Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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A winning attitude

Q: After two unsuccessful seasons, Washington Redskins Coach Jim Zorn was fired from his job this week. How hard is it for people to recover from being labeled a failure? Do you think Zorn will get another chance to coach in the NFL?

"Success is counted sweetest by those who ne'er succeed." Emily Dickinson, meet Jim Zorn.

In today's football-mad culture, the unsuccessful coach becomes the modern tragic hero hanging out there for all the world to see, defeated, dying a little more game by game, hearing the "distant strains of triumph" clamoring each week for the other team. Zorn's essential decency and professionalism rendered his repeated failed quests for victory more noble than pathetic as the season wound down to its inevitable last debacle.

But across that final field of Zorn's failure in San Diego, we could see and cheer for a phoenix rising -- Norv Turner, fired by Dan Snyder mid-season in 2000, now leading the Chargers into the playoffs and rumored to be on track for NFL Coach of the Year. Turner proves F.Scott Fitzgerald wrong -- there are, indeed, "second acts" in American life.

And, yes, there will be life for Jim Zorn after the Redskins. Maybe even a very good coaching life. Maybe even with a much better team. Maybe he will be so fortunate as to have a team that knows how to play the game, play like a team, play with the zeal that is necessary to win.

The Redskins were a mess before Zorn arrived, and unless something drastic happens in the off-season to change the team's character, the problems will remain no matter how talented the coach. The coach was not a failure; the team was the failure.

Success is not always about winning. While Jim Zorn's encounter with the Redskins catastrophe looks like failure in terms of wins and losses, from a different perspective he leaves the team successfully.

He kept his cool. He handled adversity, embarrassment, second-guessing, poor player performance with class and graciousness. He never lashed out. He met with the press after each game and answered questions thoughtfully. He took responsibility appropriately, as a good leader should, even though most people knew that the problems were larger than what he could address. He provided a constant example of how a successful professional should handle defeat and disappointment.

Class acts recover from defeat far more successfully than bitter bad actors. While it's true that Richard Nixon won the 1968 presidential election despite his earlier defeats and withdrawal from presidential politics, he carried the bitterness of defeat with him, and that paranoia set the stage for the ultimate unraveling of his presidency.

On a different stage, by contrast, Michelle Kwan never reached her goal of winning Olympic gold for figure skating, but she remains one of the most popular figures in sports and serves as a U.S. goodwill ambassador internationally.

Sports, like politics, must have losers as well as winners. Success in both, as in life, requires a winning attitude, emotional discipline and willingness to keep learning how to master the game despite the inevitable defeats. Jim Zorn will coach again; with the right team, his winning attitude will eventually ensure his success.

By Patricia McGuire  |  January 7, 2010; 12:08 PM ET  | Category:  failure Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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