Mike On Sports: Coaching; Better Than A Root Canal?

Every professional sport in the United States, to include the pseudo-professional ranks of big time college sports, goes through a coaching purge. From the mid-point of a given season through the end of the post-season, a bloodbath of firings and forced resignations envelopes the profession of coaching. Behind the scenes, millions of parents with children on pee wee and high school teams are currently demanding the very same pound of flesh from the volunteers (or near-volunteers given what high school coaches make) who guide the kids. In 21st Century America, the notion of fault has become all-consuming; the line between genius and stupidity is rarely more broad than the impact of a bad bounce.

This is not an article begging for sympathy and compassion in relation to professional coaches with massive contracts. The price of failure at that level should be termination; but when? How long should it take for a pro coach to establish his personnel and philosophy? How long should it take for a player to grow and mature into his profession? The fortunes of many coaches are decided by the shallow learning curves of their young players, leading me to wonder how many of us would like our decisions and work habits when we were 20-something to be fodder for national news. In short, this is an article about perspective, timing, and the nature of success.

When the Broncos fired Coach Josh McDaniels, he was less than halfway through his four year contract. Owner Pat Bowlen hired the youngest head coach in the league with the idea of having him around for awhile. He made the hire to replace a coach whose leadership had stagnated; the Broncos under Mike Shanahan weren’t going anywhere. Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall were both talented players with well-documented attitude problems, and the rest of the team was the clear product of Coach Shanahan’s legendary poor personnel judgment. Rebuilding the Broncos was the focus in hiring a young head coach. Just 28 games into the process, the goals appeared to have changed.

Instant gratification is what we Americans seem to hang our collective hat on. We want success and we expect that a new coach, or a new quarterback, or a new President will be able to meet our every whim. While it is true that good players and good coaches will have more success than the opposite, that success is often revealed over time. Bill Walsh went 8-24 in his first 2 seasons with San Fransisco. Bill Cowher went 13-19 during one two year stretch, and had a 6-10 season later in his career. Tom Landry went 25-53-4 during the first 6 seasons of the Dallas Cowboys. All three of those coach’s franchises achieved dramatic and sustained success because of the patience and loyalty the owners and fans showed those men. Those qualities are, sadly, lacking from most of us today.

The notions of success and the conditions that lead to it are even more perverse at the low amateur level. Teams I have coached have won city titles and been consistent playoff squads. Teams I have coached have struggled mightily, once even going winless. I have often wondered at the speed with which I was able to move from hopeless incompetent to youth football genius (at least in the eyes of my player’s parents). My wife used to walk the area beyond the sideline and mingle…listening ever for the mood of the parents. Many was the occasion when we had practiced the perfect play and found ourselves at the perfect moment; a combination of scheme and timing disrupted by a child’s wrong turn and leading to parents grumbling about a terrible play call. Youth football coaches are occasionally saved by the opposite…dumb coach the moment before a child runs the wrong way on a play and scores, leading the same bandstand play-callers to cheer the “wonderful play call”.

The best owners in business understand their industry well enough to have a firm time-line for improvement in their mind. They hire professional management at a fair market rate, then give them the time, support, and tools to get the job done. They don’t change their minds because of the chattering classes; they hold firm to the path and understand that even the best may occasionally reveal their humanity through a mistake or several. While the standards are different at the amateur level, the need for time and support is even more pronounced; as is the need to understand that the coach is often solely responsible for bringing the tools themselves. When you look at your favorite team or stand and root for your child’s squad, try and understand that you probably don’t “know” as much as you think you do. The guy on the sideline may be the next Wayne Fontes, but you never know. The next Tom Landry could be slowly and steadily learning his craft.

The Rational Middle is listening…