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Legendary Coaches: Lessons on Sports and Life

With the frenzy of March Madness, I thought it appropriate this week to look at leadership books written by or about coaches of prominent sports teams. And no one else could better advise me than award-winning Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins, who has worked with some of the country's best leaders in sports and has herself written numerous books on sports figures.

"All great coaches have this one thing in common," she told me. "They understand that you get what you demand, not what you request," she told me. "They know how to absolutely insist on a certain standard every single day, and they do not accept anything less -- regardless of whether a team is old or young, no matter the circumstances or the personalities of the players."

The following are five books written by or about five American legendary coaches. What truly distinguish their coaching legacies is not only their leadership on the basketball court or the football field, but their ability to offer their players life lessons away from the sports arena as well.

1. A Coach's Life: My 40 Years in College Basketball
by Dean E. Smith with John Kilgo and Sally Jenkins

When coaching legend Dean Smith retired in 1997 after coaching the University of North Carolina's basketball team for 36 years, he had set the record for the most wins (879) by a NCAA Division I men's basketball coach. I asked Jenkins what kind of a coach Smith was. "Dean's personality was very methodical and subdued. He wasn't a yeller," Jenkins told me. "His ingeniousness was that he led through the soundness of his method." A Coach's Life: My 40 Years in College Basketball recounts the lessons Coach Smith instilled upon his young players on and off the basketball court, including those concerning the issue of race. Jenkins believes the soundness of Smith's everyday teachings was what made him such an effective leader with his players. "He didn't lead by blustering," said Jenkins. "Dean was the real deal, and his players truly believed in that."

2. Reach for the Summit by Pat Summitt with Sally Jenkins

Another college basketball coach Jenkins knows very well is Pat Summitt, head coach of the Tennessee Lady Vols. Since 1974, Coach Summitt has led her team to eight national championships, and is currently the only NCAA Division I basketball coach to win one thousand games. "She is simply ingenious," Jenkins said. "She has a lot of interesting methods for teaching kids unselfishness and responsibility." And while Reach for the Summit draws on Coach Summitt's successful coaching career to provide motivational tips for those who wish to succeed in sports, Jenkins also noted that it is a great book about parenting as well. "Everyone would like to know how to teach responsibility to a bunch of adolescents," laughed Jenkins. "Especially adolescents with car keys and too much time on their hands!" In this video profile by America's Best Leaders, Summitt admits to her weakness: losing. "I get physically ill when I lose," says Summitt. "Losing is not a good thing for me - at the moment. But it is a great thing for me long range because it gives me a blueprint for what we need to do and do better."

3. Instant Replay: The Green Bay Diary of Jerry Kramer
by Jerry Kramer

Jerry Kramer, who had an 11-year NFL career with the Green Bay Packers as an offensive lineman, wrote about the 1967 season - Coach Vince Lombardi's last year before retiring. Although written over four decades ago, Jenkins stands by the classic lessons on sports, teamwork and leadership that can be found in this book. "It is a great read and a great story about one player's account of a championship season with the Packers," Jenkins said. "It gives an insider's account on Vince Lombardi's tactics with the players." The official website of the Packers says about the legendary coach: "More than 30 years after his death, Vince Lombardi remains one of the most recognizable sports figures of all time."

4. Quiet Strength: The Principles, Practices, and Priorities of a Winning Life by Tony Dungy and Nathan Whitaker

Tony Dungy made history when he led the Indianapolis Colts to victory in Super Bowl XLI, becoming the first African American coach to do so. A TIME 100 figure in the Heroes and Pioneers category, the recently retired Dungy writes in this memoir about living for God and family, and the idea of true success. And there is no denying it: "success" in sports is about being faster; stronger; better. It is about winning. "But this book is about the fact that you can win in the right way," Jenkins told me. "Dungy turns winning into a virtue. It takes a certain amount of ruthlessness sometimes to win, and Dungy makes winning sound like a good deed. There is an ethic at the heart of his form of leadership."

5. The Essential Wooden: A Lifetime of Lessons on Leaders and Leadership by John Wooden with Steve Jamison

Few others have left such a momentous mark on college basketball than 98-year-old John Wooden. The UCLA Bruins' website claims that Wooden, who coached the men's basketball team for 27 seasons until 1975, is the major reason its basketball program has the international reputation of being number one. The first person to be inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and coach, Wooden says about The Essential Wooden: "There is nothing fancy in what I teach about team building; nothing that requires a special gift, privilege, or access to power. Rather, it requires dedication to certain principles and concepts, which I include in this book." So what does the former coach who led his team to 10 NCAA championships and 19 conference championships think about winning? "Success may not result in winning, but winning does not necessarily mean you are a success." Check out Coach Wooden's official website and watch what others maxims he has to share on leadership.

Which sports figures inspire you?

By MJ Lee  |  March 18, 2009; 10:52 PM ET  | Category:  Books Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Women in Politics: Must-Read Memoirs | Next: Spring Leadership Books: A Quick Tour


Please email us to report offensive comments.

Two fascinating books on UNC Women's Soccer Coach Anson Dorrance - The Man Watching by Tim Crothers and The Vision of a Champion by Anson Dorrance and Gloria Averbuch.

Posted by: Heather16 | March 22, 2009 10:47 AM

While I definitely agree with the assessment of Pat Summitt's coaching and leadership, please note that her last name is spelled with two T's. And yes, she is the winningest coach in college basketball...by far. The best thing is that she isn't going anywhere any time soon.

Posted by: utang1602 | March 21, 2009 8:33 PM

If this year's Georgetown basketball season is any indicator, obviously John Thompson has been requesting too much and demanding too little.


Posted by: bonghits4jesus | March 21, 2009 2:53 PM

Thanks for that, I actually know nothing about american sports (or quite frankly, most sports) and am curious to find out more about the culture surrounding them, especially in this country. The list you just provided will be useful.

Posted by: UncleJerry | March 21, 2009 2:43 PM

Thanks for putting a pic of the winningest D1 hoops coach of all time on the home page. I like to pose that as a trivia question to my friends. They all name Dean Smith or Bobby Knight, or someone like that. No one thinks to name a woman.

By the way, Instant Replay was my first sports book, and I've been a sports junkie ever since. It was a freebie, a paperback copy attached to a Personna razor my dad bought. I couldn't put it down.

Posted by: bucinka8 | March 21, 2009 12:13 PM

One word none of them seemed to mention was recruiting. Much of their success probably rested on being able to identify and recruit great athletes in their sports. Even at the pro level it matters a lot. One of the things I admired most about Adolph Rupp was 'recruiting' was always the first thing he mentioned - start the credit for success where it belongs most - with the players.

Posted by: mgferrebee | March 21, 2009 7:52 AM

Of course, as a student at Georgeotwn, I can only wish that there is a book written by or about John Thompson, one of the greatest coaches college basketball has ever seen. But all of the abovve sound exactly as they should - incredibly inspirational.

Posted by: karinabhaiwala | March 20, 2009 5:19 PM

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