Sacking a Coach 101 – Part 1

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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.

What do Mark Neeld, Mickey Arthur, George Karl, Lionel Holins, Vinny Del Negro and Roberto Mancini have in common? They’re all unemployed!

Such is the life of a professional coach, that one day you may be a hero and the next a villain. Often the first person blamed for failure and the last acknowledged for success, coaching is far from a stress-free occupation, instead, it’s defined by unremitting pressures and high stakes; as it should be. Very few individuals in any walk of life hold the expectations of such large populations in their hands and as every sports fan knows, it is these expectations that found the root of all disappointment. So when that person, whose job is to facilitate the realization of the fans’ dreams fails to perform, it is only natural that their careers should fall at a rate corresponding to the happiness of their supporter base. That is the theory at least.

In recent years however a global trend has emerged that sees coaches losing their jobs in the most innocuous of circumstances, often to detrimental effect. Somehow, despite recent controversies including drug scandals, arrest warrants, match-fixing, countless internal tribunals and the seemingly constant decline of nearly every team donning the ‘green and gold’, Australia has bucked this trend, instead opting to maintain a policy of determining coaching futures on a merit basis.

Are we wrong to see this show of faith and fostering of stability as a positive, or are Australian teams missing out on an important development in sports management?

Whilst it would be foolish to rebut the idea that each case is unique, without the benefit of hindsight, someone needs to acknowledge a trend so as to prove how ridiculous the mentality being readily adopted internationally truly is. By comparing the four causes for dismissal – one addressed each week – and evaluating the effect relevant decisions have, it becomes clear that stability is key but stubbornness is penalized. As with most things, recent developments have shown us that a happy medium needs to be found and to their credit, Australian sporting institutions are closer to finding it than their international counterparts.

Part 1: Superior Alternative Coaches

If it was revealed that Jack Gibson, Leigh Mathews, Sir Alex Ferguson or Phil Jackson wanted to coach the team you supported, the fans of very few teams would be justified in condemning the dismissal of their present coach in the pursuit of greatness. There are however a couple of rules to be followed.

Rule 1: If your current coach has performed to an elite standard or are of note themselves, coaching adjustments threaten the stability of a club unnecessarily. In essence, if you’re going to throw out something good in the hope of finding something greater, you better pull it off.

The NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers are a prime example this process being pursued correctly, despite the controversy of having recently parted ways with Vinny Del Negro, a coach with a 55.7% winning percentage in LA, a franchise record. Having seemingly secured the services of Boston’s Doc Rivers, a Championship coach with a 53% playoff winning percentage and a 58% regular season record, before dismissing Del Negro, the ‘Clips’ are widely considered to have taken a giant leap forward already this off-season. Del Negro had 3 seasons to prove his worth with a highly talented roster in a city with lofty expectations and had produced but not to the desired level.

The one detriment of this process, even if completed correctly, is the purporting of an argument that the old coach was ‘back-stabbed’. This sentiment is no different in Australia, as shown in late 2011 when AFL coach Mark Harvey lost his post at the Fremantle Dockers despite five respectable seasons at the helm. However making the finals just once, Fremantle’s pursuit of Ross Lyon, a proven coach with a winning percentage of 64.5% at St. Kilda and whose philosophy is conducive to the club’s roster, has proven a logical masterstroke. Recording 14 wins in 2012, their best effort since 2006 and on track for substantially more in 2013, the upgrading of a coach is hard to argue and often proves successful.

Rule 2: The pursuit of a superior alternative is only legitimate when their predecessor has had the time to demonstrate that they are actually the inferior candidate for the job. Mike Brown, LeBron James’ coach in Cleveland, was fired by the Lakers after just 5 regular season games into the 2012/2013 NBA season. LA went just 1-4 after a horrific off-season but with a new coach for essentially the first time since 1998 and injuries to key trio Nash, Bryant and Howard, Brown’s dismissal was undoubtedly premature. The availability and hiring of Mike D’Antoni didn’t improve the Lakers’ fortunes and in many ways, jumping the gun has significantly destabilized a team which, due to age, only had a small window to secure any potential Championship.

Similarly, Eddie McGuire’s appointment of Nathan Buckley over the ousted Mick Malthouse on the foundation of nothing more than personal preference has destroyed the AFL’s Collingwood Magpies. An element of this rule that should be too obvious need addressing is that the replacement coach must actually be superior. Buckley’s inexperience and tenancy to encourage a more aggressive game strategy has undermined the defensive pressure central to the Pies’ recent success and 2010 Premiership. Collingwood’s squad hasn’t been diminished over the past two seasons however they’re not even remotely close to competing for another title. Don’t fault the players or Buckley for that though, the blame is quite clearly yet rarely acknowledged to be on Eddie.

Without a doubt, there are times to upgrade a coach. When administrative boards get that time wrong though by breaking one of the two rules unique to this situation, they not only risk destabilizing a team for little gain, but they risk destabilizing a team and regressing. After all, coaching is about relationships, not necessarily just a name.

Next week we’ll look at when the ‘Absence of Progress’ founds a legitimate grounds for dismissal and when craving too much, too soon leads to regression.

 

 

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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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