In the lexicon of great American coaches, names that come to the top are Vince Lombardi, Casey Stengel, John Wooden, Joe Torre, Phil Jackson and Scotty Bowman. One coach, whose name is often not mentioned but undoubtedly should be, is Herb Brooks.
Unlike Drew Forrester, Nestor Aparicio, Ed Frankovic or Keith Melchior, I am not big hockey fan. I am what they might call a casual fan of the frozen game. Love some of the traditions and rituals, but often too busy to pay attention. So you might think it odd that I chose Brooks as one of the coaches I most admire.
With the Stanley Cup playoffs in full gear, I could see no time better to write this blog.
For those who are too young to remember or are hockey challenged, Brooks coached the United States Olympic hockey team to a gold medal in the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid. In what is simply referred to as the “Miracle on Ice,” Brooks took a team of college players, sprinkled with a couple of minor leaguers, and defeated the Soviet Union–the best team in the world–in the semi-finals before beating Finland in the Gold Medal game. Along the way, they tied Sweden, one of the favorites in the US’s bracket, and beat the pool favorite Czechoslovakia in the second game of the tournament. All this after a wonderful coaching career at the University of Minnesota which saw him lead the Gophers to three NCAA championships in the 1970s.
I was 12 years old when Brooks and the US shocked and amazed the world; I still regard this as the greatest moment in American team sports history. The Soviets had won four consecutive gold medals. They defeated NHL teams and won two out of three games against an NHL All-Star squad. They were seasoned, experienced, and skilled beyond description.
Brooks countered with a group of young players, many of who had just learned how to shave. Some, like Ken Morrow, Mark Johnson and Neal Broten, would go on to solid NHL careers, and for others, like team captain Mike Eruzione and goaltender Jim Craig, this would be their moment.
Unlike his predecessors, he built a team full of good young skaters, and he taught them how to play the international game, not dump and chase which was the preeminent North American style at the time. His player choices rankled some at US Hockey, but Brooks knew to pull off this upset he would need a group that could function together as a team rather than a collection of individual talents. Once assembled, he drove and pushed them to develop as a team, often working them to the limit. If you saw the movie Miracle with Kurt Russell, you have seen the famous scene were Brooks makes them skate gassers until they drop following an uninspired tie vs. Norway. He knew anything other than perfection would not get it done against the Soviets. He challenged individual players, even questioning their toughness. Even I know one thing you rarely do is challenge a hockey player’s toughness. In this run, Brooks knew exactly how to push the right buttons, and most of all he knew the Russians were beatable, when no one else thought it could be done.
His inspirational speech prior to the game vs. the Soviets (now immortalized on YouTube) sends chills down your spine; how could the Russians have had a chance after that masterpiece?
What made this win standout even more was the geo-political situation of the late 1970s and early 80s. The economy was in tatters. Iran seized the US hostages in 1979. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and most of all, American hope and pride was at its lowest point in our nation’s history. Somehow, a college coach and bunch young college kids from Minnesota and Massachusetts restored it all in one magical 60 minute game that many Americans consider not to be ours.
What I really liked about Brooks is that after the US won both big games, he didn’t run to be with his team on the ice or to mug for the camera. He quietly left the bench and went back to the locker room. When asked why, he said, “It’s not my moment; it’s theirs.” Brooks understood what they had accomplished and how they responded to his challenge.
How refreshing is that in a world where many coaches seem to have written a book 15 seconds after the final whistle blows on a championship season? What a great lesson for coaches and managers. Humility is something that is too often missing in today’s sports. Actually it is something sorely lacking in business and in our nation today. Too many people worry about getting credit, even when they have not earned it.
Brooks died in a car accident in 2003, and his legend may have passed soon after 1980. A couple of stints in the NHL with the Rangers, Devils and Penguins plus a silver medal at the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake with a team of NHL stars kept his name in the spotlight and him close the game he loved. Make no mistake about it: the 1980 Olympics were enough to ensure Herb Brooks’ legacy as one of the giants of American coaching. As the final credit in Miracle said in a dedication to Brooks, “He never saw it. He lived it.”