In pro sports, how much do coaches really matter?
Hall of Famer Warren Spahn probably summed up coaching, or in the case of his sport, managing, better than anyone ever has.
Speaking of Casey Stengel, Spahn had this to say: “I knew him before and after he was a genius.”
That is to say that Spahn first played for Stengel as a 21-year-old Boston Braves rookie in 1942. Three hundred and fifty-six victories and 13 20-win seasons later, a 44-year-old Spahn played for Stengel as a member of the 1965 Mets. In between those two managerial stints, Stengel was skipper of the Yankees from 1949-60, during which time his teams went to 10 World Series and won seven of them. The inference is that the better the playing talent, the better the manager. I think we all can see the wisdom in that belief.
But is it really that simple? Because if it were that simple, it really wouldn’t matter who was coaching or managing. The team with the best players, or who are perceived to be the best, would win every time. I’m here to say that isn’t always the case. Good teams can be fouled up. Even more often, lesser teams can do quite well if placed in the hands of the right person.
Stengel certainly does provide us with a jumping-off point in this discussion. As manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1934-36 and the Boston Braves from 1938-43, he presided over relentlessly mediocre teams. He was regarded by many in baseball as nothing more than a glorified clown, someone who once doffed his cap during his playing days, only to reveal a small bird — a sparrow, I believe — perched atop his head. He was held in so little regard that after he was struck by a cab during one offseason an acerbic columnist wrote that the cabbie should be named Boston’s Man of the Year. His appointment as manager of the hallowed Yankees was hooted and hollered down. Casey Stengel? Yankees? Are they crazy?
Five years into his tenure the Yankees had won five more World Series. The strangely talking man then known as the Ol’ Perfessor must have been doing something right.
And the truth is he had put his stamp on the Yankees. Joe McCarthy, one of his successful predecessors, had been known as a “push-button manager,” his teams being so deep and talented they needed nothing more than a proper batting order. That label was never hung on Stengel, who ruffled some feathers because he was a staunch proponent of platooning. Long before the word “analytics” infiltrated the baseball vocabulary, he believed in honoring baseball’s lefty-righty split. He believed he was giving his players the best chance to succeed. This was not a universal policy.
An oddity: Stengel’s 1954 club won more games, 103, than any team he ever managed. What it got them was second place behind the Indians, who won a then-American League record of 111. Everything in sport is contextual. Always.
Things kind of leveled off — I’m kidding — after 1954. Stengel’s Yankees won five more pennants, yes, but they lost the World Series in 1955, 1957, and 1960. After his club lost out to the Pirates in that bizarre 1960 World Series (the three Yankee victories were by scores of 16-3, 12-0, and 10-0), he was let go. In classic Stengel fashion, he said he would never again make the mistake of turning 70.
The expansion New York Mets, eager to make a box office splash, immediately hired him as their first manager. The Ol’ Perfessor was reminded how that infamous Other Half lived. His first team went 40-120, prompting him one day to blurt out, “Can’t anyone here play this game.” Jimmy Breslin seized upon that lament to write a best-selling book with that as the title.
Well, that was the post-genius Stengel that Warren Spahn encountered. Casey lasted through 1965, retiring with a record of 175-404 as manager of the Mets. But no man ever went from the Penthouse to the Outhouse with more aplomb. The wisecracks never stopped coming.
Each sport has its own dynamics. Basketball is the most intimate, if you will. You are dealing with just 15 men, 12 of whom you suit up on a given night. Contrast that to football, with 53 men under your command. Football is the sport that gave us the control tower. Football is the one with powerful lieutenants known as coordinators, who exert great control over the players in their units. Football coaches are properly equated to CEOs. The ultimate responsibility lies with them, but the truth is they’re lucky if they can name everyone under their command. Those NFL practice squad players come and go. There is a wide gap between the best and worst football coaches, and who can possibly doubt that we have been favored with the presence of a man better suited to this difficult task than any man on earth?
Still, there must be a good supply of raw talent for a team to be successful. Yes, I believe that Bill Belichick learned from his mistakes as coach of the Cleveland Browns from 1991-95, but having better players here than he had there has been far more crucial to his success. And having Tom Brady for his entire Boston head-coaching experience hasn’t hurt, either.
I suppose if we really wanted to find out who the best coaches in any sport were, we’d rotate them annually. Phil Jackson, who alone is able to entitle his latest book “11 Rings,” always had the best player on his side, both in Chicago and Los Angeles. We’ll never know what he would have done as mentor of the ’80s and ’90s Clippers. I know this much, Bill Fitch is a worthy selection to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Not once did he take over a playoff team. But five times he took over a team that had just finished out of the playoffs, and each one of them — Cleveland, Boston, Houston, New Jersey, and the Clippers — either went in time into either the playoffs, conference finals, Finals, or, in the case of the Celtics, an NBA championship. He left every team in better shape than he found it.
That kind of true coaching ability may have best been captured by the famous Bum Phillips quote concerning a certain famous coach at the University of Alabama: “[Bear] Bryant can take his’n and beat your’n and then he can turn around and take your’n and beat his’n.”
There’s no magic formula to coaching, but clearly some are better than others. By the way, if anyone asks, I’d stack up our primary pro quartet with anyone’s. And Bruce Arena has a pretty good résumé, too.