- The Washington Times - Friday, November 15, 2002

He could have benched them. Cut 'em. Questioned their manhood, one by one, in terms usually reserved for prison or Parris Island.
Instead, Marvin Lewis gave them a book about cheese.
After the Washington Redskins defense opened the season in a bickering, disheveled fashion yielding a combined 57 points and 817 yards in back-to-back losses to Philadelphia and San Francisco defensive coordinator Lewis handed out copies of the best-selling motivational tome "Who Moved My Cheese?"
Football-free, the book tells the story of two mice and two humans who live in a maze and chase after a shifting supply of life-giving Velveeta.
The message? Accept change like, say, Lewis' brand-new defensive scheme and, er, follow the cheese.
Or else.
"[It] was basically just a metaphor saying if something gets moved, you've got to adjust," said Redskins cornerback Fred Smoot. "We had a new coach, new plays. We had to get used to it, get together and get on the same page."
Lewis isn't alone. In the quest for victories, championships and subsequent book deals, coaches across the sports spectrum are turning to unconventional and sometimes silly motivational tricks, gimmicks that go well beyond the standard guts 'n' glory pep talk.
To instill a sense of purpose, Georgetown men's basketball coach Craig Esherick once hung his club's NIT banner on a bulletin board over the team urinal. Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson has been known to give his players literature (Horace Grant got "To Kill a Mockingbird"; Shaquille O'Neal received Nietzsche).
A few years back, Mississippi State football coach Jackie Sherrill brought a live bull before his players. In what can only be described as a manhood-building and bullhood-culling exercise, he had the unlucky animal castrated.
"You know, I don't think that would go over well with the Humane Society," Lewis said with a laugh. "But then again, he's just trying [to motivate].
"Everybody learns differently. Some guys learn very easily in the meeting room. Other guys learn on the practice field. And some guys can get bored. So it's just a matter of using a lot of different things."
When it comes to sports motivation, a single rule of thumb applies: The only stupid gimmick is the one that doesn't work.
When Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher showed his then-struggling team a clip from the 1976 movie "Network" earlier this season the "I'm mad as [heck] and I'm not going to take it anymore" scene he came off like a square-jawed doofus. Four wins in five games later, he looks more like a genius.
Former Georgia football coach Jim Donnan once drove a steamroller onto the Bulldogs' practice field. Impressed, the Dawgs went on to flatten Mississippi State, 47-0.
Before a game against Florida in Smoot's final season at Mississippi State, the ever-creative (if PETA-baiting) Sherrill gave his star defender a necklace with a petrified alligator claw.
"I wore it all week," Smoot said. "To class, to practice, everywhere. Right before the game, I hung it over the [locker room] door, and all of us touched it before we went out. And we beat them to death."
Like Cowher, Lewis is a game-film auteur, an action-flick devotee who regularly splices scenes from "Pulp Fiction," "Dirty Harry" and "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" into his unit's pregame video sessions.
The night before Washington's 30-9 loss at Green Bay, Lewis showed his troops a clip of Packers running back Ahman Green, followed by a scene from the movie "Predator" featuring 1980s uber-buttkicker Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"If it bleeds," Schwarzenegger says, "we can kill it."
"We do clips every Saturday night," Lewis said. "It's entertaining, and puts a direction to what the theme of the week is. I try to illustrate whatever theme I'm trying to get across."
In a cliched sports world where locker-room rants are standard and the next game is always the biggest of the season, clever motivational tricks stand out, making old coaching instructions seem new.
During the Chicago Bulls' 1998 playoff run, then-coach Jackson showed his team footage of Michael Jordan holding the ball too long, followed by a scene from the film "The Devil's Advocate" in which the character played by actress Charlize Theron grabs a shard of glass and slashes her own throat.
Point taken.
"Putting those clips in, guys could really see what [Jackson] was talking about," said Wizards guard Ty Lue, who played for Jackson in Los Angeles. "He did a lot of things like that. The other team would make a run, we'd look to him to call a timeout. And he'd be filing his nails."
