In 1986, when I dropped out of my first attempt at grad school, my best friend Steve Charry was taking another stab at a bachelor's degree. We met during his first try at what I still call North Carolina School of the Arts despite its name change; another was at the University of Wisconsin; and he was trying again at Washington State University. (Baseball management kept luring him away.) I asked if he could use a roommate, and ended up in tiny Pullman on the Idaho border for four years. Thus he was responsible for my becoming a fan of WSU sports, and my love of the University of North Carolina Tar Heels rubbed off on him.
I moved on after he met his eventual wife, cutting down on our hangout time, and my working hours at WSU were cut back. Over the next 20 years we stayed close despite shifting around the country. I tried again and earned an M.A., while he continued to a Ph.D. from WSU and eventually became a history professor at Illinois Valley Community College. As long-distance phone charges dropped and cell phones took over, we got to the point of talking at least twice a game anytime we could both see UNC or WSU men's basketball games on TV.
An occasional topic of fantasy was what would happen if the two teams played each other. A fantasy it seemed: Not only do they play in different conferences on opposite coasts, UNC is among basketball's elite programs, and WSU is, shall we say, the opposite thereof.
Then WSU lured a former Wisconsin coach, Dick Bennett, out of retirement to put his unique system in place in Pullman. In an earlier post, I quoted an NHL coach saying you could quickly figure out the system of really good teams, while bad teams had none. In sports terms, this means the way the players arrange themselves on the court or ice, how they move, what they focus on, and so forth. Dick took the job on the understanding that his son, Tony, a respected small-college coach, would come along as assistant coach and take over when Dick re-retired.
Almost miraculously, it worked. WSU began to win games with a recognizable style of defense-oriented, slow, no-turnover play, despite having players of modest talent compared to the better-known programs they routinely beat. By 2007, with Tony now at the helm, WSU reached the national championship tournament fans call "March Madness." Steve and I were disappointed to see that the way the teams were placed in the brackets, WSU couldn't survive long enough for them to meet UNC. In 2008 both returned, and when the brackets came out, I was stunned to see that our fantasy could easily become real: if both teams won their first games, they would play each other in the second round.
Steve didn't know. He was in a coma, felled by a stroke at 49 a few days earlier.
Soon we learned his case was hopeless, and his wife made the hard but correct decision to take him off life support. At his memorial service a week later, during my eulogy, I told the story I just told you. And I asked everyone to watch at least a little of the UNC-WSU game scheduled for… that night. Had this been a movie, WSU would have won. But the Bennett system ran into too much talent within another extremely successful system, and UNC moved on easily.
Last season I missed about half the games on TV. It was just too painful to watch knowing I would not be hearing from Steve. Fortunately I adjusted in time to watch Carolina win the national championship. At season’s end Tony Bennett left WSU, and in a double whammy for me, took the job at the University of Virginia, a team in Carolina's conference. I knew this was bad news for the rest of the league.
When those two teams played a couple weeks ago, I was more apprehensive than most UNC fans. The Tar Heels are struggling this year, having lost four key players to the NBA. Although I would not dare tell Coach Roy Williams how to coach basketball, I know something about teams, and he knows his hyper-talented freshmen have not bought into his system. My only hope before the game was that Virginia's players had not yet bought into "Bennett Ball." They had. They beat Carolina soundly, 75-60.
Steve would not have been surprised. One team accepted a way of doing things which had worked for other teams in the past. The other has not. The Virginia players did so despite having to radically change the way they interacted with each other. And this is the moral of the story for business people. There are a number of systems for running a team. Even the least cost-effective is better than having no system at all. But few teams I have encountered, probably fewer than 10%, have adopted a significant portion of any of these systems.
Whether you are competing against other companies or only against your own past performance, Bennett Ball teaches you what can happen when you drop some ego and invest some effort. As for Steve Charry, his story teaches you to drop everything else and find the problem if your blood pressure is north of 200. Maybe it would have made no difference, but I think he would agree with the advice nonetheless. He left a wife, three children, parents, a sister, many respectful colleagues, and a wounded best friend who will never fully heal.