- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 19, 2003

“This game is tolerable when you’re winning and miserable when you lose.”

Dan Reeves on coaching in the NFL in 1996.

Maybe Reeves had a pretty good idea he would be out of a job at the end of the season.

All it took for Reeves, who has coached teams to three Super Bowls, to be sent packing by the New York Giants were the first back-to-back losing seasons of his 16-year career.

These days, coaches with lesser resumes aren’t given nearly that much slack.

Consider:

The New York Islanders canned Peter Laviolette this month after just two years, even though in 2002 he guided them to the fourth-biggest turnaround in NHL history and took them back to the playoffs this spring. And he was fired by a team that did not even reach the playoffs from 1994 to 2001.

Laviolette’s demise generally is blamed on his deteriorating relationship with star Alexi Yashin.

“Coaching has become more complex,” said Philadelphia Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock. “You not only have to win, you have to get along with people.”

Hitchcock knows what he’s talking about: He was fired by the Dallas Stars less than two years after making his second straight appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals. The reason: Hitchcock’s players were tired of his demands.

A similar failure to make nice earned coach Rick Carlisle the same fate with the Detroit Pistons after just two seasons. Carlisle’s record in Detroit was impeccable: back-to-back 50-win seasons and, in May, the Pistons’ first appearance in the Eastern Conference finals in 12 years.

Carlisle’s mistake? Not getting along with general manager Joe Dumars and some of the players.

“No one can fault Rick for the job he did,” said Phoenix Suns executive Cotton Fitzsimmons, who coached in the NBA for 21 seasons. “He never should have been fired. Yes, [veteran replacement] Larry Brown became available, but a lot of guys become available. If a coach is doing a good job and winning, he doesn’t get fired.”

In an ideal world, yes.

But in an era in which a coach’s every move is scrutinized by a national audience via cable TV and the Internet and his stars’ salaries often dwarf his own, running a pro team is not for the fainthearted.

The old saw that it’s easier to fire the coach than to get rid of all the players has never been truer — especially in the NBA and major league baseball, where player contracts are guaranteed.

The numbers bear this out: Thirty-five coaches have been fired in the NBA, NHL, NFL and Major League Baseball since the end of their most recent seasons. That includes a staggering 22 of the 60 NBA and NHL teams.

“Players don’t have the same respect for coaches that we did because they know that they’ll probably play for two or three coaches during their careers,” said Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy. “When I went to Pittsburgh in 1977, there wasn’t a thought in my mind that I would ever play for a coach besides Chuck Noll. You had that built-in respect.”

And that wasn’t true only of eventual champions like Noll, whose record was 12-30 after three seasons with the Steelers.

Bob Cousy coached into a fifth season with the NBA’s Cincinnati Royals/Kansas City-Omaha Kings in the 1970s without ever making the playoffs. Cookie Lavagetto managed baseball’s Washington Senators/ Minnesota Twins from 1957 to 1961 despite never finishing within 23 games of first place. Bryan Murray lasted eight-plus years (1981-1990) behind the Washington bench despite never reaching the NHL’s conference finals.

However, in this high-pressure age, Murray’s brother Terry was fired by the Capitals in 1993 less than three years after guiding them to the conference finals and by the Flyers in 1997 right after coaching them to their first Stanley Cup Finals in a decade.

Only five of the current 30 major league managers have held their jobs for at least four years. The numbers are similar in the NHL (seven of 28, not counting the recent expansion teams in Columbus and Minnesota) and the NBA (six of 30).

The NFL is a relative safe haven: Nine of its 31 coaches (not including the 2-year-old Houston Texans) have had their jobs at least four years.

Only Bobby Cox of baseball’s Atlanta Braves and Bill Cowher of the NFL’s Steelers are in their second decades with their teams.

“Unless there’s a real fine working relationship between [the owner and the GM] and those who are managing, then it’s ‘What have you done for me lately?’” said ESPN analyst Bobby Valentine, who managed the previously inept New York Mets to the playoffs in 1999 and the World Series in 2000 but was fired two years later. “There was much more stability and loyalty when I started managing in 1985.

“There are many people in front offices today who have never stepped on a major league field and have no appreciation of a manager’s job. And you’ve got the players who are making the most money dictating personnel decisions.”

