When I recently interviewed former New York Yankees executive Mark Newman, he spoke about how George Steinbrenner programmed his teams with signs to be sure his players and personnel understood what philosophies he wanted to be installed and instilled as part of the Yankees culture. Signs in the stadium, dugout, locker room, training room, etc. wherever you’d go, he was messaging. Mark also joked when he said, “George Steinbrenner had so many signs, he had a sign to tell you to read the signs.” This type of programming is pervasive in all great programs. The New England Patriots and Coach Bill Belichick want you to “do your job.”
These ‘messages’ come in many forms, but all hold the same purpose; they communicate what is important and what you need to pay attention to. Mark Newman shared one other gem with me. In Juandolio, Dominican Republic at the Yankees training facility there’s a sign that reads, “Las pequenas, cosas son grande”. Translation, “The little things are big”. I can’t think of a better message to give my student-athletes. That’s not just baseball, that’s life!
Being the son of (Alexander Joseph Gargiulo) a professional baseball player and coach born and raised in New York’s ‘Hell’s Kitchen’, I’ve been privileged to live a life in baseball as both a college player and coach. As a player it allowed me to play against teams coached by some great men like; Steve Hamilton (Morehead St.), Itch Jones (Southern Illinois), Les Murakami (Hawaii), to name a few. I grew up knowing Rutgers Head Coach Fred Hill, Sr. and his family. He and my father (Al) played Semi-Pro baseball together after they were released. At 13, I would catch batting practice for my father’s American Legion teams where they battled Vailsburg Legion teams coached by Hall of Famer and Head Seton Hall University Coach Mike Sheppard Sr. So my fascination with great leaders in (and out of) sports started at a young age, and has given me the opportunity to interview many prominent baseball men. Most are Hall of Fame coaches, but more importantly, Hall of Fame people; like the aforementioned Coach Hill and Coach Sheppard.
Another of these men is Gary Ward. As the Head Coach of the great Oklahoma State baseball teams (from 1978-1996), Gary Ward won a boatload of ballgames. But when I asked this ABCA Hall of Famer, “What do you consider to be the most vital qualities of a coach?“ he replied:
“Every effort of the mentor is to provide service to the player. Discipline and monitor with strict adherence to excellence…demand the very best effort from each participant. Be strict and hard on the actions of every player but always show love to the player’s effort.”
Every effort of the mentor is to provide service to the player! That’s gold!
When asked what he would attribute his success to? He replied:
“Treating every player, not as they are, but as they can be. Also, having been a ‘student of the game’ and remaining so regardless of any individual level of success as a coach. To maintain a relentless effort to teach with organization, discipline, and intelligence.”
I was lucky to have played shortstop at Murray State University (Ky.) with one of my older brothers (Michael). It was at Murray State where I met several coaches who would change the direction of my life forever. Our asst. coach Leon Wurth and Head Coach Johnny Reagan. Coach Wurth was a former minor leaguer, and tireless baseball man. He’d hit me groundballs along with all the proper footwork and nuances of the game both offensively and defensively. Flat out, he made me a better player. Coach Johnny Reagan, another ABCA Hall of Famer, was unlike any man I’d ever met. He was polite, funny, smart, competitive, organized, and demanding. Many years after graduating, I’d often call him and wish him a Merry Christmas or Happy Thanksgiving and he always stayed on the phone with me as long as I’d like. He was my first real interview. When I asked him “What do you consider the most vital qualities of a coach? He replied:
“A sense of humor, integrity, honesty, and wisdom.”
I will never forget some of his messaging during my time at Murray. His messaging came in several forms. The most powerful was his actions. Just watching him keep his cool no matter the situation always helped me know how to keep mine. His signature comment when things went bad was a monotone, “How unfortunate”. That was it! “How unfortunate”. He was also the first baseball coach I’d ever met who had his own playbook. It was 2 inches thick and filled with outlined form information with adjoining charts (pictures) to be sure you knew where to go and what to do in all situations. As a matter of fact, at the top of each page no matter what the situation, #1 always said, “Know the situation”. So each day in the locker room he’d post an index card on the bulletin board with the pages and charts we needed to study for the next day at practice. Maybe it was defending the double steal, or double cuts. No matter what it was if you hadn’t done your homework he would know. Messaging ‘accountability’, ‘responsibility’, and ‘commitment’.
Not only did the playbook contain baseball materials, but on the first two pages there were two passages. The first was called, “The Definition of a Gentleman”. The second one was “The Name Of The Game Is Mental Hustle”. Those two poems embodied what Coach Reagan was all about. He was a class act, and expected his teams to be the same.
You don’t necessarily need a playbook to program your players. But you do need to realize everything your players see, hear, and do is programming them. Although it’s a thinking man’s game, we want our players to be instinctive both mentally and physically. So be proactive in your programming and establish the fabric of your program by carefully and intentionally communicating your words and the message. Remember, las pequenas cosas son grande!