Chris Wall, who passed away too soon when cancer took his life earlier this month, had keen insights into coaching from his playing career at Northwestern University to his coaching of the advertising professionals he mentored. As part of his burgeoning support for PCA, Chris shared those insights in this blog, written just weeks before his passing.
Years ago, when I was wayward teenager, I met a man named William Fly.
Bill, as he was known, was a driver’s ed teacher at New Trier East High School. He was also the sophomore basketball coach. Bill Fly was the first coach who ever reached me. Who convinced me that I could be better than I was if I just worked at it…that I could be a winner.
Bill was from the south. I don’t know where from, exactly, but he wasn’t part of the upper crust elite of New Trier.
He was the kind of man who walked into the hot beef sandwich stand next to the high school and told the dopey kid behind the counter how good their sandwiches were. Who dressed up in his best Sunday suit for the sophomore game before the varsity show people came to watch.
Somehow, I can’t explain it exactly, Bill reached me.
I was a big kid. Six-foot-four as a freshman and headed toward Six-foot-eight as a sophomore…I was awkward and uncoordinated. I was shy, and all things considered, couldn’t stand being twice the size of my fellow students, let alone taller than every teacher in the building.
Coach Fly taught me that if I practiced every day and worked hard, I would get better. I didn’t think about it with that kind of clarity then – but it crystalized something for me that became a part of how I approached everything in my life.
Practice, practice, practice…you’ll improve.
Work harder than the other guy – you’ll win more often than you lose.
Use your brain to compensate for what your body can’t do.
This was all a revelation to me. But as I practiced, I improved. As I improved, I practiced.
I was shocked to find myself as the starting center on the varsity team in the regional tournament at the end of the season. Two years earlier I had been an aimless dork. Now I had purpose and commitment.
In the first game of that tournament, I was the leading scorer…playing with a bunch of guys who seemed way way way out of my league, and playing for the varsity coach: John Schneiter.
Coach Schneiter was a legend at New Trier and, I suppose, in Illinois high school basketball circles. As a young coach in Decatur, his small town team had beaten Cazzie Russell’s team for the state championship. (When he eventually retired, he was the only coach in the history of Illinois who had competed for the championship of both boys’ and girls’ basketball.)
He had won hundreds and hundreds of games. He wore leather chaps pants with a jacket to games.
He was a dapper dresser with a biting wit. But he was generally soft spoken, and I can’t recall him screaming or yelling at us much – mostly , he taught – this is why you do X, this is how you do Y, this is how we’re going to win. He didn’t swear or curse you out, but he made you work.
He was calm under pressure and kept his cool at all times. He had style and he had class.
By the end of my junior year, we were playing for the state championship, and I was not only a starter but also wound up being the leading scorer in the Championship Game. This was heady stuff for a kid who only three years before had been a big goof.
I also started getting letters from universities interested in giving me a scholarship.
I was a mediocre student at best and kind of aimless in my life off the court – but on the court, I found focus, teamwork, camaraderie, the ability to sacrifice in service of a goal. You lose a game, you pick yourself up and learn from it. You win, you try to keep momentum in the next game.
These lessons were clarified and crystalized for me by coaches Schneiter and Fly, day in and day out.
In my life, these lessons have served me extraordinarily well. Certainly better than at the time I learned them. I shudder to think where I would be without them.
This is a very long-winded way of saying that “coaching changes lives.” A good coach can be a profound and enduring influence off the court by what he or she teaches on the court.
Good coaching breeds leaders. It instills confidence and a value of expertise and strategy. It teaches discipline. It gives you positive values.
Good coaches teach you to think on your feet and deal with the opportunities and challenges of competition of all kinds.
There is obviously an element of teaching to coaching, and it’s very important, but teaching and coaching are nevertheless discreet.
Teaching is academic by definition. It is about understanding the past – and obviously, the past is a stagnant thing. It is what it was. But it doesn’t change. And it has a tendency to be passive.
Coaching, on the other hand, is dynamic. Every week the standings change, the competition changes. If you lose, you have to pick yourself up and prepare for the next game. If you win, you have to avoid getting cocky and keep your focus so you don’t lose the next one.
