Excellence Matters; Success Doesn’t

Ashton Eaton won the heptathlon at the world indoor championships in Poland by a country mile, but he berated himself as “weak” because he failed to better his own world record. The University of Oregon men’s basketball team is in the hunt for a favorable seeding for the NCAA tournament, while the Northwest Christian College Beacons are getting their first taste of post-season play under coach Luke Jackson.

Now is a good time to be reminded how little “success” matters.

Marcus Mariota and the University of Oregon had pledged themselves to each other before he’d ever started a high school football game as quarterback. Our recruiters saw his sound fundamentals, his raw skill, his strong character. They weren’t distracted or dissuaded by his lack of accomplishments. That’s only a very recent example.

You can trace the roots of this heritage to legendary Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman. He would shock young athletes under his charge by telling them something like this: “You have only one competitor, and that’s you. Until you’re doing everything you can to be the best you can be, others might call you a winner, but you’ll know you’re losing against the only one who matters.”

Bowerman taught his young men to pursue excellence, and let success take care of itself.

Former UO football head coach Chip Kelly restated the concept by insisting that his teams compete against a “faceless opponent.” In his view, the coaches are responsible for scouting weaknesses and opportunities against other teams, allowing each of his players to stay focused on executing as perfectly as possible.

We follow sports for the same reason that we watch movies, read novels and admire paintings. Those who create them can ignore the myriad details that clutter any real life and offer up a vision with arresting clarity.

Bowerman didn’t allow his runners anything but simplicity. He trained them to time their splits, to measure their own stamina, to draw deeply for their final kick. He understood before almost anyone how the mind and body must partner toward perfection. Whether they were casual joggers on an all-comers Saturday event at Hayward Field or elite athletes competing in the 1972 Olympics, he taught them to race against their own best selves.

Successes may accumulate, but they do not necessarily accrue. In fact, success can become burdensome. The successful are held up as standard-bearers, but the admiration then decays into nostalgia. Memories of past successes silently align with the status quo, begging to be overthrown. Upstarts innovate because they have no successes to defend.

Excellence, on the other hand, moves freely, always building on itself. Learn how much you can accomplish, and then apply it to everything else you do. Experience satisfaction in one area, and use that feeling to motivate you in another.

Since Bowerman cared so little about getting credit (He hated trophies), it’s difficult to know all the ways his influence was felt. How many native Oregonian athletes were drawn to become Ducks because of his persona? These connections become especially vague when their pursuit of excellence eventually took them into other endeavors.

We know about the middle distance runner who decided he was better suited to be an entrepreneur, later partnering with his former coach to start Nike. There also was a wrestler who graduated a few years earlier. After missing his opportunity to wrestle in the 1960 Olympics because of an ill-timed injury, he turned to writing “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Between Ken Kesey Square at the heart of downtown Eugene and all of the University of Oregon buildings that bear Phil Knight’s imprimatur, it’s easy to overlook the legacy of Bill Bowerman and the culture of excellence he attempted to instill here.

I’d like to see that spirit revived again outside the realm of sport. Eugene wastes too much energy comparing itself to Boulder or Portland or Springfield, seeking to emulate the successes of others. That’s all energy that could be applied to becoming a better Eugene.

We shouldn’t settle for success, when excellence is within our grasp. After all, we were coached by the best.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com. As far as he knows, his writing has never won an award.