Accept the Challenge

A good coach can change a game; a great coach can change a life. ~ John Wooden

Regardless of your field of endeavor or the path you have taken to get to where you are today, there are people who come into your life and impact you in ways you cannot imagine. They represent something to you, whether it be hope, belief, resilience, persistence, joy, struggle, passion, loyalty, humor or family.

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Tony Barone...Coach B…was one of those people in my life.

After graduating from Duke University where he played on a Final 4 team and an Academic All-American he coached at his St. George H.S. (Chicago), Mt. Carmel H.S (Chicago), Duke University, St. Rita (Chicago), Bradley University (Assistant), Creighton University (Head Coach), Texas A&M University (Head Coach), and the Memphis Grizzlies (various roles in personnel and player development, assistant coach and Interim Head Coach).

I played for Coach at Creighton University and experienced the highs of college basketball while I was there. We won a Missouri Valley Conference regular season and MVC Tournament Championship, made the NCAA Tournament, and the NIT.

Unfortunately, I also experienced the lows of college basketball as I was an assistant coach for Tony at Texas A&M when he was fired in 1998. An event that, though it changed the course of my life, would go on to deepen the relationship which Coach B and I shared.

Coach’s impact on me and countless others transcended the game of basketball.

On Saturday, June 29th , hundreds of us gathered at his funeral on the north side of Chicago, not far from Wrigley Field where he served as a bat boy growing up. We shared laughs and tears, told stories of triumphs and maybe a few disasters, said the words “remember when…” countless times, and then each of us most likely retreated to some place in our own mind and wished we could do it all over again with Coach.

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Like all of us, Coach was not perfect and he had his flaws. But his heart, sense of humor, infectious smile, passion for the game and passion for people overcame everything. As I said on social media….Coach could light any room, any gym, and any referee!

There are two things that were said about Coach in each story, whether it was a family member, former player, former assistant, or friend.

First, Coach genuinely cared about, and was interested in, how you were doing. It did not matter whether or not you could ever help him win games or land a player. He was always asking people about their families, sending handwritten notes, picking up the phone and calling and sharing a laugh with whomever he happened to be sharing a conversation.

Second, and this was powerful, Coach had the ability to see things in you that you could not see in yourself. Then, he had the ability to get you to achieve things individually and collectively that even you may not have imagined possible.

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While at Creighton he created ‘Operation BlueJay’ where we fed the homeless in Omaha, including on Thanksgiving morning. This was no publicity stunt…..we spent the morning there dishing out food, eating with the folks that were staying at the shelter, playing cards and checkers with them, and being intentional about having conversations where we got to know a little bit about their story.

He also started ‘Booking with Barone’ at Creighton, which was a program to encourage reading in the grade schools of Omaha. There was a book reading contest with great rewards attached and me and my teammates would take turns going and reading to the younger kids. It was a blast.

Those programs taught us the power of serving our community and to use our positions of influence to positively impact others. We had became closer as a team and learned some things about ourselves along the way.

Then...there was the basketball side of things. Articulating all the lessons I learned while playing for Coach is nearly impossible in an blog post but I would love to share a few:

  • Dream Big because to be the best you must beat the best….my sophomore year we beat Nebraska, ND, Iowa State, Virginia Tech

  • Accept the Challenge….my freshman year we were picked to finish second to last in the MVC and we won the regular season title and the MVC tournament championship and went on to the NCAA tournament

  • Do More….you can always do one more rep, get up one more shot, play just a little bit harder, be a better teammate

  • Believe….it didn’t matter who doubted you, as long as you locked into the process and focused on controlling what you can control then you had no reason not to believe in yourself

  • Family Culture…our programs were not like a family we were a family and you fight for your families and you fight for that culture

  • There was a vision, an established set of expectations and if we did not meet those expectations we were held accountable….but he loved us and cared about us, especially away from the basketball floor

  • Care…It was that genuine concern for you away from basketball that truly made Coach so special

So many people dropped everything they were doing, some traveling cross-country, to say goodbye to Coach B one last time.

For me, there will be no last time because the impact he had on me will always show in the relationships I have with my family, friends, and strangers. It will show up every time I ask the barista at Starbucks or the parking attendant in the parking garage how they are doing….and I will try my best to leave them with a smile on my face, just like Coach did.

As a leader it is critical for you to realize the opportunity you have in front of you to positively impact every team member’s life in such a way that you let them know that they are important, that their role is valued, and that what they are doing has meaning that extends well beyond the boundaries of work.

Do not ever sell yourself short as a leader. The impact you have on your people, the confidence they gain, the mental strength they build, the joy they get from the laughs you share, and the resilience they build from growing through adversity with you will show up in all aspects of their life, thus multiplying the impact you had on them.

As I told Coach’s son Brian who is the Head Men’s Basketball Coach at Southern Illinois University- Edwardsville, Coach would have been extremely successful in any career he chose to pursue because of his ability to genuinely connect with people, see the best in others, set expectations for his team, hold each person accountable, and then his masterful skill of getting others to achieve things they may have never thought possible.

Take a page out of Coach’s book and get your people to stretch themselves, believe, find joy in what they do, purpose in what they are doing, and become something they may have never thought they could become and in doing so multiply your leadership at home, in the community, and with the teams they will lead in the future.

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