Coaching deals with change by its very nature. If the guy makes X shot we do Y; if he doesn’t we do Z.
Coaching teaches you to think on your feet, keep your head in the game, concentrate and do not get rattled.
In business, these are rare and valuable skills. Indeed, one of the things any business guru talks about is the importance of recruiting, training and developing talent. In other words: coaching. It amazes me how much positive impact a few good coaches can have on an organization.
As a basketball player, my skills were good enough to get me to Division I and a full scholarship to Northwestern University.
Now, you will from time to time hear bellyaching about how college athletes are exploited in some way or other. You will also hear about athletes behaving badly and schools where the love of money has transcended the love of sport.
But why should sport be any different than banking or government or product manufacturing?
Sure there are bad actors and pirate programs out there. Money’s influence on college sports has been an issue since at least the 1930s, when the Big Ten football powerhouse University of Chicago decided to chuck football as a distraction and concentrate on economics and other more pure forms of academia.
For me, basketball was a great big shot of life-changing elixir administered by my own personal college of coaches and two schools that fulfilled they mandate to help me and make the world a better place.
That Northwestern Scholarship was worth about $250,000 tax free in today’s dollars.
My family didn’t have that kind of money.
And a Northwestern alum helped me out with a union job in the summer that paid good money and was squarely within the rules.
So when you read about all these students graduating with six-figure debts I find myself thinking that I all but won the lottery thanks to basketball.
How many 18 year olds will bank $250K tax free in the next year? If that’s exploitation, I’d like another helping.
It helped me. It helped my family. It allowed my parents to help both my brothers go to college.
But wait, there’s more…
At Northwestern, I played for Tex Winter for four years – the same coach who developed the triangle offense that Michael Jordan played during his many years with the Bulls, the same offense Kobe and Shaq ran under Phil Jackson in the last glory days of the Lakers.
Needless to say, I lacked a few of Michael’s skills (those include but are not limited to strength, speed, jumping ability, shooting ability, quickness, and pretty much every other ability that NBA players have). But in learning the triangle, I learned lessons about geometry, efficiency, improvisation, teamwork and on and on.
I learned what it was like to play against the best: Magic Johnson, Kevin McHale, Mychal Thompson, Quinn Bucker -- so many great players I can’t remember them all.
A few years ago, we hired Tex to do an IBM commercial for us that used basketball as an analogy for e-business. The line was: “Ebusiness is the game. Play to win.”
It was a part of a multi-year campaign that helped turn IBM from a brand that was in desperate trouble to one that was a definer of the future.
It’s no wonder that 99% of the metaphors in business deal with sports or war.
Great coaches are teachers, philosophers, motivators, and competitors. The lessons they teach rub off and transcend the games we play as kids.
My 15 foot jumper is pretty rusty. (And it wasn’t that hot to begin with.)
But my competitive instincts are as sharp as ever. They have helped me become wealthy and successful. They have helped me lead dozens of young men and women to enduring careers in my chosen profession of advertising – as they have helped other former student-athletes in medicine, banking, building, technology, education, sales, and a thousand other careers.
I look at coaching as critical to my job, to putting together teams, to winning new business and helping my clients achieve their goals.
My title these days involves being a Creative Director at one of the world’s largest global advertising agencies. But this is just artsy-fartsy talk for coaching.
My white board is a keyboard. My three-pointer is a great headline. My job is to help people realize their talent, play together as a team, size up the competition, bounce back from defeat and put victory into proper perspective.
All of this came to me through my coaches and the experiences I had playing for them.
Coach Schneiter used to admonish us: “Be a leader.”
Eschew selfishness, contribute to the team, winning together beats losing alone.
I stayed in touch with Coach Schneiter until he died a few years ago. During the one high school reunion I went to I dropped by his house and we spent several hours talking philosophy and life – he spoke of his players with great affection and pride.
I know I count him as one of my four great life-changing mentors.
At this point in my life, I look back at my coaches and think about how grateful I am to them for all they did to help me achieve what I have achieved. They are special people doing important work.
We need more coaches in our lives, in our schools, in our world. They raise the bar.
They bring out the best in us.