Books: Seth Davis On Coaches "Getting To Us"
By Jason Schott
Getting To Us: How Great Coaches Make Great Teams
By Seth Davis
Penguin Press, on sale today
Sports Illustrated and The Athletic writer, and CBS Sports college basketball analyst, Seth Davis has a new book, Getting To Us, which explores how nine coaches achieved their success.
Davis examines the methods of nine of the most iconic coaches of this era - Ohio State Football Head Coach Urban Meyer, Duke Men's Basketball Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski, Connecticut Women's Basketball Head Coach Geno Auriemma, Los Angeles Clippers Head Coach Doc Rivers, Boston Celtics Head Coach Brad Stevens, Michigan State Men's Basketball Head Coach Tom Izzo, Syracuse Men's Basketball Head Coach Jim Boeheim, Michigan Football Head Coach Jim Harbaugh, and Clemson Football Head Coach Dabo Swinney.
Getting To Us covers the lives of these coaches, including the trials and tribulations of the building years, the toll of great coaching on the body and mind, how they dealt with setbacks in their personal and professional lives, and how they attempt to find balance in a typically obsessive career.
I spoke with Davis at CBS/Turner Sports March Madness Media Day. Here is our conversation:
Jason Schott: Where did you come up with the concept of a "team of us?"
Seth Davis: I've interviewed a lot of these guys over the years and I was thinking of if there was a way to, and not just coaches, kind of write a book about these people that I've met and all these things that I've learned. My publisher, the editor at Penguin Press, came up with the idea to make it about coaches, which really resonated. As a long-form writer, coaches make the best characters not because they know everything but because they're tortured and they've had interesting lives and they have an unusual way of processing information and going about their work. So, I came up with this group of nine guys who are all highly successful, they've won a lot obviously, they all have interesting stories, and they all were willing to give me access. I did not want it to be something where I was basically pasting in reporting that other people had done, so all nine of these coaches I had access, not only to them, but to their wives, their families, players, colleagues, their friends, who they grew up with, really get into the way they think and operate their lives and then step back in the bigger picture and think about what leadership is all about and the qualities of leadership.
"I came up with what I call the PEAK profile of Persistence, Empathy, Authenticity, and Knowledge, and so I go through each of these guys and kind of trace how they developed each one of those qualities and how they apply it to their teams."
JS: One thing that is a common them in Getting To Us is the adversity they went through at some point, be it Krzyzewski and issues with his identity growing up, Boeheim growing up working in the family's funeral home business, or Doc Rivers seeing his house get burned down.
SD: No question that was a theme, because to be a great coach, you have to convince your players that they can push through adversity so you have to be wired in a way that you're never defeated by adversity, and so they're always charging forward. A lot of people can feel that way about themselves, but to be able to transfer that way of thinking and that way of doing into a group and have everybody identify it in a team goal is the "getting to us" concept that the team comes first. Very few people can do that consistently at a high level.
JS: Did you notice a difference in a guy like Rivers and Harbaugh, who played professionally and then went into coaching, compared to a guy like Stevens or Coach K that coached from when he was right out of college?
SD: I think what comes out of the book is these are nine very different guys and they all have different personalities, different set of life experiences, and nine different ways of doing things. So that's part of what you take away from the book is there is no secret, there's no one way to do things, you have to do what's right for you. That's what I mean by authenticity, finding out what works for you and then sticking to it in moments where it's not convenient.
That's where your authenticity comes in and your players can see through it. If you're a phony or if you're trying to be something you're not, they're not going to respond to what you're thinking. If you don't empathize with how they think, how they feel, you're not going to be able to reach them if you don't know what you're talking about and tell them how to get better and reach their individual goals, they won't follow you. So, however you achieve those qualities, and I hope people take it away in their own lives, you know, whatever your set of experiences are, whatever mine are, we can take that and make it our own and be successful in a way that is suitable to us and only to us.
