"Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing." You've heard it countless times before.
The phrase -- commonly attributed to legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi but really coined by 1950s-era UCLA football coach Henry Russell "Red" Sanders -- is as close to a unifying credo as there is in American sports. We lionize our winners. We forget our losers. The journey teams embark on at the beginning of each new season becomes, at best, secondary to the result. The result is all that matters.
It's no different in college hoops, of course. The object is to win. Coaches are inherently competitive or they wouldn't be coaching, sure, but there's an added layer of desperation in there, too. If a coach doesn't win, he loses not only his livelihood and the respect of his peers, but in many cases that one big top-dog opportunity he's earned after decades as a journeyman assistant. No wonder coaches are so competitive. No wonder they break rules. They have everything they value -- so much more than the games themselves -- on the line.
Marquette Buzz Williams would seem to fit neatly into this category. The gruff, gravel-voiced Williams is a coach's coach, having spent most of his adult life as an assistant, from Texas A&M to Colorado State to Texas A&M Kingsville to UT-Arlington to Northwestern State. Now at Marquette, Williams has his chance, and he's seizing it. The Golden Eagles went to the Sweet 16 last season, Williams' third year, and they're off to a rollicking start -- including one of the best wins in recent program history at Wisconsin Saturday -- in 2011-12.
But Williams is cut from a slightly different cloth. He wasn't puffing his chest or dropping tired coach-speak after the Wisconsin win. Instead, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Williams became emotional and reflective, speaking openly about the insecurities coaches face and how those insecurities can cloud the accomplishments of the players on the floor.
At the end of the day, Williams said, he just wants his players to have fun. (Warning: Long blockquote ahoy.)
"I don't know how long I will be able to do this, but I have to do a better job of making sure they have fun," Williams said after watching his team improve to 7-0. [...]
"I grew up my whole life wanting to be a high-major coach," said Williams. "And you don't know if you're going to get it. What happens to you if you do get it, you go, 'Man I have to hold on to this (bleep). I've got to hold on to this (bleep).' Because what am I going to do if I lose it? And I think that's of the devil. I've been blessed to have a chance, and however long it is that I have the chance, I want to make sure that everybody in our group remembers the chance they were given.
"They are 18 and 20 years old and it's OK to have fun. We've been pushing that all year long. It's been the funnest 26 practices that I've ever been a part of and the funnest seven games that I've even been a part of and everybody will say it's because we win, and that before today we hadn't played anybody. I got all that."
[...] "Nobody knows what goes on on a daily basis with our group. I absolutely love every single one of my coaches, our support staff members and our players. And if we shut it down at the end of the year that will be good enough for me because we'll have had fun."
Of course Williams wants to win. The point he's making, I think, is that one outcome doesn't have to come at the expense of the other. They aren't mutually exclusive. For one, it's no fun to lose. But the pursuit of success on the court doesn't have to mean the death of folly off it. At the end of the day -- and goodness, is this a cliché, but it's a cliché because it's true -- aren't sports supposed to be fun? Isn't that the reason coaches start coaching in the first place? Because this stuff is fun?
The fear of failure can be crippling. Having the perspective to draw lessons, and even enjoyment, from the process that precedes it -- forget "often." That's something we don't hear from coaches ever.
Marquette is going to be good this year. Potentially very good. Williams will rack up plenty of wins, the Golden Eagles will have a by-all-accounts successful season, and everyone will be happy because it's easy to have fun when you're winning. But it's good to see Williams embrace that feeling no matter what the "W-L" column says.
"Do your best and don't forget to have fun." It's not exactly "Winning ... is the only thing," but as worldviews go, well, I sure know which one I would prefer.