- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 21, 2002

The Memphis Grizzlies' hiring of Hubie Brown registered pretty high on the "Huh? What?" Scale. After all, the pundits chortled, the man is 69 years old and hasn't coached in the NBA since Michael Jordan had hair. He should have stayed behind the microphone where he belonged.

To which I reply, in my thickest French accent: au contraire. If there's one thing recent history has shown, it's that owners should spend more time combing retirement communities for coaches and less time trying to figure out who the Next Young Thing is going to be.

I direct your attention to last June's NHL Finals and the coach of victorious Red Wings. His name? Scotty Bowman. His age: 68.

Or how about the just-concluded baseball season? Only three clubs won 100 or more games, and two of them were managed by the two oldest skippers in the majors: the New York Yankees' Joe Torre, 62, and the Atlanta Braves' Bobby Cox, 61.

And have you forgotten who prevailed in the Super Bowl two years ago? The Rams did, with 64-year-old Dick Vermeil wearing the head headset.

Heck, check out the NBA, for that matter. The talk of the young season is the 11-0 Mavericks, a team painstakingly assembled and nurtured by Don Nelson. And now many candles were on Nelson's last birthday cake? Sixty-two.

Some people look at Hubie and say, "Why?" I look at Hubie and say, "Why not?" With the right mix of players, who knows what he can accomplish in Elvisland? And he happens to have a personnel guy, Jerry West, with a reputation for finding just the right mix. In Los Angeles, West somehow found a way to get his hands on Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal (among others). Translation: Don't be surprised to see high school sensation LeBron James wearing a Grizzlies uniform next season especially if the team, currently 0-11, keeps heading in the direction it's heading.

Brown certainly doesn't have any doubts about returning to the bench. He points to John Bach, the Wizards' 77-year-old oracle-in-residence, as proof that geezers have a lot to offer the game. "If the age factor was a factor with me," he says, "I wouldn't be invited to do 15 or 25 clinics around the United States and internationally because I would not be able to relate to the young coaches."

How often do we hear this about an older coach: "The game has passed him by"? And how often has such a pronouncement turned out to be wrong? In the last few years, I'll just remind you, those words have been applied to such coaches as Vermeil, Bobby Knight, Marty Schottenheimer, Lou Holtz and (coach-in-disguise) Al Davis, and each has made a Lazarus-like comeback.

Knight, a doddering 62, won 23 games at Texas Tech last season and took the Red Raiders to the NCAA tournament. Schottenheimer, 0-5 with the Redskins not so long ago, is now 7-3 with the Chargers as he closes in on the Big Six-Oh. Grandfatherly Lou Holtz, 65, appeared to have run out of card tricks after going 0-11 in his first year at South Carolina in '99, but darned if the Gamecocks didn't beat Ohio State in a bowl game the past two seasons.

As for Davis, who admits to being 73, his Raiders have posted double-digit victory totals the last two years and are headed for the playoffs again.

"It is impossible for the game to pass me by," Al once huffed. "I know it too well."

Actually, it's quite possible for the game, any game, to pass anyone by. And the coach is usually the last to know. But many times, such judgments are premature; sixty-something coaches can have plenty of good years left. Bowman won three of his nine Stanley Cups after he turned 60 (and after being out of the league for four seasons). Bobby Bowden won his two national championships at Florida State when he was 63 and 69. Marv Levy steered the Bills to four straight Super Bowls in his late 60s. And Bill Walsh's role in the rebuilding of the 49ers suggests that he might have some X's and O's left in him, too. That is, if he were tempted, at 70, to match wits with former proteges like Mike Holmgren and Brian Billick.

Walsh isn't, but it's not because he's concerned about being out of date or out of touch. "If the game has passed me by," he said last year, "then there are a lot of coaches in the NFL getting bad advice from someone who the game has passed by. I'm still a counsel to any number of people in the NFL."

Granted, the players are getting younger and younger, but that doesn't mean the coaches have to be the age of camp counselors to relate to them. In sports these days, it's clear, there's still something to be said for having your team schooled by a Jedi Master.


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