JS: I started following college basketball around 2001 in high school, and I was unaware how bad Coach K's health was in 1995. You spend a good part of your chapter on him about the challenges he faced at that time. Do you think that gets lost in the narrative of Coach K's career?
SD: I had written about it, of course I've known him since I went to Duke, I know him a long time, and I had never really talked to him about exactly what went on, although I was suspicious about certain things. He was depressed and he was in a really bad place. We look at these successful guys and we think they've got it made, they must be happy all the time. Urban Meyer's a great example because when Urban Meyer stepped away, he went to Durham to talk to Coach K.
Coach K reached out to him out of the blue because you create a beast and you constantly have to feed the beast and then, like Tom Izzo devotes so much time helping out other people because he's been there 30 years and they helped him when he was nothing, so he feels obligated. You take on a lot and you feel a lot of responsibility, and then when things don't go well, you feel guilt.
He (Coach K) was in a situation where he had back surgery and he was so convinced that the world couldn't do without him, that it would all fall apart if he wasn't there, that he came back too soon, and he didn't heal, and it put him in a bad place. Then, he has to concede his limitations and he became generally depressed, probably never officially diagnosed, but clearly was clinically depressed and went through deep therapy to get himself out of it, so these are very real human beings. Just because they're wealthy and successful doesn't mean they don't struggle, so I really wanted this book to get to the struggle. That's why I needed the access to them, I needed to really ask them questions that they probably hadn't been asked before.
JS: You really showed a Coach K beyond the stoic look we see commanding the sidelines.
SD: It's not easy. It's great, and a lot of these guys don't get to experience joy. I mean, you ask any coach what do you feel more intensely, the joy of winning or the pain of losing? They'll all tell you the pain of losing. Winning is part of the experience; losing is what you've got to fight through. To me, it's kind of sad. I think life should be joyful, that's why I would make a bad coach.
JS: So it's true when a coach the day after winning a title says they're already thinking of next year?
SD: It's sad, and it frays their relationships, it destroys marriages. These guys are competitive freaks. You mentioned Doc (Rivers) and Jim (Harbaugh) playing at a pretty high level. Most college basketball coaches didn't play at a very high level. It's the competition that they jones for and this feeling that you can never relax, you can never be satisfied because as soon as you take your foot off the gas a little bit, that guy that's been chasing you is going to pass you so you don't get to experience a lot of the joy of your success, and it's actually quite sad to me.
JS: Brad Stevens jumped from coaching Butler to the Celtics very young, at 36 years old, while Coach K was offered the Lakers job in 2004 and Tom Izzo was offered the Cavaliers job, and both did not leave their schools. Why do you think they stayed in college?
SD: I think to their credit, both of those men realized what they want, where they want to be. I make the same analogy with Geno (Auriemma), who got offered a men's job. All his life he heard, 'if you're so good, why aren't you coaching men?' That's not easy to hear over the course of 30 years...I think these kind of expressions 'a job sounds great until it's actually offered to you' and I think in their cases, now in Izzo's case, it was the Cavaliers and it was an owner in Dan Gilbert who he likes and knows and admires and that was the year LeBron James left for the Heat (2010). If LeBron had come back to the Cavaliers, I think Izzo would have taken that job, so it's not cut and dry. Of course, Krzyzewski took the one pro job that doesn't pay any money, which is coaching USA Basketball. That's the authenticity piece. Knowing who you are and knowing what works for you.
Brad Stevens had other pro offers, certainly other college offers that he didn't take, but this was the Celtics and this was Danny Ainge and this was the situation, I mean, Brad really wanted the intellectual challenge of the NBA. It's a game where it's 48 minutes as opposed to 40, it's a24-second shot clock as opposed to 30 or 45, so it was just a lot more of the intellectual challenge of the NBA that really appealed to Brad.
