When Heroes Fall

n(Photo by Adam Glanzman)

Last week the University of Louisville Head Men’s Basketball Coach Rick Pitino was put on unpaid leave after a “pay-for-play” type of scandal involving a recruit, as well as recruits and assistant coaches at other schools and various other people. This is also the third major scandal to rock Pitino’s program in the last few years. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, it’s time for you to go. (Oh, and by the way, it looks like you weren’t fooling anyone.)


While Pitino claims his innocence, as he has in each of the scandals involving his programs, I am not writing today to litigate that case, nor to get into the messy details of it, nor to argue his innocence or guilt. I am writing to talk about how disappointing it is when people you look up to fall short in any way, but especially with regards to their character and integrity.


Let me say right here that I am no saint. I have fallen short in life like anyone else. I am not proud of some of the transgressions I have committed in my life. I have talked about character and integrity to the young people I have taught and coached for my entire life, yet I had my moments where I did not live up to my own words. Sometimes, I did not even realize that what I was doing was not showing good integrity; other times I knew what I was doing was wrong.


Let me also add that it is not like I made a habit of displaying poor character and integrity. I was always a “good kid” who did the right things for the most part. Most people would say that, in general, I have been a good example of being a person of integrity. However, I had my moments where I slipped and fell short of being who I said I was and who I wanted to be. I would imagine most people in this world could probably say something similar about themselves. It is one of the human elements many of us deal with.


Fortunately, I have had a conscience to guide me through those moments. Each time I slipped, I looked in the mirror and asked myself who I was, who I wanted to be, and were my actions becoming of that person that I wanted to be? When the answer was “No,” I worked to change my behaviors and to then grow from them. While I continue to be a flawed human being, I am a better person today than I was twenty years ago. And I hope to be a better person twenty years into the future. That is how we should all be. Seeking to improve who we are as we go through life.


In the next couple of weeks, I will release a post that is a follow-up to my “How NOT to Lead” series of posts that I just completed last week. You will see a list of many different resources that I have found to be extremely helpful to me in my quest to be a good leader. You will see books, videos, podcasts, articles, and posts that have helped me and that I believe can help you become a better leader.


On the original list I put together, I had two books by Rick Pitino – Success is a Choice & Lead to Succeed. However, after this latest scandal, I cannot in good conscience put them on the list. It is a shame because I got a lot of great information that I have used for years from both of them.


Pitino was a coach I looked up to. As a young coach in the 1980s, I gravitated to a few different coaches as being mentors from a distance. Coach K at Duke was and still is #1 for me. Pitino and a few others from a variety of sports were pretty close seconds. He was one of my favorite coaches, and he shaped a lot of my coaching. Coaches say all the time that we “steal” a lot of what we do. I stole a ton of stuff from Pitino. In fact, my full court press philosophy and system is probably 75% Pitino’s Match-Up Press. I also took a lot of leadership ideas from Pitino through the years.


A Dilemma – Separating The Message & the Messenger

While I subscribe to the theory of focusing on the message and not the messenger, I can’t continue to do that with this messenger. While I could still recommend to readers that they will find some good information in each of the books, I do not want to support Pitino by offering my recommendation of them.


That makes this so much harder to deal with. How do you take leadership ideas from someone who has demonstrated some very shady concepts of leadership? How do you separate the good from the bad? How do you separate the message from the messenger?


In some ways it’s not so hard. Pitino’s concept of “deserving victory” has been something I have preached and latched onto for years. Just because he has done some bad things and appears to be a person with poor character and integrity doesn’t mean the idea that he preached of deserving victory is not a solid idea in and of itself. It’s just that, attached to him, it becomes tainted. It now becomes a hard sell to others.


Will I still use the Match-Up Press in my coaching? Absolutely. It is a solid full-court defensive system that I like and that I find effective in teaching kids how to press and in providing my teams an opportunity for success. Will I use his leadership concepts that became ingrained in me through the years? Probably. It would be hard to take the ideas that were so positive, inspiring, and helpful in shaping me and my philosophy and separate them from who I have become and who I now see Rick Pitino has become (and may have been all along).


That is why this is so difficult. While the situation itself is messy, the wake that it leaves behind is equally messy. I can’t just turn off parts of who I have become based on great ideas, effective communication, and inspiring words just because the person from whom the ideas, communication, and words has turned out to lack character and integrity.


While I will not add any more of Pitino’s coaching and leadership nuggets into my repertoire and philosophy, I also will not take out those that have become so much a part of who I have become. Those were grounded in strong, positive, successful messages when I heard them. They still carry those same feelings for me. It’s just that the messenger turned out to be someone different than who I thought he was.


The Perils of Putting “Heroes” on a Pedestal

I have had my share of “heroes” throughout my life. As a child and even on into my young adulthood, I put these people on pedestals. For the most part, they each stayed on those pedestals through the years. They also each fell off the pedestals at times. Sometimes they were allowed to be placed back onto the pedestals, based on how they reacted to their falls from grace. Others were never allowed back up there. Rick Pitino will not be going back up onto his pedestal. He has also added to the little bit of cynicism that has crept into my life over the last twenty to thirty years that has made me more cautious about putting people on pedestals anymore.


It’s a shame, though. We need our heroes. They help us see that there is good in our world, something to strive for, to aspire to be. I want my son to have people to look up to. I want him to be able to say, “I want to be like him.” “I want to act like she does.” I also want to still be able to feel that way myself. But with each Rick Pitino that falls off a pedestal, it becomes harder and harder to find those heroes.


That is why it so critical that we in the teaching and coaching and parenting world do all that we can to be the positive leaders and models that we can be for young people. We need to be examples of a life of character and integrity. We need to show people that there is good, there is hope, there is a right way to do things.


Yes, like anyone else, we will fall short at times. After all, we are all still human. But we must do all that we can to be the best role models we can be. There are so many people watching us. More importantly, there are so many people taking their cues from us on how to live their own lives. We must constantly ask ourselves, “Is my behavior exemplary? Am I doing something that I want the young people looking up to me to do? Is this the person that I want to be and that I want to be known as?”


While the answers to those questions are the most important ones we will ever utter, whether out loud or just to ourselves, the key is whether or not our actions will exemplify or defy those answers. By living a life of integrity and of example for all those who are watching you, you will be your best while helping them learn how to be their best.


**Author’s Note**  While the word “hero” gets thrown around a lot and many of you will say that Pitino was never a hero in the first place, my point in using that term was that he is someone that I (and many others) have looked up to over the years. So I say that someone like that has been a “hero” of mine because of the impact he has had on me as a coach and a leader. 

I realize that there is not much that he has done to be considered a true hero. We have heard so many stories of true heroes who stepped up and saved lives in Las Vegas this past week, as well as the storm-ravaged communities in Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean over the last months. I would never want to equate the true heroism these people have shown with the role and the actions of a college basketball coach. Yet, the way many people look up to our coaches and leaders in our lives, “hero” is one way that they sometimes get described. I hope you understand my meaning when using that word to describe Pitino.

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