Herb Brooks – Leadership
“He orchestrated the greatest sports moment of the 20th century. That is a pretty good legacy.”
It was 1980. In many ways, it was the peak of what was called the Cold War between the United States of America and Russia. It was democracy vs. communism. It was “our way of life” vs. “their way of life.” The tension between the two superpowers was enormous. Everyone feared that the world was on the brink of mutual nuclear annihilation. And, at the moment, things were not going the way of the good ole USA. In the previous year, the Red Russian Amy had invaded Afghanistan and Iran had kidnapped 52 Americans against their will. The American economy was tanking, and inflation was on the rise. Interest rates climbed to 19 percent and Americans waited in lines at the pumps just to put gasoline in their cars. As reporter Jim Lampley said of those times, “It might have been the all-time low point of American self-esteem.”
To make matters worse, the big bad Soviet hockey team was coming to the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. The Russians had convincingly won the 64, 68, 72 and 76 Olympic gold medals. These Russian hockey stars were amateurs in name only. Russia listed them as “soldiers” in the Russian army so that they could claim amateur status as athletes. Of course, everyone knew their real occupation was hockey. Most of the team had been together for 13 years. Leading up to the games, they bested the NHL all-star team and several days before the Olympics began, they destroyed the U.S. Olympic hockey team, 10-3. The Russian team was widely recognized as the best hockey team in the world and many agreed that their 1980 Olympic hockey team was the best ever assembled in the history of the game. In contrast, the Americans were a bunch of “college kids,” who entered the Olympics as the number seven seed. Virtually everyone agreed that it would take a miracle for the Americans to win a gold medal on their home soil.
In the previous spring of 1979, Herb Brooks believed that he could deliver such a miracle. As the head coach of the University of Minnesota hockey team, he led them to three national championships. Coach Brooks lobbied the USA Olympic Committee for the job of head coach. At the heart of his Olympic strategy was his fundamental belief that “All-Star teams fail because they rely solely on the individual’s talent.” To beat the Soviets at their own game, he demanded full control. He would pick the players, change the style of play, and organize the training schedule to create the best odds of winning the gold. Brooks did not intend to select the best players. Instead, Brooks wanted to select the right players to form the best team.
Coach Brooks was a master motivator. He possessed a bachelor’s degree in psychology and he used his knowledge to bring his team together. So, how does a coach bring a bunch of strangers together as a team in just six months to beat the best in the world? Coach Brooks’ main strategy was to form bonds within the team by giving his players a common enemy — himself. He became the bad guy. It worked. At times, many of the guys hated him. Sometimes they worked hard just to spite him.
For example, during an exhibition game against Norway, a much weaker team in their upcoming Olympic bracket, Coach Brooks expected his team to dominate. Instead, they skated to a lackluster 3-3 tie. In response, Coach Brooks told his players to get back on the ice. If the team wasn’t willing to work during the game, he would make them work after the game. For the next hour, he made the players skate “Herbies” from one end of the rink to the other. Feeling sorry for the boys, the maintenance crew turned off the lights after the initial 20 or so minutes. It didn’t matter. Coach Brooks kept screaming at his players and kept sending them back and forth in the dark. Some of the players later identified this event as the turning point for the team.
“That moment probably had more to do with us gelling as a team, feeling like we were a group, a family,” said forward, Dave Silk. “We looked at each other and said, ‘He can do whatever he wants to us, but he’s not going to break us.’” The next night the US and Norway played again. Team USA won 9-0.
Then, in the opening game of the Olympics, Team USA trailed Sweden at the end of a tentative first period. Even worse, one of their best players, Rob McClanahan, was injured with a deep thigh bruise. McClanahan began icing his leg and was not scheduled to return. However, between periods in the locker room, Coach Brooks loudly berated McClanahan using choice words that challenged his manhood. McClanahan physically went after Brooks and had to be separated by the players. In fact, all of the players wanted to rip Brooks apart. Coach Brooks walked out, turned to his assistant, and said “Think that oughta get ‘em going.” Herb knew exactly what he was doing. McClanahan and the rest of his team barreled out of the locker room and channeled their anger at the Swedish team.
The Americans came back to tie that opening game and then advanced to the medal round by winning the next four games. The Russians were waiting for them and Coach Brooks had been preparing for this moment. He believed that every team had a weakness and that the Russians were no exception. In fact, they had several vulnerabilities. They didn’t respect the Americans. They were overly confident; even arrogant. The Russian team also lacked emotion. They had been winning for so long that they no longer took joy in their accomplishments. The Americans might not have had the Russians’ talent, but they had a lot of heart. Coach Brooks kept telling his players that someone was going to beat those guys and maybe it was “your time”.
Before the game, Coach Brooks gave the speech of his life. He reminded the players that they only had to beat the Russians one time. “You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here,” Brooks told his players. “This moment is yours.” The players skated onto the ice that night accompanied by thunderous chants of “USA, USA.” It was deafening and inspiring. “I’ve never, ever experienced that kind of emotion,” recalled forward, Eric Strobel. “It was like your skates weren’t even touching the ground. It was almost as if everyone was starting to believe.”
The Americans played inspired hockey that night. They came back from 1-0, 2-1, and 3-2 deficits to take the lead, 4-3, with 10 minutes remaining. With time running out, game announcer Al Michaels shouted one of the most famous end-of-game calls in sports history: “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” The American skaters had done it and they celebrated wildly on the ice. In contrast, their leader and master motivator quietly left the arena, locked himself in a bathroom stall and sobbed like a baby.
Despite this massive achievement, Coach Brooks knew this team had not finished their journey. They still had a Gold Medal Game to play. So, the next morning Brooks gathered his team as only a coach could and told them that they hadn’t accomplished anything yet. “You can’t live your life based on yesterday’s headlines,” Brooks stated emphatically. In no uncertain terms, he told his players that if they lost this upcoming game, they would take it to their graves. This got their attention. The final score that night – USA 4, Finland 2.
Years later, team captain, Mike Eruzione, put this accomplishment in perspective: “Us winning the gold medal didn’t solve the Iranian crisis, didn’t pull the Russians out of Afghanistan, but people felt better, people were proud, people felt good about being an American.” Maybe that helps explain why the parade to honor the team in Washington DC was 10-person deep, mile after mile. Maybe it also explains why 20 years later, Sports Illustrated would name the “Miracle on Ice” the “Greatest Sports Moment of the 20th Century.”
As for Herb Brooks, he remained a hockey coach for most of his life. He coached four different teams in the NHL and a few college teams. He even coached several other Olympic hockey teams. He was inducted into just about every hockey hall of fame in existence. Still, after all of his successes, he primarily will be remembered as the leader who orchestrated the improbable victory in Lake Placid. Sportscaster Jim Lampley described the Miracle this way: “This was a case where, for a few hours at least, a magical coach got a magical group of kids to believe they could do something that they really couldn’t do.”
At the age of 66, Brooks fell asleep behind the wheel of his car and was killed when he drove off the side of the road. The pallbearers who carried his casket were all 20 members of the 1980 Olympic team. They sat in the second row behind the family at the funeral. Yes, he had been hard on them, but they all loved him. “The guy had a bigger influence on my life than anybody except my parents,” recalled 1980 Olympic team member, Steve Janaszak. “It wasn’t easy playing for him, because he pushed you beyond what you knew to be your limits. But it was the same thing that made him a great coach.”
Check out the Student Athlete Program
Herb Brooks is one of the 144 “Wednesday Role Models” featured in the Student Athlete Program. This program is designed to improve the character, leadership and sportsmanship of high school athletes. To learn more about this program and how you can implement it in your school: