Frank Kimball

Excellence Begins With Shoelaces

One day a humble, quiet young man with what some called an unusual haircut and tremendous talent moved across the country to a great public university to join a team which had suffered through a disappointing season or two. In short order he re-started a tradition of unparalleled excellence. National championships came quickly. The young man became a legend in a city already full of giants - and was a wizard greater than the one Dorothy found in Oz. But what fascinated the media was the athlete’s obsession with shoelaces. .

Because of my preoccupation with Michigan football you are forgiven if you think I am describing Denard "Shoelace" Robinson - who has rewritten the college record books in his sophomore year in the Big House. Today, I’m writing about John Wooden -The Wizard of Westwood — and the coach of the greatest dynasty in the history of sports - the UCLA basketball teams of the 60's and 70's.

Coach Wooden took his rural haircut, quiet humility, and his Indiana self confidence and built a dynasty. But each season he began practices with a ritual: teaching the players how to tie their shoes. The ritual was more about a commitment to repeating the basic steps that are required in any sport or profession to build a foundation of excellence. At first the players found it silly and unnecessary. But ask any Bruin basketball alum about Coach Wooden and they speak with reverence and a smile about his rituals. Coach Wooden passed away this year and as a Bruin I felt a profound sense of loss - not because he was the greatest coach in the history of the game - but because of the standard of excellence which he set for all who attend U.C.L.A.

After the jump, other examples of ground-breaking athletes and the lessons they hold for women seeking to break new ground in our profession.

This Fall brings us another great athlete who has taken the world by storm and has his own fascination with shoelaces. Denard "Shoelace" Robinson runs faster and with more quickness than almost anyone who has ever played football. And he plays it with his shoes untied because that’s how he has run since he was in grade school.

But I have a funny feeling that if Coach Wooden met Denard Robinson they’d find a way to bridge their different philosophies about shoe laces. Denard would call him Coach, one of the best titles in the world. Coach Wooden would call him Denard because he was a stickler for formality. They’d smile and because Coach Wooden was as quiet then as Denard Robinson is today, they’d have a friendly conversation and learn a lot about each other. I think they’d agree about preparation and practice, understanding your competition, perseverance in the face of adversity and doubt, the importance of unqualified support of our teammates, the ability to be calm and serene amidst chaos, and an ability to sense victory when others sense defeat. I am writing this column in the first half of the Michigan Illinois game when Denard as usual, has performed at a superhuman level.  I've been watching football for 53 years and I've never seen a comparable combination of running ability, passing ability, and leadership.

Last summer I had a chance to see someone else who knows the importance of her shoelaces. I watched the Chicago Half Marathon and had the privilege of watching Kara Goucher, one of the greatest middle distance runners in the nation, smoke the field and win the race handily. Notice I did not say - "win the women’s division." Not at all. She beat the entire field - handily speeding past 10,000 men and 5,000 women. After the race she walked up and down the ropes along the finish line shaking hands and greeting hundreds of spectators. No security, no paparazzi, no pretense. Just someone who was glad to be there. You don’t see many athletes like Kara Goucher. I had a chance to shake her hand - she’s a marvelous young woman who should and will inspire a generation of women and men runners.

I read in this week’s New York times that Kara Goucher had a baby boy. The article focused on the challenges of recovering from the birth of a child and getting back into race shape. My money’s on Kara Goucher being the best in the world at whatever she chooses to do. But I’m biased. We have a great runner in our family. Our daughter Shannon ran the Chicago Marathon last month and finished in the top 3% of women runners and the top 8% of all runners. She’s got a lot of Kara Goucher in her and for that I am eternally proud. So too will you be when you raise your daughters and sons.

On of the great challenges facing professional women is the way you can be marginalized by the men who run America’s most famous law firms. You’ll be painted with praise about being a"great woman lawyer." You’ll be told there are initiatives, programs, and committees which are designed to advance your career. Be very careful. Many of those are designed to turn you into a paper mache princess who is sidelined and placed on huge and powerless committees that are designed to impress students and mollify lawyers.

The legendary UCLA Bruin baseball player Jackie Robinson was the first African American baseball player to play in the major leagues. Much of the resistance to Robinson was not related to his race - it was because he was better than anyone else playing the game. The notion of a black player entering the major leagues and becoming the best player in the nation was anathema to many. Of course there's a terrific harmonic convergence between Bruins and Wolverines.  The late Branch Rickey, a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, was the Executive for the Brooklyn Dodgers who signed Jackie Robinson to his major league contract in 1947.  When Bruins and Wolverines get together, there's nothing that can't be accomplished.

In your career, never let anyone marginalize you based on your gender. Don’t accept roles in a firm which are more fiction than reality.More importantly never think for a nanosecond that you are by virtue of your gender in any way inferior to the male of the species.  Jackie Robinson wouldn't let you do that. Neither would Kara Goucher.

I salute athletes and coaches like John Wooden, Denard Robinson, Jackie Robinson, Kara Goucher and Shannon Kimball for their relentless focus on excellence, their humility, and their understanding of the sacrifices that must be made to achieve at the highest possible level. And to the men who think that women are not fast enough, smart enough, or capable enough and don’t deserve a seat at the table - take notice that in this century your professional life expectancy will ultimately be measured with an egg timer.

As I wrote this column I received a panic stricken call from one of the smartest lawyers I know - a Michigan '77 classmate.  For a moment in the first half he had lost faith in the Wolverine nation and believed we were doomed.  No doom permitted here.  Michigan beat Illinois 67-65 in triple overtime in a game that will be remembered for decades.  Shoelace Robinson was hurt - but he has always believed more in his team than in a personality cult. Second string QB Tate Forcier took the field and led the team to five touchdowns - an almost impossible task. Coach Wooden would have been proud of the Boys in Blue today. Bo Schembechler would be in shock at the yardage and the score but still proud that his Wolverines did what many felt was impossible.

Sometimes when no one believes in you but your team, you are tested the most.  Believe in yourself and your commitment to the profession. You will prevail.  Many older guys will find excuse after excuse to keep you on the bench, away from clients, or perhaps even off the team.  They'll rationalize and thunder into the darkness about the wisdom of their primeval decisions.  But deep down inside in places they don't want to talk about lies their primal fear: that you are their professional equal or, perhaps,that you may have superior skills.  There is no rage comparable to the rage of insecurity. It's been used since the dawn of civilization to exclude, ignore, and discriminate against newcomers - be they Irish, Asian, African American or women.  Our generation will keep fighting the good fight but we leave it to you to bring the battle to a successful end.  Rest easy. Coach Wooden and Denard Robinson would smile and tell you "we've got your back."

Will you become a Michigan football fan?  Well - I am authorized to enroll you in a seminar that will teach you what Go Blue really means. It is Michigan's equivalent  to the Marine Corps' greeting of Semper Fi (always faithful). It's a statement of faith and fellowship, commitment and communication, support and inspiration. And it's recognized in every corner of this great nation.

A shout out to Dean Evan Caminker of the University of Michigan Law School - another Bruin / Wolverine / debater combo - and perhaps an even greater sports fan - who reminded me of Branch Rickey's ties to Ann Arbor.  You may earn yourself a lifetime appointment as Dean of one of America's three finest schools. I promise not to be late for any of your classes. Whatever you may hear from other senior faculty members about my  habits in that regard are an unsubstantiated rumor. 

This column was based in part on remarks from a program presented at the University of Michigan Law School on October 11, 2010.

Go Blue!

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