John Bacon got more satisfaction from coaching a bad hockey team than playing in a good one. In his new book, Lead You: Unexpected Leadership Lessons from America’s Worst High School Hockey Team, Bacon, a journalist and leadership consultant, explores why and what made the difference.
Bacon plays third and fourth row for Ann Arbor Huron High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, killing mostly penalties. He dressed for every game for three seasons and never scored, even when the River Rats made deep rehearsals in state championships. When he returned as team coach in 2000, he had not won a game in more than a year.
By empowering his players and instilling a sense of discipline, he made the River Rats one of the best hockey teams in Michigan in just three seasons. He said the experience changed his life.
This interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
The language of sport tends to be superlative. of America the worst hockey team? Are you exaggerating a bit, for a dramatic effect?
I set up a pretty good case. It was the Bears of Bad News level. I think we would probably be dead last in the nation. Certainly the bottom five of a thousand. That’s pretty good. Or pretty bad.
Years earlier, you actually played on this team.
When I played, we had a good team. Throughout the year we ranked in the top 10. We had several talented players. I was not one of them.
But while we had a talented team, we had almost no discipline. We led the country on penalties for three years. We got out of control somehow. Once the director had to come in and talk to us on the hockey rink, on a visit. That says something. When the director gives your speech before the game all over the city, you know you’re in trouble.
The team I took on was just the opposite. They had zero wins, but we brought discipline early and so it turned out.
Why do you want to train a terrible team?
While the game was a good experience, it was not a great experience. And one of my main motivators in coaching 20 years later was that I wanted my players to have experience to draw from for the rest of their lives. I didn’t have that.
How did you even start with a team that hadn’t won a game in more than a year?
It wasn’t easy, but we just kept going. My first year we had a series of 10 losses. We lost a close match to our rival, Pioneer High School. Pioneer had quite a list of alumni: Ken Burns, Bob Seeger, Jack Lusma – he was an astronaut – Jim Harbo. We also had James “Lights Out” Tony, middleweight champion. We were others high school in Ann Arbor, just to be clear.
But I’ve never seen this as a springboard to something. I was not trying to progress in coaching. I just wanted to do this one thing.
Is talent the most important thing for a winning team?
I broke down the NHL stars ‘games in the’ 40s, ’50s and’ 60s. The Stanley Cup champion played with the All-Stars, and the Cup champions did better than the All-Stars, which makes no sense on paper. It’s never just talent. That’s how all the parts fit. Successful teams understand that everyone has a role to play.
If this happens to you, then it is difficult for you to win. The same thing in the workplace. If everyone wants the ball, it just won’t work. You need mills, you need security.
Do you still hear from the players you coach?
I probably talk to at least one player every day, and 17 years after the fact, it’s amazing how many of them are already leaders. I will say this: When I die, they will carry my coffin.
In movies, there is always the great motivational speech, from the coach or the player, that changes the narrative arc. Was that the case with you?
I love good speech before the game. But it’s not that important. I’ve seen great coaches do it without any of that. It is important to know your people and really the speech before the game only works if you really know your people and know where these buttons are.
Was the transfer of control of the team to the players themselves what turned things around?
Bad teams, no one leads. Good teams, coaches lead. Great teams, everyone leads. It works. Works in ice hockey. Works in the newsrooms. He works during the Stanley Cup races. He can work in any company. But it is scary and requires courage.
How it works?
Identify what is essential, what is negotiable and what is a breach of the transaction. Lack of trust disrupts the deal. In the world of work, once trust is broken, you will not return it.
At first I trusted them to just stretch and count at the same time, and they couldn’t. It was so bad. But over time, they took responsibility for themselves as a group. We just kept doing it. My conviction was that in time we would learn this thing. The cool part was at the end of the summer, we were in the field and stretching, and if a parent or sports director came to me, I could say, “Senior, you run,” and they would.
Be patient with the results. Don’t be patient with behavior. If the behavior is right, you will get there. At the end of the third year, one night I said, “Okay, adults, you’re going to practice the whole game.” And they went out and smoked the other team.
Which team do you think is doing it right?
Tampa Bay Lightning. You don’t see John Cooper screaming and screaming behind the bench. Its players are up to the sky. And he is the relatively calm man behind the bench. This man has never played hockey at any level. He was a high school hockey coach who moved from there to the juniors. He paid his dues. His players trust him and listen to him. Leaders know it’s not for them. If you can swallow your ego, you are halfway home. This is John Cooper.
Favorite sports movie?
“A miracle.” I’m sorry.
No need to be sorry!
This is a true story for players who believed in themselves and exceeded their limits. They did things they shouldn’t have been able to do. And that’s what I wanted. This was a model for my team.
Is there a movie about the rats on the Ann Arbor Huron River?
I’m working on a screenplay with Jim Bernstein. He wrote “D3: Mighty Ducks”, “Renaissance Man”, “Ruffian”, “Love and Honor”. I think there are a lot of promises here. When we’re done, we’ll start shopping in Hollywood. But it’s harder than you think. This is a haiku. It’s so, so short. You get a hundred pages. Each page has to do so much. It’s harder than a book, but more fun.