Eighteen-year-olds like LeBron James arrive in the NBA with $90million sneaker deals and huge guaranteed contracts and feel the coach is only there to make them look good. But the coach has to get all these big egos to read from the same script … his.

“If you want to go in and be a nice guy, you won’t turn things around,” Hitchcock said. “In order to get the players to have success, they have to do things that make them really uncomfortable, and they have to learn to enjoy doing them. But when they don’t want to pay that price anymore, you end up paying the price.”

Fitzsimmons noted that general managers almost always outlast the coaches they hire.

“Unlike coaches, most GMs get quite a few mistakes,” he said. “Compared to being a coach, being a GM is kind of like backing up to the pay window.”

In the NHL, whether teams make or lose money increasingly is determined by how many playoff games they play host to, thanks to the rapid escalation of player salaries and the relative pittance the league receives in television revenue.

That only adds to the pressure on their coaches to win immediately, though as Kansas City Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil noted, “You only got the job because they fired somebody … and sometimes a team gets worse before it gets better.”

However, few coaches or managers these days have the luxury of time to build a program.

Consider the example of Lindy Infante. Infante had one winning season and a 24-40 record in Green Bay from 1988 to 1991. He guided the Colts to the playoffs in his first year with the club in 1996 but was fired after going 3-13 the next season.

The growing parity that has produced such oddball champions as the New England Patriots and Anaheim Angels and such out-of-nowhere finalists as the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and Atlanta Falcons has heightened expectations for coaches to produce quick results.

Four different teams won the Stanley Cup from 1976 to 1988; nine clubs have hoisted Lord Stanley’s silver chalice in the 15 seasons since. The Lombardi Trophy was the province of just six franchises in all but one year from 1978 to 1995; six teams have won the past seven Super Bowls. Even the recent mini-dynasties of baseball’s New York Yankees and the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers are a thing of the past.

“Whether it’s logical or not, every owner these days thinks he should win,” said Dungy, who was fired by the Buccaneers after the 2001 season despite producing an NFC finalist and three other playoff berths in six years.

“Owners see other teams in the finals and they say, ‘I’m paying [the players] the same kind of money they’re paying, why aren’t we there? It must be the coach,’” said Golden State Warriors vice president Al Attles, who coached the team from 1970 to 1983 and won the 1975 title. “They talk about patience, but that’s just lip service in a lot of cases.”

Not with former Warriors owner Franklin Mieuli, who was so patient with Attles that the coach resigned over his objections after missing the playoffs six straight seasons.

“I wouldn’t last more than a year or two like that in today’s market,” Attles said.

Attles also said wouldn’t want to coach in today’s NBA. Still, he was the exception among the seven coaches interviewed for this story.

“I have a passion for coaching,” said Vermeil, who in 1997 ended a 14-year hiatus from the sideline at age 60. “It provides you an opportunity to test yourself at a higher level than most people get to. You talk about free agency and the cap, but I’m not so sure that things have really changed since I started in the NFL in 1976.

“If we hadn’t won in our third year in Philadelphia [ending a 17-year playoff drought], we might have been fired.”

New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi worked for the Baltimore Colts in 1972 when the team fired coach Don McCafferty, less than two years after he won them their only Super Bowl. Accorsi also recalled that coaches George Allen — a Hall of Famer in waiting — and Alex Webster were fired in the 1970s before their teams had even played a game that season.

“I don’t buy the argument that there’s more pressure on coaches today,” Accorsi said. “There’s just a lot more money involved. There’s no question that coaches’ jobs are harder, but I don’t have any sympathy for them. They get paid a lot of money.”

Indeed, Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder established a new benchmark when he lured college legend Steve Spurrier away from the University of Florida with a five-year, $25million contract in 2002. Compare that to Fitzsimmons taking a pay cut (when his summer camps and broadcast deals were included) to leave Kansas State for the Suns in 1970.

“When you make a big investment like the [Dallas] Cowboys did with Bill Parcells and the Redskins did with Steve Spurrier, you can’t tell those owners, ‘We’re not going to be competitive this year,’” Dungy said.

But rest assured that if Parcells and Spurrier don’t win soon, they too will join the ever-growing club of fired coaches.

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