- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 13, 2001

Upon delivering the New York Giants to the doorstep of Super Bowl XXXV, coach Jim Fassel was hailed as a master of motivation for boldly guaranteeing at midseason that his then-struggling team would make the playoffs. This "brought the team together" or "took the pressure off the players," the pundits and armchair psychologists (often one and the same) noted, and it apparently worked.

Not to be outplayed in the mind-game game, Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick stepped off the plane in Tampa, Fla., and promptly scolded the media for continuing to hound linebacker Ray Lewis about that double-murder in Atlanta a year ago.

Many immediately understood Billick's intent. With the Ravens cast in the unfamiliar and unwanted role of favorite (they were underdogs in both their previous playoff games), Billick needed to maintain the Us vs. Them wave that had carried his team. Wagons appropriately circled, the Ravens went out and held off the Giants 34-7.

Billick's ploy had trumped Fassel's, or so it seemed. The Giants were the same highly motivated, psyched-up outfit that clinched home-field advantage in the NFC and dominated Philadelphia and Minnesota in the playoffs. What was different? Was it Billick's machinations? Or maybe the outcome had more to do with the Ravens' defense, one of the best in NFL history, wagons or no wagons.

Motivational ploys have been part of sport forever, probably going back to the first Greek Olympics in 776 B.C. They had just one event, a footrace, won by Coroebus of Elis. We don't know for sure, but reportedly a coach in line for a sandal contract whispered to his runner just before the race, "Zeus will be mighty steamed if you don't win. We're talking thunderbolts."

Since then, coaches have attempted to pry the best out of their players using a variety of methods, from the fire and brimstone orations of Knute Rockne and Vince Lombardi to the castration of a bull Jackie Sherrill made his Mississippi State football team witness before a game against Texas.

Sherrill's wide-eyed lads won the game, leading to several conclusions. One is that the unfortunate beast did not sacrifice his manhood in vain. Another is that Sherrill had the better team to begin with. Yet another is that college athletes are a lot more impressionable and trusting than professionals.

"Players can see through the gimmicks," said Danny Ainge, who played for three NBA teams during a 14-year career and later coached the Phoenix Suns to a 136-90 record in three-plus seasons. "Brian Billick's approach wouldn't have been as effective and I think it was very effective had he not practiced what he preached. What Fassel did wouldn't have worked if he'd been creating doubt within his team.

"Sometimes the exact same quote can be awesome for one group of guys and fraudulent to another group. It depends on what else is going on behind the scenes. 'Does Fassel believe in us, or is he trying to motivate us?' If it's not part of a coach's personality or if a guy is yelling and screaming and negative and then he tells me right before tipoff how great I am, I'm not buying it."

Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young likes to talk about how his coach, George Seifert, tried to motivate with rah-rah speeches and left everyone bummed out. The players liked and respected Seifert; he just didn't have it in him. And remember when New York Jets coach Al Groh broke out the flashlights last season? That was in response to Keyshawn Johnson's boast that he was a "star" and that Wayne Chrebet, his former Jets teammate, was a "flashlight." The week after the Jets beat Johnson's new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Groh darkened a meeting room, handed out flashlights and had the players turn them on until the room was illuminated.

This happened during a bye week, when the Jets were 4-0. Duly inspired by Groh's clever little ploy, the Jets lost their next game to Pittsburgh and ultimately failed to make the playoffs. Amid whispers of a lack of respect among some of the players, Groh resigned after the season and replaced George Welsh at Virginia.

Groh's predecessor, Bill Parcells, had a different presence altogether, which partly explains why his teams went to three Super Bowls, winning two, and why his name appeared on this year's Hall of Fame ballot. Yet Parcells was a stuntmeister in his own right. While coaching the Jets in 1998, Parcells pulled his entire staff assistants, trainers, everybody off the practice field in disgust before a game against favored New England. The Jets went on to pull a 24-14 upset.

But there was a lot to back it up. Parcells was a stickler for organization, but perhaps more than any coach since Lombardi he motivated through fear. During that '98 season, the Jets lost their first three games, a condition that brought out the worst, and the best, in Parcells.

