Saturday, August 12, 2006

The Fire That Burns Within

Columbus, Ohio, must have been an amazing place from 1960 to 1962. On any given day, one might have run into either Ohio State basketball player Robert Montgomery Knight or football coach Wayne Woodrow Hayes. Those two men have helped define what it means to be great in the world of sport and leadership, and they were once at the same place at the same time.

As usual, I was too late. Four and a half decades too late in this case.

I've been reading What it Means to be a Buckeye, a gift from OSU master's student Tim Laubacher. And I am captivated by Woody Hayes. I would have loved to have met him, and I would have loved to have learned from him. I never met him, but I am pretty sure that I would have gone to war for Woody Hayes.

Hayes was far from a saint. He had a ferocious temper -- a temper that gave him a heart attack and later ended his coaching career when he hit a Clemson player during the 1978 Gator Bowl.

The story of Hayes' firing reminds me all too much of coach Knight's downfall at Indiana. It's a bit of twisted irony that these two sons of Ohio walked the sidewalks of the same campus, achieved greatness of an unsurpassed level, and fell victim to violent tempers.

The thing is that these events are not merely unhappy coincidences. The greatness and the temper each come from the fire that burns within like some molten lava pushing you onward. You see, greatness does not come easily. It must be tortured away from mediocrity with work, and sweat, and determination, and an unending passion to never accept second best no matter the consequences. (See a previous post of mine on this topic).

When you're fighting for something that other people want, and every last bit of you wants to quit, it takes a white hot fire to keep fighting. When you achieve something no human being ever has, there's a reason that it has never been done: it's damn near impossible, and everyone else in the history of the human species has quit before they got to that point.

Coach Knight will win his 880th NCAA basketball game this season, making him the winningest coach in the history of the game. That record does not fall without a lifetime of painful sacrifice. It comes from outworking the other guy year after year -- decade after decade. It comes from a fire that burns within that drives you onward when everyone else gives in. It is an amazing thing to behold.

However, fires that burn with the heat of a nuclear reactor cannot easily be harnessed. They cannot simply be tossed in you pocket when the time is right. No, they burn. And they burn at the wrong times. And they burn the wrong people. And many people will argue that such fires have no place in collegiate athletics.

Yet, as I read the first-hand accounts of former Buckeyes, they have a love for Woody Hayes that is so deep that the reader is moved almost to tears. Coach Hayes was not a ruthless tyrant. He was one of the most giving, caring men in the history of sport. But he hated to lose. He hated to lose more than most people can imagine hating anything. And that kind of hatred cannot be taught. And it cannot be switched off. It just festers, and burns, and pushes you onward every day of your life.

I often wonder why some people have this fire and some do not. Driving through Lubbock the other day, I saw the sign, "Good is the enemy of great." It became my motto for the month. When I teach college students to write ads, I try to warn them of falling in love with a "pretty good" idea because most "pretty good" ideas will never be more than that.

And I preach this in the classroom. But it is a rare student who can spend hours on a "pretty good" ad, look at it, crumple it up, toss it toward the wastebin, and start anew. So many people just seem to lack that fire within. And it's not about writing silly ads for a silly professor. It's about the ability to cowboy up when the situation demands.

I am perhaps fascinated by men such as Hayes and Knight because I battle with my own fire within. Any modest success that I ever enjoy in the lifetime will come because I simply cannot stand the thought of looking up at that scoreboard of life and coming in second. So I am driven.

That drive is too often counterproductive. I can remember having a major fight with my wife more than a decade ago because I kept losing a stupid card game called Skip-Bo. You have to really hate losing to carry a grudge over a game of chance. And the funny thing is that people tell you to stop it as if it's some sort of choice.

"Oh, OK. I'll stop being hyper competitive." Just like that. I know it's bad for my heart. I know it's bad for my lifespan. And many days I wish that I could turn it off. But it's not that simple. The fire, that is.

You cannot have a safe nuclear reactor. The atom has a lot of power, but with that power comes risk. The two cannot be separated, power and risk. They were joined at birth.

Coach Hayes left OSU for hitting a player. Coach Knight left Indiana for grabbing (the ferocity of the grab is debated) the shoulder of a disrespectful student. Most people simply shake their heads. Not me. Sadly, I get it. I got ejected from a "D" league softball game in 1989 for clotheslining a third baseman. It was a double-header. I was ejected from the next game, too.

If the fire itself is rare, then precious is the person who can tame the fire. Former Kansas Jayhawks coach Roy Williams comes to mind. He can outwork anyone, but he bans swearing from practice. Coach Williams cries after tough losses. Coach Hayes tore up sideline markers. Coach Knight threw a chair.

Each of the latter two are hated by countless strangers whom they never met. Both believed passionately in education. Both cared about history. Both have military in their histories. More importantly, however, both are loved like fathers by so many of the people whose lives they have touched. And in the end, it seems more important to affect those whom you meet than those you never will.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post.

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