Just win, baby! That was the motto of Oakland Raider owner Al Davis, made famous back in the ‘80s in the NFL. The Raiders were known for “winning at all costs,” often resorting to bending the rules and/or playing dirty. But despite this reality, fans seemed to embrace the mentality and cheer with even more veracity.
Let’s be real, we are all born with a desire to compete and want to win or be the best at what we do. A couple questions that need to be asked are, “Do you want to win at all costs?” and “Are you willing to compromise your integrity and values for that almighty victory?”
As a former high school basketball coach, I was often faced with this dilemma. I recall my very first year inheriting a group of very talented young men who were extremely undisciplined. At our school, I was told that winning basketball games is what the community cared about; academic excellence was a secondary goal. Winning was a priority. These kids were used to misbehaving in school and the community, not doing homework, skipping class, missing practice, etc., and still being allowed to play in the game that night — because you see, winning was everything.
As the new coach, I had to decide how important that almighty victory was to me. It didn’t take me long to decide. We were going to do things the right way, and I did not care if we lost every game along the way. I told my players, “I would rather lose with great kids, than to win with sorry ones.” You see, I felt good about myself. I did not need the pats on the back and the compliments that always come with victories. My ego and self-esteem did not need that almighty victory to make me feel good. What was most important to me was doing the right thing by these kids. I tried to help them understand that wearing that jersey and representing your parents, community and school was a privilege.
Getting that message across took time, and we experienced many losses as I benched our star players for misbehavior and a host of other reasons. But by mid-season, I had them dressing in coats and ties on game day; we jelled as a team, entered the state tournament with the worst record of any team, but persevered to eventually win the state championship. We won the state championship the very next year as well.
Later in my educational journey, I became the superintendent in a nearby school district and would annually gather all my coaches together and give them “the talk.” I would always begin the lecture with, “How important is that almighty victory to you?” I wanted them to know that I would never look at their win-loss record. I encouraged them to conduct themselves with class and expect the same from their players. I encouraged them to create positive experiences for all their players. Start a different five every game so their parents can hear their child’s name called out over the loudspeaker and be proud. Play every kid in every game, even if it means eking out the win or losing by a few. We often forget what youth and high school sports should be about. And unfortunately, some coaches succumb to the pressure to win at all costs and will resort to cheating or compromising his or her integrity.
It should not matter whether we are talking about youth, junior high, high school or collegiate sports, coaches need to set the standard, hold the players to that same high standard and let the chips fall where they may. Win, lose or draw, we must never let the need for that almighty victory compromise our actions and keep us from doing the right thing for those kids that we have been entrusted with. You will be admired as a coach, and your players will most definitely be better off for it.
Larry DiChiara holds a bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree from Auburn University. He spent time as the head basketball coach and principal at Loachapoka High School, was superintendent of Phenix City Schools from 2004 to 2013 and was inducted into the Alabama High School Sports Hall of Fame in 2022. He is currently the president of SOY Education Associates Inc.