By Karl Lindholm
Leadership: What is it?
It’s making the hard decision, and taking the hit; it’s providing vision and inspiration to a group; it’s being honest and fair; it’s being calm under pressure; it’s being loyal; it’s not making excuses; and it’s having good judgment.
For many a sports-obsessed American, the crucible of leadership is the playing field, and the coach, the on-field manager, gives us the best, or at least the most obvious, model of leadership
In my house, we watch a lot of the Red Sox and Celtics on TV, and I’m happy for my kids to derive their expectations of leadership in sports from the leaders of two Boston teams: Glenn “Doc” Rivers of the Celtics and Terry “Tito” Francona of the Red Sox.
About the same age — Rivers is 47, Francona, 49 — they have much in common. Both played their respective sports at the highest level. Francona enjoyed a 10-year career in the majors, while Doc was a standout (an all-star in 1988) in the NBA for 13 years.
Both men experienced failure before their great recent success. Francona managed the Phillies for four difficult losing seasons, 1997-2000 (fans in Philly are even more notoriously intolerant of losing than Boston fans). His championship in Boston in 2004 was after deep misgivings about his leadership by impatient fans who called him “Tito Fran-coma.”
The criticism you still hear of Francona is that he is too loyal to his players: He fails to call them out publicly and stays with them through their slumps. The players, of course, reward his faith in them with uncommon effort.
Francona has managed in the big leagues for nine years; Rivers is now in his 10th as an NBA coach. In 2006, the Celtics were miserable, winning only 24 games, and Rivers was excoriated by the talk-radio yahoos for his strategic ineptitude. Last year, of course, the Celtics won 66 games, and this year they are the best in the league at 23-2.
Doc’s blending of the talents of the Celtics Big Three, Pierce-Garnett-Allen, was brilliant. It was hardly a foregone conclusion that these veteran all-stars would be successful sharing the ball and the limelight. His players respect Doc’s leadership.
Both men clearly draw strength from their families. Tito and Doc have each been married (Jacque Francona, Kris Rivers) for more than twenty years and each has four kids, extraordinary athletes all.
Nick Francona was a baseball player at the University of Pennsylvania (and the Cape Cod league), graduating last year. Alyssa and Leah Francona are softball players on the powerhouse team at the University of North Carolina.
Jeremiah Rivers transferred from Georgetown to Indiana, where he figures to be a starting guard for a rejuvenated Hoosier team next year. Doc’s daughter Callie is a star volleyball player at Florida, and his son Austin, a tenth grader at Winter Park High (Fla.), is one of the best 16-year-old basketball players in the country.
Terry and Doc’s fathers were powerful influences in their lives. Francona carries his dad’s name as his nickname. The senior Tito Francona, 75, played 15 years in the majors from 1956-70.
The junior Tito loved being the son of a ballplayer: “From age seven to 11 were the happiest days of my life. I hung out at the ballpark (and) played catch. They didn’t mind a kid running around.
“My parents taught me to respect people and my dad taught me to respect the game. It doesn’t matter the color or religion or anything. Just have respect for people. Try to be a good person and things have a way of working themselves out.”
Doc Rivers’ dad, Grady, was a cop, a police lieutenant in the Chicago area. He was son Glenn’s baseball coach (“Doc” came from wearing a “Dr. J” T-shirt to a basketball camp) and sat at all of his basketball games in full uniform. “I was there for those kids because nobody else was,” he said.
Through the Celtics’ miserable 2006 season, Grady Rivers was his son’s rock. “He told me, ‘Be consistent,’” Doc said, “They have to know what to expect from you.”
During the Celtics great run last year, guard Rajon Rondo said, “Doc is the exact same coach as he was last year when we were losing all those games.”
Grady died in November of last year so didn’t see the Celtics 2007 triumph. Doc didn’t have time to grieve. “I think about him all the time,” he said last spring. “His words just crop up out of nowhere, and sometimes I have to stop and gather myself.”
New England sports fans know not to take success for granted: The Celtics went 22 years between championships, many of them lean years. The Red Sox went 86 years.
From where I sit (right here on the couch), we have the right people at the helm for the Celts and Sox. They don’t rant and rave, write books or give motivational speeches. They’re there on the bench with their players, doling out the minutes and innings, inspiring them to their best efforts.