Monday, June 9, 2008

Wanted: Coach. Expected Length of Employment: Not Bloody Long.

I was reading the Citizen this morning when I came across an article about Ron Wilson becoming the new coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, when I came across a line which really made me think. "If Wilson accepts the offer, he would become the 27th coach in the history of the franchise and the third in the past four years." Third coach in four years?? Good Lord.

The lifespan of coaches is becoming increasingly shorter, as more money is pumped into teams and expectations become absurdly high. What many owners, trustees and GMs forget is that only one team can win. In any sport.

Let's look across my two favourite leagues, the NHL and the Premier League, at the treatment of coaches.

1. Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted former leader of Thailand, owner of Manchester City FC and grade-A jackass fired former England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson after just one year. In this year, Eriksson took a team in shambles, spent some money, and achieved the goal he set with Shinawatra at the start of the year of finishing in the top-10 (9th). This is better than anyone could have expected from Manchester City, but the first half of the season was too good, and expectations were (unilaterally) altered to be too high, so when City slid in the second half of the season, Thaksin decided Eriksson had to go.

2. Avram Grant was brought in at the start of the year to replace manager extrodinaire José Mourinho. Mourinho had, in three seasons, led Chelsea to two Premier League titles, two Carling Cups and one FA Cup (and a partridge in a pear tree). When Grant took over, he was met with indifference and opposition from Chelsea's supporters and players alike. But even with all the crap flying around him, Grant led Chelsea to a Carling Cup final, Champion's League final, and second place in the Premier League. It is impossible to qualify this as a failed season (unless you're a Russian with too much time and money, or a Portuguese manager who has it out for his old team). For this "failure" of a season, Grant was booted out of Chelsea. Why?

3. Martin Jol from my club Tottenham. Though I have to say, now I'm pleased about Ramos being at the helm, the firing of Martin Jol was unwarranted and the management of the side set him up to fail. The season started shakily, after the players brought in from summer spending failed to make an impact. This was cited as one of the reasons Jol was given the boot - but most of these signings were made by Director of Football (and grade-B jackass) Damian Comolli. In fact, Jol's choices for signings were successes, most notably Berbatov and Bale. During the summer before the season had started - after two seasons in which Spurs finished 5th, and finishing 9th in his first year after being unexpectedly thrust into the position of manager after a mere 13 matches - Jol's job was in question, with sources citing Juande Ramos as a replacement. Again, this is before the 2007/08 season had began, after 3 incredibly successful seasons!!! And so, only about a month into the season, on October 25, 2007, Martin Jol was booted during a UEFA Cup match. How did he find out? The crowd's singing, followed by a text message from a family member. Shame.

4. John Tortorella, Jack Adams and Stanley Cup winner in 2004 was fired about a week ago. Let's look at his career in Tampa. In his first year, (2001/02) the Lightning finished 3rd in Southeast, and the missed playoffs by quite a bit. Of course, only one member of the Southeast actually made the playoffs that year. In his next season, the Lightning topped the Southeast, and were bumped out of the playoffs in the second round. After that, they finished first in the Southeast and won the Cup. This was followed up by two years of finishing 2nd in the Southeast and going out of the playoffs in the first, and finally, this year, where they missed the playoffs altogether, for only the second time in Tortorella's six years at the helm of the team. What warranted firing there? I'd peg that as a pretty successful run for a team like Tampa Bay.

These are the only coaches I'm going to go into much detail with, but numerous coaches across the board lost their job this year for perceived "unsuccessfulness". But you have to ask yourself, what are the expectations, and what is possible? Does Abramovich expect to win everything, always? Because that's an unacceptable expectation, and Grant had a season in which Chelsea finished runners up for 3 trophies when he didn't expect to be manager, I'd say he overperformed by quite a margin! There was absolutely no reason for Eriksson to lose his job, hell, he was in Manchester for such a short period that he'd been living in a hotel the whole time (the article's somewhere in the BBC, I'm too lazy to find it)! The firing of Jol was absolutely ridiculous, when you start a season with your job in question after 3 successful seasons, you can't be expected to perform at full capacity.

