*There is an old sentiment that coaches are hired to be fired. In the world of professional sports and major college athletics (probably the only coaches the general public knows and sees) perhaps only the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise sticks by a coach through multiple mediocre or even losing season.
Coaches generally know that they are hired to win games, and if they should not live up to that basic idea they know they will not be employed for long. This is the basis for the injustice that is part and parcel of big time college basketball (men and women) and college football. Players that should be able to enter lucrative workplaces are artificially held back and exploited for a time while they attend college.
Coaches who are not winning know they should start looking for a new address. But what about coaches who are winning; everything should come up roses for them, right?
Not exactly. Looking at the NBA Coach of the Year Award winners since 2000, most of them were fired within 3 years of winning the award. Only two are still coaching the teams they won the award with – and one of those two has had his job security questioned in the past year. The percentages go up slightly with NFL coaches and MLB managers but the fact remains that being recognized as the best at what you do is no indication that you’ll continue doing it at the same address for much longer.
This doesn’t make any sense until you realize what winning a coach or manager of the year award means. It is an acknowledgement that someone exceeded expectations with a group of players. Everyone thought the team would be terrible and wow, the coach helped them be average or good; everyone thought the team would be good and wow the coach helped them be great. But once a coach or manager does that it expectations are forever recalibrated with the fans and decision makers of the team. The new attitude is you should be able to replicate that success each season no matter what the roster looks like or whatever turnover there is in the coaching staff (winning coaches often have their assistants become head coaches elsewhere). When the coach is unable to exceed expectations continuously, their reputation takes a hit and they are let go.
You might say that three years is a good indication of whether a person can coach or not. And I don’t disagree. Usually someone doesn’t win Coach of the Year in their first season with a team. So by the time they win another three years is more than enough time to figure out if you like them as coach. What I think is unreasonable is the shift in expectations. Going from a bad team to a good team is enough for franchises to invest in contract extensions with coaches (essentially a financial statement of we think so-and-so is doing a good job), but then without any additional upgrades to the roster staying a good team is not enough to keep the job.
I am not claiming that no coach deserves to get fired. But the best good coaches can do is maximize the potential of a roster. Pat Riley got the most out of the Knicks and Heat teams he coached in the 1990s, the fact that those teams never won a championship is not a reflection on his ability as coach but more a function of the quality of players on those teams.
In the revenue sports (basketball and football) of college athletics the situation is very similar but with an extra wrinkle. College coaches are not necessarily seen as being at the top level of their sport so there is always the lure of a job with a professional franchise. In addition coaches often jump from one program to another in the middle of a contract. In other words, winning coaches are still in the driver’s seat to some extent. So if the expectations of the decision makers and fans of a school get to be unreasonable the coach can usually move on.
We saw this dynamic illustrated over the past few weeks as Texas University football coach Mack Brown was rumored to be on his way out and it turns out he did recently resign. Alabama University football coach Nick Saban is widely believed to be the best coach in college football and there were plenty of rumors that he would leave Alabama to go and rebuild Texas’ program. This is despite the fact that Brown is still ranking high in his conference standings and winning bowl games. Expectations for him are that he win a national championship or the season was a failure, hence there was pressure for Brown to step down as coach. After winning three of the last four national championships at Alabama and being ranked number one for much of this season, Saban was facing similar pressure. One loss in this season was unacceptable. So while Saban had a great job as Alabama coach it was a realistic proposition that he might leave where he could avoid the “every game must be a win” pressure for at least a few season while he put his stamp on the Texas football program.
Coaches are hired to win games. If they don’t, they should feel the heat. But if they feel the heat because they’ve won, something is wrong with that picture.
Trevor Brookins is a freelance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or be disappointed in his lack of output on Twitter @historictrev.