By : Carmine Gallo
In 12 seasons the De La Salle Spartans amassed one of the greatest winning streaks in sports history—151 consecutive games. The story of the streak under coach Bob Ladouceur is now a major motion picture based on the book, When The Game Stands Tall. But as I discovered in conversations with the book’s author as well as former players, the story behind the streak holds the secret for building and leading a winning team that will take your business to the next level.
“I spent a year with ‘Coach Lad’ and I never heard him use the word win,” author Neil Hayes told me. “I really don’t think you can win 151 games in a row if you’re trying to win.”
The story of Coach Lad and the Concord, California, De La Salle Spartans is one of the greatest leadership stories ever told because it gets to the heart of building a winning team in sports and in business. Here are three valuable team-building lessons based on the longest winning streak in sports history.
Wins are the result of a bigger mission. A great coach knows how to execute game winning plays, but inspiration is often about the intangibles beyond X’s and O’s. “De La Salle doesn’t win because of anything Bob Ladouceur does. They win because of who he is,” says Hayes.
Coach Lad stands for something bigger than winning games; he stands for commitment, accountability, and pushing the bounds of human achievement. “As a coach you can know who to block and what play to call, but it has no meaning unless the kids know who you are,” says Ladouceur. “Our kids aren’t fighting for wins. They’re fighting for a belief in what we stand for.”
Neil Hayes told me about the moment he realized that Coach Lad’s story had to be told. It happened during halftime of a game when his team played poorly. The coach walked into the locker room and his team “looked at their coach, begging for wisdom, his guidance.” Lad didn’t give them a traditional pep talk. Instead he said, “Why do I always have to be the problem solver? Group problem-solving is a skill you will use your whole life. Figure it out.” And with that the most successful high school football coach in history walked out, leaving the players to come up with their own solution. This example is very consistent with Coach Lad’s bigger mission to use football as a tool to teach life lessons.
“The game by itself doesn’t stand tall,” Lad told author Neil Hayes. “The violence isn’t what attracts me to it. It’s getting kids to play together and to get along with each other. The game should be a teaching tool. It doesn’t stand tall on its own.”
Former Spartan player Scott Hugo was the team’s co-captain in the 2004 season. Hugo studied at Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship and is attending Harvard law school. “Coach Lad always viewed the sport of football as a training ground for life,” Hugo told me. “Victories were the byproduct of the program’s emphasis on the development of young men. Coach Lad’s secret, in my opinion, is that he built a coaching staff and a program that instills values like commitment, character, love, respect, and discipline into its players.”
Your actions had better back your words. Neil Hayes or players like Hugo would have labeled the coach as insincere had they not seen him back his words with small actions every day. “Coach Lad is a successful leader because he cares about the players and seeks to bring out the best in us. That is why he earns such lifelong loyalty and admiration,” says Hugo.
When Hayes first appeared on campus to write about the program, he noticed that very few trophies or visible reminders of the streak adorned the campus. Hayes had a brief meeting with Lad and his assistant, Terry Eidson, as the two were cleaning up the coach’s office at the end of a season. Hayes was shocked at the mementos they threw in a dumpster. “I remember seeing a deflated coach of the year football. They laughed, and tossed it in the dumpster without a moment’s hesitation. It struck me because those things weren’t important. The things that motivate a lot of other people in sports didn’t motivate them.”
During one team meeting Hayes heard Coach Lad tell the players, “I’m focused one hundred percent on you guys as a team. I want you to become what you’re capable of becoming. It has nothing to do with wins.” Every word, every action supported Coach Lad’s bigger mission to develop the players’ discipline, character, and dedication to the team’s success.
Hold each other accountable for the goals you set. Coach Lad used a stunningly effective motivational technique he called “commitment cards.” Each week Coach Lad gave every player a white index card to write down a practice goal, a game goal, and a conditioning goal. The players would stand up at the weekly meeting, announce the goal and, most important, to whom they were pledging their commitment. It was the other player’s job to stand up the next week and tell the team if the player had accomplished his goals. “It was so powerful, it was spine-tingling,” remembers Hayes.
Former Spartan Cam Colvin had lost both of his parents by his junior season. He went on to play for The University of Oregon and the 49ers before being sidelined with injuries. Today he’s a successful real estate developer who recalls the impact of commitment cards. “It was an amazing bonding opportunity. For example, I’d commit to you that I would catch 100 balls after practice, 5 game-day catches, 2 touchdowns, and no missed blocks. It was our way of setting goals for the week and to getting them done. It made us closer. We policed ourselves.”
According to Scott Hugo, who still speaks in the present tense, “The team always comes first, and part of being a Spartan is proving to your teammates and your coaches that you can be depended on. That’s why we fight so hard for one another, why we commit everything we have to our preparation, so we can be counted on.”
Movie producer David Zelon was not attracted to the movie rights because of the winning streak alone. He only committed once he learned what had happened after the streak ended. Coach Lad had suffered a heart attack and one of their star players—Terrance Kelly—was shot and killed near his Richmond home. The streak ended in the first game of the season. The story of how the players fought their way back as a team gave Zelon the dramatic narrative he was seeking, and the deeper message he intended to share.
“There was clearly something very special and miraculous going on with this guy Bob Ladouceur,” says Zelon. “It wasn’t so much his wins, which were remarkable of course, that got to me. It was the ability he had to get these kids to commit to each other so strongly, even when things looked like they were going south, that was so powerful.”