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.
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.