Friday, October 19, 2007

In sports, planning ahead can never hurt


Joe Torre
didn't exactly "shock" the sports world or turn it on its axis this week when he declined the Yankees' offer to manage the Bronx Bombers for another year with a smaller salary (not including incentives).

I'm sure the Yanks' brass was prepared for Torre's rebuke — even the hour-plus press conference, not that it cared about that.

Kudos to George Steinbrenner & Sons for knowing that Torre might walk away and for beginning the "find-the-right-guy" process as soon as Torre said "No." The Yankees will likely be fine. Lots of money usually = fine. They'll pay to bring back Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada. They'll probably pay for A-Rod (even if that's not what they're saying).

And they've got a couple of good managerial candidates in Don Mattingly and Joe Girardi despite the unsuspected migration of the other possible candidate, Trey Hillman, to Kansas City to manage the Royals (what was he thinking?).

But, more often than not, a situation like this can devastate a team. Too frequently good managers/coaches are taken for granted and dumped after a few bad seasons/losses without their team having a good replacement in mind.

It's an epidemic in the sports world that needs to be dealt with. Too many good teams becoming bad. Too many good managers and coaches finding themselves out of work while their inferiors drive their teams into the ground.

This has got to stop!! Now!!

"Detroit Free Press" columnist Michael Rosenberg knows what I'm talking about. Just earlier this week he wrote how Nebraska — feeling the pressure from its rather, uh, red fan base — dumped Frank Solich a couple years back only to be left with the rotten leftovers, aka Bill Callahan, who has not only ditched the traditional running attack for the dreaded spread (this is Nebraska, not Purdue!), but drove the program so far down that he got athletic director Steve Pederson fired so the university could bring back legendary coach Tom Osborne as an interim AD/savior of the state of Nebraska.

Yeah, maybe the Cornhuskers should have looked around at potential candidates before dumping Solich.

We haven't seen the results yet, but the Arkansas men's basketball team perfectly exemplifies this firing/hiring disaster. After Stan Heath led the Razorbacks to the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive season last March, apparently the university was unhappy with him, immediately giving him the pink slip.

Rumors swirled about up-and-coming Texas A&M coach Billy Gillispie taking over in Fayetteville, but instead Gillispie went to a place called Kentucky.

The Razorbacks eyed other big names, such as Kansas' Bill Self, but couldn't bait them. Then they hired Creighton coach, Dana Altman, but he, um, pulled a quick "Billy Donovan," backing out after one day on the job (did he get paid for that day?).

Finally, after two weeks of scrambling, Arkansas hired South Alabama coach John Pelphrey, who is there to stay — I think. And everyone's saying the right things. But is the program in better hands with Pelphrey than it was with Heath? That's not an easy question to answer. Arkansas may come to regret its decision.

Of course, the firing/hiring situation is even worse in pro sports than in the college ranks. Where else is a coach fired after a 14-2 NFL season like San Diego's Marty Schottenheimer, who was replaced with Norv "he's never performed well as a head coach" Turner after last season.

While things are a bit sunnier in San Diego now after two consecutive wins put the Chargers at 3-3 and tied for the AFC West lead, it can't be overlooked that Turner's staff has suffered as many losses as Schottenheimer's did — including the playoffs — all last year. With the same players. We'll have to wait to see how this one turns out.

That completes the history lesson portion of this column. Now it's time for the advice section, addressed to general managers/athletic directors:

1. Never fire a coach unless you have at least two good candidates in mind and you're 90 percent sure one of them will take the job. The exception, of course, is if the coach you're firing has won, like, 30 percent of his games. Then you can't do much worse.

2. Same as No. 1.

3. Don't let an angry fan base or media influence you into dumping a coach when you have no clue who will jump into the lava to save your team.

4. In college sports, give a coach four years — and three recruiting classes — to prove himself. In the pros, give him at least two years.

All general managers and athletic directors should follow the example of Joe Dumars, the Detroit Pistons president of basketball operations. In 2003 Dumars dumped coach Rick Carlisle despite back-to-back division titles and 50-win seasons and Detroit's first birth in the conference finals since 1991.

Sounds insane, right? Well, it wasn't simply because Dumars already knew he had Larry Brown in the bag to become Detroit's next coach. He was 99 percent sure Brown — one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time despite his vagabond tendencies — would step in and take the Pistons one step further than Carlisle.

Sure enough, "L.B." led the Pistons to the 2004 championship. Just like that.

After losing in the NBA Finals in 2005, however, Dumars — feeling pressure from owner Bill Davidson — let Brown, who had been talking to Cleveland about their GM position during Detroit's postseason run, go on his way, replacing him with Flip Saunders.

Saunders has received plenty of heat for failing to get the Pistons back to the Finals in his first two years. Fans have called for his head, for a new coach. But Dumars has stood pat this time. And with good reason.

There is no better available coach out there. No one who could do a better job than Saunders has. Joe-D knows how to run his team.

Other GMs should watch how his organization flourishes and take notes.

There's always an air of excitement when a new coach takes over a team. Yes, there was even a hint of verve in Kansas City when Hillman was introduced. The new man in town talks about taking the team in a "new direction."

But in many cases, that new direction is no better than where the previous coach was headed. Prudence is the key word here.

It should be used anytime an AD/GM is chomping at the bit to move in that new direction.

They should know what that direction is before making the turn.

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