A self-styled motivational guru in fact, he's written a book on the subject Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick is adept at keeping his message novel. Starting with his messengers.
Billick brought in a series of guest speakers for Baltimore's championship run in 2001, including Art Berg, a world-class wheelchair athlete. During Super Bowl week alone, the Ravens heard from sports icons Hank Aaron, Mike Singletary and Jim Brown.
"Prior to the Super Bowl, Joe Theismann talked to the guys on enjoying the moment," Lewis said. "He said to get out there and grab everything you can grab. Don't go home without your pockets full."
Or, for that matter, with a hangnail. Before a wild-card game at Miami in January, Billick checked his club into an oceanfront hotel and treated them to a day at the spa, complete with massages, body scrubs and pedicures. The Ravens manhandled the Dolphins, 20-3.
Similarly, New York coach Jim Fassell took his players bowling and on a golf trip during the Giants' Super Bowl season in 2001. And when the Washington Capitals staggered to a disappointing start in the 1999 hockey season, former coach Ron Wilson took the team on a four-day jaunt to Las Vegas.
"Winning is about having the right system, the right players in place," said Caps general manager George McPhee. "But every once in a while, it's important to do something different. A little variety never hurts."
That said, the difference between creativity and bad taste is as thin as a pro sideline. Just ask Chicago defensive coordinator Greg Blache, a gun collector who used to pass out bullets to Bears who made big plays.
During the 2000 NBA playoffs, Jackson reportedly showed the Lakers a video montage that juxtaposed mustachioed Sacramento coach Rick Adelman with Hitler and former Kings point guard Jason Williams with the neo-Nazi skinhead portrayed by actor Ed Norton in the film "American History X."
Then there's Billick. The Saturday before the Ravens faced the Dolphins in January, he brought his team to Pro Player Stadium and told them to "mark their territory."
"Coach Billick is a very confident, arrogant man," said Redskins defensive tackle Carl Powell, a former Raven. "And when you look at the team he had, it was a perfect fit."
Motivational gimmicks sometimes backfire. Before the kickoff of a Ravens-Titans playoff game two seasons ago, Tennessee's public-relations staff played a film on the Adelphia Coliseum video screen titled "A Special Message from Brian Billick and the Baltimore Ravens."
The short video, which showed Billick and some of his players badmouthing Tennessee, was intended to fire up the Titans. Instead, it merely infuriated the Ravens, who won 24-10.
"When we see our coach up there saying that stuff, we have to make sure we go out and back it up," linebacker Peter Boulware said afterward. "It made us play harder."
Other tricks simply flop. To coax star guard Kobe Bryant into passing the basketball, Jackson once gave him "Corelli's Mandolin," a book about a solider who sacrifices personal glory for the good of his unit.
Oblivious, Bryant continued to chuck away and Jackson ended up disparaging him in the press.
When former Redskins interim coach Terry Robiskie replaced the fired Norv Turner three years ago, he was lauded as a first-class motivator who would turn around a listless operation. Two desultory losses later, Robiskie said winning in the NFL came down to "pride," not motivation.
"Games are gonna be won on the field," Powell said. "No matter what's said or done, you still have to go out there and play."
Powell's sentiments recall a speech former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll gave his team before a late-season game at Oakland in 1981. According to former Steeler Tunch Ilkin, the talk was something less than Gipper-esque.
"He said the Spartans were so committed to victory that when they crossed the seas to the island of Corinth to fight the Corinthians, they burned their own ships, so the only way they could return was victorious on Corinthian ships," Ilkin recently told the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette. "He said that's how committed we have to be.
"[Then] someone asked, 'Does that mean we are going to blow up our plane when we get to Oakland?'"
Duly juiced, the Steelers lost. The club dropped its next two games to finish 8-8.
"I gotta be honest with you: I don't pay attention to [motivational] stuff at all," said Redskins offensive tackle Jon Jansen. "I love what I do, and that's why I play with energy. I don't need film clips, somebody screaming and hollering. I don't even want people talking to me. Just leave me alone. Let me do my thing."
In other words, it's fine to follow the cheese. But better to follow the ball.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide