There are thankless jobs and then there is being a professional sports head coach. It’s a job that will turn your hair gray and your face red. It is a career with fleeting job security and intense scrutiny. It’s high pay for even higher stress.
As a coach, the first instinct of fans, media, and even your employer is to second-guess your decisions and your employment status. Just ask Terry Francona. Successes are soon forgotten. Failures are recalled with regularity.
We’re lucky here in the Hub of Hardware to have scored some coaches who range from consistent to charismatic to iconic.
Three of the current Boston coaches in the five major sports — yes, I said five — have gotten the Duck Boats rolling. Patriots coach Bill Belichick, Celtics coach Doc Rivers, and Bruins bench boss Claude Julien all have championship on their résumés. But coaching is the ultimate what-have-you-done-for-me-lately industry, so let’s rank our fearless leaders as of this moment.
1. Bill Belichick, Patriots — It’s Sunday, and it would be heresy not to put His Hoodiness in the top spot, but it’s closer than you think. Belichick gets the nod for sustained excellence and remarkable consistency in a league designed to prevent both. Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry, and Chuck Noll never had to deal with the salary cap. Don Shula had a brief brush with it.
Heading into his 14th season, Belichick is the doyen of NFL coaches. Only three coaches in the Big Four pro sports have been in their jobs longer than Belichick: San Antonio Spurs curmudgeon Gregg Popovich (1996), Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz, who was hired in 1997, a year before Nashville began play, and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim manager Mike Scioscia, hired in 1999.
The pressure is on Belichick this offseason to hold up his end of the partnership with quarterback Tom Brady, after Brady cleared cap space with a restructuring/extension that has helped hand Belichick the general manager $25 million to play with.
Despite Belichick’s background as a defensive guru, New England has ranked 29th, 31st, and 30th in pass defense the last three seasons. A fourth straight season of unabated air travel by opponents and ninth consecutive without a Lombardi Trophy would test the “In Bill We Trust” motto.
2. Doc Rivers, Celtics — As Rivers jokes, “Doc” is just a nickname. But he has somehow managed to stitch the Celtics back together after losing Rajon Rondo, Jared Sullinger, and Leandro Barbosa to injuries.
The mark of a good coach is the ability to mold his tactics to his talent. Rivers does that as well as any Boston coach, including one with the initials “B.B.”
The Celtics are 11-4 since Rondo was lost for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Rivers has rebooted on the fly, turning the team back over to Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, restoring its defensive demeanor, and instituting a more free-flowing style of offense that has suited Jeff Green and Jason Terry.
In a league where coaches are disposable, Rivers, now in his ninth season, has become indispensable. Doc remains one of the best coaches in the NBA at designing plays out of timeouts, and he is one of the few coaches NBA players actually want to play for.
3. Claude Julien, Bruins — Julien is derided for rolling out four lines with metronomic regularity and employing a style of hockey that is more conservative than Ann Coulter.
But his devotion to parsimonious play brought the Bruins their first Stanley Cup since 1972 and has them off to a 14-2-2 start in this pocked-sized NHL season. Now, in his sixth season as Bruins coach, Julien simply doesn’t get the respect he deserves for providing the Bruins with stability and identity.
Where the Claude Critics have a point is the Boston power play, futility in motion. Until Saturday, the Spoked-Believers hadn’t seen a power-play goal at TD Garden (Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand finally broke through against the Lightning). The Bruins went into Saturday’s game an incredible 0 for 26 on the power play at home. They’re now 9 for 59 on the season, 22d in the league.
I do worry that Julien’s one-size-fits-all style of play is holding back Seguin. But Julien’s way wins, and there are no style points in the standings.
4. John Farrell, Red Sox — Farrell is an imposing presence, but can he impose order on the dysfunctional Red Sox? The prodigal pitching coach is the Sox’ third skipper in three seasons. The hope is that Farrell is the baseball version of Belichick, a guy who gets it right the second time around. He was 154-170 in his two seasons with Toronto.
Farrell has been billed as the wayward starter whisperer, the man who can get Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz back on the righteous path of pitching. But Blue Jays pitchers were 26th in ERA last year (4.64), one spot ahead of the Dead Sox (4.70).
Pitching coaches don’t always make the best managers, but Farrell has a background in player development as well. He already gets high marks for the way he handled Alfredo Aceves’s passive-aggressive protest early in spring training.
It probably won’t be fair to judge Farrell on this season, which is a game of bridge. But “patience” and “Red Sox manager” remain antithetical notions, kind of like “Red Sox” and “scrappy underdogs.”
5. Jay Heaps, Revolution — The former Revolution defender took over for Steve Nicol last season and undertook a rebuilding project with Foxborough’s Other Football Team. The Revolution went 9-17-8 and endured a franchise-worst 10-game winless streak.
Not even José Mourinho could have turned around the Revs, winners of five games in 2011, in one season. Still, the 36-year-old Heaps is unproven. He does know what great coaching looks like though, having played three-plus seasons of basketball at Duke for Mike Krzyzewski.