Tex Winter: A Coach’s Coach

We’ve lost a guru. Tex Winter, the Hall of Fame basketball coach, who assisted Phil Jackson in coaching the Chicago Bulls to six NBA Championships and the Los Angeles Lakers to another four, passed away yesterday at age 96.

Befitting a guru, I learned at Tex’s knee. Positive Coaching Alliance sent me to interview him during the 2007 playoffs. At practice, it was stunning to see the 85-year-old inventor of the Triangle Offense (aka “Triple-Post Offense”) showing  players a quarter of his age how to curl around a pick, hands ready for a pass and a quick catch-and-release shot.

Tex slouched some, but still moved athletically, with swag that seemed at odds with his cargo shorts and slightly-too-high-up-the-calf tube socks. Kobe Bryant listened to him.

Then, after practice, so did I. We met in an office just off the practice court and talked for half an hour or more about basketball, coaching, and the Positive Coaching Alliance ideals of teaching youth life lessons through sports. Here are the highlights:

David: We want to explore commonalities between youth sports and pro sports, especially regarding life lessons. And to understand the perspective you bring, you’ve been coaching something like 55 years?

Tex: Sixty-two years.

David: Sorry I sold you short.

Tex: I think I’ve coached basketball longer than anyone in history. I’m sure I have. Right off the bat, my first feeling is it has to start in the home. These youngsters go into AAU at a very early age, and the kind of influence they come under in that environment, their reaction’s gonna depend an awful lot on what’s happened in their home. They’re gonna run into all types of coaches. A lot of them do an excellent job. Others do a very poor job. Their motivation is often times negative. It’s not what these youngsters should be hearing, including an awful lot of bad language, I might add.

David: Can you talk about a coach who influenced you?

Tex: Well, you’re talking about  62 years ago, when I was a player at the University of Southern California, and I was very definitely influenced by my coach, Sam Barry, who I felt was a very good teacher. He was interested in the lessons of life. I don’t think I ever heard him swear.

David: Tell me about one of the life lessons Sam Barry taught you.

Tex: You could sense the example, keeping a clear mind, keeping a clean mind. I took the lessons from my coaches in high school, junior college and at USC and carried them over into my coaching philosophy, which is considerably different than what I see today in a great deal of coaches, including, unfortunately, some of the most successful coaches. One of my discipline rules was that I didn’t want any bad language. I didn’t want the Lord’s name used in vain…maybe occasionally a ‘damn’ or ‘heck.’ My coaching sessions just didn’t have any swearing, not like today, where sometimes I see examples of nothing but that.

David: How do you think that affects the athletes?

Tex: You take a coach that is a figurehead for them at that early stage in life, and they’re apt to be very much influenced by how the coach presents things, including the lessons of life, and whether or not there’s a lot of swearing and the kind of language we hear today in rap music, for example.

David: Are there life lessons inherent in the game of basketball itself?

Tex: I think very definitely. Hard work. You’re only a success for the moment that you perform a successful task. You participate with a happy warrior attitude, where you’re more concerned with the effort that you make, as opposed to winning or losing. I very seldom talked about winning or losing. It was more the Roger Bannister philosophy of happy warrior. He wrote considerably about that and it was one of the sources I used in my coaching, the happy warrior philosophy. Enjoy the thrill of competition. Do the best that you can do. That’s all that anyone can expect of you. But don’t shortchange yourself. Those are important lessons.

David: Do you discuss issues of character with these guys?

Tex: I do on an individual basis. But I don’t think it’s my place to really set a tone as the far as the team itself is concerned. That’s up to the head coach. It bothers me that I’m not in a position to speak up and be a little stronger on some of the things I see.  Then again, you see players who are concerned a whole lot more about character than some of the others. One of my all-time favorite players is Steve Kerr, tremendous character.

David: You’re most known recently for developing the Triangle Offense. Are there life lessons inherent in that?

Tex: It teaches cooperation, team concept, being a part of a group, and not being individualistic, because it’s an offense that requires ball and player movement. It teaches having trust and depending on your teammates. I see an awful lot of the lessons of life that can be taught in the basketball philosophy that we teach.

David: Despite the complexity of some of the diagrams I’ve seen, I might like to teach that offense to the 12-year-olds I coach.

Tex: That’s where it should be taught. It’s a very basic offense. The principles are ball movement and player movement with a purpose, spacing on the floor, penetration, offensive rebounding and defensive balance on all shots, creating operating room for your teammates, and keeping the defense occupied on and off the ball. I’ve often said it’s a junior high offense.

That was all it took to convince me to install the Triangle for the junior high team I was coaching. After all, I’d just learned the principles from the man who literally wrote the book on “The Triple-Post Offense.” To make sure I coached the Triangle as well as I could, Tex pulled a copy of that book off his shelf and inscribed it to me, and it remains one of my proudest possessions.