Sacking a Coach 101 – Part 2

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Over the coming month, we’ll explore the issue of coach sacking in three parts. With teams becoming increasingly liberal in regards to personnel changes across almost every sport, the issue needs to be addressed as to whether the seemingly ‘fix-all’ decision to oust a coach actually always has the desired effect.

So we’ve determined that in certain circumstances, it is acceptable to dismiss a coach on the basis of a superior candidate expressing an interest in a presently occupied position. Primarily, such a scenario arises when the current coach has had time to impose themselves on a team, but progress and therefore success is elusive.

So what happens when this is the case but an alternative coach isn’t forthcoming? Are the criteria for sacking a coach heightened?

It is at this stage that two of the main differences between Australian and international leagues are forthcoming. Firstly, salary cap implications within Australian domestic competitions far exceed their international counterparts (if they even have them). In no Australian sport could a talent gap as significant as the Miami Heat to the Charlotte Bobcats emerge. Similarly, in what Australian league could the void of talent between Manchester City and Norwich City be explained, let alone justified?

Secondly, the role of private ownership in leagues such as the NBA and EPL mean that patience is an almost non-existent virtue. If results aren’t forthcoming, the man at whose hands a coaches job is at mercy is losing money. Don’t expect them to tolerate that for any stretch of time. Even Arsene Wenger essentially stays in his job because major shareholder Stan Kroenke does relatively well out of Wenger’s ability to develop young talent and sell them at exorbitant prices. Such a process isn’t conducive to winning silverware – as we all know – but with football more of a business than ever before, it seems trophies at the Emirates are more of a bonus than a prime objective.

Absence of Progress

No team accept the premise that a decline in performance is an unavoidable reality of professional sport. The expectations of fans very rarely fall with their team’s prospects of winning trophies and as such, regardless of whether their demands are legitimate, coaches are placed under an unremitting pressure to constantly improve.

But what happens when they don’t? What happens when fluctuating success, one of the prime inevitabilities of sport takes hold of a sporting franchise?

Rule 3: Progress is subjective and should be treated as such. The parameters for improvement, that often undisclosed portion of a contract which notes performance indicators, needs to be proposed by coaches with a sense of reality, and similarly greeted by the assurances of owners, promising to provide an opportunity for their hired candidate to fulfill their plan.

Without a doubt, there is always more to management/coach relationships than meets the eye. Coaches set their own parameters in terms of what they promise to achieve in a certain timeframe and if employed, should be given an opportunity to fulfill their potential. After all, despite being more educated than previous generations, modern sports fans are deluded if they feel better positioned to comment on a team’s performance than those inside the organization.

Take Mick Malthouse – a coach who will feature regularly in this series – and Ricky Stuart. Two legendary coaches faced with entirely different prospects at Carlton and Parramatta respectively. Both came to clubs as personnel upgrades to remedy systemic issues of mediocrity and sheer atrociousness and both have fairly transparent objectives. Winning a Premiership and building a team from scratch aren’t tasks achievable overnight, as is indicated by both coaches being signed for 3 years.

Can you imagine if either lost their jobs this year because they ended their first season in charge without any silverware to show for their efforts? I know, Chris Bosh is more likely to headline Miami’s ‘Big Three’.

Over to England now where, for comparison, Roy Hodgson’s head was called for after just 6 months with Liverpool, a side on steady decline long before Hodgson arrived at Anfield. What is more, is that the former Fulham boss hadn’t held a post of such lofty heights in the Premier League before, rendering a demand of immediate results both illogical and highly unfair.

Look to the NBA now and the unfortunate Mike Brown springs to mind once more, having been deprived of a legitimate opportunity to implement his philosophy at the Lakers.

Is giving a coach the license to impose themselves and their strategy necessarily the way to build a team? If Guy McKenna and the Gold Coast Suns are any example, then the answer is yes.

Placed in charge of one of the AFL’s expansion clubs comprised largely of players under 20, the two-time Premiership player and AFL Hall of Fame member was faced with the most difficult of challenges. Guaranteed job security under the franchise mantra of ‘consistency and stability’, an assurance restated as recently as this month on Fox Footy’s AFL 360, calls for Mckenna’s head were never seriously considered by Gold Coast administration. As a result, a team expected to disappoint in 2013 after a sophomore season in which they regressed sit just 1 win outside the top half, comfortably residing mid-table and showing immense promise.

What happens when the coach in question has the opportunity to impart their game plan on their squad? 

Rule 4: Once a coach’s proposed strategy has been imposed, administration must effectively and efficiently evaluate whether it is capable of taking the club to the desired level.

Holding coaches accountable for performances is necessary when a team has plateaued or a combination of finances, squad talent and fan expectations indicate that performances are inferior to what they should be.

For an example of this we look back to the English Premier League in which Roberto Mancini was an understandable victim of Manchester City’s performances between 2009 and the end of the 2012/2013 season.

The stakes are always higher when you have a squad such as City’s at your disposal. Despite winning the Premier League in 2011, Mancini’s poor performance on the continental stage essentially offset the Citizens’ first domestic league title in 44 years. Emerging from 2012/2013 without any silverware to show, was unacceptable given that the Italian essentially built the current City squad from scratch to fit his 4-3-3 formation. Finances and squad talent dictated a better performance was required and as such, much to his apparent confusion (Corriere dello Sport), Mancini was rightfully dismissed.

Combine the above issues with the FA Cup Final loss to lowly Wigan and the availability of Manuel Pellegrini, the future of the club was arguably better without the former Italian international at the helm.

Looking to the AFL and after being appointed in 2007, Brett Ratten gradually stabilized his beloved Carlton, a club suffering from their longest streak without a finals appearance in their then 145 year history. Incrementally building a roster to rival the greatest midfields in the game, Ratten’s meeting of consecutive performance targets saw his receive 3 contract extensions throughout this tenure at the Blues. When performances began to decline and legendary coach Mick Malthouse indicated his availability for the top job, Ratten found himself with the 2012 season to prove his worth, but after failing to reach the finals, found himself out the club he’d served since 1990.

Similar to Mancini’s situation, Ratten was given ample opportunity but when performances plateaued and a superior coach was willing to take the club to a new level, he was ousted.

Essentially, progress can only be judged in retrospect and any attempt to pre-empt results grounds any decision to dismiss a coach in nothing but fiction. It’s simple really, Ratten and Mancini both had their chances, Hodgson and Brown did not.

Moving on, and what happens when we elevate the stakes and a coach, whose system has led to success in the past, is fired due to a regression in team performance?

Rule 5: A perceived ‘absence of progress’ may be nothing more than the ‘ups and downs’ of profession sport. The fluctuations associated with professional sport, and more specifically sports with strict salary cap restrictions, are in fact inevitable, impassable by hopeful changes in coaching personnel.

Despite winning the NRL Premiership in 2005 (one of just 5 clubs to win since 2005), Tim Sheens was dismissed from the Wests Tigers following the 2012 season in what was the club’s first coaching change since 2003. In a competition as strictly salary-capped as the NRL though, the ability to build a dynasty has eluded every side bar the Melbourne Storm. So was it fair to oust a man so respected by the club’s fanatically devout fans?

If you look at the Tigers’ performances since 2000, two streaks in the wilderness   (2000-2004 and 2006-2009) and are broken up by short stints of Premiership contention (2005 and 20010-2011). With 2012’s 10th position showing that the latest window for success had shut, Sheens found himself on the outside with Wests impatient for another title whilst superstars Farah and Marshall still wore the orange and black.

Similarly, from Rodney Eade’s departure from the AFL’s Western Bulldogs in identical circumstances, it can be seen that the dismissal of long-tenured successful coaches attempts to exploit the cyclical nature of performance ensured in Australian sports by strict salary-capping.

The replacement of both Sheens and Eade showed an intention to ‘cheat’ the system and somehow adapt a side’s playing strategy in hope of it mitigating the inevitable fall from grace both clubs seemed on the edge of experiencing. Given Sheens’ replacement in Mick Potter finds himself 14th on the ladder with a run of form (4 wins from 5 matches) over the Origin period just recently stemming rumours that the rookie coach could be out of a job next season, it could be argued that the retention of Sheens would have benefitted the Tigers.

Similarly, Brendan McCartney at the Bulldogs has seen his team slide from 10th on the ladder under his predecessor in 2011 to 15th in 2012 and 16th in 2013.

Possibly the greatest mistake in Australian sport today is that veteran coaches are rarely given the respect they deserve. Any belief that the ‘ups and downs’ of coaching in either the AFL or NRL can be by-passed somehow are incredibly misplaced, as shown in the two most recent and prominent examples.

Overseas, leagues such as the EPL show great impatience when it comes to coaches, such is the nature private ownership. With the exception of Mancini who was rightly moved on and of course Arsene Wenger, who’s tenure at Arsenal has arguably exceeded it’s expiry date, managers such as Hodgson, Di Matteo and André Villas-Boas during his stint at Chelsea are harshly dealt by, deprived of the opportunity to demonstrate their worth.

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On twitter @rombarbera. Australian sports by day, international sports by night. Co-founder of Blindside Sport. Fantasy sport addict.

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