The acronym GOAT in sports stands for Greatest of All Time. It’s a designation currently given to NFL quarterback Tom Brady, and it’s been bestowed on NBA star Michael Jordan and hockey great Wayne Gretsky. All three of these men played in championship games, but being the greatest of all time doesn’t necessarily lead to that end. While having one remarkable player is a huge plus, successful teams also typically have a core characteristic: a great captain, someone who steers the ship through tough times and can be counted on all the time. In his new book, Sam Walker, deputy editor for enterprise at The Wall Street Journal, looks at the greatest teams of all time and their captains. He joined the Knowledge at Wharton radio show on SiriusXM channel 111 to talk about the book, titled The Captain Class: The Hidden Force that Creates the World’s Greatest Teams.
Knowledge at Wharton: Let’s start with where the idea came from to do a book like this, and then we can get into the criteria of how you picked these teams and captains.
Sam Walker: It wasn’t supposed to be a book, really. I started this off as a column for The Wall Street Journal, and the question was a pretty basic one that I’d never really considered: What’s the magic ingredient that helps a team become enduringly successful? It all started in 2004 with the Boston Red Sox. This was a team that went on to break the great curse and to win the World Series and take down the Yankees in that epic American League Championship Series. We’ll remember them forever as one of the great teams of the 20th century.
I spent a lot of time with that team that season as I was writing my first book, and I noticed something early on in spring training. I’d been around a lot of elite sports teams, and they just were not one of them. They didn’t have the vibe that all great teams seem to have. They seemed undisciplined, unserious. It was kind of like a frat house. It was a sort of strange environment. I never really thought they were contenders. In July, they fell 9.5 games behind the Yankees and were basically left for dead. I assumed that my first impressions had been correct. But in August, something happened inside that team, and all of a sudden they had this swagger and played with confidence, and they were toughing out big games. They went on to become a great team.
What I realized at that point was that I’d seen a lot of great teams in my sports writing career, but I’d seen them once they’d already become elite. I’d never seen the moment where that transition happened, and that’s what I wanted to explore. I wanted to figure out what is it, what’s that spark? What’s the thing that allows a collective group to change itself and to morph into a unit that does great things?
Knowledge at Wharton: This book is not just about American sports. It looks at sports from a global perspective because these characteristics and that transition can happen anywhere in the world.
Walker: That was the idea. What I decided to do was to try to study this. I needed a group of teams that I could use as an empirical study sample. I tried to figure out, what are the greatest teams of all time? Of course, the first thing I did was what anyone would do. I Googled it. I looked up every list that had ever been made and realized quickly that it was a really sorry lot. Most of the lists that had been compiled were subjective or weren’t based on any kind of serious methodology. If you were in England, it was all English soccer. If you were in the U.S., it was all the Yankees and Red Sox and Lakers.
“I realized early on that what I wanted to study was a team culture that endured and succeeded.”
I realized quickly that there were no shortcuts. What I wanted to do was find the real outliers, the freak teams that had done things in their sports that no other team had ever done. There could only be one, maybe two teams like that in any given sport. I realized I had to cast the widest possible net, and I looked at every single winning team in 37 different categories of sports since the 1880s. It was just a massive dive into the records of sports.
I developed a methodology that consisted of eight tests that any team would have to pass. In the end, there were about 122 teams that I thought were truly elite. Of that group, only 16 were absolutely, unambiguously outstanding. They were freak outlier teams. Those were the ones that I used as my study sample.
Knowledge at Wharton: You’re not looking at one season; you’re talking about an extended period. You mentioned the San Antonio Spurs and what they have done. Over the last 20 years or so, they have had a level of play that has been almost unparalleled in the NBA.
Walker: Completely unparalleled. It’s amazing. They made the playoffs in 19 straight seasons, won five titles and had the greatest long-term winning percentage in the league by far. It’s just something that’s completely unprecedented and I don’t think will ever be matched.
So, that was the idea. I realized early on that what I wanted to study was a team culture that endured and succeeded. One of the parameters was that the team had to have achieved dominance for at least four seasons, and that weeded out a lot of teams and a lot of one-year wonders and three-peats and things that were definitely great. But I wanted to rule out the influence of luck. I think a team can get lucky and win a championship or even two, but to be dominant and great for four years, I really think you have to have something more. You have to have a chemistry, something intangible about the group that allows it to succeed.
Knowledge at Wharton: Let’s get to some of these teams. I’m going to start outside the U.S. with soccer. You mentioned two pretty elite clubs: Barcelona and what they have done over a four- or five-year period in the late 2000s, and Brazil and the tradition they had back in the day was just phenomenal.
