Falling off the Coaching Carousel

Mike LeClair

Your favorite baseball team is failing. It’s mid-August, and your pitching staff is giving up seven runs a game. They’re 25 games below .500, and the playoffs are a distant pipe dream. The response? Fire the manager. Why?

Modern sports have an infatuation with firing coaches. We can look at all of the coaches fired over the past few years, and while many were terrible, we could assemble a dream team of coaches, ones that we would be proud to have representing a team going to the Olympics or the World Cup, or some other international competition. If an organization is in any sort of trouble, the manager takes the hit. Not the players and not the front office, who was in charge of assembling the team, but only the guy in charge of the locker room.

This sort of discontinuity ruins franchises and organizations. The great teams are the ones who stick with their managers through both good times and bad. John Wooden, the legendary coach of UCLA led his team to 10 national titles. Wooden, however, coached at UCLA for 15 years before winning the NCAA tournament. Had Wooden coached UCLA in the modern era, his 16-10, 16-9, and 14-12 seasons would have almost certainly gotten him fired, preventing the magical reign of the Bruins over college basketball. Because the UCLA athletic department kept him on, they set themselves up for success.

Take a look at the NBA, where there have been eight coaching changes this season. The Thunder, Wizards, Raptors, Timberwolves, 76ers, Kings, Grizzlies and Suns have all fired their coaches. None of these teams could be considered great franchises in any way, and they have been the doormats of the league for some time. The Celtics, by contrast, are considered a great organization in the league, both historically and now. Doc Rivers is in his fifth season as the coach of the Celtics, and there were screams for him to be fired after the 2006-07 season, when the Celtics compiled a 24-58 record. The Celtics organization and management, however, decided to stick with Rivers and give him a much stronger arsenal of players with which to work. Their faith and patience was rewarded the next season with a 66-16 record and an NBA title. Had they replaced Rivers, the team chemistry would have been lost, and you can almost certainly say that they would not have won the title. The list of these situations goes on, and is not at all limited to American sports – in English soccer, the most successful teams including Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool have long-tenured managers at the helm, and that certainly helps the teams succeed to their fullest potential.

To prove my point at the other end of the spectrum, I’ll again refer to my area of expertise – the world of soccer. The Mexican national team is going through one of its roughest patches in history. Some argue that there is a general decline in the quality of Mexican players. Others, myself included, point to the fact that the Mexican team, after firing Sven-Goran Eriksson, who was previously considered good enough to manage Manchester City and the English national team, is on its fourth coach in the last 12 months. A team cannot establish any rhythm and cannot have a winning way when the coach in charge of them changes so frequently. Imagine being on your high school football team, and your coach changes after your second game, your fourth game, and your sixth game. What do you expect to happen to the team? There would be no consistency, there would be no team philosophy, and as a result, you expect the team to fail, and you would probably be the laughingstock of the conference.

Similarly, my favorite American soccer team, Red Bull New York, has gone through 11 coaches in 13 years. They’re owned by the energy drink giants, Red Bull, and are in the New York market, so obviously they aren’t lacking the money to compete. However, the team is, year after year, a complete joke in Major League Soccer, compiling the second-worst overall record in league history. The current coach, Juan Carlos Osorio, is one of the longest-tenured managers in team history. How were they rewarded? New York made an astonishing run to the MLS final last year, an unprecedented success for the team.

The constant hiring and firing of coaches may appease the fans of an organization in the short-term, but let’s be honest, the mass of fans of a team tend to be completely ignorant as to the workings of the team and locker room. Sticking with coaches, assuming of course they have any coaching talent, provides the team with stability, a person to rally around in times of stress and trouble. In order to be a success as a franchise, those in charge cannot fire coaches when the going gets rough. They have to swallow their pride, defend themselves against the fans and stick by their coach, knowing that brighter times are just around the corner.