Notes from the bench

Successful sports coaches manage a variety of egos and personalities. Workplace managers can take a page from their playbooks to create winning business teams.

John Wooden once said a successful sports coach is someone who "can give correction without causing resentment." Inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach and living to the ripe old age of 99, Wooden can be considered an authority. His UCLA team won 10 national championships in 12 years, commanding respect and devotion from the likes of stars Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton. Getting the most out of a team’s superstars and role players, day in and day out, is a challenge all coaches face. What defines a great coach is the ability to do it season after season, motivating, pushing the right buttons and getting the best effort out of a team of individuals.

Coaches are also more than just highly caffeinated, type-A screamers who hang out in sweaty locker-rooms or darkened video suites poring over game tapes. They have the same leadership qualities as successful CEOs, the main difference being that their teams tend to be a bit smaller. And top coaches such as those profiled here have the same attributes as great managers in the workplace: they are consistent, disciplined, demanding but fair.

Make tough decisions

In February Kevin Dineen went from a coaching has-been to a star when Canada’s women’s Olympic hockey team rallied to beat the US in the gold medal game. Dineen began last season in hockey’s version of purgatory, namely as coach of the Florida Panthers, the NHL’s southernmost team, geographically and in the standings. He enjoyed fleeting success with the sad-sack Miami-based team, guiding it to the first Southeast Division title in franchise history and securing the first playoff berth in a dozen years in 2011. After a weak start to the 2013-’14 season, however, Dineen was fired.

That could have been it for the 50-year-old Toronto native, who had played for 18 seasons in the NHL and had represented Canada at the 1984 Olympics and the 1987 Canada Cup. But, just weeks after he was fired, he was named head coach of the women’s Olympic hockey team and given two months to prepare for Sochi. He took over in less than ideal circumstances, replacing a coach who abruptly quit the team on the eve of another lopsided loss to the archrival US team, which had beaten Canada in four of the past five world championship finals.

Dineen says he did not approach the Team Canada job any differently than coaching professional men, other than keeping the "f-bombs" out of the dressing room. "When I go out and help my kids, coaching their practices, dealing with young kids, NHL professionals or top-end amateur athletes, I think you have a level of expectation, of execution, whether it is in practice or a game, and you hold them to that level of expectation."

Dineen, described as a "player’s coach," had some tough love for Team Canada, a mix of emerging young stars and grizzled Olympic gold veterans. He stripped star Harley Wickenheiser of the captaincy before the Games, shocking the team and Wickenheiser, the team’s all-time leader in games, goals and assists. Wickenheiser later proved to be a key player in victories against the US during the Olympics.

Dineen brought credibility to Team Canada as an NHL player and coach and former Olympic athlete. "I went in there and felt like they were on the right track. It might have been just a little bit of a different approach that seemed to work."

Be consistent

The secret of success, whether it is the two-week tournament of the Olympics or the 82-game grind of the NHL regular season, comes from dealing with players in a consistent way, Dineen says. "I think that there has to be consistency that we play a certain way, then we can have success."

That’s a philosophy shared by Kathy Shields, who coached the University of Victoria Vikes women’s basketball squad for 23 years and won eight national titles and nine Canada West Coach of the Year awards. Soon to be inducted as a Builder into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, Shields says with all the young women she coached the goal was to provide an environment that would help push them beyond their comfort levels. "I really am most proud of the athletes who came through university, who not only graduated and became terrific basketball players, but learned life skills through the game. So many of them are now so accomplished in so many ways."

Kathy Shields

Tough but understated is how she describes her player management style after struggling in her early years in a male-dominated profession, where authority figures were the norm. "I tried to hold players accountable and I think that is the key. Accountability and making sure that things get done right every time."

Look to win

Bob O’Billovich, who retired after a 50-year career with the Canadian Football League as a player, coach and general manager, says coaches will in the end always be judged by their wins and losses. "Regardless of how good a coach you are, you might be a terrific teacher and teach players great values, but none of it makes any difference if you don’t win. Because the bottom line is winning and in professional sports if you don’t win you probably aren’t going to be around too long."

O’Billovich, who broke into the CFL in 1963 as a defensive back and quarterback, had his greatest success in Toronto, where he coached the Argonauts to the Grey Cup finals in three of eight seasons. Following the worst season in its history (two wins and 14 losses), he took over the Argos in 1982, steered the team to the Grey Cup final and was named CFL coach of the year that year (and again in ’87). He is most fondly remembered for coaching the Argos to the 1983 Grey Cup victory, ending "the curse" of a 31-year streak of futility.

Bob O’Billovich

Give and gain respect

Like Dineen, O’Billovich found consistency was key to managing a diverse team of professional athletes. "Two things were most important to me as a coach: No. 1, to be a consistent person in how I made decisions and in dealing with players; second, I wanted to make sure I gained their respect. In order to get respect you have to give respect, because you are dealing with pro athletes and there are a lot of tough decisions that have to be made along the way that sometimes aren’t popular."

O’Billovich had a reputation as an innovator in that 1983 Grey Cup season, running a two-quarterback platoon of Joe Barnes and Condredge Holloway. He oversaw a "run and shoot" offence that played a role in the Argos winning their division five of the eight seasons he coached the team in the ’80s. "I think we introduced some things in the CFL that hadn’t been done, like quick screens and using the tailback as a receiver more," he says.

While coaches are ultimately judged on wins and losses, that wasn’t how he measured the success of his teams. "As a head coach you don’t want to get too high when you win and too low when you lose because sometimes you can play really well and not win. The key to me, I would try to emphasize to the players, was to be the best that you could be when you hit the field. I talked about those kinds of things — I never talked about winning and losing as a coach."

Instil confidence

One of Canada’s most successful coaches in the ’90s was Toronto Blue Jays’ manager Cito Gaston, who led the baseball team to consecutive World Series titles in 1992 and 1993. Famously soft-spoken and laid back, Gaston received less credit for those wins than he might have because of his reserved style and the star-studded lineups he pencilled in every day.

  Cito Gaston

The first African-American manager to lead his team to a World Series title, Gaston was the Blue Jays’ hitting coach for seven years before becoming manager in the middle of the 1989 season, turning around a 12-24 team and getting it into the play-offs. Gaston told Ebony magazine that he originally did not want the job, taking it only after his players encouraged him. The Jays made the playoffs in 1991 before winning it all the next two seasons.

Gaston was criticized by sportswriters for his "let the players play" style, but it has been noted that nearly all of the Jays’ highlights happened with Gaston in charge. That includes four of the Jays’ five division titles, two pennants, both championships and two of the team’s four Cy Young awards for the league’s best pitcher (Pat Hentgen in 1996 and Roger Clemens in 1997).

Jays’ all-star fielder Joe Carter, who caught the final out in the 1992 World Series clincher and, more memorably, hit the walk-off winning home run to clinch the 1993 series, recalls the steadying role that Gaston played directing the team. "Even though it looked like he was laid back and wasn’t coaching or making moves, believe me he was making moves because he gave us a lot of confidence and that is why we enjoyed playing for Cito and would go through a brick wall for him."

Those winning teams, which included Hall of Famers Roberto Alomar and Paul Molitor, did not need an overactive coach, Carter says. "With a veteran ball club like we had, Cito never had to do that. One of the things I love about Cito to this day is that he let us go out there and he would instil confidence in us whether we were struggling or not."

It was an attitude appreciated by Carter, a notoriously streaky hitter at the plate. "It was never about going out there and looking over our shoulder, wondering if he was going to take us out of a game. His philosophy was you have to be able to get used to these situations because they will happen again."