their players.

Nearly 40 years ago I became friends with the Guse family. Barb and Jerry already had two kids—Laurie was a couple years older than Tom. At his young age of two, I knew Tom would have a life of basketball. Jerry taught Tom how to follow through on his shot with his Nerf basketball hoop in the living room.

Years went by and Tom became a high school star. Jerry was the person who got me into the franchising world. After working five years in the corporate world, I came back “home” to join him in his business. By this time they had another son, Mark, who was named after me. Laurie became a cheerleader and the Guse family became leaders in everything they touched. The three kids became like nephews and a niece to me, and Jerry and Barb became an uncle and aunt to my kids.

Fast forward a couple of decades. As super fans, the Guse’s have gone to the high school state tournament 32 years in a row. March madness was part of their lives—regardless if they personally knew anyone playing.

I’m living in Waco, Texas. Tom, now in his mid-30s, called to tell me he had just been named coach at the high school where he starred—Rockford Lutheran in Illinois. My dad was on the original school board and I was slated to attend until my dad died during my 8th grade year and we couldn’t afford for me to attend. Funny how life works.

Jerry, Tom’s dad, was his assistant coach and his brother, Mark, coached the 8th grade team. By now all three kids joined Jerry in the water softener business where I was a general manager. They had one of the top franchisees in that brand.

In their second year coaching Tom and Jerry took the team to the Final Four for their division. They came home as the No. 3 team in the state. I wasn’t surprised. Jerry’s number was retired where he played college ball. Again, leadership was in their veins.

Then tragedy struck. Jerry got pancreatic cancer. Within nine months after diagnosis he died.

The three kids decided Tom would lead the company and Mark would now be Tom’s assistant for the varsity team. Last Tuesday night the team won and advanced to the final four once again—for the third time in five years.

I needed to be there when they played for the state championship. I made plans to fly to Chicago and drive three hours down to Peoria, Ill., for the weekend. In their first game they played a team who had a legend for a coach, Gene Pingatore. He’s coached there since 1969 and is now approaching 1,000 wins as a coach. You may have seen the movie/documentary Hoop Dreams and learned that he coached Isaiah Thomas when he was in high school.

Tom’s team lost to Pingatore’s team which, on Saturday, won the state championship. But this story isn’t about basketball. It is about what I witnessed watching Tom coach and a story I learned about him Saturday afternoon after they were awarded the 4th place trophy. (Same size as the first place trophy … but with a different number on it).

I always knew Tom would be a good coach but I never realized the leader he would become. The team had a slow start in their first game but Tom encouraged them to not give up and got them back in the game. He encouraged. He complimented. He, and the team, never gave up.

Being a high school coach, however, goes much deeper than wins or losses on a gymnasium floor or at a state championship.

Basketball success was not Tom’s only goal for his team. He wanted to prepare them for life. Every week there is time set aside for the team to study together. Tom’s high school team had a GPA average of 3.8 (out of 4.0). One of the player’s GPA was 5.0. One of team’s stars, who could easily get a college basketball and football scholarship, is opting not play sports and instead become a physician.

One of the dads at the celebration, Dave, is an old friend of mine. Dave’s adopted son isn’t a basketball player—he is the team manager as he has learning disabilities. The team has taken him under their wing and made him an important member. Last year he got to dress for one of the games and the team made sure he made a basket. It is one of those stories you see on TV that brings tears to your eyes.

Tom’s basketball program includes a “Dad’s Night Out” and a “Mom’s Night Out.” Team members go to dinner with each of their parents on separate nights. The “dating couples” go back to the locker room and there is a “newlywed-style game” where each player has to guess the answers their parents gave. Fun stuff like, “What was the last nice thing you did for your mom,” or “When could you start beating your dad in basketball?”

What happens next is what life is about. Everyone sits in a big circle and each parent tells their son what he means to them. It can’t be about basketball or about sports. It has to be heartfelt and about who their son is—not how he performs in sports. Dave said it isn’t long before tears are welling up in eyes throughout the locker room. For those of us who have gone through those tough adolescent years, think back to how much it would have meant to not only say those words—but for your son to hear those words.

Before the event this year, Tom called Dave and told him how important it was for Dave and his son to be there. Even though his son didn’t play, he was still a teammate. Dave made sure they were there. A father and his son, who would never be able to live on his own. Tom considered him, though, equal to all of the great high school athletes on the team.

That’s leadership.

