The Principle-Centered Coach

By 1996, college baseball coach, John Scolinos, had already become a legend. He was 78 years old that year, and he agreed to speak to 4,000 coaches at an ABCA convention in Nashville. It was an unforgettable scene.

He shuffled up to the platform, looking strange. He wore a home plate, attached to a chain hung from his neck. Who does that? Only strange baseball coaches, I guess. He spoke for 25 minutes, not once mentioning that ornament he wore.

Finally, as he began to conclude, he cleared his throat.

photo credit: Paul L Dineen coach via photopin (license)

“You’re probably wondering why I’m wearing home plate around my neck. Or, maybe you think I escaped from Camarillo State Hospital,” he said, as folks chuckled.

“No,” he continued. “I may be old but I’m not crazy.”

“The reason I stand before you today is to share with you baseball people what I’ve learned in my life; what I’ve learned about home plate in my 78 years.”

He paused.

Several hands went up as Scolinos asked how many Little League coaches were in the room. He then asked, “Do you know how wide home plate is in Little League?”

Someone answered from the second row, “Seventeen inches.”

“That’s right,” Scolinos replied. “How about Babe Ruth League?” After a pause, a reluctant coach guessed, “Seventeen inches?”

“That’s right again,” he said. “How many high school coaches here today?” Hundreds of hands went up. Again, Scolinos asked his question: “How big is your home plate?”

“Seventeen inches,” several shouted, now more confident.

“Right again. Now, what about college baseball? Anyone know?”

“Seventeen inches,” they answered in unison. Finally, Coach Scolinos asked, “How about professional baseball. How big is home plate? And, how about the major leagues? Anyone know how big home plate is?”

Scolinos answered his own question: “It’s seventeen inches,” he bellowed, his voice bouncing off the walls. He then repeated it, “Seventeen inches!”

“And do you know what they do with a Big League pitcher who can’t throw the ball over those seventeen inches?” He paused. “They send him to Pocatello!” he hollered, drawing raucous laughter. “Now—why don’t they say, “Aw, that’s OK, Jimmy. You can’t hit a seventeen-inch target? We’ll make it eighteen inches or nineteen inches. We’ll make it twenty inches so you have a better chance of hitting it. And if you can’t hit that, let us know so we can make it wider still, say, twenty-five inches.”

A long pause. The coaches were silent.

“What do we do when our best player shows up late to practice? When our team rules forbid facial hair and a guy shows up unshaven? What if he gets caught drinking? Do we hold him accountable? Or, do we change the rules to fit him; do we widen our home plate?”

The chuckles gradually faded as everyone caught his point. The fog had lifted.

“This is the problem with our homes today. With our marriages, with the way we parent our kids, with our discipline. We don’t teach accountability to our kids, and there is no consequence for failing to meet standards. We just widen home plate.”

A long pause.

You could’ve heard a pin drop. Those coaches assumed they’d learn something about curve balls and bunting, but they had gleaned a lesson in life.

Coach Scolinos concluded, “If you remember one thing from this old coach today, I hope it’s this: if we fail to hold ourselves to a higher standard, a standard we know to be right; if we fail to hold our children to the same standards, if we are unwilling or unable to provide a consequence when they do not meet the standard; and if our schools and churches and our government fail to hold themselves accountable to those they serve, there is but one thing to look forward to.” With that, he slowly turned home plate around, and revealed its dark, black backside.

And he walked off the stage.

I remind you of this story for a reason. The most effective coaches have standards they live and lead by. They have a moral compass and have ideals they challenge athletes to rise to and achieve. They are principle-centered leaders. They don’t ask anyone to do something they’re unwilling to do themselves. In light of this, I have some questions for you as a coach:

  • What are your personal standards for living an exemplary life?
  • What are the core values you challenge your team to live by?
  • What are the principles you believe are important to pass on to players?
  • Are you consistent in enforcing them among your team members?

What are your seventeen inches?

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The Principle-Centered Coach