How Much Do Coaches Matter?
To Andre Iguodala, they are just one part of the equation, but acolytes of a ‘trillon-dollar’ mentor swear by his importance
In 1979, Bill Campbell quit his job as head coach of Columbia University’s chronically dreadful football team. He moved to California to work for Apple and eventually became chief executive of Intuit.
The decision that made Mr. Campbell a Silicon Valley legend, however, involved a return to his roots. When he died in 2016, he was, according to a new biography, “the greatest executive coach the world has ever seen.”
Mr. Campbell, who shunned publicity, compiled a stunning roster of mentees that included Apple’s Steve Jobs, Google’s Larry Page and Facebook ’s Sheryl Sandberg. The book, “Trillion Dollar Coach,” was written by a trio of former pupils, including Google’s one-time CEO, Eric Schmidt.
To the authors, there’s no question Mr. Campbell deserves enormous credit for the success of the companies he worked with. “A trillion dollars understates the value he created,” they wrote. Without his “integral” guidance at Google, they argue, “the company would not be where it is today.”
After finishing this book, I met up in New York with another author who knows a thing or two about coaches: Andre Iguodala.
The 35-year-old Mr. Iguodala has played for four different NBA teams. As the primary captain of the Golden State Warriors, he’s made five straight trips to the NBA Finals since 2014, won three championships and set the league record for wins in a single season. Last Sunday, the Warriors, now in rebuilding mode, traded him to the Memphis Grizzlies, which would be team No. 5.
In his 15 seasons, Mr. Iguodala has earned a reputation as one of the NBA’s most thoughtful and outspoken players, and in his new memoir, “The Sixth Man,” he offers candid reviews of the coaches he’s played for. While Golden State’s Steve Kerr earns high marks, others don’t fare so well.
One interim head coach from his days in Philadelphia didn’t seem to make much of an impression at all.
“I forgot his name,” Mr. Iguodala confessed.
Most sports fans believe that a coach can be many things, but forgettable isn’t one of them. The prevailing view is that coaches, more than anyone else, are chiefly responsible for a team’s results.
Mr. Iguodala doesn’t quite see it that way. In his view, a team’s ability to win depends less on the coach’s modus operandi than how well the players organize themselves around it—or in some cases, in opposition to it.
In sports, “people like to think of coaches as…more capable and better people than the players,” he wrote. Players must respect their coaches “no matter what they say or do,” and anyone who makes disparaging statements about them is automatically labeled a “cancer.”
“Why is it more likely for a player to be a disruption than a coach with an oversize ego?” he wrote. “Can’t a coach do more damage because the structure allows him more power? Can’t a coach be wrong?”
These two books present vastly different takes on coaching. Mr. Campbell’s acolytes seemed to crave his input and follow his advice with minimal skepticism. To Mr. Iguodala, every coach basically dumps out a different box of Legos and forces the team to build something.
They can’t both be right—or can they?
My own research into great dynasties in sports tends to support Mr. Iguodala’s view. The one similarity I’ve found between teams that sustain excellence is the presence of a selfless, relentless, highly principled captain. Mr. Iguodala is a fine example of the species.
A brilliant coach helps, but only if that person forms a trusting, two-way, mutually respectful partnership with the team’s player-leaders.
In many ways, “Trillion Dollar Coach” suggests that Mr. Campbell was an exception: a singular talent ideally suited to his moment. He was humble, loyal and compassionate but also ruthlessly direct. He broke down barriers between people with bursts of profane language and giant bear hugs.
Although he coached executives in private sessions, Mr. Campbell didn’t confine himself to the sidelines. He walked the office hallways, attended meetings and got to know members of many teams. He ran toward the biggest problems, listened intently, and tried to resolve them. “His first instinct was always to work the team, not the problem,” the authors wrote.
As I read this, I started to wonder if “coach” was the most appropriate term for him. Sometimes, when the situation demanded it, Mr. Campbell functioned more like a captain. He actually played the game.
Before coming to Golden State in 2013, Mr. Iguodala was an All-Star-caliber player who led by shouldering a heavy load on the court. Ahead of his second season with the Warriors, however, Mr. Kerr pulled him aside. To help the team maintain its energy and offensive rhythm, he asked Mr. Iguodala to come off the bench partway through the game.
Strategically, Mr. Iguodala says, “I knew exactly what he was saying.” The question was whether he could learn to be an effective substitute and, above all, set aside his ego to play a supporting role.
Mr. Kerr’s ability to sell this plan to Mr. Iguodala wasn’t an accident. He’s a highly collaborative coach who admits his mistakes, treats players like adults, seeks their input and sometimes even hands them the reins. By shelving his ego, he makes it easier for players to set aside theirs.
“A lot of coaches will be like: ‘I gotta call a play. It’s gotta be me. I’ve got to make my impact on the game,’” Mr. Iguodala says. “Steve has done a good job of getting out of the way. It sounds like I’m downing Steve by saying that, but it’s actually an enhancer.”
Mr. Iguodala, like Mr. Campbell, believed that a coach’s influence is only as strong as the team allows it to be. A captain’s job, he believes, is to adapt the team to its coach—which in this case meant keeping his teammates from abusing Mr. Kerr’s trust by growing lazy or sloppy. He forced them to police themselves.
To turn the Warriors into a dynasty, however, Mr. Iguodala had to realize something else about great teams. “The superstar,” he says, “is never the ultimate leader.”
Most elite athletes are not humble, he says. They assume they should lead because they have the most talent. To perform at their best, however, superstars need to focus on their own play, which demands self-absorption. A leader, by contrast, has to remain“hyperaware” of everything happening on the court. Most team-oriented stars eventually realize they can’t shoulder it all. They’ll say: “I need to rely on this veteran guy to keep the temperature right.”
On the Warriors in 2014, Stephen Curry had every right to claim the leadership mantle. He was already the greatest 3-point shooter in NBA history. But to Mr. Iguodala’s immense relief, he didn’t want the job. “We’ve had that conversation,” Mr. Iguodala says. “We’ve talked about how on great teams there’s always a player we call the ‘supervet.’ He’s usually the leader. The superstar respects him and so everyone else respects him.”
Mr. Iguodala knew that to move the team forward, he needed to step back into the shadows where Bill Campbell worked. “I do a lot of things that go unnoticed,” he says, “and I’m totally fine with that.”
The truth about coaches is that they matter a lot—but they shouldn’t be worshiped or blindly followed. They’re just one piece of a complex dynamic that takes many forms. On great teams, everyone syncs their behavior in complementary ways until they form the most potent combination.
Leadership, in any field, isn’t about barking orders or taking big shots, Mr. Iguodala says. It’s about being flexible enough to find your place in an intricate system of action and reaction.
“It’s about the ability to embrace a role.”