Thanks to several recent notable deaths, combined with some biographical writing projects I’ve been working on, I’ve been thinking a lot of late about life trajectories of leaders. Some seem to burn brightly but briefly, while others become enduring great leaders. Some have their careers ended prematurely by death. Others are held back by some personal failing, a key failure, or just plain bad luck. And then there are the others that for whatever reason become big in their sphere, but not beyond. The possibilities are endless, and vary with each leader.
I first started thinking about this with regard to basketball coaches, especially as we just passed the 40th anniversary of the 1983 Men’s NCAA Final Four. It is an interesting exercise to think about the Civil War leaders in relative terms too, but to keep the discussion neutral (and since it’s the start of college basketball season) I’m going to keep it to 1983.
Four coaches led teams to that Final Four in Albuquerque. All ended up in the Hall of Fame, but had contrasting careers and lives that illustrate the varied paths a life and leader can take.
Coach A led two schools to their first (and to date only) Final Four appearances. His team also upset defending national champion North Carolina in the Elite Eight that year.
Coach B won two national championships and went to 6 Final Fours. His teams (“The Doctors of Dunk”) revolutionized the game in the early 1980s. He became an elder statesman of basketball upon his retirement (under some pressure) in 2001.
Coach C went to 5 Final Fours, being national runner-up twice. He is credited with helping integrate basketball in the South, certainly in Texas. He helped popularize and revolutionize the game by getting it on national TV with the Game of the Century against UCLA and later with Phi Slama Jama. He retired under pressure in 1986.
Coach D won one national championship, capping one of the great stories in college basketball history. He became a noted speaker and commentator, but resigned as coach and athletic director under scandal and considerable pressure at his school. Unlike the others who lived to 86 or older (A is still alive), this coach died of cancer at age 47.
Coaches B, C, and D all have the courts named after them at their schools.
Which career would you prefer, and or rate highest? How do you evaluate the totality of their careers in relative terms? I invite you to give it some thought.
Coach A is Hugh Durham of Georgia. Coach B is Denny Crum of Louisville. Coach C is Guy Lewis of Houston. Coach D is Jim Valvano of NC State.
It is an interesting thought experiment to run. You can use it for any group of leaders, and it would be interesting to consider Civil War leaders in this vein. The answers may be revealing.