Top critical review
Not as "humble" as he claims to be, but still some good lessons and stories here
on December 15, 2014
Pitino's book Success Is a Choice: Ten Steps to Overachieving in Business and Life had an impact on me in the 1990s, and I still refer back to some of its lessons on communication. I was eager to read this later book by a more mature and, if possible, more humble Pitino. I read an article on Pitino by Forde years ago that talked about how he'd mellowed after the loss of his best friend and brother-in-law Billy Minardi in the World Trade Center on 9/11. The article suggested that winning didn't mean as much to the man, and that every success was something to stop and celebrate, and I was curious whether this was true. I also have the perspective of the Pitino who got caught in adultery and secretly paying for his fling's abortion, something that was against everything the man supposedly stood for. It is hard to read this book which lays out Pitino's firm principles (similar to his first book) and square it with that Pitino.
Each chapter has a theme with some examples from the coach's experience, some anecdotal illustrations from business or similar, and a bullet-point summary at the end. The coach's examples are interesting but the canned illustrations from business, drawn from the Wall Street Journal and other sources, are rather dull. Pitino's comments on those illustrations become somewhat annoying. He may express humility at points in the book ("I'm working, on a daily basis, to put others before me" p. 38), but it's clear he still has the confident in his own expertise in everything from other sports to manufacturing to politics. The worst example comes in a foray into theology toward the end of the book.
"Some of our biggest problems in the world today are rooted in religious fanaticism and intolerance of other views. I don't know that there is such thing as a 'chosen' faith, so much as there is a chosen way to live. I don't believe God would exclude a Catholic, a Jew, a Buddhist, a Muslim, or a Hindu simply because they chose the wrong doctrine to follow—not if they've lived a good life" (p. 189).
There are some glimpses into the personal tragedies of Pitino's life that connect the reader to the coach on a deeper level. The first is the death of his infant son, Daniel, in 1987. This came at the height of one of the most joyous seasons, the Providence '87 Final Four team that propelled him to fame and fortune. Pitino reveals much of his and Joanne's grieving process, and how they've worked to make it a positive but it still haunts him. The second is the loss of two of his best friends and brothers-in-law in 2001, just months apart. Minardi is still on their minds as his pictures are in every room of their house. Pitino uses stories from Minardi's life for encouragement and motivation. These events helped humble the coach and help him put family and career into proper perspective.
"Basketball is my passion, but not my life. Helping my players, family members, and friends achieve happiness counts more than the final score of any game. I'm still enjoying what I do immensely and my energy to work remains extremely high—but there is a greater balance at the end of the day" (p. 13).
Kentucky fans will enjoy his stories about players from those teams although there are more in Success is a Choice. He reveals how and why he and Antoine Walker didn't get along initially, the issues his assistant coaches had in the early days, and more. Louisville fans will particularly enjoy the story of his first meeting/confrontation with the group of misfit players he inherited. He talks a lot about his project players, but admits his failures, like with Terrance Williams.
Pitino admits he left Kentucky in '97 "for the money." He has often expressed regret for this decision as his "failure" in Boston took a lot of time for him to get over. He does explain the reasons for his failures there: he got too caught up in making emotional, short-run decisions with the team to win immediately rather than stick to a long-run strategy. His plan was to retire rich and famous at 55 and he now realizes that was foolish.
I appreciated his retrospective here and anyone who has lost a job or experienced any level of failure can appreciate Pitino's wisdom (p. 29):
Darkness of doubt happens.
Get in touch with your fundamentals to combat doubt.
POINTS OF CAUTION:
Denial doesn't work.
Use past mistakes as learning tools
Running away doesn't work. Don't isolate yourself.
Avoid rebound marriages, like I considered entering into with UNLV.
Besides dealing with the darkness of doubt, my main takeaway from the book is Pitino's resolve to stay "relentlessly positive." Kentucky's 31-point comeback at LSU was the result of staying positive in the huddles. He rejects cynicism and won't tolerate "bitchfests" in meetings. Pitino keeps a written record of whether he remained positive or not in a given day. He's honest about the difficulty:
"The best I've done for a season is to average 70 percent positive days, so there is work to do" (p. 123). He also writes that he gives a copy of Spencer Johnson's The Precious Present to almost everyone and reads it to his players (and even summarizes it in the book). I will have to check it out.
He writes that he has personal accountability on a daily basis for achieving his career goals, and recommends accountability to others. I suppose that his succumbing to a floozie at a bar in front of his friends means he does not maintain that same accountability for his personal life.
My favorite quote from the book comes from the legendary Bill Russell, who spoke to Pitino's locker room before a game (p. 169). Russell rips into the selfish players and demands better:
“I know you guys think I'm making fun of you and calling you out for your egos. But I'm the most egotistical son of a bitch who ever played. The only thing is, my ego didn't come from any individual statistics. Your ego is about points, rebounds, and assists. My ego came from the final score. My ego is team ego. But then again, what do I know? I've only won 11 world championships, back-to- back college championships, 56 college games in a row, and an Olympic gold medal. And that's why I'm Bill Russell and you're not.”
Pitino emphasizes team ego and says he recruits players and coaches who have a "PHD," who are "passionate, hungry, and driven." This is why he now avoids one-and-done players who live in a "microwave" culture of instant gratification. He wants people who he can make better.
"Your goal is to achieve maximum performance on a daily basis, and to help those around you do the same. Set that goal and then try like hell to attain it" (p. 137).
Pitino says retiring on top is not necessarily important to him, he just doesn't want to coach past the point where he no longer has his own PHD. I would say that day is coming pretty soon.
In all, I give this book 3 stars out of 5. Not great, but good enough.