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Rich Mayfield: What Billy Donovan can teach us about our culture

RICH MAYFIELD

They say sport is a metaphor for life. If so, this week’s metaphor is named Billy Donovan. Donovan is the former (stay with me on this) coach of the national champion University of Florida men’s basketball team. A week ago Thursday, Donovan announced that he was leaving the college coaching ranks to accept a $27.5 million dollar offer to coach the NBA’s Orlando Magic. Then a short week later, Donovan held another press conference to say that he had changed his mind and would continue to coach his beloved Florida Gators.The reversal brought cheers from the Florida faithful but also a good deal of second-guessing on Donovan’s second guess. Sports talk shows, newspaper columns and a myriad of sport-oriented blogs have been consumed by the coach’s change of heart. Throughout much of this conversation is a current of concern that implies that changing one’s mind is a sign of a weakness in character. Our cultural history, of course, is filled with heroes who made up their minds and moved boldly forward despite the odds against success or the evidence of failure. From Davy Crocket’s “Be always sure you’re right and then go ahead,” to Lyndon Johnson’s “What convinces is conviction. Believe in the argument you’re advancing. If you don’t you’re as good as dead,” anything but complete certainty is seen as a chink in the armor of admirable leadership qualities.

“At least he has the courage of his convictions” is a proclamation that has been popularized over the last six years as an explanation of some very curious presidential decisions … as if that quality alone justifies any manner of outrageous behavior. Surely the ability to alter one’s course of action in the recognition of mistakes and failures is not only more admirable than staying a foolish course but infinitely wiser. Self-doubt is not always a liability. Listening to the advice of others, especially when one’s own course of action is not achieving the goals desired, is a laudable asset.We all have found ourselves in predicaments that demanded a reassessment of our plans and policies, sometimes our prejudices as well. Our willingness to engage in self-criticism has opened the door of both enlightenment and new opportunities. Such personal experience with its subsequent growth in character is why so many are wondering why our leaders in Washington seem so resistant to this same process.

In 30 years of working with couples who were struggling with the intricacies of a healthy relationship, I occasionally would hear justification for problematic behavior announced via: “That’s just the way I am.” Whether it was a husband’s unwillingness to pick up his dirty socks or a partner’s violent temper, such a destructive rationale made no sense in pursuit of a continuing union. Either one must be willing to alter damaging patterns of behavior or forego the relationship. Reluctance to change an injurious course of action will result in a predictable conclusion. But when our communal psyche is shaped by a mythologized rugged individualism that brooks no concessions and tolerates no give and take, we find ourselves in our current state of political affairs, trapped in a strategy that promises very little, if any, success. It is long past time for our nation’s leaders to exhibit a true mark of leadership and begin listening to alternative strategies and new ideas that challenge their preconceptions and supportively critique the current course of action. There should be no shame in changing one’s mind to achieve a more desired outcome.

During a tumultuous week, Billy Donovan must have listened to his advisers … fellow coaches, friends or family members and then finally to himself. He realized that his decision to leave the university and move into the professional ranks would not bring him the results he desired. So he changed his mind. A little embarrassment, a lot of chatter, even a public rebuke or two but, in the end, Donovan wound up where he wanted to be.Local Rich Mayfield is the author of “Reconstructing Christianity: Notes from the New Reformation.” E-mail him at richmayfield@comcast.net.


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