April 05, 2010

Lead To The Final Whistle

30 seasons as a head coach.  867 wins.  12 ACC conference championships.  76 NCAA tournament victories.  11 previous Final Four appearances.  3 national championships.  2 Olympic gold medals. 

A Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame Coach – and a best-selling author, speaker, and Fortune 500 pitchman – Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (aka “Coach K”) is one of the most distinguished leaders in collegiate athletic history.  An average athlete who displayed leadership prowess at an early age as a player and coach under the equally legendary Bobby Knight, Coach K’s name is synonymous with success.  Now in the twilight of his career – or what the throngs of Duke-haters hope is the twilight of his career – the most recognizable man in college basketball will patrol the sidelines tonight, competing for a potential fourth national championship. 

And he’ll do so against a man who just last week was mistaken by NCAA security guards for one of his own players.

3 seasons as head coach.  89 wins.  3 Horizon conference regular season championships. 6 NCAA tournament victories.  0 previous Final Fours.  0 national championships.  1 gold watch (no medals). 

Brad Stevens, head coach of Butler University, assumes the role of “David” to K’s “Goliath” in tonight’s matchup.  Leading a squad of unknown athletes from an previously unheralded university, Brad Stevens’ enthusiasm, youth, and fearlessness will be put on display against Mike Krzyzewski’s experience, discipline, and fire.  A passionate young coach – one who is already tying records for “most wins in a coach’s first three seasons” – Stevens’ name is becoming synonymous with “underdog.” He joined the Butler staff as a volunteer in 2001-02 (the same year as Coach K’s last championship), having quit a career at Eli Lilly to pursue his passion as a coach and leader of college athletes.  And after years of gutting it out as an unpaid, and then low-paid, assistant coach, he assumed the head coaching mantle at Butler in 2007. 

In many ways, Stevens’ rise as a leader of young athletes mirrors that of Mike Krzyzewski.  Both are former athletes, having played basketball for four years at DePauw and West Point, respectively.  Both have found a calling in mentoring and leading the next generation of leaders and athletes.  Both have a firm commitment to the concept of the “student athlete” (with graduation rates reflective of that mindset).  Both have a profound appreciation for the “team” (at several points throughout the season, Coach K has said explicitly that his players are not particularly talented, rather they are particularly cohesive.)  Both have a phenomenal support staff of former players and top assistant coaches, on whom they have relied heavily throughout the course of the tournament.  Both are family men and enjoy a balanced and successful life off the court as well as on.

Both exceeded expectations this season.  Both have an undeniable passion for competition. 

Both are winners.  And both hate, hate to lose.

Which is why tonight’s matchup is so compelling.  It’s more than two terrific basketball teams grinding it out on national television.  It’s more than CBS’s “One Shining Moment.” It’s about two hard court leaders going head to head, two coaches occupying different stages in their careers but who find themselves equals on the national stage.  It’s about two men who have spent years hand-picking their athletes, building up, breaking down, and reconstructing strategies, and who have somehow managed to mold their admittedly un-athletic individuals into two distinct, winning teams

No doubt, tonight’s commentators will make much of the “David v. Goliath” parallels.  Big v. small.  Perennial Powerhouse v. Surprising Newcomer.

But what I’m most excited by is the leadership we’ll see on display tonight.  The strategies playing out across the game.  The inspirational huddles.  The crisis-time adjustments.  And the finality of the competition – when the final whistle blows, there will be one winner, one loser.  As one who’s been on both sides of that coin, I look forward to see these two class acts respond with grace, respect, pride, and compassion.

When true leaders collide, you get true, unadulterated competition.  That is not something which comes about every day.  Tonight, it does – I recommend we all tune in for a lesson in leadership.