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Remember This: Work Comes Before Success

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Work and success are virtually synonymous. The dictionary defines work as, “Exertion or effort directed to produce or accomplish something.” Success is defined as, “goal reached; accomplishment.” When you look at both work and success, you find the words, “accomplish something” and “accomplishment.”

Vince Lombardi, the legendary Green Bay Packers coach, wrote, “The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary. Work is the key to success and hard work can help you accomplish anything.”

The key to the words, work and success, is always their order. Work precedes success. In my 44 years of coaching basketball – 10 at the high school level and 34 at the collegiate level – I was fortunate to coach numerous All-Conference and All-State players as well as some players who reached All-American status. I cannot think of one of the athletes who earned these accolades who was not a committed worker.

Dave Wilhelmi

Dave Wilhelmi played 6 years of professional baseball, once pitching a no-hitter at the Double A level. When he left pro baseball, he had a decision to make – would he work full-time and pursue his degree part-time or come to school full-time and work part-time?

Fortunately, for St. Francis and our basketball program, Dave decided on the latter. He had been a quality high school basketball player and it was his professional work ethic that led him to becoming an Honorable Mention All-American player for us.

Dave was equally as successful in the academic arena. He had not been a full-time student in 6 years and was understandably concerned about his academic skills when he decided to come to St. Francis full-time.

We offered a Study Skills class for our athletes. It was a non-credited course and the only time we could schedule it was at 7am, prior to the regular classes that began at 8am. Dave brought the same work habits he had developed in his athletic career to that class. He became an outstanding student, was elected the class orator at graduation, and has gone on to have a most successful business career. His work commitment came before his success.

Pat Warren

Pat Warren was a sometimes starter on our high school baseball team. He was far from being our best player, but he loved the game and worked extremely hard to improve his skills.

Due to his work ethic, he excelled at the four most important skills in baseball – hitting, fielding, throwing accuracy, and running. I was with him when only the two of us would have batting practice. 

We would have 15 baseballs, pitch, hit, and then run all over the field collecting the balls so we could repeat the cycle for the better part of two hours. Pat never tired of working. A few of us from our high school baseball team went on to play college baseball, but Pat’s work commitment led him to do something none of us did. He played at one of the two best baseball programs in the country during our era, the University of Miami, and was signed by the Houston Astros upon graduation.

In high school, none of us would have believed Pat would have the success he had, but his work habits led to his success.

Dan Sullivan

In our day, there was no political correctness. Entering his senior year of high school, the principal called my brother, Dan, into his office and said something to this effect, “Sullivan, you can’t be this dumb. How can you possibly rank 99th out of 106?” Dan told him there was only one reason. He did not want to get into the triple figures! The principal threw him out of his office.

With his class rank, Dan was not considered to be college material. But one college decided to take a chance on him, and he worked to earn both his undergraduate and his Masters degrees. He became a superb classroom teacher who could connect to the student in the back of the room who didn’t care to study because he had been that kid.

Dan excelled as a high school head coach in all three major sports, as an inspiring teacher, and went on to spend his last 20 years in education as a principal. Along the way, he helped thousands of young people to become the best they could be.

As you meet his former students and athletes today, they have nothing but the highest respect for him. No one gave Dan anything; he worked and earned his many successes.

Final Thought

Might there be value in examining your work commitment? John Wooden, the iconic UCLA basketball coach, summed it up this way, “Things work out best for those who make the best of how things work out.”

Pat Sullivan was a successful coach, teacher, and administrator in the Chicago area for 44 years – 10 years at the high school level and 34 at the collegiate level. His basketball teams won 602 games; he was named Coach-of-the-Year 11 times; and he has been inducted into 8 Halls of Fame. He has received Lifetime Achievement awards from Lewis University, the Joliet, Illinois, Chamber of Commerce, and the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association. Pat has offered basketball clinics and camps in Austria, Ireland, Belgium, and Greece and has spoken at clinics throughout America for the USA Coaches Clinics. He has also spoken to business executives from IBM, Accenture, and Sun Microsystems, as well as the University of Notre Dame’s Play Like A Champion conference. He is the author of Attitude-The Cornerstone of Leadership and Team-Building: From the Bench to the Boardroom.

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