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Life Lessons & Wisdom for Gold Medal Success

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Individual Leadership Paper

MBA 556

Stephen Kindler Jr

America’s Coach

Life Lessons & Wisdom for Gold Medal Success


“Do you believe in miracles? YES!” That famous quote shouted out of the mouth of Al Michaels during the semifinal game of the 1980 Winter Olympics between the 4-time gold medal winning Soviet Union and the underdog United States. The United States hockey team comprised of some longshot collegiate hockey players and a rag tag combination of coaches and staff were all glued together as the masterpiece of the mad scientist head coach Herb Brooks. Brooks was able to impose a leadership style on his team that would allow them to overcome the steep odds that stood in front of them and capture a gold medal at the ’80 games in Lake Placid, NY, USA. Although Herb Brooks will always go down as the man who led the US to gold, his path to leadership began far before the winter of 1980; it began on the frozen ponds in the suburbs of St. Paul, Minnesota as he grew up playing the game he loved and learned how to lead those who surrounded him.

        Herb Brooks was the oldest son of Herbert and Pauline Brooks and grew up in the east side of St. Paul, Minnesota. Herb’s father was an insurance underwriter and his mother a proofreader for a local publishing house. The part of town that the Brooks family grew up in was known for its hard-working blue collar mentality and their tight knit community involvement. In addition to his insurance underwriting, Mr. Brooks was also a semi-professional hockey player and would introduce his children into the game that he loved as he started one of the first youth hockey associations in the area. As Herb grew up he played hockey in the local youth league and would go on and play at Minnesota high school powerhouse St. Paul Johnson High School during 1953-1955. Herb became one of the most prominent players in the hockey crazy state of Minnesota and led his team to the 1955 state championship, a goal of his since he was a young boy. He would end up playing for his hometown Minnesota Golden Gophers and would turn himself into one of the country’s most prominent players which allowed him the opportunity to try out for the 1960 US Olympic team, which was always his boyhood dream. Brooks was on the roster until the day before the US left for Squaw Valley, CA when head coach Jack Riley let Herb know he was the last man cut before they sent in their final rosters. Herb was left to watch his buddies and teammates back home in St. Paul as team USA captured the gold medal at the games. Brooks would later go on to make the 1964 Olympic roster and was named the captain for the 1968 games in Grenoble, France; neither trip yielded his elusive gold medal that he worked so hard to attain in 1960.

        Herb Brooks retired as a professional hockey player in the summer of 1967 and would begin the next chapter in his hockey life: coaching. His first gig came as the freshman coach at his alma mater the University of Minnesota. While touring the world with the US National team, Herb studied the European and Soviet teams, their coaching styles and training habits in an effort to build his own playbook on coaching. He would catch the break of a lifetime and was named the head coach of the Golden Gophers in February of 1972; making him the youngest head coach at 34. Brooks would build his team within the Minnesota state junior-A circuit and looked for hard-nosed, rugged, blue collar kids that would allow him to turn around the floundering Gophers program. His inaugural season as head coach, Herb took U of M to the conference playoffs and allowed him to start to “build the base of my pyramid,” getting guys to build from the bottom up, not from the top down. Brooks would implement his hybrid European training style which was recalled by Mike Polich: “He’d say you can cuss at me Monday through Thursday, but Friday you’ll thank me; He’d work the heck out of you. We’d wear those weighted lead vests, and we’d skate drill after drill. But you’d take ‘em off on Thursday and feel like you could fly.” Brooks became notorious for holding every individual accountable, allowing each of them to understand their role on the team and not allow themselves to fail Brooks or their teammates.

        The 1973 Golden Gophers team would change the landscape of their programs history. Starting the season off 0-4-1, they rallied off 9 straight wins, finished in second place in the WCHA and made their way to the NCAA Final Four in Boston. The Gophers would beat top-ranked Boston University and would ended up winning the schools’ first NCAA National Championship by defeating rival Michigan Tech 4-2. Brooks’ first boss, Glen Sonmor (former U of M coach) would recall that “Herbie had a special quality about him which made him a winner. He could get his players to do things that they never imagined they were capable of doing, and that was just a marvelous quality. His honesty was his best quality…there was never any question as to where you stood with Herb.” Brooks showed the capacity trait outlined by Ralph Stogdill, which illustrates the leaders’ ability to have the intelligence to understand their business/team/organizational goals and have the alertness and judgment to make key decisions along to way to those goals. Minnesota Gopher hockey soon became the hottest ticket in town and Brooks continued to build his program with kids only from the state of Minnesota. Brooks would lead the Gophers to the NCAA title two years later in 1975 and again in 1979 which was led by goaltender Steve Janaszak, who was one of the country’s premier goalies. In the middle of that run Brooks was able to get a taste of international competition as he coached team USA in the summer of 1978, which allowed him to see the wide-open style of hockey that was yielding the Soviet Union multiple gold medals in the Olympic Games. Herb would end up leaving his post at U of M with an impressive 175 wins and 3 NCAA National Championships, 1 NCAA Runner-Up and saw twenty-three of his players make the jump into the NHL, which was still being dominated by mainly Canadian players.

        In the offseason of 1979 Herb had the opportunity to interview for the head coaching job of the US National team for the 1980 Olympic Games to be held in Lake Placid, NY. After multiple interviews and having lifetime friends lobby for him, Brooks was named the US National team head coach. Brooks said “..While at the University, I wanted to create a positive environment for our players so that they could grow as athletes, grow as people and receive a good education. But the overriding motivation for me at U of M was to coach the Olympic team.” Brooks would utilize his primarily path-goal leadership style as he embarked on his biggest challenge in his hockey career. “There is a distinction between managing and being a leader. Managing is taking care of what has already been created. Leadership is, on the other hand, moving forward to create something new…Leaders tell us not what is, but what can be.” Herb would make sure to his players clear and distinct path and vision to their goals and when obstacles were thrown in their way, he would provide them with the insight and teaching to allow them to overcome those hurdles.

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