It's one of the most famous phrases ever uttered by a coach, and yet Vince Lombardi always regretted saying it.
Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.
"He actually hated that," said Dan Lauria, the veteran actor and Southern Connecticut State University grad who portrayed Lombardi on Broadway last year. "He didn't mean it the way it came out — obviously, he didn't think you should cheat to win. The saying he did always like was, 'If you pursue perfection, you can reach excellence.' "
That one is now available on T-shirts. And since then, he has used his gift for turning a phrase, or in some cases tweaking a phrase to make it his own, to fashion a number of what one might call "Ollie-isms."
"Ten toes in, not five" … "First you bring the sugar, then you bring the hot sauce" … "You don't go through life, you grow through life." … "In trying times, you don't stop trying."
The buck doesn't stop here, to paraphrase Harry S Truman. History offers many examples of catch phrases that define a leader — a coach, a general or a politician. Ollie, 39, has made a favorable impression in his first season as coach, and his way with a phrase is obviously part of the reason, as he tries to get out a message, not only to his own team, but to fans and potential recruits about what he, and his program, will be all about.
"They can have a lot of value," says Dan Gerstein, former adviser to Sen. Joseph Lieberman and president of Gotham Ghostwriters, a New York based writing firm. "Especially today, when the Internet and social media has made for such a cacophonous environment, it's much harder to stick out. If you can come up with phrases that are short, pithy and memorable, it can be a great asset."
Sometimes, they happen by accident. Leo Durocher, the most famous baseball manager of his day, watched the opposition work on the field and predicted to a sportswriter in 1946 that the team would finish last, because they were not competitive enough, but all nice guys … and "Nice guys finish last."
It became the title of Durocher's memoirs, and it stamped him forever as the ultimate hard-nosed, fiery competitor among his peers. But he saw a need to clarify it after he retired.
"Writers picked it up and made it sound as if I were saying you couldn't be a decent person and succeed," Durocher wrote. "But, do you know, I don't think it would have been picked up like that if it didn't strike a chord, because as a general proposition, it's true. Or, are you going to tell me that you've never said to yourself, 'The trouble with me is, I'm too nice.' "
Durocher also said he would "trip his mother" if she were rounding third with the winning run against him.
Catch phrases may become oversimplified, but the ones that stick do have that strong strain of universal truth in them. John Wooden, who coached UCLA to 10 national titles, had dozens of them and is often quoted by both Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma at UConn.
Calhoun's favorite: "Don't mistake activity with achievement."
Others from Wooden included, "Discipline yourself and others won't have to." … "Ability may get you to the top, but takes character to keep you there." … "The true test of a man's character is what he does when no one is watching."
Author Rick Reilly wrote of Wooden: "He believed in hopelessly out-of-date stuff that never did anything but win championships."
Alan Castel, associate professor of cognitive psychology at UCLA, interviewed John Wooden just before his 98th birthday while doing research on aging and memory.
"There are likely many reasons coaches develop these short catching phrases," Castel said, "ranging from, the phrases can be easily remembered and recited to the idea that they can be widely applied – often beyond a sports context. Wooden was a classic example."
The catch phrases that catch on, naturally, are the ones backed up with success. Jerry Izenberg,a veteran of over 60 years of sportswriter, has written 13 books, one of them, on a week behind the scenes with the Giants, took one of Bill Parcells' catch phrases as its title — "No medals for trying."
"You have to remember that what works for college doesn't always work for the pros, and vice versa," Izenberg says. "Woody Hayes had a lot of sayings, and once in his locker room, there was a sign over the trainers' room — 'You can't make the club in the tub.' … Could you imagine saying that over and over to professionals? They'd laugh at you.
"And when Vince Lombardi first got to Green Bay, diagramed a play, his 'Lombardi sweep,' and the tackle had to make this incredibly difficult block. The tackle, Forrest Gregg, said it was 'impossible,' and Lombardi said, 'if you think it's impossible, I'll find someone who thinks it is possible.' … You couldn't say that to college players.
"… But the main thing is, these guys won. Imagine Lombardi saying, 'winning isn't everything ...' if he lost?"
The Giants won the Super Bowl the year "No medals for trying" came out. Parcells had many phrases, but Izenberg did not recall his using them behind closed doors. Behind the scenes, he tailored his messages to the individual.
When a coach becomes too closely identified with his sayings, it can obscure his true talent for leadership.
"What happens," Lauria says, "is that these things get taken out of context. Vince Lombardi knew how to push the right buttons with each individual player."
The value in phrases is that they can make good habits second nature. That, Ollie said earlier this year, is what he has in mind.
"It's the mind-set I'm so concerned with," Ollie told The Courant in November, "that you don't take the easy way in life. I think taking escalators is the easy way. You should take the stairs in life, each and every step. … I try to use [the sayings] sparingly, I don't want to use them all the time. I am trying to make a point, and I try to use word pictures. I think it resonates with guys. Instead of a, b, c, d, they can picture things in their own minds."
Dr. John F. Murray, a Florida-based sports psychologist, says the most popular page on his website (johnfmurray.com) is the one that lists more than 100 famous quotes from coaches. However, he says, catch phrases should be considered only one of many tools a successful coach uses in reaching his players.
"The danger," Murray says, "is that they can become a superficial mask for serious issues. But when they're used properly, they can be a very effective tool."