Coaching Tenure in Professional Sports

In the last six months, we have witnessed the departure of three of the longest-tenured coaches in professional sports – Bobby Cox, Jeff Fisher, and Jerry Sloan.  Cox, the long-time manager of the Atlanta Braves, retired at the end of the 2010 season, following the Braves’ postseason loss to the San Francisco Giants.  Houston Oilers-Tennessee Titans staple Jeff Fisher was let go by owner Bud Adams on “mutual terms” in January, despite early reports indicating that Fisher would be retained while QB Vince Young would be released.  And most recently, Jerry Sloan stepped down this past Thursday, ending his 23-year career with Utah Jazz. 

While Cox’ retirement seemed to be entirely self-motivated, some have argued that both Fisher and Sloan were “forced out” of their respective coaching positions.  Fisher was allegedly forced out by owner Bud Adams, because of his inability to get along with Longhorn legend QB (and Adams’ favorite) Vince Young.  Jazz owner Gail Miller explicitly denied reports that Sloan was “forced out” of Utah, despite reports indicating that Sloan decided to step down because he was unable to co-exist with PG Deron Williams.

On Thursday, ESPN columnist J.A. Adande argued that Sloan’s departure reflected, above all else, that stars (like Deron Williams) hold sway in the NBA.[1] Despite a source close to the Jazz telling Adande “ninety-nine percent of the team loves Sloan,” Adande concludes that the 1 percent (Williams) nevertheless won out.  While Williams acknowledged that he and Sloan clashed in the coach’s final game, he also indicated that he would “never force coach Sloan out of Utah,” and that he would have asked out of Utah first.

The departure of Fisher and Sloan brings to light larger questions about coaching tenure in professional sports.  Should we necessarily place a premium on long-time head coaching tenure in professional sports?  And more specifically, in the event that a long-tenured coach clashes with a budding star (as in the above two cases), who should prevail?  My insights follow.

First, long-time tenure in a coaching position isn’t all that it’s made out to be.  Just because a coach has been with a particular organization for a significant amount of time does not necessarily mean that he has been wildly successful.  I find that, more often than not, the sports media automatically equates long-time coaching tenure with success, without a harder (and closer) look at the details.  Case in point: Jeff Fisher.  If you didn’t take a closer look at what Fisher did in his time as coach of the Oilers/Titans, you’re (and by “you,” I mean the average sports fan) more likely to credit him with more success than is appropriate. 

No doubt, Fisher revitalized an abysmal Houston Oilers franchise; that being said, a closer look at the numbers reveals the following.  In his 17-year career, he had an overall record of 142-120 (.542 winning %), an overall playoff record of 5-6, and made the playoffs 6 out of 17 years (including 1 Super Bowl appearance).  Contrast that with Sloan’s resume, which boasts playoff appearances (including 2 NBA Finals appearances) in all but 3 of his 23 seasons as coach of the Jazz.

I’m not trying to make value judgments about Fisher or Sloan as coaches, but rather, I’m merely suggesting that we (as sports fans) should not necessarily give in to the media-driven notion of “long-coaching tenure = success” without first taking a hard look at the statistics.  Sure, numbers don’t tell the whole story (i.e. no numbers can quantify Fisher’s revitalization of the Oilers’ dismal franchise), but they certainly are important to evaluating a coach’s overall success.

Now, what happens when the egos of stars and coaches collide?  I’m not so sure that there’s a definitive answer to this question, but I’d like to offer one particular insight as it relates to this article’s larger purpose.  Long-time coaching tenure shouldn’t tip the scales in favor of coach over player.  Case in point: Utah.  Sloan had been the longest-tenured coach in professional sports, but that shouldn’t guide a franchise’s decision as to what to do when a team’s star player (Deron Williams) is at odds with the coach.  Rather, look to the specifics.  And when you do, Williams’ qualms don’t seem all that unreasonable.  At the end of the day, Williams’ frustrations stem not only from Sloan not giving him enough control of the offense, but also from 1) a fundamental lack of intense practices, and 2) refusal on Sloan’s part to go through the film from prior games with the players.

Look, Jeff Fisher and Jerry Sloan are no doubt great coaches.  However, their stories should provide owners and sports fans alike with a valuable lesson – namely, that a coach’s tenure should not define his legacy, nor should it be the “end-all be-all” when resolving disputes between the coach and his star player.

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2 Responses to Coaching Tenure in Professional Sports

  1. kidveesh says:

    I think the analysis needs to include how well small market teams do with the typical transition of coaches (which I imagine should be ~3-4 years, depending on the sport) vs. the long term coaches mentioned above. For example, though Sloan rarely led the Jazz deeper than the western semis, he definitely led his teams to the first and second round more often than the multiple coaches of typical small market teams, thus validating his long term tenure with the Jazz.

  2. SwagFlu says:

    This could also be a great piece on coach-killers. In your two examples, the ownership sided with the star players, VY and D-Willl, instead of the successful coaches.

    Here are a few other notable examples that come to mind:
    Steve Nash got Terry Porter fired. Like kidveesh mentioned, most coaches have 3-4 years to prove themselves, but Terry Porter didn’t even get a full season, only a mere ~50 games, to demonstrate that his system works. There are several factors here, but Steve Nash notably went on air and publicly objurgated Porter’s coaching. The Suns brought in Alvin Gentry, the former coach the victorious Clippers, to make Nash happy.

    Jason Kidd got Byron Scott fired in NJ. Recall that Byron Scott turned around the Nets and even led them to TWO STRAIGHT NBA finals. Mid-way through the following season, Byron Scott was fired.
    To be fair though, Jason Kidd is an exemplary coach-killer. His freshman year at Cal, he is supposedly the reason the coach was fired. More recently, it is rumored that he is the reason that Avery Johnson was fired, even though Avery did great things with the Mavs.

    Chris Paul is the reason Byron Scott got fired in NOLA. Like he did in NJ, Bryon Scott turned around a sorry Hornets franchise into playoff contenders. Paul and Byron Scott bumped heads, so Byron Scott went. I don’t think Byron Scott was the problem though b/c the Hornets have been worse since his departure.

    LeBron got Mike Brown fired and was the reason GM Danny Ferry left. The Cavs hired Byron Scott, a coach that always comes in and improves teams’ winning %’s, but that wasn’t enough to change LeBron’s decision to leave for MIA. (On a side note, Byron Scott stays taking L’s!!)

    MJ got Doug Collins fired the off-season following their first playoff appearance. MJ has been known as a jerk throughout his career, so this doesn’t surprise me, but this is another case of management trying to appease the star.

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