ESPN is the best at what they do, which is, of course, broadcasting sports news and entertainment. One of the many reasons for their success is their uncanny ability to look forward; to predict what will be interesting to their viewers, and then showcase it in a way their über-loyal audience will love.
One notable example of this took place last June on the campus of Penn State University, when ESPN invited Joe Paterno, head coach of Penn State football, and Mike Krzyzewski, head coach of Duke basketball, to come together for a special televised event. The nearly three-hour production was held in a university auditorium before a live audience. It featured an on-stage interview hosted by SportsCenter’s Rece Davis , and was titled “Difference Makers: Life Lessons with Paterno and Krzyzewski.”
The hype and venue for the event was vintage ESPN. These two men had never met before this gathering. Yet they were arguably the two most iconic figures in the contemporary world of college coaching, and perhaps college sports in general. They shared significant common ground with their respective coaching longevity and athletic program successes, spanning a combined 77 years of head coaching experience. Their combined achievements at the time were already statistical head spinners, with over 1,300 victories and six national championships between them. These facts alone offered more than enough material to justify ESPN’s airing of such an event. But there was even more to justify the interest in this legendary meeting.
As ESPN executives looked forward to the two upcoming college basketball and football seasons, they surely scoped a horizon that included two additional enormous coaching milestones: Joe Paterno would get his 409thvictory to pass Eddie Robinson as the all-time winningest football coach in Division 1 history, and Mike Krzyzewski would earn his 903rdvictory to pass Bobby Knight as the winningest basketball coach in NCAA history. And they would likely do so within weeks of each other, which, as you probably know, they did. ESPN recognizes a good sports story when they see one.
But the story was enhanced by another angle. Event moderator Rece Davis spent significant time asking the two coaches about their life philosophies, and explored such subjects as ethics, integrity, friendship and how their respective family upbringings helped shape their approaches not just to coaching, but to life in general. ESPN was well aware that JoePa and Coach K were revered for more than just their phenomenal athletic success. The legacies of both coaches have long been framed by their reputation for having won “the right way,” meaning that they never compromised behavioral standards or academic standards for the purpose of winning.
Indeed, “Success With Honor” has been the rallying cry at Penn State for years, serving as an emblematic reminder of the need to adhere to a moral code. And of course, Joe Paterno coined the term “Grand Experiment” years ago to describe his approach to building a competitive football program at Penn State without compromising the integrity of player academics. The title connotes that such an achievement is the exception to a rule of such compromises in collegiate athletics.
Winning “The Right Way”
Almost 50 years later, Coach Paterno still seems to be making good on that pledge, since Penn State Football was recently announced as the number-one ranked program in the 2011 “Academic Bowl Championship Series.” This annual ranking is sponsored by the New America Foundation and bases its findings on such measures as team graduation rates, NCAA academic progress rates, and “equity gaps” which measure black-versus-white player graduation rates (e.g., Penn State had an 80% 6-year graduation rate, with no gap between its black and white players).
We should give credit to ESPN for having the foresight to orchestrate their “Life Lessons” special event with Paterno and Krzyzewski. No, there’s no way they could have predicted the horrible events surrounding the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. And whether Paterno or others could have, is obviously subject for a seperate discussion. But ESPN likely looked past the milestone victories of these two living legends, and saw the eventual passing of a torch from one coaching legend to another.
For Joe Paterno, who is 84 years old, the torch passing was inevitable. Nobody coaches forever. And nobody lives forever, even if those two endpoints are the same, as they were predicted to be for Paterno. At age 64, Coach K could be considered a relative youngster within the world of coaching legends, and could conceivably carry the torch for 20 more years, if Paterno’s longevity serves as the new standard.
It’s an important torch, this torch of “winning the right way.” Sadly, it seems that few are qualified to carry it. Even sadder, it often seems that few have much of an interest in carrying it. Whether that’s a reflection on the state of big-time collegiate athletics, or on the character of those who lead them, I can’t be certain. But I do know this, large swaths or our society depend upon that torch, and need leaders from all walks of life to carry it. Sports included.
When Joe Paterno achieved his record-breaking 409th victory on October 29th, 2011, Sports Illustrated wrote this about him:
“In a sport filled with misguided, misbehaved or flat-out devious individuals, Joe Paterno remains our moral compass.”
If that statement no longer rings true for even a small portion of people, then it means it is indeed time to pass the torch. And that’s why we should be thankful that Mike Krzyzewski decided to become a head coach 31 years ago.
When discussing either his philosophy towards life or coaching, Coach K’s favorite word seems to be “trust.” It’s the perfect word for this next torch bearer, since it’s hard to think of another collegiate coach we could trust more with this responsibility. Hopefully, there are many others waiting in the wings behind him. But for now, the moral compass is pointing to the letter K.