In five decades of covering sports, I encountered a few sore losers and many others who were deeply disappointed by defeats, but I cannot recall any coach or player insisting that they had won when the scoreboard indicated otherwise.
People learn and grow through failures and setbacks, and sports provide plenty of those experiences. You’re going to get knocked down in football, miss shots in basketball, strike out in baseball, or come up short in a race. All those things stoke a desire for improvement, and the bitter pill of defeat can be an effective medicine for achieving maturity.
Mark French and John Moore were a pair of extraordinarily successful basketball coaches, piling up more than 1,100 victories between them. I asked both how they dealt with their toughest losses.
French recalled a first-round NCAA women’s tournament game in 2000. His UCSB Gauchos, nationally ranked after winning 30 games, played host to Rice University before a sold-out crowd at the Thunderdome. The Gauchos were favored, but the Owls executed their game plan to perfection and pulled a shocking upset, 67-64.
“That was really difficult to deal with,” French said. “Right away, I decided I wasn’t going to watch Rice against North Carolina [in a second-round game]. I was done with basketball. It was a pity party of the highest dimension.”
He changed his mind after listening to his family members who came to town for the games and to his partner, Paula Rudolph. “I talk a lot about being a role model for my players,” he said, “but this was about my own children, my family. Am I going to pout in front of them? Also, I realized I should show respect to the university’s support staff for all the work they put into holding the tournament. I’m really glad I sucked it up. There’s always something to be learned.”
The next time French’s team hosted NCAA tournament games, in 2004, the Gaucho women won twice and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. He retired after his 21st season at UCSB in 2008.
Moore ended his 27-year career as Westmont College men’s basketball coach after being named 2019-20 NAIA Coach of the Year in March. He led the Warriors to a conference championship, but the COVID pandemic prevented them from competing for the national title.
It was at their best run in the nationals at Kansas City, in 2015, that Moore remembers his toughest defeat. Coming off a 70-69 semifinal win over Hope International, the Warriors faced Dalton State of Georgia for the championship the next night. But all day long, their best player, All-America center Daniel Carlin, was suffering from what turned out to be severe dehydration. He was able to play only a minute in the final, and Westmont lost, 71-53.
“There was such sadness after the game,” Moore said. “I went to the ER with Daniel. He was there for eight hours, and we talked for four and a half of those hours. That’s how I spent my time after the worst loss of my career.” Five years later, Moore continues to have a strong relationship with Carlin, who is a high school teacher and coach in Murrieta. “Every week, we talk for an hour,” Moore said.
In the wake of devastating defeats, both French and Moore gleaned something positive and moved on with their lives. I thought of them and other high-character people as the weeks have rolled by with Donald Trump continuing to deny that he lost the November 3 presidential election.
I wondered if the president ever learned the codes of good sportsmanship. He is known to have played prep baseball at the New York Military Academy — a researcher calculated his batting average as .138 from published box scores — and some squash at Fordham University, but since then, his sport of choice has been golf. Rick Reilly’s book about his exploits on the links — Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump — does not paint a picture of rectitude.
It would certainly reflect better on the president if he were to suck it up and — like Mark French attending the playoffs after his team was defeated — show up at the inauguration of his successor, Joe Biden.
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