Walker: Yes, those two teams were amazing. Soccer was definitely the toughest sport for me to study because it’s so dispersed. These club teams don’t play each other with great regularity, and the international game was a lot easier. There were definitely some familiar names, and those two teams were phenomenal in what they accomplished. But there were also a lot of teams that I didn’t know or hadn’t known about. My favorite example is the greatest Olympic team of all time, and I had no idea this was the case, but it’s the Cuban women’s volleyball team from 1990 to 2000. They won every major tournament for 10 years. They were completely unstoppable. From a small, poor, repressed nation of 9 million, they dominated the world for a decade, which is just astonishing.
Knowledge at Wharton: One of the other ones you put in the book is international men’s handball. France kind of fell into the same category as Brazil with women’s volleyball in that they basically won everything for about an eight-year period.
Walker: Astonishing. They were absolutely by far the best team in the history of that sport, and handball’s a tough one. Americans don’t know anything about handball, but it’s a hugely popular sport in Europe. I think the world championship final gets 125 million TV viewers.
I think a lot of these lists were really parochial. I think in order to do this right and do it in an empirical and objective way, you can’t be selective. You have to look at every major sport in the world and try to find those outlier teams. Some sports don’t have them. I wasn’t able to decide that there was one cricket team that was the greatest team of all time, so they’re not included. A lot of scientific studies tend to cast out the outliers, focus on the good teams and don’t pay attention to the freak performances. But I thought, “Let’s round up all the freak teams and see if they have anything in common.”
Knowledge at Wharton: You talk about the New York Yankees back in the 1940s and early ’50s, the days of Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra and that crew. A lot of people understand how good Joe DiMaggio was, but Yogi Berra was the straw that stirred the drink for that team.
Walker: I’d assumed the Yankees would make the list in some incarnation, but that team was really remarkable from 1949 to 1953. DiMaggio was on the downslope of his career and had left in the middle of that streak. Mickey Mantle showed up, but he was kind of a rookie. He was nowhere near his peak. If you look at Yankees’ history and the isolated talent of that team, it wasn’t even in the top 10 in Yankees’ history in terms of its talent. It wasn’t that exciting. In fact, the attendance at Yankee Stadium dropped all of those five years that they won those titles, but there has been no baseball team that’s ever done that. And they did it with substandard talent five years in a row.
Knowledge at Wharton: You did have that period of time for the Yankees in the late 1990s and early 2000s when they had Derek Jeter, who was coming up and developing his talents as a captain. Why wasn’t that on your list?
Walker: That team came within two outs of winning five titles. But no, here’s the thing about that team. First of all, they didn’t win five in a row and that’s the record, so they didn’t make it on those grounds. We all recognize Derek Jeter as the captain of the Yankees, but he didn’t become captain until 2003. What is fascinating about that team is that it did have one of these captain characters. He wasn’t named captain, but the person who led that team was Paul O’Neill. And Paul O’Neill really fits the profile of the other captains that I’ve found. I think even beyond the 16 teams that I mentioned, down in the 108 teams that are just behind them, they all had similar qualities. They had one type of leader who fit a very specific set of criteria and personality traits. O’Neill was a perfect example of that.
“A team can get lucky and win a championship or even two, but to be dominant and great for four years, I really think you have to have something more.”
Knowledge at Wharton: You do have three of the greatest North American teams of the last 70 to 80 years in the book. The Montreal Canadiens back many years ago with Maurice Richard, the legendary hockey player. The Celtics back in the days with Bill Russell and Bob Cousy and that group, and what Russell meant to that team and all the championships that they won. And then the 1970s Steelers, who won four championships in six years. You picked out middle linebacker Jack Lambert as the glue in that team.
Walker: He’s such an amazing example. Lambert was famous for being an intimidator. He had missing teeth, and he would pound quarterbacks when they were trying to run out of bounds. He was undersized. He was not fast. He was not particularly strong. Everyone forgets that because his persona was so large and he was so intimidating. But no, he was not a great athlete. What he had was this incredible toughness. He also was a master of motivation. What I realized when I looked at these captains is that motivation is not what we think it is. It’s not big speeches. Lambert really talked to his teammates and critiqued them in the moment and was very communicative in the locker room. On the field, not so much. Not really a holler guy. But he was a master of this nonverbal communication skill that all these captains had. All the things he did that seemed unhinged on the field were really tactical. He did them on purpose.
