Ducks, discipline and 1 simple step to success

T.A. Barnhart

By now, with the national championship game only hours away, most of us have read or heard all the little details about what makes the Ducks special, including Coach Chip Kelly’s motto and mantra: “Win the day”. One detail I find worth reiterating:

[The Oregon players not talking to the media] didn't joke. They didn't put their feet up on the chairs. They just watched, and listened, and when it was announced that the media session was ending, a line of them scrambled over to the championship trophy to take photographs with their cellular telephones.

Furthermore, when Auburn's players left the media session earlier in the day, they left a mess of cups and plastic water bottles behind. So it wasn't lost that the Ducks players picked up their cups and bottles, and straightened their chairs as they left.

Again, details matter. Remember, these are players who Kelly instructs, "Make your bed every day." And here they are, playing for ownership of college football's palace.

"Make your bed every day." I don’t know about you, but I no longer make my bed every day. When I was little, I made my bed every day. My mom insisted, but she didn’t insist in a way that instilled that practice as a habit. As I grew older, she stopped insisting. Of course, by then, she and my dad had split, and she was dealing with keeping her own life together (something I knew nothing about until my own marriage ended). Did she expect me to choose to be disciplined, responsible, adult? I don’t know; she never said. The oversight she and my dad practiced when I was little fell away and I was left, at the age of 12 or so, to be my own over-seer.

If I had lived on the streets, perhaps I would have learned the kind of discipline and maturity that makes for wonderful movies and memoirs. But I was living in middle-class America, Billings, Montana, and although my folks were lower middle-class, I really didn’t lack for anything material. I had no need to learn discipline; I had the luxury to slide along, and so I did. I was lonely, depressed, uncool, often bullied, and already suffering from insomnia. Perhaps I wasn’t so much sliding along as trying to ignore my life as much as possible.

Then I joined the Air Force and went to boot camp. Air Force basic training is a six-week cake walk; you have to be determined to screw up to have any problem. Compared to what my kids went through, one in the Army and the other in the Coast Guard (CG boot camp, by the way, not far behind the Marines in toughness), my six weeks at Lackland AFB was a piece of government issue cake. But I did learn one valuable lesson, one I may even apply to my life at some point: the details matter.

In basic training, no matter the branch of the service, you are required to care for your personal belongings. This means learning to make your bed and fold your clothes. Being the military, and being basic training, these tasks are more strictly defined than for civilians. Clothes are folded into perfect thirds: no creases, no wrinkles, and when they say “perfect thirds” they mean it the way a NASA scientist means accurate measurement for a lunar landing. This turns out to be a bit irritating yet, with practice, simple — even for someone who, like me, lacks good hand-eye coordination. In fact, the inability to fold, for example, your socks in perfect thirds indicates something critical:

You are not someone who belongs in the Air Force.

We joked about all this, of course, but our sergeants made the point early: If you can’t fold a pair of socks or make your bed, should we let you anywhere near a jet engine? It didn’t take us long to look around at our squad and start asking the question to ourselves: Do I want this guy fixing things I have to count on? Do I want him with a gun as an MP? Do I want him in the kitchen? Is this someone I can trust other people’s lives and safety with? Even in basic training, only a few weeks into our military lives, we were learning to ask the important questions about the people we might be depending on: Can I trust him to do his job right?

Back in 1975, when I joined the Air Force, “doing the job right” meant holding the line against the Soviet Union and preventing, or winning, World War III. I never thought of it in those terms, of course; I joined to get my GI Bill, not to save the world for democracy. But six months after completing basic training, I was in England, part of a small unit that would, if worse came to worse, be responsible for providing air-to-ground communications with flying command centers that would help run minutes 10-thru-30 of WWIII. I could have been the guy on duty when the shit hit the fan; my ability to perform my job properly might have been responsible for … well, hell, for destroying the world, but that was my job. And I was ready to do it.

I was ready because, back at Lackland, I learned something important about myself: I could fold my socks and underwear into perfect, unwrinkled thirds. I could polish my boots. I could stand at attention and salute (in the Air Force manner). I could march. I could follow orders. I could make my bed.

Damn, could I make my bed! Hospital corners, tight sheets and blankets, the second blanket folded, like my skivvies, into perfect thirds. Jump up in the morning, make the bed in two or three minutes, get dressed and be ready to continue my training. Sometimes, when I had the last shift of guard duty during the night, I had to make my bed in the middle of the night, groggy from lack of sleep. And I did it. I made my bed every morning for six weeks, and I made it properly. I cruised through basic training, doing everything required of me, and I did it with, I think, the right attitude: This is how we do the job.

So when I read that Coach Kelly requires bed-making on a daily basis, I got it. He’s not treating the players like children who need to be told what to do; he’s giving his players a chance to become self-disciplined and successful. I doubt many of the players understand why making the bed is important when they first join the team, but by now they all understand perfectly: it’s a practice that helps teach the discipline that leads to the national championship game. Making the bed isn’t important; making the bed is what counts. The coach won’t say it, but this is Zen in practice: you don’t look ahead or behind, you do now. You make your bed; you study; you practice; you win a championship; you make your bed.

These are not lessons that are taught; these are lessons that are lived. The young men on the Ducks football team have been waking up for months now and making their bed. They’ve been practicing those insane practices, going to class, winning football games, making their beds. The act of waking in the morning and making the bed is a slow lesson that seeps deep through the mind, past the consciousness and into a person’s essence (and apologies for sounding a bit new agey). The result is not a mindless discipline, the kind instilled by being yelled at, bullied, threatened, punished. This is a discipline that is genuine and becomes part of a person’s being.

Authentic discipline. Integrity.

It’s the discipline that allows the team from Oregon, ferduckssake, to play for the national championship and to have a lot of fun along the way. The discipline that the players have accepted by choice teaches them that picking up their trash and straightening chairs is the right thing to do. A mature, disciplined person does not make a mess for others to clean up; a mature, disciplined person takes responsibility for his or her life as much as possible (and knows when and how to depend on those on his or her “team”, something rarely spoken of by discipline gurus). Does this mean the Ducks will win on Monday? No, of course not; Auburn is a great team, Cam Newton is a scary good player, and the Tigers have their own form of discipline. It’s still a football game, and it may be that Auburn is a better team on the night. But even if the Ducks don’t win, here is what Chip Kelly’s system did produce:

The chance to play for the title.

Not Texas, not Florida, not Alabama, not USC. It’s the Ducks. He gave them the chance to do what they needed to do to get here, and they did it. It’s not going to be enough every year, of course, but every year two things will happen at UO while Kelly is coach: the players will perform to the max, and they’ll have a chance to win every game. And among the reasons for the success his teams will have, year-in and year-out, is one that any person can take ahold of and make their own, one I had a chance to make part of a disciplined life and failed to do: they can make their bed.

If you can make your bed, you can do anything.

T.A. Barnhart writes regularly at and less frequently at Left Coast Foodie. And he’s on Facebook a lot!

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    i wrote this Saturday morning, but before i could post it, the news came in from Arizona. i decided it was not a good time for it. but i have made my bed every day since.

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    The Ducks played a great game and almost pulled it out in the last minutes. I'm proud of them. They represented Oregon and Pac-10 well.

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