Coach Jennifer Azzi: My Vision for Success

UPDATED: May 14, 2009
PUBLISHED: May 14, 2009

Jennifer Azzi, Head Coach at the University of San Francisco, shares her tale of determination:

I was fortunate to have played basketball for one of the greatest visionaries in college sports. I remember my very first game at Stanford University. My family would never have been able to afford to send me to college; fortunately, I was there on a scholarship. I was both nervous and excited to walk out onto the court at Maples Pavilion for the first time. My pinkies sort of curl up when I am really nervous, and they were nearly touching my palms. I had imagined tons of fans, crowds cheering for us. But when we stepped onto the court, there were no fans—not one—and no crowds cheering. The 8,000-seat Maples Pavilion was totally empty. The bleachers were not even pulled out!

As the twenty-minute timer ticked down during our warm-up, I kept waiting for the fans to arrive. As the clock neared the two-minute mark, there was still no one in the arena. I asked one of my teammates, “Hey, where are all of our fans? Are they on California time?” She replied, “What? We don’t have fans; we are lucky if someone’s friends or family are in town. Get used to it.”

Contrast the above with growing up in East Tennessee where we had ten thousand fans at our State Tournament games. Girls’ basketball was and continues to be very popular in Tennessee. Much of the popularity is directly related to the success at the University of Tennessee, with Coach Pat Summitt, who is now the winningest coach in college basketball, men’s or women’s. From the time I could walk, I held a basketball. Now, I was at Stanford and no one cared.

In hindsight, I understand why no one wanted to attend our games. We were terrible! The team the year prior to our class had a 4-28 win-loss record, and my freshman year we ended up with a 15-15 record.

After one of our many losses, I was sitting alone in the empty arena wondering why I was at Stanford. Yes, it was a great school, but basketball was my love. I was used to winning and I was also used to people caring. My coach walked out of the coaches’ locker room and she sat beside me. She said, “Jennifer, I know how hard this must be for you. You’re used to winning and up until now you’ve had a wonderful experience playing basketball. But I need you as a leader to see my vision. I want you to picture this place full of fans—sold out, and I want you to see us winning a national championship by your senior year. We are going to work as hard as we can and I need you to do the same. Can you do that?” Well, I didn’t have anything to lose, so I said, “Yes.” I continued to focus, almost obsessively, on what I had seen that night—fans, arena sold out, national championship.

Within three short years, we were selling out our home games (even attracting more fans than the men’s team) and we won the NCAA National Championship my senior year. If you are familiar with college athletics at any level, you understand the magnitude of that accomplishment in such a short amount of time. And to top it off, we played and won the Championship game at The University of Tennessee, twenty minutes from where I grew up! That is the power of a vision.

Picture Your Goals No matter where you are in your life, I believe if you can see “it,” you can achieve “it.” All success begins with a vision. If you want to start an exercise program, see yourself fit. If you want to start a business, see it grow. If you want to run a 5K, see yourself cross the finish line. Every success begins with a vision.

When I start a new business, exercise program, or write a book or even paint a room (I love to paint), I picture what I want the end result to be and I work toward that. When I reflect on my days at Stanford, I understand the amount of hard work and determination that go into making any area of life a success. That experience laid the foundation for my future dreams. I am not afraid to take chances and ultimately find success.

We all define success a little differently because we all have different goals. I believe we all have unique and wonderful gifts to bring to the world to make it a better place. Nothing is insignificant. But finding what our gift is can be difficult. We often experience as many obstacles as we do successes, sometimes more.

Never Give Up I was invited to try out for the Olympic Team in 1992. I had been the starting point guard on the USA National Team and we had recently won the World Championship. The Olympic Committee invited 200 athletes to come to Colorado Springs to try out for the team. The tryout lasted about five days. Each day the committee cut players, until finally they arrived at the 12 who made the team. I made it through all of the cuts and was part of the final 15 on the last night. The committee made us wait overnight to find out if we were part of the team. When I got the call the next morning to go to the coach’s office, I was feeling confident. As soon as I opened the door to her office and saw her face, I knew, I had been the last player cut from the Olympic Team. I was completely devastated.

After being cut, I did not think I would ever play the game again. I hated it. After a couple of months I stepped back onto the court, and realized that I still loved the game. I wanted to play. How could I let someone take away my dream? Four years later I was invited to try out again. The most difficult decision I have made in my life was to go back to Colorado Springs. Do you know how many amazing athletes there are in this country? I could have been cut at any moment. But this time I made the team and had the opportunity to be part of one of the greatest Olympic teams ever assembled. The team in 1992 won a Bronze medal. In 1996, we won the Gold.

Looking back on that experience I learned that those moments in life that we think are our one opportunity for success, our one shot at Gold, whatever our “Gold” may be, may have just been our “Bronze.” Our real opportunity to fulfill our unique purpose lies elsewhere. Sometimes the vision does not work according to our timeline, but if you stay true to the vision, it will happen. The experience taught me to never give up, never.

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