Mackay: Inside the coach's playbook

John Calipari is one of the most fascinating basketball coaches you will ever meet. He is calm and animated at the same time. He is intense, yet introspective. He loves to — and lives to — win. And he always, always, always lives by the credo: “Players First.” His new book bears that title.

The University of Kentucky men’s basketball coach has had much more than the usual amount of success. Well-deserved, I might add. And I had the pleasure of visiting with him during the recent NCAA Final Four tournament. I’ve known him since he was the head coach of the New Jersey Nets, when I spoke to their season-ticket holders in 1997.

“Players First” is a straight talk, no-holds-barred, lay-it-on-the-line study of a man and his philosophy. Calipari has stirred up controversy from time to time. He doesn’t apologize for that. He is committed to developing young players into the best team and the best people they can be.

That is where “Players First” comes in. “We reach our goals by striving together toward collective goals,” he says. “During the season, it’s all about the team; after the season, it’s about the individual.”

His plain-spoken manner is central so that players can make honest self-appraisals.

He realizes his reputation as a “one and done” guy, where superstar kids play one year and then leave school to go into the NBA. He understands his role in their development when he says that “some people see the young players as future millionaires, just stopping through before they cash in. That’s not what I see. They’re kids, some as young as 17 years old. They all need me in a different way.”

Calipari is completely honest with his players: “Playing for me is going to be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. If you’re not up for that, go somewhere else. Please go somewhere else.”

As a real basketball junkie, I was completely enthralled by this book. I loved the stories, the strategy and the thoughts behind his decisions. And then I realized that I was reading a book about so much more than basketball. Calipari has incorporated a variety of business and life lessons that will resonate with sports fans as well as those who don’t know a slam dunk from a grand slam.

For example, he makes lists and advises readers to write things down and give themselves a deadline. Businesspeople know the importance of being organized and setting goals. Take it from me: If you don’t have a good game plan, how do you expect to win?

Calipari tells his players: “You’ve got to love the grind. Embrace the work. Embrace the sweat. Embrace the pain.” Managers everywhere can relate to that kind of pep talk. There are parts of every job that require the kind of dedication that enables you to work through the difficult or tedious tasks. Just like winning basketball requires practice, practice and more practice, to be really good at what you do takes plenty of preparation. You might as well enjoy the journey. The coach discusses at length the importance of turning his players into “servant-leaders”: They are servants first, who then cultivate a desire to lead. That concept easily translates to business.

Calipari believes in sharing the glory, a concept that really successful businesses understand. He says, “After any kind of success we experience, I want every single person who works for the basketball program to feel that their personal imprint is on it.”

But perhaps his most valuable lesson is that he tells his players to “fail fast. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Fail fast and we’ll correct.”

I couldn’t agree more. I tell people that if you want to triple your success rate, you have to triple your failure rate. You can learn so much from your mistakes.

Mackay’s Moral: Life’s failures are steppingstones to success.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail harvey@mackay.com.

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