My favorite story about Lambert was in a game against Cincinnati. The team had started out 1 and 4, and they were being written off. He played this incredible game, but he had a cut on his hand. The cut opened up and just started squirting blood all over his uniform. I asked the trainers why they didn’t change the bandages or why he didn’t change his uniform at half time, and they just laughed and said, “Oh, we never really even asked Lambert. He loved having blood on his uniform. He knew the message it would send to the team.” So, he was really an incredibly gifted leader, but not necessarily in the ways that we envision.
Knowledge at Wharton: One of the great moments in American sports history is the U.S. hockey team beating the Russians in 1980 in Lake Placid at the Olympics. You focus on the run they had after what a lot of Russians considered to be one of the more humiliating losses in the history of Soviet sport.
Walker: That’s a great example of how teams work. The Russian team had always been the class team of the world. Obviously, that was a massive humiliation not just to lose to the Americans, but to an American collegiate team. That team was exposed at that point and had a lot of veterans and older players, and they just choked. This is a moment when a team would generally implode, right? They had a new coach, and the players didn’t like the coach. They lose this game, and they’re really in a state of turmoil.
After the match, the team was very worried about what would happen to them in Moscow. Coach Viktor Tikhonov told them, “The story we’re going to tell is that we lost as a team, we all share the blame equally.” They’re flying back to Moscow, and Tikhonov is huddled with his assistants in the first-class cabin, telling a very different story. He’s talking about all the individual players he thought were done and cost them the medal. He’s really ragging on them. Unbeknownst to him, there was a veteran defenseman on the team named Valeri Vasiliev who overhead everything he was saying.
I’ve got to set the scene for you. Here’s an airplane, and you’ve got all the coaches, but you’ve also got all these Politburo officials and Soviet communist officials on board. Vasiliev heard what his coach said, grabbed Tikhonov by the neck and started shaking him and threatened to throw him off the airplane if he didn’t take it back. This was like a one-way ticket to Siberia, right? This is an incredibly brave thing that he did. What was fascinating, though, is that they didn’t kick him off the team and they didn’t send him to Siberia. In fact, a few months later when the players were asked to elect a new captain, they voted for Vasiliev, and Tikhonov and the Kremlin let the decision stand. It just made no sense to me.
Then they went on this incredible run where they were absolutely unstoppable. They beat this team of NHL all-stars 8 to 1, a team that had Gretsky and all these great players. This is the thing about these captains. They often did dissenting things and introduced conflict onto the team, but what Vasiliev did was after that incident, he never mentioned it publicly. He showed up at practice. He kept talking to the coach. He kept doing his job. He kept working with the other players. I realized that the conflict these captains introduced was never personal. This wasn’t a personal attack on his coach. It was really about making sure the team stayed unified in a tough moment. Not only did they stay unified, they actually improved and got better. And with Vasiliev as their leader, they achieved one of the greatest runs in sports history. I just thought that was a great illustration of the importance of leadership.
“This wasn’t a personal attack on his coach. It was really about making sure the team stayed unified in a tough moment.”
Knowledge at Wharton: I wanted to finish up with the U.S. women’s soccer team. What we know about women’s soccer started in the late 1990s with the team winning the World Cup. They are the reason why women’s soccer grew in the United States over the last 15 years.
Walker: They are an incredible story, and that team has a great history of leadership that hasn’t really been told. Think about that 1999 team. Who’s on that team? Mia Hamm. Julie Foudy. Brandi Chastain. They were really telegenic, incredible sports personalities that we all remember. Who’s the captain of that team? It was someone named Carla Overbeck, and no one remembers her. I realized when I started looking into it, and I went and met her. This was not an accident. Carla Overbeck was like a lot of these captains. She was not a star. She was a role-player. She was someone who did nothing but serve the team in a very subordinate role. She never scored. She didn’t do anything flashy. She absolutely played her role in central defense, but she also didn’t want individual accolades. That was the interesting thing about these captains. None of them were out front. None of them were charismatic celebrities. They were people who really dwelled in the shadows.
The famous story about her was that they would go on these long trips to Norway or wherever, and they’d get off the plane and get to their hotel, and Carla Overbeck would carry everyone’s bags to their room for them. She was the captain, and she’s carrying the luggage. After they won the World Cup, they were invited to this big rally in Midtown Manhattan, and they all showed up. They did Letterman, and they were celebrated all over. She flew home and didn’t want any part of it. I asked her what she did that day. She said, “I was home. I did three loads of laundry.” That’s the way she wanted it. She played like a lot of these captains behind the scenes. Her leadership was quiet. She led from the back and allowed everybody else to shine, and that was the force that drove that team. It gave her the opportunity to really ride her players and her teammates hard when they weren’t performing and to encourage them forward. But everyone understood that her leadership was genuine and that she put the team first, above everything else.