Increased Pressure to Win Makes It Harder to Accept Losing


Terry Truax was accustomed to winning. Work long enough with coaches such as Dean Smith at North Carolina and Morgan Wootten at DeMatha High School in suburban Washington, D.C., and victories are not only demanded, but expected.

But this was different.

Truax was on his own in 1985, in the midst of a second dreadful season at Towson State north of Baltimore. In the final seconds of a loss to Washington College, a forward named Greg McClinton didn't dive after a loose ball, and Truax became furious.

"I decided then and there that I was going to kick this kid off the team, even though we had only seven healthy players," Truax said. "Another coach and a friend told me I couldn't do it. They were right. Greg McClinton turned out to be a fine young man.

"But I'll never forget it. I just couldn't handle losing. It was my own lack of maturity. What I learned is that it's only when you lose that you know what it's like to be a coach."

Losing is an inescapable constant of college basketball, which moves into a second season Sunday with the selection of 64 teams for the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I tournament. Coaches may tire of recruiting, the media and the alumni, but they abhor defeat. A loss puts a coach one step closer to the unemployment line. Fifty-four Division I schools hired new basketball coaches this season. Want to bet the list will grow longer by next season?

"When a coach loses, it's like a cataract over his eye," said coach-turned-sportscaster Al McGuire. "A losing coach is in the twilight zone."

You hear the tales of rage.

Purdue's Gene Keady slamming his fist on a blackboard after a loss. St. Joseph's Jim Boyle furious, unable to utter a word after his team gives away a game. Massachusetts' John Calipari ripping his sports coat and shirt in a rage.

Losing also takes its toll physically. Truax gains weight during the season. Calipari's voice is constantly hoarse. Ulcers are part of the package. After he was fired as Loyola College of Maryland's coach last season, Mark Amatucci took a look in the mirror and was frightened by the reflection. There were dark circles under his eyes and his skin was pasty.

"I didn't realize in how bad a shape I was," said Amatucci, who now coaches at Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland. "When you lose, you question whether you did enough, and that just leads to a lot of sleepless nights. Then you start piling on the outside influences and pressures, and that drives you to the brink of breakdown."

So, how do college basketball coaches handle losing?

There are no facts or quick solutions or soothing potions to heal the coaches. This is a story of emotions, of men trying to deal with the essential element of competitive sports, that for every winner, there is a loser. Somehow, in a world of billion-dollar television contracts, March Madness and sneaker deals, the law of nature has been forgotten.

"Win, win, win," said Shelby Metcalf, the Texas A&M; coach who feuded with his athletic director and was fired this year after 26 1/2 seasons and a 438-306 record. "I used to take an Aggie fishing, and he didn't know if he had had a good time or not until he got to shore and counted the fish. That's wrong. When Dr. Naismith put up that basket, he didn't mean for it to be so bottom-line oriented. Heck, I was just having a ball all those years. Wasn't anyone else?"

John Wooden never wanted to see a player cry after a game. When he was a senior guard at Martinsville High School in Indiana, his team lost the 1928 Indiana State Championship to Muncie, 13-12. In the locker room, some of his teammates wept.

"We had played well, and we had lost," Wooden said. "Down deep, I was critical of my teammates for crying. I was able to accept these things better than most."

Winning nine NCAA titles at UCLA and compiling an 88-game winning streak enabled Wooden to accept defeats. He was not always a gracious loser, but his rhetoric was proper, and his approach, at least in theory, served as a model.

"When we failed in execution, that was me, because I failed to teach the players," he said. "The only time to get upset was when we didn't properly prepare. Coaches have to accept the fact that they are going to lose. You're not perfect. You'll make mistakes. But you can't cry about it."

Sports psychologists preach honesty and perspective in dealing with emotions. But they recognize the limits of their prescription in a society that glorifies winners.

"The more emphasis we put on winning, the more difficult it is to deal with losing," said Dr. Thomas Tutko, a sports psychologist at San Jose State. "The athlete can still get an education, but the coach's livelihood, his bread and butter, is on the line. The modern athlete is probably less concerned about winning or losing than the coach is."

Greg Cylkowski, a performance counselor and sports psychologist based in Minneapolis, said winning becomes a way of life for coaches. Losing can damage a coach's ego, or worse.

"In coaching, you're just a piece of a puzzle," he said. "Your ego has to come down a bit. There is no perfection in sports."

Winning wasn't always a matter of career life or death. Once upon a time, teams played non-conference games to prepare for the "regular" season. Losses were part of the building process.

That was before wall-to-wall basketball on television.

"There was much less pressure," said Pete Newell, who guided California to the 1959 NCAA title. "Now, with the TV and money, there is so much attached to getting to the Final Four. So many things that are wrong relate to money and what it can bring people."

