There is no substitute for excellence. Not even success. Many people, particularly in sports, believe that success and excellence are the same.

They're not.

No distinction in the realm of games is more important.

Success is tricky, perishable and often outside our control; the pursuit of success makes a poor cornerstone, especially for a whole personality.

Excellence is dependable, lasting and largely an issue within our own control; pursuit of excellence, in and for itself, is the best of foundations.

If the distinction between success and excellence were easy to grasp, we wouldn't find so many players, coaches and teams in disgrace these days.

Whenever bad news hits the sports page, look for a "success story" gone wrong. Whether a basketball coach quits at Minnesota or a football coach gets subpoenaed at Georgia, look for people who wanted, more than anything else, to be known as a "winners."

Look, in other words, for people who saw a game as a way to fame. Look for people who judge themselves by what others think of them. Why else would you invite illiterates to your university?

Whenever we see a team that seems to guide us like a lodestar from decade to decade -- whether it be Dean Smith's Tar Heels, Don Shula's Dolphins, Joe Paterno's Nittany Lions, Earl Weaver's Orioles or Red Auerbach's Celtics -- we always find a guiding passion for quality and a profound respect for the game.

Let's emphasize here that nobody is all one way or the other. Desire for success and love of excellence coexist in all of us. The question is: Where does the balance lie? In a pinch, what guides us?

To illustrate, watch John Thompson of Georgetown and Charles G. Driesell of Maryland in their late-game crises.

Thompson seldom looks at the score, seldom screams. What he does is discuss with his team how the game should be played.

He often shrugs off a defeat and will only discuss what theoretical threads, what possibilities for improvement, lay within that game. The score, except in March, doesn't obsess him.

Driesell, by contrast, is fixated on the score. His teams, especially under pressure, seem burdened by his absorption with success when they should be focusing on the sort of quality play that would produce a victory.

In sports, poise often is nothing more than the ability to row backward toward a goal, focusing on each stroke so intently that we ignore the finish line until we are past it.

The instant a team stops living in the moment and starts looking over its shoulder, any disaster can happen. That's when coaches preach a "return to fundamentals" and insist: "We have to get back to the things that got us here."

Within the last week, the Washington Capitals had just such a rededication session, kicking themselves for not working hard enough while reminding each other to enjoy the game for itself.

Success can burn up the person who achieves it. Excellence usually feeds whoever has it. For impatient, compulsive men such as George Allen and Dick Vermeil "the future is now" and success may come quickly. But it doesn't tend to last very long. The pressure constantly to remain successful, especially in others' eyes, is exhausting, even killing.

It's ironic that Vince Lombardi, obsessed with perfect, precise execution, should be cursed with the quote: "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing." His whole coaching style seemed to say that straining for excellence was his "only thing."

An additional burden for the victim of the success mentality is that he's such a competitor that he's threatened by the success of others and resents real excellence. The person fascinated by quality is invigorated when he finds it in others; he can cope with being surpassed since he respects the nature of the work itself.

Don Sutton said of Sandy Koufax: "A lot of people get on top and try to keep others down. Koufax tried to help everybody else get up there with him."

Sports reaffirms that, amid the pale pleasure of watching many good losers and bad winners, it is still possible to find good winners such as Koufax.

A group portrait: Lombardi. Smith. Auerbach. Evert. Shula. Weaver. Paterno. Landry.

As a group, they tend to be patient because they believe that, in the long run, they won't lose. If they are a bit uncomfortable and testy in the spotlight, it may be because they wish to hide how little our opinions of them matters in their eyes.

At times, they even seem to hum with a kind of suppressed but powerful inner arrogance that can taste like piety and make them a little hard to swallow.

Of whom do they remind us?

Perhaps the best and most rigorous teacher we ever had.

The math professor who taught us that it wasn't the answer to a specific problem that was important, but rather, learning to appreciate the interlocking coherence of the whole scientific view of the world.

The English teacher who showed us the agonies of patience that went into crafting a poem so precise in its choice of words that we could read it 100 times over 50 years and always find it powerfully true.

The teachers, in other words, who taught us that love of learning -- for itself -- not love of grades, was the beating, enduring heart of education.

Or, as John Thompson would say, "Practice is always closed. This is my classroom."