I got one of the biggest thrills of my career Wednesday, as one of my former students asked me to speak to her journalism class at the University of Central Missouri. Dr. Julie Lewis teaches digital journalism at UCM while also advising the student newspaper, The Muleskinner. Half a lifetime ago, though, she was one of my police-beat students at Mizzou, grinding out copy for the Columbia Missourian.
It takes quite a lot to do the mental calisthenics necessary for me to reconcile that this incredible, accomplished educator, adviser and parent is the same kid who was known for walking around the newsroom without shoes on and chasing down every police scanner call.
At the end of the Zoom session, after her students had asked me everything from how I got started to what I thought about the media’s coverage of Ukraine, she got the final question:
She pointed to an article I had pinned on my wall and asked, “Can you tell them the Miracle on Ice story?”
For as long as I can remember, when I needed a mental lift or needed to inspire something in a student, I turned to the story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team. The kids, average age of 22, took to the ice in Lake Placid that February, predicted by their own Olympic committee to finish sixth or seven in the Games. Instead, they had a run for the ages.
They took on the Soviet Menace, the Red Army team that had won 42 games in a row, defeated the NHL All-Stars and bludgeoned pretty much everyone in their path and cracked them in half. Driving this team of unknowns against the best team in the world was Herb Brooks, the last man cut from the 1960 Olympic squad that won the country’s last gold medal in hockey.
If you wanted the ultimate in “uniquely said” quotes, Herb was your guy.
In gratitude to Dr. Lewis, today’s throwback post includes my five favorite “Brooks-isms” that nicely apply to student journalists:
In an odd twist of calendar calisthenics, Feb. 22 fell on a Friday and Feb. 24 fell on a Sunday, the same as they did 39 years ago when a team of relative unknown hockey players took the ice for the United States at the Lake Placid Olympics. The average age of the team members was 21 and the team was coached by the last man cut from the only U.S. team to ever win a gold medal in hockey to that point in history.
A guide to the Olympics put out by its own committee that year picked the U.S team to finish sixth or seventh. Instead, it toppled the greatest team in the world in a “Miracle on Ice” on Friday and finished off Finland on Sunday by scoring three goals in the final 20 minutes to secure the gold.
Woven among the various stories, legends and myths surrounding that team and its journey are a few of what the team called “Brooks-isms.” These often-caustic sayings from coach Herb Brooks kept the players motivated and often shaking their heads, wondering what the hell it was their coach was trying to say.
In honor of what Sports Illustrated dubbed the greatest sports moment of the 20th century, consider these five quotes from Herb Brooks and how they apply to your life as an up-and-coming journalist:
“You don’t have enough talent to win on talent alone.”
Brooks use to yell this at his players when they decided to coast against inferior opponents instead of really taking the game to them. In one infamous incident in Norway, his team loafed its way to a 3-3 tie against a really weak Norwegian squad. After the game, Brooks refused to let his team leave the ice and instead forced them to conduct skating drills until the guy running the arena shut off the lights.
Then, Brooks had them continue skating in the dark.
His point was a good one in that if you rely solely on your talent, you will often fail because talent only gets you so far in life. If you think you’re “too good” to cover a speech or a news conference, it’s at that precise moment that you will screw something up and end up in a whole lot of trouble. You need to treat each time you ply your trade like it is the most important thing you will do and make absolutely sure you give it everything you have. Failing to do that means you’re setting yourself up to fail.
“And maybe I’m a little smarter now than I was before for all the stupid things I’ve done.”
I found the other day this among the various quotes attributed to Brooks and I never realized he said something like this. However, I’ve told students something similar for years: “I’ve learned more from the things I’ve done wrong than anything I ever did right.”
I noticed that my students these days tend to fear mistakes and stress over failure to the point that they miss the point. As I have written more than a few times, you will screw up here. You are not on the side of a lunch box. That said, you have to know WHAT you did wrong, WHY it went wrong and HOW to make sure you don’t screw up that way again.
If you end up in a situation where an assignment goes to crap or you failed a test or something else goes horribly, horribly wrong, worry less about the grade and worry more about the WHY behind the grade. There are always professors out there who want to torture the heck out of students just because, but those are few and far between. If you go to the professor with the idea of, “I need to understand what went wrong so I can get better at this,” you will improve your future work and you probably will gain some serious respect.
“I’m not looking for the best players. I’m looking for the right ones.”
This is a bit of a cheat, as it was a line from the movie “Miracle,” but Brooks said similar things throughout his career in a variety of ways. He talked about looking at talent second and people first, as well as finding players by looking at who they are more and what they can do less.
Brooks understood something that is important for you to know: It’s not about your pedigree, your fancy internships, the degree from the “Lord Almighty School of Journalism and Deification” or anything else that has that shiny patina of “Look how important I am” that matters.
What matters is the way in which you will work to succeed, how hard you will push yourself to make yourself a valuable commodity, how badly you want something and to what degree you will sacrifice part of yourself for the greater good.
The “right” players are always going to beat the “best” players, as his team proved during that 1980 Olympic run.
“Risk something or forever sit with your dreams.”
People always tell you that life is short. It’s not true. Life is long, especially if you don’t decide to live it. When most of you are getting out of school, you’ll be sitting in that early-20s area of life. The average life expectancy of people in the U.S. is about 78 years, and that’s accounting for the fact that we’ve seen a decline in it over the past couple years. This means you have more life on the “coming up next” part of your life than the “I’m done with this” part of your life.
You have time. Take a shot at something.
Risk is scary and in some cases it’s not worth it, but you need to at least consider what it is that would make you happy and try it out. Eventually, you will have more responsibilities, more things weighing you down and more reasons not to do something. Take a calculated risk on a career path. Try a job that’s going to give you a chance at something unique. Do something that you said you always wanted to do.
If you don’t, the regrets will eat you alive.
“Play your game.”
With 10 minutes to go in the semi-final game against the Soviet Union, Mike Eruzione scored to give the U.S. a 4-3 lead. Goalie Jim Craig said once that it was “like banging a bee’s nest. All we’re gonna do is piss them off.”
The Soviet team had the ability to score five goals in three minute. Ken Dryden, who added commentary for the game, said in later years that in situations like this you dared to hope that you could win and then the Soviets would just crush your hope and leave you for dead.
Brooks knew this and he knew his team might panic and this whole thing could fall apart. He just kept telling his team, “Play your game.” Cameras during the end of that game caught him repeating that phrase like it was a mantra and it apparently worked. The team kept playing the way it knew how to play and it gave the Soviets fits.
The key here for you is pretty simple: Play your game. In a lot of cases, students make the mistake of chasing someone else’s dream or trying to prove themselves to be better based on other people’s standards. That’s crap. Play your own game and stick to what you do best and what make you happy and you’ll be fine.
Final note: My favorite Brooks-ism is one that probably shouldn’t be repeated, but I will anyway. After his team knocked off the U.S.S.R., all it had to do was beat Finland to win the gold medal. Eruzione recalled that the team was excited to go out and play until Brooks walked into the locker room:
He looked at the team and said, ‘If you lose this game, you’ll take it with you to your (expletive) grave. He turned around to walk out, stopped, look back and said, ‘Your (EXPLETIVE) grave.
Something else to keep in mind, I s’pose…