School of sport: What have you done?

It might well sound like sour grapes, that one coach would say that of another coach who may well have a better coaching record than him.


BOB Knight is one of the US college basketball’s most successful coaches — he has, after all, received National Coach of the Year honours four times and Big Ten Coach of the Year honours eight times. He is also one of only three people to win an NCAA title, NIT title, and an Olympic gold medal as a coach. When he speaks, we ought to listen — and agree! However, a few years ago he publicly committed the ultimate heresy for someone in basketball. He made a disparaging remark about the late great John Wooden.

John Wooden is also widely and hugely respected as a highly successful basketball coach. Wikipedia tells us that “he won 10 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) national championships in a twelve-year period as head coach for the UCLA Bruins, including a record seven in a row. No other team has won more than four in a row in Division 1 college men’s or women’s basketball. Within this period, his teams won an NCAA men’s basketball record eighty-eight consecutive games. Wooden won the prestigious Henry IBA Award as national coach of the year a record seven times and won the AP award five times.” That is not exactly a bad record! Yet, Bob Knight in a television interview stated very boldly, “I don’t respect him!”

It might well sound like sour grapes, that one coach would say that of another coach who may well have a better coaching record than him. However, in the interview Knight did make it clear that he had respect for Wooden as a coach and he liked him as a person, but where he did not respect Wooden was that he allowed others at the college “to do whatever it took to recruit kids”. The implication then was that it was not the coaching that made Wooden successful as a coach, but the recruiting. In other words, if you measure a coach’s success by his results, then he will simply recruit the best players.

The further question therefore that should be asked is this: is the success of Wooden’s teams down to his great coaching? Did he make the players great or did he attract great players to his team? Did great players come to his team because his teams were successful or because he was a coach who brought the best out of players? It is the same debate that we find in most professional sports nowadays, where money plays a huge part in a team’s success — if a team has large financial backing enabling them to buy in top players, then they will have a distinct advantage. We see it in soccer, rugby, cricket — and indeed, sadly, in school sports.

We would do well to come back to Wooden himself; what would he make of it? Interestingly and relevantly, he warned us: “Don’t measure yourself by what you have accomplished, but by what you should have accomplished with your ability” (and with your resources). In his humility, he recognised that, although he had won more championships than anyone else, he perhaps had better resources than others may have had. His responsibility was to ensure he did what he could with what he had, just as all other coaches had to do what they could with what they had. There lies the fundamental role of any coach: do what you can with what you have.

It is a theme that has recently been echoed by Alex Bruce, the football-playing son of Steve Bruce who has now been sacked following a massive financial takeover of Newcastle United in the English Premier League. Bruce junior is quoted as saying, “Since he took the job, I think the lack of respect that has been shown, considering he’s done 1 000 games, has been unbelievable.” He went on to say that his father has, “Never had the opportunity at managing a club who can go and spend proper money. He’s managed teams in the Premier League like Wigan, Birmingham, Hull City… Some of the disrespect he’s been shown has been hard to watch.”

Wooden has also said, “Success is peace of mind in knowing you did your best” — note, you did your best, not, you were the best. It comes down to this: Be the best that you can be; do what you can with what you have. Our role as coaches and parents is to do just that and to help our children achieve that goal. The “best that they can be” may be to represent the B team, and if that is the case, that is great! They are the ones who deserve respect; knighthoods even, and not Wooden spoons!

  • Tim Middleton is a former international hockey player and headmaster, currently serving as the Executive Director of the Association of Trust Schools Email: [email protected]

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