What a Sports Reporter Has Learned From College Coaches

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Seth Davis has interviewed some of the most decorated collegiate coaches of the past 20 years: Tom Izzo, Mike Krzyzewski, Bob Knight, among others. With a pad and pen as the college basketball correspondent for Sports Illustrated, and now from behind a desk as the host of the Seth Davis Show on Campus Insiders—an all-online college sports network—Davis has picked the brains of leaders at the top of their sport. He spoke with us about those leaders and what makes them a success or a bust. He also revealed John Wooden’s feelings toward pregame speeches, and why you should ask questions like Howard Stern.

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Men’s Fitness: What qualities make a good coach, and for that matter, a leader? 

Seth Davis: I think a lot of the same qualities you would expect in any CEO, I mean it starts with dedication and hard work. I often bring up John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success. The two cornerstones of the pyramid are the bottom right and the bottom left, which are enthusiasm and industriousness, so that to me is what really prevails. You have to love what you do and have a legitimate passion and then be willing to put in the time and pay attention to the details and grind—the nitty-gritty and the less glamorous parts of the job.

You think about it for a coach—depending on the sport obviously—but there’s 365 days in a year, so if you’re an NFL football coach there’s only 16 of those days the coach is actually in a game. In college basketball there’s only 30 of those days you’re coaching a game. Well, that leaves 335 of those other days. What are you doing on those days? And what are you doing in those hours?

MF: What is a question that you often ask coaches?

SD: The question I ask a lot of these guys is like, is it fun? Like, you’re in this game and the odds are against you and it’s craziness and the fans are booing or they’re cheering and you’re in the heat of it. It just looks so stressful. I mean, is this fun? Most of them will say no. Another common question I’ll ask is, which feeling is more intense, is it the joy of winning or the pain of losing? And I don’t know anybody who has answered winning. They all feel the losses more than they enjoy the wins. You know, there are a lot of similarities between them regardless of the sport.

MF: We can’t talk about college coaches without bringing up John Wooden. You wrote a book on Wooden called Wooden: A Coach’s Life, what is something you learned from him while doing your research?

SD: Well, first of all, the thing that I really wanted to do in the book is to dispel a lot of myths about him. He had been described in terms that made him seem inhuman, he was a great man but he was a man, and he was not a perfect man. I really believe in revealing someone’s imperfections. They actually become more sympathetic, more relatable. If someone’s perfect all the time then it’s really hard to connect with them because you know inherently that it’s just not true. 

A couple things about Wooden: First of all he was actually pretty insecure, and I think a lot of great achievers are driven by insecurity, they’re afraid of their demons, but their demons inspire them to try to exorcise them if they can. That insecurity—that fear—drives somebody like John Wooden. He was also extremely competitive—very, very competitive. He was tough on referees and he wasn’t always popular with other coaches, a big part of the Wooden myth is he never talked about winning. And it’s true, he never talked about winning, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t want to win. He really, really, really wanted to win. And he won a lot.

MF: So out of all the coaches you’ve talked with, who’s the guy you want giving you a pre-show pep talk? Who’s the one that will get you fired up before you film?

SD: That’s a great question. I think Tom Izzo’s a guy that comes to mind. You talk about enthusiasm and industriousness, there’s a guy who has a lot of intensity, a lot of real decency. But Izzo’s a guy who can certainly go into a locker room and fire people up. Although I have to say, you know the guy who you would least be inspired from a pep talk? John Wooden. He did not believe in pregame speeches. He did not believe in high emotion. He told his players to avoid the peaks and valleys. When you leave here, people shouldn’t know whether you won or lost. His attitude was, he’s a teacher. It’s his job to teach you the game of basketball, and the games were your exam.

MF: As the host of your own show, what do you want to give viewers when you interview coaches and players? What should they expect?

SD: The viewers are going to come away feeling that they understand that person a lot more than they did. There’s going to be certain information, and facts and details about their lives. Viewers are going to gain an understanding of the person that I think is hard to find anywhere else. By the way, my No. 1 icon for interviewing, the best interviewer who’s ever lived, is Howard Stern. He asks anything. There’s nothing he won’t ask. Now there are some things I won’t ask. I’m not going into someone’s private lives, their bodily functions and that type of thing. But there’s something to the approach of just feeling like, what does the listener really want to hear? Ask it. Ask it. I’m not as good as Howard Stern, I’m not as bold as Howard Stern, but I’m trying.

You can catch Davis on the Seth Davis Show at www.campusinsiders.com.

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