Photo: Christine Wisch
Earlier this month, Wisconsin state champions were crowned as high school hockey closed out another season. Directing those teams was a leader otherwise known as the head coach. In Madison, at the coaches annual spring meeting, they will decide the 2019 Bob Johnson Coach of the Year Award. If history holds true, the majority of the coaches nominated will be the same ones who spent the past week preparing their teams for the state tournament. When it comes to selecting this award, it has traditionally been all about winning.
But is winning really the best gauge to measure the worth of a high school coach? If it isn’t the best, it is certainly the most popular.
Ask any high school athletic director or administrator, and they will tell you that high school athletics is not about winning. They will likely go on about things like character, discipline, teamwork and a host of other great benefits provided by this experience. In one aspect they will be right, because athletics do have the potential to develop all of those priceless traits. On the other hand, they will be wrong, because it is the winning coaches that receive the recognition and rewards, while the losing coaches too often are quietly shown the door.
I was fortunate enough to have been named the Bob Johnson Coach of the Year in 2006. An outstanding group of players at Wausau East bought into everything we sold them as coaches and we were rewarded with a fantastic season. While I was very grateful for the recognition by my peers, my job as head coach that year was one of the easiest in my 29 years in WIAA hockey. The talent, work ethic and team-first mentality exhibited by that team made guiding that team feel like they were on auto-pilot. After years of short benches in Spooner and a tough-start rebuilding project at East, I had never had so much depth, talent, experience and character.
In athletics, at all levels, the measuring stick is wins and losses. Beneath the surface and beyond the front page of the sports section is where the real value of athletics takes place. That is where character is built and young adults molded. The truth, however, is your team won’t get any awards or recognition for developing character. A less-than-talented team that overachieves to a .500 record will be unnoticed. A team that endures a 2- or 3-win season, may develop more character and learn more life lessons than any other team in the state, but they will be largely ignored. Your ignominious recognition will come from being listed on the bottom of the power ratings or handed the 10th seed in your sectional.
The paradox is that you will likely work twice as hard as a coach of a losing team. You turn over every stone, try any motivational technique and experiment with every system known to hockey in an attempt to find a way to do more with less. Like a well-trained EMT, you bring your team back to life game after game and loss after loss. You coax another practice out of them and build them back up to face the next seemingly insurmountable obstacle.
It isn’t that winning coaches don’t put in similar time and effort. They do, but the atmosphere winning creates invigorates you and your team while losing chips away at your attitude and optimism. Winning also covers up most team ills, while losing ignites the brush fires of disgruntled players and upset parents. At the end of one of those seasons, of which I have had a few, you are completely exhausted mentally, physically and emotionally. Your lack of measurable success isn’t a result of a poor effort on your part, but more likely a shortage of talented and experienced players. Your playing surface wasn’t level, quite literally while others skated downhill, your team was faced with a constant uphill climb.
A popular tenet among coaches is that any coach can win with talent, but no coach can win without it. Few, if any coaches, would disagree with the fact that it takes talent to win games. When the talent pool between two teams is grossly inequitable, coaching can seldom make the difference. When the talent is comparable, coaching and preparation is most often the difference. Those final games leading up to the state tournament are great battles of talent, heart and strategy. As NHL legend Scotty Bowman said, “My most important job is getting the right players on the ice at the right time.”
Jacques Demers, who coached 13 seasons in the NHL and won a Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens in 1993, echoed those sentiments: “It’s not the coach, it’s the players. A lot of people think it’s the coach, but if you don’t have the right players, you are not going to be successful.”
Winning defines us as coaches. Yet even the greatest coaches have suffered through losing seasons. No one would argue that Herb Brooks was a great coach, yet he went 19-48-13 with the North Stars one season and had an NHL career record of 219-222-66. Bill Belichick started his NFL career 20-38. Lou Holtz was considered a genius among college football coaches but once suffered through an 0-11 season. The difference in those poor seasons was not the coaching. Good coaches, with limited talent, will struggle to win games. Year after year, the coach remains the same, it is the players who come and go.
Eventually, most of us grow to understand that our worth goes much deeper than wins and losses, but we continue to wear our season record like a name tag at the company picnic. The breadth of what we try to do as coaches is immense. Like a variety act on the legendary Ed Sullivan Show, we try to keep a multitude of plates spinning. But the unfair reality is we will often judge ourselves and others will almost certainly judge us by two simple numbers, wins and losses.
Whoever said, “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game” was right. A lot of high school teams are cleaning out their lockers and turning in their gear as their season comes to an end. A lot of good coaches, who worked long and hard hours to do the right thing in the face of disappointing seasons will painfully say farewell to another completed journey. And while their won-loss record or their departure from the playoffs won’t catch anyone’s attention, know well that most did the best they could and that your son or daughter will be a better person because of their efforts.
Maybe someday they will find a way to recognize coaches for something other than their won-loss record. The Hobey Baker Award Committee found a way to do that for high school players. Recognize them for their character, not just their statistics.
Maybe it is time we have a similar award for coaches.
Dan Bauer is a freelance writer, retired teacher and hockey coach in Wausau, Wis. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.