The Saturday afternoon team members took turns holding the huge trophy and getting their Facebook-bound pictures with each other and with their parents. I watched as many of the players made sure they got a picture with Dave’s son holding the trophy with them.

Tom’s leadership is a great illustration that life is about “how” we are … not just “who” we are. These athletes will someday forget the euphoria they felt holding that trophy. I believe, however, they will always remember what their moms and their dads said about them in that locker room.

I went to Illinois hoping to see Tom’s team win a state championship. I left reminded how I always have to make sure my wife, my children and my employees know how much I appreciate them. That will make me a much better leader. Thanks, Tom, for the lesson. Your Dad would be so proud.

Leadership Lessons—Lombardi or Maddon?

I’ve been a sports fan as long as I can remember. But I’ve also been the type of fan who rooted for certain coaches for as long as I can remember. First it was former Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi. Later it was Mike Ditka and the 1985 Bears (even though I was still a Packer fan). I thought Tom Landry was one of the classiest people on the planet even though I never cheered for the Cowboys (and never will). Later, I thought Phil Jackson had an amazing way of motivating the Chicago Bulls to six championships. Of late, it has been Joe Maddon, former coach and now manager of the Chicago Cubs.

Maddon left Tampa to head north and coach the Cubs, and I just love him as a coach. I saw him in action, first hand, when I lived and worked near Tampa. He took a perennial losing team, The Tampa Bay Rays, to the World Series in just three years. When inspirational coaches are remembered, it seems the name “Lombardi” is one of the first mentioned, though—not Maddon.

Many Leaders have Vince Lombardi quotes in their office. You’ve even seen them on plaques or posters. Here are some of them:

  • “Winners never quit and quitters never win.”
  • If success is hard worker, dedication to the job at hand, and the determination that whether we win or lose, we have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand.”
  • “If you aren’t fired with enthusiasm you’ll be fired with enthusiasm.”\

And the list of Lombardi quotes goes on.

When I went to see what they had for Joe Maddon quotes, all that came up was a book entitled, “Golf Quotes. Great quotes about a great game.” I have no idea what Joe said about golf—if anything.


When Joe was introduced by the Chicago Cubs this year as their new skipper he dropped several one-liners:

  • “Don’t ever permit the pressure to exceed the pleasure.”
  • “I’m going to talk World Series this year. I promise you. I am. And I’m going to believe it. And I’m going to see how it’s all going to play out. It’s within our future, there’s no question about that.”
  • “The challenge is so outstanding, how could you not want to be in this city?”
  • When talking about his age, he said “60 is the new 40.”
  • “I play good in the sandbox.”
  • Maddon went on to join SportsTalk Live after his presser, where he spoke about how he’s “not into team meetings—I think they’re worthless.”
  • He then dropped one of the best lines of the day when David Kaplan asked about his dress code on road trips: “If you think you look hot, wear it. That’s my dress code for the road trips.”

When Lombardi took over the Packers in 1959, they were a terrible team. In the 11 prior to Lombardi coaching Green Bay, the team had a 37 – 93 record. He was 45 years old and this was his first head coaching job in the NFL. Lombardi turned it around immediately and by his third year, they were NFL champions. They repeated this the next year.

How did Lombardi do it? He DEMANDED perfection. Vince was tough. He told his team they were going to win and held them at such high standards they knew there was hell to pay if they didn’t deliver. He managed by fear. It worked well in the 1950s and 1960s, but it was a different world back then.

Compare that to Joe Maddon. He took over the Tampa Bay Rays in 2006 when he was 52. This, like Lombardi’s, was his first managing opportunity. The Rays, like the Packers, were horrid before Joe came to town. Since they got into the league in 1998, they had been cellar dwellers every year except one—the year when they finished second to last. There were usually more fans for the opposing team at Rays’ home games. I remember this well because I was in Tampa in 2006 and people were questioning how well a first time manager would do when Maddon arrived.

How did Maddon do it? He’s a classic motivator. He makes baseball fun, even for major leaguers.

Last Thursday, I heard Evan Longoria on the Mike and Mike show. When someone asked Evan what it was like to play for Maddon, he talked about Maddon’s road trip dress. They did a grunge look going to Seattle, Woodstock Hippie dress for the trip to southern California and later a Beach Boys theme. There was also a pajama theme on a redeye flight to Baltimore and an all-white “Miami Vice” theme when the team headed to Miami.

His players just love playing for him. It isn’t about the money.

Lombardi or Maddon? Maddon for me.