Reflections on “Greatness” or “Not Greatness” – Coach K, Andy Reid, and Don Nelson

This week has given opportunity for people to question the abilities and legacies of three great coaches. I call them great because they each exhibit a different form of greatness…or at least really, really goodness.

Andy ReidAndy Reid of the Philadelphia Eagles' job is now rumored to be in jeopardy. If Philadelphia chooses to can him, he would be out of job for all of 10 minutes. Why? 6 Division titles, 4 NFC championship games, 1 conference championship, and a .617 winning percentage in what is probably the NFL's toughest division. He's done it under moderately stingy ownership as well. He is great because he is a consistent winner.

Don NelsonTonight, Don Nelson of the Golden State Warriors has the chance to become the winningest coach in NBA history. The Hall of Fame has passed him by…largely because he's never "won the big one." However, Nelson has taken over some of the worst franchises in the history of the NBA, and made them winners. He's a turnaround coach…and perhaps the best there's ever been at such. He is great because he wins consistently and time after time has made an absolutely awful team a winner.

Coach-kCoach K. of Duke. He now has a national championship in three different decades and four total. He graduates his players, and has guided Duke to 11 Final Fours, and has the winningest percentage in the history of the NCAA tournament. Nevertheless, people are calling him "overrated" this morning and questioning his ordering a player to miss his second free-throw in the last 4 seconds of the championship game. Butler got the rebound and was able to throw up a half-court jumper that nearly banked in…but didn't. I liked the call by Coach K. The odds were all on the house, and the chances of a game-tying bucket or Butler drawing a foul were better than a half-court 3-pointer under pressure. Nevertheless, many armchair coaches in America question the great Coach K. They say his championships are too far apart, and that his players don't go on to be very good NBA players (this is the part where I laugh). We really are ridiculous.

Here's where I'm going with this. Coach K has now won championships in three decades and set the NCAA tournament winning standard. Andy Reid has won six division titles and gone to four NFC championship games in what is arguably the NFL's toughest division. Don Nelson will have won more games than any other coach in NBA history…despite taking on the Herculean task of resurrecting teams like the Bucks, Knicks, Mavericks, Warriors, etc. from the NBA's septic tank.

Yet, people still say:

  • Only 4 Championships for Coach K.? Only 11 Final Fours? Well, it took him long enough.
  • Only 6 Division titles, 4 NFC Championship games, 1 Conference title and a .617 winning percentage? Never won the big one, though.
  • Don Nelson—only 1,333 victories, perennial playoff appearances and countless turnarounds of left-for-dead NBA franchises? But, never won the big one?

If these guys aren't great (though most sober people would put the "great" label on Coach K.), what in the world makes a great coach a great coach? Even if you don't want to put the "great" label on Reid or Nelson… are they really fireable? Who exactly will those teams hire that's better?

To me, a great coach is consistent in winning, able to bring and hold a team together, and the able to win the big one…whether or not they ever get to the big game. Trent Dilfer, Jeff Hostetler, and Doug Williams have a championship ring at quarterback…but I can't rank them above Dan Marino. Sorry. I can't say that Udonis Haslem is better than Karl Malone at power forward because he has a ring. Even great coaches will make bad calls, and great players will have bad games.

Here's why this matters:

If our grid for how we evaluate church leaders is messed up (like our grid for evaluating coaches apparently), we will make rash mistakes that will set churches back years or worse. Understanding we can't and shouldn't rate them by wins, losses and championships, how should we evaluate them? How do we recognize a "great" church leader? What traits do they have?

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Share Your Thoughts

5 thoughts on “Reflections on “Greatness” or “Not Greatness” – Coach K, Andy Reid, and Don Nelson

  1. Tim,
    A great post! Ok part of it is because I love sports and I happen to be impressed with all three coaches. However, as you said at the end, this may say something for the way we rate/evaluate church leaders. This is especially important for all of us to hear in our consumer culture. Thanks for this.

  2. i’ve got a blog post in the works on this very subject. i coached soccer when i lived in the states, and felt like we had a really group of complementary coaches. there was the guy with the skills and incredible play, who was able to demonstrate to players what to do. then there was the guy with the brains, who understood the ins and outs of the game, and was able to explain how it all works and why. then there was the motivator; the team just bought into this guy. he said run 10 miles, and they wanted to run 10 miles; he said they could go to state, and they believed they could.
    i’m not suggesting these are the only three traits a minister needs, but they’re certainly not a bad start:
    – practice: living like Jesus, demonstrating the life of a disciple
    – knowledge: able to teach truths of scripture, in a way that’s easy to understand
    – motivation: charisma, leadership, do people want to listen to this guy

  3. When I asked the elders that fired me what their reason was, they replied that they didn’t really have one. Instead, they said, “It’s like a team that isn’t winning enough games. You start by firing the coach.” This after eight years of being reminded by them on a weekly basis, “We’re in charge.” Which only makes sense when you have leaders with absolute authority and virtually no accountability. I guess we leave it for God to sort out at the judgment, unless the current decline is the judgment.

  4. Agreed Tim. As a HUGE sports fan I appreciated the analogies. Those who don’t like Andy Reid, Don Nelson, and Coach K are crazy! There are undoubtedly thousands of coaches who would love to have the credentials they have. On the point you are making, right on. Too many people want to see measurable results in our churches: number! They want to see filled worship halls and class rooms. They want to see hundreds or thousands of people baptized. I think they want to see that because it is measurable. I wander if the reason people expect so much is because they expect the paid staff minsters to do so much with little if any help.
    Please allow me to give a sports analogy. Steve Nash is one of the great point guards of our life time. He is a point guard. His job is more to get his teammates involved in the game. I watched a game sometime ago when the other team’s defensive strategy was to guard everyone else on the team and leave Steve open. He scored 30 plus points that night but had no assists. That team the Suns played that night won. Steve’s job is to get his team in the flow of the game. If he gets 12 points but also has 15 assists, your team is in trouble. Because he got his teammates involved in the flow of the game. The minister’s job is to equip and train the members of the congregation to minister to other people and eventually teach Jesus to those he or she is around. When we are expected to do too much, the training and equipping part of our ministries suffers and the church suffers with it. Because we don’t have the time or energy anymore to give to it. Does that make since? So sorry to ramble on like that. God bless you Tim. Grace and Peace.