During my tenure at LSU we had something each year we referred to as the "Dedication Game." We would pick a game each year, usually late in the season, and have our team individually dedicate that game to someone. It was a very emotional event. We would sit in a circle in the locker room and each person in the circle would tell the team who they were dedicating the game to and more importantly why. Each answer was very unique and personal. Tears always flowed. Not only did we have a powerful motivational force for our next opponent but more importantly, we learned something deep about each member of our team. As we are doing this, we would pass a basketball around and you had to autograph the name of the individual that you were dedicating your effort to -- also that night, you had to write a letter to that person explaining that you had selected them and why. As you can imagine, this was a special process to go through. Often the person would be deceased -- yet the letter would be written. The autographed basketball went with us everywhere. If were on the road a player had to carry it. It went to pre-game meals, was center of the locker room floor for pre-game speeches and even had a seat on the bench with us.
We always played with great emotion for those games. Having someone or something other than yourself to play for can be transformational.
Later, when Nick Saban became the football coach at LSU, we learned that he talked to his team about this same process but went beyond a single game. For Coach Saban, he would ask his players, "Who's your 68? The passage below was taken from Nick Saban’s book “How Good Do You Want To Be?” It was something that he constantly talked about to his National Championship team at LSU -- and I'm sure his ones at Alabama:
“Who’s Your 68?”
Dr. Kelvin Elko is a world-renowned sports psychologist who has worked with numerous NFL teams and Fortune 500 companies. I have had the pleasure of listening to him talk on several occasions, and one story always sticks out in my mind. Dr. Elko was talking about playing and working with passion, not just for the glory or for money. In the long run, he said, having that flame or passion will allow you to succeed and be happy. He gave the example of superstar NHL player Jaromir Jagr, who wears number 68. Why 68? In 1968, the Soviet army invaded the nation of Czechoslovakia. In the chaos, Jagr’s grandfather was jailed. While imprisoned, he fell ill; he died shortly after his release. Jagr had not yet been born, but learned all about his grandfather from family members. He has since dedicated his playing days to his late grandfather and wears 68 to remind him of what he is playing for — what conviction really means.
“So what is your 68?” Dr. Elko asks. It is a fair question. Each of us has a 68 inside, that thing that stirs our passion, that keeps us committed even when we face adversity. It shapes our convictions. Perhaps your 68 is a family member or a time or place or even a burning desire to prove something to someone.
For me, my 68 is my grandfather G.E. Hartney. He more than anyone else inspired me with sports. I rarely played a game during my youth that he wasn't there, always staying after and critiquing my performance. It started at an early age and continued through my coaching career. My conversations with my grandfather are some of my most cherished memories. He would never hesitate to bring out my shortcomings of my performance but he was also my biggest supporter.
During a Senior Babe Ruth weekend series when I was 18, we played a game on Saturday afternoon. I wasn't prepared to play. I had an error at first base and some poor at bats. My grandfather would always sit in a lawn chair down on the first base line. After the game I made my traditional stroll to him. He told me the honest truth. He said he could live with the error and the poor cuts at the plate but he was disappointed in my effort. That cut me like a knife. We had a game that next afternoon as well and I begged him to come back, that I would play the game the way it was supposed to be played. He promised he would.
Later that night my mom informed me that they had to take him to the hospital, he was having some trouble breathing. Yet the next afternoon when I stepped to the plate I looked down the first base line and there he was sitting in his lawn chair. Needless to say my effort was much better.
In 1989 as an assistant coach for Dale Brown's LSU Tigers, we were fortunate enough to win the Southeastern Conference. And per collegiate tradition, we received SEC championship rings. I had my grandfather's initials engraved in the basketball on the ring -- "GEH." I gave the ring to my grandfather -- I wanted it to be a token of my appreciation for all that he had done for me.
Many years later, when my grandfather passed away, my mother was cleaning out his apartment and found the ring in an envelope with a note saying he wanted me to have it back now. I have been blessed as a coach to be a part of 6 Final Four teams -- and have received 6 beautiful Final Four rings. But the ring I wear is that SEC Championship ring. Each morning I put it on with my grandfather's initials facing my heart. Each morning I think about my grandfather -- and more importantly use it to jump start my day, thinking what kind of coach would Paw Paw Hartney want me to be. He is my 68.
My friend Tori Collar, the daughter of one of my former players Nancy Peele, has a 68 this morning as she lost her younger brother Bobby yesterday. It is Tori and Bobby pictured above. In fact, I am dedicating this blog post to my grandfather and Bobby. The best monument you can build to someone you've loved and lost is in the life you live. That's why I know Bobby's life will be remembered in a very special way -- because of the one that Tori will live. Tori and I will keep our 68's close to our heart and more importantly they will continue to motivate us from above.
The circle of life is amazing. My grandfather, a welder by trade, actually welded a tossback and some weight machines for Nancy to utilize when she was playing for me.
So, who's your 68? And what are you doing on a daily basis to honor them?