March Madness: What Makes a Winning Coach

For many, the next three weeks or so will be the most enjoyable time of the year as the NCAA basketball tournament unfolds. The chance of a Cinderella team advancing to the Final Four is always present as the winner-take-all format allows all qualifiers an equal chance.

While the players take center stage during a game, the role of the coaching staff, in particular the head coach, has risen to celebrity status.

Indeed, whether they win or lose, one outcome is certain: Coaches will follow predictable patterns in what they say after the game. Wake Forest professor John Llewellyn has studied those patterns for years and calls it coachtalk.

"There is much more to the game than the numbers on the scoreboard," said Llewellyn, an associate professor of communication. "Coaches are called upon to provide explanation and even consolation for their fans. Those stories are now an essential part of the game."

Llewellyn analyzed the professional language of Division I men's college basketball coaches for "Coachtalk," a chapter in the book "Case Studies in Sport Communication."

His research reviewed post-game comments from such legendary coaches as Bob Knight, Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo. He found recurring themes that both winning and losing coaches employ.

The most consistent theme with losing coaches is acknowledgment of the winner, or deference, Llewellyn said.

Winning coaches elevated all aspects of the game, while remaining humble. They also reinforced the traditional values of sport, while acknowledging their suffering throughout the season, Llewellyn said.

Losing coaches deferred to the winners, while subtly giving their fans an alternate definition of winning such as, "It's just an honor to be here." Losing coaches also often credited the outcome to fate, while acknowledging that they suffered from the loss.

Llewellyn points to Izzo's reaction after the 2000 championship game against the University of Florida as an example of expressing excitement in the context of humility: "This is more overwhelming than I thought it would be, if you want the truth," Izzo told reporters.

Llewellyn also found that losing coaches are in the position of justifying on-court judgments, often in terms of fate. After his team's 30-point loss to the University of Nevada-Las Vegas in 1990, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski said, "We were our best in March. This game was in April, huh?"

Llewellyn says coachtalk reveals an underlying respect and regard that coaches have for each other and for the social world of athletics — a world where competition can be fierce. Coachtalk also allows for the idea of a "second season" at tournament time.

"Tournament time is a great chance for rededication and renewal, even though teams have played 30 games by the time this 'new season' comes around," said Llewellyn. "Coachtalk is the language coaches use to generate hope and explain outcomes. It sustains the culture of sports."