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trust the process

From Hanging Chads to Theo Epstein, How Trust the Process Came to Sports

In search of the origins of the phrase "trust the process," we discovered that Theo Epstein possibly first brought the term into the sports lexicon.

by Aaron Gordon
Jun 22 2017, 3:56pm

Photo by Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

In early October 2004, Kevin Dupont of the Boston Globe wrote a feature on the youngest general manager in baseball history, a then 30-year-old named Theo Epstein, who had been promoted to the position two years before by the Boston Red Sox. The piece focused on Epstein's general willingness to trade beloved players, including Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs. For the kicker, Dupont went with a perfectly fine but unremarkable quote: "'No matter what the trade is, you have to trust the process,' said Epstein. 'I'm proud of that process, and the people we have involved in it as an organization. We try to ask the right questions, do the research, and make the right decision.'"

Back then, Trust the Process (or TTP) as we know it today—referring to a real or imagined long-term strategy that sacrifices short-term success—was not a thing. It would be almost another decade before the Philadelphia 76ers and GM Sam Hinkie made it famous as a mantra (or punchline, depending on your point of view).

On Wednesday, Markelle Fultz, the former University of Washington point guard projected to be the No. 1 overall pick in Thursday's NBA draft, told reporters that he thought he had coined the phrase, and had only learned about the Sixers adopting it later. But a search by VICE Sports found that Epstein had used it much earlier than either Fultz or Hinkie, or anyone else in sports that we could find. This is by no means a definitive finding, but it would make sense that the man Fortune Magazine dubbed the world's greatest leader would come up with the sports world's greatest phrase.

Even Epstein, however, was recycling a bit of a tired phrase at that point. TTP already had its moment, if in a realm outside of sports.

In November 2000, the presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore went to an historic recount, where Floridian counties repeatedly tallied their paper ballots one by one. The issue of the recount eventually went to the Supreme Court. As the media and both political parties dissected each and every aspect of the recount, a phrase began to emerge from politicians, media, and the general public alike: trust the process.

For just one example, the Miami Herald ran an editorial with the headline "Trust The Process." It was far from the only time the phrase was used for a process laden with mistrust. Needless to say, people did not TTP. In a SurveyUSA poll, half of Americans said they wouldn't "trust the process" of recounting even if the Pope himself did the recount (perhaps because they don't trust the Pope's math skills?).

Even so, this was not TTP's beginning. Trust The Process has been used in a variety of contexts and circumstances, but these four syllables typically convey the same sense of faith in systems, bureaucracies, plans, or schemes, no matter how warranted. Epstein didn't invent the phrase. No one did. If anything, trusting the process is innate. It's what we do, until it's too late.

Although there are subtle differences in the ways TTP has been referenced over the years, its most common usage seems to be as a maxim when there is zero basis for hope. My favorite example of this comes from a 1987 book by Shaun McNiff called Trust the Process: An Artist's Guide to Letting Go . In the introduction, McNiff wrote, "When everything seems as if it is hopeless and going nowhere... trust the process." Joe Ranft, a screenwriter for Pixar who died in 2005, used to urge his colleagues to "trust the process" of animation and storytelling. Or, there's the 2001 book Trust The Process: How to Enhance Recovery and Prevent Relapse , which advises recovering addicts to TTP even when times seem darkest.

In 1983, a Miami Herald reporter writing a story about police shootings called up an editor of the Detroit Free Press to discuss a recent incident in Detroit where a "black druggist" shot a white cop for trying to arrest his son, but the cop returned fire and killed the man. The Free Press editor, Neal Shine, observed that there were no riots as a result of the shooting, which he took as a sign of progress: "Blacks and others have come to trust the process." Somewhat ironically, by 1993, the president of the NAACP told the Washington Post that the African-American community "must not sit back and trust the process."

Elections in general are a big time for TTP. After the 2004 Palestinian elections voted Hamas into power, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, "The United States trusts the process and trusts democracy." United Nations elections chief Carina Perelli said something similar of the 2004 Iraqi elections, the first free and open elections held there. "This election will work as long as Iraqis start to trust the process."

TTP has also been widely used in the legal arena. In 2002, when Burning Man sued a pornography website called Voyeur Video for selling VHS tapes of naked Burning Man participants for $29.99, Marian Goodell, then the director of communications for Burning Man, told the New York Times that its participants "trust the process" of the legal system, which is why they decided to file suit. During the holiday shopping season in 1999, a Chicago Sun-Times columnist, Richard Roweper, said he didn't "completely trust the process" when he started online shopping.

Although Epstein was not the first to use the phrase, he may well have pioneered it in a sporting context. And it didn't take long to catch on. In 2005, after the Houston Rockets lost Game 5 of their first-round playoff series to the Dallas Mavericks, head coach Jeff Van Gundy told his players to "trust the process" and "think small," urging them to take it one possession at a time. The Rockets lost the series in seven games.

Epstein's process in Chicago resulted in the team's first World Series win since 1908. Photo by David J. Phillip-USA TODAY Sports

In 2006, Andrew Friedman, then the president of baseball operations for the Tampa Bay Rays, shrugged off the disastrous purchase of Shinji Mori, a 31-year-old reliever and the team's first purchase from the Japanese league. "This will not impede any moves we would make in Asia or Latin America or anywhere else," he told the St. Petersburg Times. "The outcome wasn't good, but we still trust the process that brought us Shinji." Mori never played in the United States.

In 2007, TTP spread to football when Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy told the press during spring camps, "I think for the most part, the feedback I've gotten from the fans is, they trust the process. They trust the vision." Aaron Rodgers was also an avowed TTPer that year. The Packers went 13-3 that season and lost to the Giants in the NFC Championship.

As much as Hinkie and the 76ers have given TTP a cultural permanence, its meaning hasn't evolved. Trust The Process is what you do when the process isn't satisfactory. After all, "trust" wouldn't be necessary if the plan was working. What TTP implies and implores is that it's going to work, just hang tight, we're almost there, whether you're counting hanging chads or stockpiling picks. "In the presence of trust, anything is possible," the SurveyUSA editor said during the 2000 presidential recount. "But in the absence of trust, nothing is possible."

By the way, those who heeded Esptein's call to trust the process in 2004 were rewarded. Just a few weeks after the Boston Globe story, the Red Sox pulled off a historic comeback after being down down three games to none against the New York Yankees in ALCS and went on to defeat the St. Louis Cardinals for the franchise's first World Series championship since 1918.