"If you go into a bye week on an 0-3 start, it's five times more miserable with Parcells," Jets running back Curtis Martin said at the time. "You would rather be anywhere else in the world.

Discussing the fear factor employed by Parcells, former Giants linebacker Pepper Johnson said a few years ago, "Coach would dish out some threats during the course of the week. I know it definitely helped my play when he personally threatened me."

Parcells, through the sheer force of his personality (and eventually a track record to go with it), was able to back up those threats. But look what happened to the New York Rangers several weeks ago. Shortly after general manager Glen Sather delivered a feisty 40-minute lecture, the Rangers lost at home to the Atlanta Thrashers 7-2.

"Our confidence is very low," veteran Mark Messier said afterward.

Without a doubt, some pep talks are peppier than others. It's also a good bet that Sather's spiels had a bit more zip when he was coaching Wayne Gretzky, Messier and other Edmonton luminaries to five Stanley Cups from 1984 to 1990.

In other words, talent helps. Ask Rick Pitino. When he took over as coach, president and grand visionary of the moribund Boston Celtics in 1997, his reputation as a master motivator was well established. He had improbably guided Providence College to a Final Four. He had done a decent job with the New York Knicks, then led Kentucky to a national championship. He was big on the lecture and banquet circuit, delivering motivational speeches at $25,000 a pop.

Last month, after 3 and 1/2 years, a 102-146 record and no winning seasons, Pitino resigned from the Celtics. The cause of his demise was described as a failure to "get his message across to the players," or words to that effect. Basically, his team refused to play defense. This from the author of "Success is a Choice" and "Lead to Succeed."

A motivational tactic "only works when the players respect the coach and have admiration for a coach and his commitment, his sacrifice, his passion," said Bill Walton, who won championships with the Portland Trail Blazers and the Celtics, not to mention three NCAA titles with UCLA under John Wooden.

"It's very difficult to be a coach. These guys challenge their players, challenge their integrity, challenge their reason for existence by pushing them and asking for more. The good ones are able to get that out of their players. Look what [Philadelphia 76ers coach] Larry Brown has done. Look what [Milwaukee Bucks coach] George Karl has done."

It's what Rick Pitino could not do. Of course, Pitino never had a player as good as Philly's Allen Iverson either. On the other hand, he didn't have anyone who was such a load to manage.

But Pitino, whose passion and commitment were never questioned, lacked something besides a great player. He lacked a great player who could lead.

"Superstars with great work ethics, superstars with great motivation and confidence are the greatest assets a coach can have," said Ainge, who played on Celtics title teams in 1984 and 1986 and now works as a commentator for Turner Sports. "Superstar leaders with a great work ethic and great motivation spread to a team better than a coach."

How, then, does Ainge explain Iverson, who drives Brown crazy with his offcourt behavior and failure to arrive promptly at practice?

"Iverson's been a disruption," Ainge said, "but he's also liked by his teammates for one reason: They respect how hard he plays. Larry Brown has been around coaching long enough to know if they're gonna be a great team, [Iverson] has to be a leader. It's like when I took over coaching the Suns. My whole motivation was to get Jason Kidd to become a leader. Forget teaching him how to shoot. I told him, 'You're the only one capable of being the leader.' "

Terry Robiskie could have used a superstar leader, or just a leader, period. When Robiskie became the Redskins interim coach with three games remaining, some believed his fire, passion and, yes, motivational skills (traits not attributed to the deposed Norv Turner) would provide a needed jolt. It even was written that because Robiskie is black, the black players would respond.


The Redskins managed to play even worse than they did before, falling out of the playoffs and costing Robiskie any chance of becoming the full-time coach. Despite Robiskie's exhortations, the Redskins were essentially leaderless, missing what Lewis, Rod Woodson and others supplied the Ravens and what Jessie Armstead and Michael Strahan gave the Giants.

Basically, a coach can only do so much.