The problem becomes expectations. Owners nowadays want to win. Now. The reality of sport is that it's a building process. To take a team and make them win immediately is silly. Coaches need time to build an understanding of the team, the team needs time to understand the workings of the coach. This process is in no way immediate, and it is irresponsible to assume it will be. If we look at that line that started this whole train of thought: "If Wilson accepts the offer, he would become the 27th coach in the history of the franchise and the third in the past four years." We'll assume they mean the history of the franchise starting at the NHL's inception, which means: since 1917, in 91 years, Toronto has had 27 coaches and only 13 Stanley Cups to show for it. 13!!!. If you look back, the average coach of the Leafs has had about 3 years at the helm. Their most successful run was 4 cups between '61 and '67. All these were won under Punch Imlach, who was coach between 1959-1967. It took him 2 years to get his team together, then reaped the benefits and led the Leafs to an outstanding decade of winningness. They haven't won since, and the average coach life has been about 2 years. TWO! How can you build up an unsuccessful and confidence-lacking team in two years?

Now, obviously, there are some coaches who are just not suited to a team, or who shouldn't have been put in charge in the first place (*ahem* Steve McLaren in England *ahem*). But more often than not, it's a case of not having time to get settled with a team, and too much expectation from the powers that be.

Manchester United has had Sir Alex Ferguson at the helm since 1986, and it's working out pretty well for them. A bit of a shaky start, his first cups came in 1992/1993 and, after years finishing outside the top 10, they finished second. There's been no looking back since. Bar a few years, Manchester United is arguably the most consistently successful side in English football, and that comes back to a consistent manager and style. The same could be argued for Arsenal under Arsene Wenger, who became manager of Arsenal in 1996. After 3 years of relative mediocrity, Arsenal has (unfortunately) become one of the most feared sides in the Premier League which can, again, be traced back to a consistent manager.

The revolving door for coaches is not the answer for mid-league or unsuccessful teams. What they need is a consistent coach who has time and opportunity to build a team for an eventual climb. Like I say, only one team can win at any given time, and when taking on the management of a team in trouble, only so much can be expected of coaches.

Or, I guess you could hire some guy from Portugal, give him a transfer budget amounting to the combined GDP of the Pacific Islands and let him go nuts. Wait...that wouldn't work in the new NHL. The salary cap strikes again!!!

A list of 2007/2008 coaching changes in the NHL can be found here


Mike Woods said...

Tortorella won a Cup before the lockout, but he's the type of coach who's yelling-and-screaming act wears thin on players after too long (Pat Burns, Mike Keenan are other coaches who are only effective for two or three years in one place).
Also, you presented Tortorella's coaching record very favourably. The Lightning were dead last in the league this year! That warrants a coaching change. Besides, even if he had done a good job, the new ownership wants a new coach (Barry Melrose - MAN that will be hilarious to watch).
Also, Avram Grant is a tool.

Amrit Ahluwalia said...

A couple of points

Most of the Lightning's poor play came back to choices at the executive level - poor supporting player trading, they were only rolling one successful line all year because they had no secondary - there's only so much a coach can do in that situation.

Lecavalier wasn't in the best shape for the second half of the season anyway, he needed wrist surgery, so he wasn't top of his game for sure.

All that in mind - I did forget about the bitching and screaming act from John - wuddya think of him in Ottawa?

It's true - Avram Grant is a tool, but he seemed like such a nice guy!

Mike Woods said...

You're right about the Lightning not having anyone other than Lecavalier, Richards and St. Louis this year. But I think their problem can be boiled down even further: goaltending. They've sucked ever since Khabibulin left following their Cup-winning season.
And what a coach CAN do in that situation is avoid getting into a rift with the star goaltender that drives him out of town.
As for him in Ottawa - no way. He's too strong a personality. The Sens need someone who is measured but also exerts control - Craig Hartsburg and Bob Hartley come to mind.