A Lesson in How to Finish in Defeat Repeats Itself

Much is being said today about the postgame handshake between college football giants Nick Saban and Kirby Smart. And rightly so. Coach Saban, once Kirby Smart’s teacher of the game, was obviously disappointed in Alabama’s loss but proud that his student, now Head Coach Smart, found a way to earn his first national title. And Saban let him know it with a meaningful postgame handshake. Simply put: that handshake was the right way for Saban to finish the job, even in defeat.

Going to bed and thinking about what to say to our disappointed son—an Alabama freshman eager to see Saban’s Tide roll onto a seventh title for the coach—it dawned on me that history had repeated itself through my own experience.

It was 1991. Just like our son, I was a freshman with great expectation for a national title. I was at the University of North Carolina. It was a beautiful Chapel Hill spring day in late March which meant one thing: The Final Four. Under the leadership of Coach Dean Smith, the Heels were once again vying for a national title. Like every game we couldn’t find a ticket to, we were all glued to a TV with great anticipation.

Yet this time was different. Dean Smith, the consummate teacher of the round ball version of the game who’s influence still lives on, was facing a formidable opponent in Kansas Jayhawks head coach Roy Williams, once a student of the game under Dean Smith as one of his trusted, long time assistants and players.

And like most rabid Heels fans, we remember what happened. Not only did the Heels lose the game, Smith was ejected from it, down by a handful of points with not a lot of time left on the clock. It was only the third ejection in his storied career. It’s what happened next, though, that is burnished in my brain. On his way out—and in classic Smith style—Dean Smith shook the hand of every coach and team member on the Jayhawks bench.

Yes, in 1991, the teacher lost to the student, just like we witnessed last night. And in both games, the teachers—Smith and Saban—did the right thing in defeat: they showed us all what grace and humility look like.

I may not remember exactly how I felt on that March afternoon in 1991 at the end of the game. But I’ll never forget the lesson that Dean Smith taught me in that simple act of humility upon his exit and ejection from that Final Four game, right there in front of his student. And how glad I am to see it live on in Saban’s exit last night.

So, congratulations to those Dawgs of Georgia. And if we learned anything from last night’s game, let us all not forgot how to handle ourselves in defeat.