Kauf Drops: Rangers, Cowboys Could Learn From John Wooden

by Todd K | Posted on Thursday, October 25th, 2012

Image: Rich Clarkson/Sports Illustrated

By Todd Kaufmann

Sr Columnist



“Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.” — John Wooden


I had the honor, as a young man, to sit down and listen to Coach John Wooden speak at a UCLA basketball camp I was attending in junior high. At that point in my young life, I had listened to many an athlete or coach speak through my years playing the game but never was there more respect for an individual than when Coach walked into the gym. Never were a bunch of teenagers more quiet than when Coach sat in a chair in front of us and spoke about the game and about life.

He commanded your respect without saying a word.

He would pause just briefly during each point and we hung on what he was going to say next. We wanted more. It was a moment in time I will never forget and I will be forever grateful that I had the opportunity to listen to him speak. This wasn’t some charity function; it was a bunch of young men playing the game that he had coached for so many years. Even the staff of this camp, and a few of the current UCLA players who were there, stopped what they were doing. Coach was in command of the room.

When I saw that quote this morning I couldn’t help but be reminded of the complaints most of the fans have about the Dallas Cowboys and their owner, Jerry Jones and his unwillingness to step away from the role of being the team’s general manager. It also reminds me of Ron Washington, manager of the Texas Rangers, and his unwillingness to step away from Michael Young despite his struggles both at the plate and in the field. As Washington put it, “I’ll stay on the ship until it sinks,” not realizing that ship was already taking on water by the gallons. There’s no righting the ship at that point.

Since the Cowboys last won a Super Bowl (1995), they have just a single playoff victory and they have yet to come close to getting back to the big game. They’ve been through different quarterbacks since Troy Aikman and they’ve been through different head coaches since Jimmy Johnson. Not one of them has gotten close to the success that made the Cowboys “America’s Team.”

Through the 2010 and 2011 seasons, the Texas Rangers had done something they had never done in franchise history. They won back-to-back AL West titles, back-to-back American League titles, and two straight trips to the World Series.

One season later, the Rangers found themselves watching the playoffs from home after losing what most thought was an insurmountable 13-game lead in the AL West division. Not only had the division slipped away, but when given another shot in a one-game play-in against the Baltimore Orioles, Texas looked almost uninterested, tired, and just plain done.

When I saw this quote from Coach Wooden, it made me realize that both of these teams are missing the one thing Wooden talks about — change. The one thing that could be the downfall of them both.

Most coaches and players will tell you they will do what is right for the team itself. They will tell you they want what’s best for the organization and, when it’s all said and done, they want a championship.

Jerry Jones expects greatness and championship caliber football, yet doesn’t realize he’s the guy holding them back. Ron Washington expects the best from his players night in and night out, yet doesn’t realize he’s the guy playing a veteran who isn’t coming out of his struggles. Deciding instead to ride an old horse and expecting him to win the Kentucky Derby.

There’s another thing that’s missing from both the Dallas Cowboys and Texas Rangers, something that is more important than the “change” Coach Wooden talks about — respect. “Without raising his voice, he commanded respect,” Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan wrote of Wooden almost three years ago.

“It was Coach Wooden’s heart, brain and soul that put him in a position to inspire others to reach levels of success and peace of mind that none of us could ever dream of reaching by ourselves,” Bill Walton wrote of Wooden just after his passing at the age of 99.

When Coach walked into the room, everyone and everything stopped. He commanded it with just his presence. Even after his coaching days were long over, fans, media, opposing players, and opposing coaches alike, treated him with the utmost respect, hoping to get just one word or one piece of advice from the man who had a multitude of success.

A lot of fans talk about how Cowboys’ head coach Jason Garrett doesn’t get upset. They want to see more fire from Garrett, they want to see him get in a player’s face and scream at him for making a mistake. But the question I have is will that really change anything? Will being yelled at make that professional football player respect his head coach from the moment he walks into the room? Maybe the real problem isn’t the player being yelled at, but maybe the coach who’s doing the yelling.

Two years ago, during the last days of former Cowboys’ head coach Wade Phillips, Troy Aikman did a radio interview on KTCK-AM here in Dallas/Ft Worth and was asked about his head coach, Jimmy Johnson. “Jimmy [Johnson] came in and, as players, we felt that Jimmy Johnson was in control. He was the guy that we had to answer to. We just knew when we walked in the building, we’d better do what we’re supposed to do or there was going to be hell to pay from Jimmy Johnson.”

When was the last time you heard a Dallas Cowboy say that about the current head coach?

In 2012, the Rangers went through a drama filled season that was centered on one specific player — Josh Hamilton. From his relapse with alcohol prior to spring training, his “disobedience to God” with chewing tobacco, to having problems with his eyes due to drinking too much caffeine. No matter what Ron Washington did, he was at the mercy of whatever problem was ailing Josh next. He couldn’t make Josh be interested in baseball and he couldn’t motivate arguably his best player in order to get the best this player had to offer.

When things start to go wrong, most fans will put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the head coach or the manager. It happened with Wade Phillips a few years ago and it’s happening again now with Jason Garrett and Ron Washington. Each has had their share of blunders and bad decisions and each could use a dose of change.

But, as far as the Cowboys go, not all the blame falls on Garrett and it hasn’t. There has been an outcry for years for Jerry Jones to step aside as the general manager and bring in someone who’s sole focus is on bringing in, and drafting, the kind of players that will restore the Cowboys to the team, and the organization, they once were.

Ron Washington may be looking at a season where change in his mentality is needed more than anything else. Change in his loyalty, change in how they’re used. There may be a lot of new faces when this team reports to spring training in February. While there may not be a repeat of the kind of season we saw from Michael Young, continuing to stay on a ship that sinks even further won’t do Washington any favors. If something isn’t working, you don’t keep doing the same things over and over again and wonder why it’s not getting any better.

Both the Rangers and the Cowboys could take a page from some of the things people knew to be true about John Wooden. While you might want a screaming, yelling, no nonsense head coach, sometimes it’s about the ones who command respect without all the fire and brimstone. Sometimes it’s about the coaches or managers who know how to teach and know how to make their players better.

We always look at some of the best speeches in sports movie history and, deep in our hearts, we want THAT guy. We want THAT coach. Why do you think so many Dallas Cowboy fans have called for Bill Cowher to be the next head coach?

While I’ve always believed players need to take the field and do the job they were selected to do, it’s also about the coach who motivates his players enough where they want to be the best they can be on any given day.

If there’s no respect, no motivation, and no change in either one, how can you ever expect a franchise or an organization to succeed? If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.

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