"So much of motivation has to come from within," said Walton, a commentator for NBC. "And that comes from the depth and breadth of your character."

To Walton, whose favorite school is old school, the character of many of today's athletes are neither deep nor wide.

"It's a different world today," he said. "Since the mid-'80s, basketball has gone in the direction of going out and finding people with spectacular physical attributes and making them basketball players. Now you have people who play basketball because it's a job. Prior to that, players were incredibly self-motivated.

"There's a long list of players who have been given tremendous amounts of money, and because they have tremendous bodies and big contracts, they're expected to love basketball. But the love of basketball, the love of competition, is a choice. You can't push that on somebody."

Ainge, whose reputation as an annoying whiner sometimes overshadowed his skills and grasp of the game, said, "I needed no input from a coach. Zero. What I needed from a coach was for him to believe in me. That's why, as a coach, I wasn't a yeller or a screamer. But no coach was gonna motivate me."

Not every professional athlete, of course, needs constant prodding. Although the NBA season is long and tiring, Wizards center Jahidi White said he is able to motivate himself by "keeping the next game in my head and always thinking about what I'm gonna do." Echoing Walton, White said a coach's motivational theatrics only work "if [they come] from someone you respect, someone who's opinion you value."

Whatever first-year coach Leonard Hamilton is doing (he doesn't like to shed much light on his methods), the Wizards have been responding lately, playing much better after a terrible start. Like Ainge, Hamilton said he prefers to keep his voice down. And he said he really hasn't changed his tactics during the course of the year. Motivation, he said, "is a process that's going on all the time. Just like if you're a CEO or a parent, you have to communicate with the people you're dealing with on a consistent basis."

Hamilton, who came to the Wizards after rebuilding programs at Oklahoma State and Miami, said there is little difference between motivating college athletes who play far fewer games and play for free (presumably) and pros who withstand a brutal 82-game schedule and make a lot more money than he does (and he's making $2 million a year).

"Human beings are human beings," he said. "You try to treat people with respect and hold people accountable and try to be fair… . I don't think I'm doing anything different from what I've always done. I've always been concerned about the individuals, their mindsets and approach."

Yet every coach worth his reserved parking space, including Hamilton, has occasionally fallen back on Us vs. Them (and its twin brother, No One Gives Us Any Respect), which often employs a resource known as Bulletin Board Material. "What people say and what people write, sometimes that's motivation," Hamilton concedes.

When he was at Georgetown, White played for perhaps the leading proponent of Us vs. Them, John Thompson, the creator of Hoya Paranoia. To Thompson, "Them" seemed to be the whole world. White explains it thusly: "We were all playing for a common goal. We were all in the same boat together, and everything out there is trying to keep us from our goal. So we have to stick together and accomplish what we have to together."

But Thompson's motivational skills went well beyond that, White said.

"Coach Thompson was a great motivator because he dealt with each of his players on a personal level," he said. "He was a father figure to most of the players. They looked up to him, and they hung on his every word. He wasn't just a coach but also a teacher. After practice, he'd sit you down and talk about life. You felt he loved all his players.

"Sometimes in a game, we'd be down a little bit, lose a lead and he'd say something simple like, 'I love you guys. I love every one of you.' Next thing you know, we'd be up by 20."

Years ago, the Los Angeles Rams played the Giants in New York in the final game of the year. A playoff berth was at stake for both teams. That week, Rams coach George Allen distributed some newspaper clippings that seemed to suggest the Giants were taking his team lightly (No One Gives Us Any Respect, in other words). At least that's how Allen saw it. And he wanted to make sure the Rams saw it the same way, even though Allen, who would go on to coach the Redskins, had written in his book, "Inside Football," "Never use the news media as a propaganda or psychological tool."

The Rams beat the Giants 31-3. After the game, Deacon Jones, the future Hall of Fame defensive end for Los Angeles, was asked if the clippings had an effect. Oh, yes, he said. The Giants never should have insulted his team. Then Jones was asked what the score would have been without the clippings.

"Thirty-one to three," he said.

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