JS: Did Stevens think that he would have the success he did so fast? He took the Celtics from a deep rebuild to the Eastern Conference Finals in his fourth season.
SD: Brad has a great mix of humility and brashness. He's very competitive and another example of more than he wants to win, he hates to lose. His wife said he hates to lose. He was the one guy like, when I approached him for this book, he's like 'oh, all these other guys have it figured out, I'm not as good as them, I don't belong in a book like this blah blah blah,' and I said, 'Brad, you're right, you're terrible, but I still need you to do this, and please do it for me as a personal favor,' and he did it as a personal favor. I don't know that he was that surprised. I know he's that good.
JS: To use that word again, did anything surprise you that you didn't know about these guys that you were not aware of beforehand going in?
SD: It's a good question. I think the particulars of the details about how they became who they are and all of the different ways. I think more than being surprised I felt personally stressed about like 'how am I going to explain this? How can I explain how these guys win because you can never really get to it?' The answer is there is no answer. At one point, Jim Harbaugh said to me, to quote him in the book, 'there's no thing. Over the course of the season, you're making thousands of decisions big and small, and over the course of those thousands of decisions, you've got to get 95 percent of them right,' so it's the application of doing the right thing, learning your craft, developing as a leader and doing it every hour of every day of every week of every year over 20 to 30 years. I mean, it's that grit, that's where the persistence comes in. Persistence to me is not, you know, rah rah competitive, angry tough guy, it's in those quiet times when self doubt creeps in, when you're tired or you don't feel like doing something and you take that small step that day that makes you just a little bit better and then you extrapolate that over a long period of time, that's where greatness comes. It doesn't come fast and it doesn't come easy.
JS: On the flip side, was there something you thought about these coaches and talking to them confirmed your ideas?
SD: I think it goes back to the theme of how different they are, that there really is not one way to do this. There's not one way to do anything, but it's that search for the right way for you, the best way for you, that I think comes out in the book. You really get in, a lot of these said to me, 'boy, it felt like we were in therapy' because I'm like, 'Tell me about your mom, your dad, your brother, when did you feel like you were going to cry, when did you doubt yourself?' And really establishing those connections, and these are not naturally introspective people.
The nine best interviews in the book are the ones that I did with the wives. Wives are smarter, women are smarter, women are stronger, women know their husbands better than they know themselves. Most importantly, they're a lot easier to get on the phone. Their husbands are very busy and you're chase them down. The wives are available and insightful. So, to break these guys down as human beings was really fascinating and a lot of fun.
JS: Do you think Harbaugh was misunderstood when he was with the San Francisco 49ers? You highlighted where he wore what he usually would to coach a game to an event involving the new stadium and ownership was not thrilled with that.
SD: One of the themes in my writing in general throughout this book - our best qualities and our worst qualities usually come from the same place. Jim Harbaugh is all about winning. He just wants to win, doesn't matter if you're playing a little family game in the driveway and you're losing, no, he wants to win all the time and he doesn't care if you like him. He just doesn't care, and so there's a little bit of that pattern where he's good in the first few years on a job because he can turn something around. What he did in San Francisco was remarkable, three straight conference championship games, a Super Bowl, they were horrible the year before.
He's great at the turnaround, so we'll see now at Michigan, this is really the first time that people are really questioning his coaching ability. Like Krzyzewski, Boeheim, Izzo, they've all been at one place for a very long time and Harbaugh's never really been able to do that. I think what happened in San Francisco is, you know, unlike a college campus, you know, he had real bosses and they wanted a say in what he was doing. You have bosses in college, but they're not going to tell you how to coach. In the pros, they're going to tell you how to coach. It was all fine when he was winning, but then they were done with his personality over a long period of time. He's pretty unapologetic about it and just wore out his welcome, look what happened.
We'll see at Michigan what happens with him and I mean, I think he'll be there awhile. He's a different personality. Inside his office for two and a half hours, buckle your seat belts. It's a fun ride.