Dick Vitale, Billy Packer and McGuire used their roles as television analysts to put the coaches on the marquee and create college basketball's cult of personality. Coaches can now extract six-figure contracts from universities, but they are subjected to instant televised critiques.

"Coaches weren't targets in the old days," Newell said. "Your moves weren't always analyzed. But all that has changed because of television."

But the analysts sympathize with the coaches.

"I was spoiled and hated losing," said Vitale, who coached at the University of Detroit and the Detroit Pistons. "You go to church on a Sunday and everyone looks at you, and they know if you were a success or failure the night before. If the ball hits nothing but net, you're a god. If it hits a rim, you're a bum."

Vitale said coaches such as Dale Brown, Digger Phelps, Tom Davis, Lute Olson and P.J. Carlesimo handle losing well, "because they are able to come back positively the next day instead of yelling and screaming. A lot of guys who lose, they lose their self-esteem."

Keady, Gary Williams, Jim Boeheim and Bob Knight are among those who have difficulty accepting defeat, according to Vitale.

"Guys who are emotional and show their intensity feel they're being scrutinized after a loss," he said.

Packer said coaches have a right to feel they're being judged after losses.

"No one in a high-profile program deals with losing well," he said. "They realize each and every loss puts them closer to not having a job."

McGuire, who spent most of his career at Marquette, has become increasingly disenchanted with the motivations of the current coaching generation.

"I don't think that fear of losing is bringing down these guys," he said. "I think it's the money. When I was coaching, to be in the country club was your dream. Today, these guys are bigger than all the members of the country club. That's where the pressure comes from. You're living on a level with the nice threads, the cars, the stockbrokers. The fear of returning as an assistant coach, or selling socks or insurance, affects these guys."

Losing brings out the rawest emotion in college basketball. The coach is caught on a stage, gesturing, screaming, the spiritual and intellectual center of a team. He must deal with defeat, both publicly and privately.

At Maryland, Williams oversees a young team that is adjusting to his system. Graying, taut and tense, Williams is a 40-minute soap opera come to life, each missed basket or blown defensive assignment registering on his face. After a loss comes a transformation. Composed. Regal. A gentleman who shakes hands, walks across the court, slips on a set of headphones and eloquently discusses the game for a radio audience and the crowd at Cole Field House.

"I've learned that you don't have a choice in the way you handle losing," Williams said. "You have to be rational. You can't always say how you feel. Sometimes, before games, I try to make sure I have my thoughts in order. Sometimes, in a close loss, you're in a little bit of shock. I don't like to lose. I can handle it. But I'm not a miracle worker."

Tom Schneider of Loyola College dresses like a physics professor in a tweed jacket and gray slacks. Relaxed, hands clapping instinctively after good plays and bad, Schneider realizes screaming won't transform Loyola. Only patience and recruiting can put the Greyhounds into the fast lane.

"You have to temper your intensity," he said. "When I was a lot younger, I once walked into a pregame meal and got all over the team because they were joking and laughing. The next time I walked in for a meal, the kids were quiet, and I yelled at them for being too tight. I was internalizing everything."

Towson State's Truax often paces absent-mindedly onto the floor, his face turning bright pink, a program rolled in his right hand. After a loss, he talks quietly, analyzing every fragment of the game. He does not sleep peacefully.

"You take the losses home with you," he said. "You try not to, but you're up at 2, 3, 4 in the morning looking at films. Losing is frustrating, but you can't get down."

You want to know how to lose? Check the guys who have been around, who can walk away from the losses with class, dignity and fire.

Look at Paul Westhead at Loyola Marymount. After his team lost in overtime at Louisiana State, Westhead walked to the other bench, shook hands with LSU's Brown and left.

"There's no sense treating losing like it's World War III," he said.

Look at Jim Phelan at Mount St. Mary's, a small, private school, just going up the Division I elevator. But after 36 years and more than 600 victories and 300 losses, Phelan manages to keep the game in perspective.

"You can't take any of this personally," he said. "When I was just getting started as a coach, the student body was hanging me in effigy. You can't start taking blame for losses, because, all of a sudden, you'll go crazy."

Look at Butch van Breda Kolf, a grandfather who curses referees and molds teams at Hofstra. The only time he couldn't take losing, he quit a job with Detroit in the National Basketball Association.

"We all get too wrapped up in this winning and records," he said. "When you forget about whys and only think about results, you get burned out in your 40s."

And finally, look at Lefty Driesell, one of the game's ultimate survivors. Whether at Davidson, Maryland or his current address, James Madison, it's all big-time to him.

"I've always hated to lose," he said. "But if you won all the time, it wouldn't be fun. Losing is what makes coaching interesting."

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