Coaching – The Most Unforgiving Profession

Jim Harbaugh got run out of town after leading the San Francisco 49ers to three consecutive NFC Championship Appearances (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Jim Harbaugh got run out of town after leading the San Francisco 49ers to three consecutive NFC Championship Appearances (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Professional sports have become volatile.  With more money pouring into the industry across all platforms, expectations amongst teams have risen to unreasonable levels.  Head coaches now face more pressure than ever to win.  Look no further than this NFL offseason – John Fox and Jim Harbaugh got fired (yes, even though reports claimed the mutually parted ways, team management wanted them out)….after four RIDICULOUSLY successful seasons coaching the team.  Fox led the Broncos to four straight divisional playoff appearances, including a Super Bowl appearance less than 12 months ago.  Harbaugh led the 49ers to 44 regular season wins, 5 playoff wins, and three NFC Championship appearances over a four-year stretch.

Sure, Harbaugh just signed a lucrative 7-year/$35 million contract at Michigan, where he will earn the exact same annual value as he did with the San Francisco 49ers.  Nonetheless, Harbaugh never wanted to leave the 49ers and the NFL.  He nearly built something special there.  In fact, the 49ers three playoff losses in 2012-2014 came to the eventual Super Bowl champions, and the team came within a red zone touchdown from winning each of those games.  Did the 49ers forget that the team missed the playoffs for EIGHT consecutive seasons prior to Harbaugh’s arrival?

Fox won playoff games with both Tim Tebow and Peyton Manning and to a fault, gave his fanbase the expectation that winning became easy.  Denver won 38 regular season games in the past three seasons alone (12.67 wins per season).  Did the Broncos forget that they missed the playoffs in EACH of the 5 previous seasons prior to Fox’s arrival?

Both men represent prime examples of a bigger problem in professional sports: coaches become scapegoats.  Currently, out of a possible 32 NFL teams, only 10 head coaches have stayed with their respective teams for more than three years.  19 NFL head coaches started in 2013 or later.  SEVEN head coaching vacancies became available this NFL offseason….before Championship Sunday.

This same trend holds true for the other three major professional sports leagues in America.  TEN out of the 30 NBA coaches started in 2014 or later; Six managerial changes occurred this MLB offseason; TEN out of the 30 NHL coaches started in 2014 or later.  Only ONE NBA coach – Gregg Popovich – coached his current team in the 2007-08 season; only two AL and two NL managers have been with their respective teams since 2009; only six NHL head coaches have been with their teams prior to 2011.

Gregg Popovich has coached the Spurs since 1996 and led the team to five titles.  The second-longest tenured NBA coach? Erik Spoelstra, who started in 2008 (Photo Credit: Darren Carroll/Getty Images)

Gregg Popovich has coached the Spurs since 1996 and led the team to five titles. The second-longest tenured NBA coach? Erik Spoelstra, who started in 2008 (Photo Credit: Darren Carroll/Getty Images)

Understandably, each team’s fanbase really wants to win and grows impatient when they see lackluster performance.  Fans invest top dollar to support their favorite teams – including ticket prices, merchandise, and concessions – and want to see a quality return from their investments.  They expect maximum performance and effort each time they attend a sporting event.  As a result, team executives demand excellence from everyone, starting from the head coach down to the players.  If teams do not win, executives feel embarrassed and try to persuade their fanbase to remain optimistic.  Teams make wholesale changes to the team, starting with firing the head coach.

However, here’s a harsh reality many teams fail to truly grasp; only 1 out of 30 MLB, NHL, and NBA teams wins a championship every year and one out of 32 NFL teams wins a championship.  Technically, each team has a 3.33% chance to win a championship every year in the MLB, NHL, and NBA and a 3.125% chance to win a Lombardi Trophy.  That makes winning prestigious, and cities remember their championship teams for an eternity.  Philadelphia has only seen one championship (2008 Phillies) since 1983.  The New York Knicks, Forbes’ most valuable NBA team at $1.4 billion, have not won the Larry O’Brien trophy since 1973.  The Chicago Cubs, despite perennial sellouts at one of the most historic parks in professional sports, have not won a World Series since 1908.

Every team wants to win, but the most successful organizations realize that organizational stability gives teams the best chance to win.  Look no further than the NBA.  Popovich and Phil Jackson have coached 10 of the past 16 NBA Finals winners. The other six winners?  Larry Brown (2004) and Pat Riley (2006) no longer coach; Doc Rivers (2008) voluntarily moved from Boston to Los Angeles in 2013; Rick Carlisle (2011) and Erik Spoelstra (2012-2013) are the next two longest tenured coaches in the NBA, having coached their respective teams since 2008.

In the MLB, the second-longest tenured manager, Bruce Bochy, has won three of the past five World Series titles.  San Francisco also boasts the longest-tenured general manager in Brian Sabean, who has been with the ball club since 1996.  The team has undergone a complete transformation from the Barry Bonds era to win three championships with pitching, defense, and a strong veteran presence.  The front office allowed the coach to endure some difficult seasons, as Bochy missed the playoffs in each of his first four seasons with the team.  The manager has rewarded the city with its first World Series championships since 1954.

Other experienced managers in the MLB have reaped rewards through patience.  Ned Yost, the fifth-longest tenured manager in the MLB, just took the Kansas City Royals to their first World Series/playoff appearance in 29 years.  He has improved Kansas City’s win total in each of his five seasons with the team, as he instilled a speed-heavy philosophy to propel his team forward.  Ditto with Buck Showalter, who has coached the Orioles to three straight 85+ win seasons, after the team went 15 consecutive years without achieving that milestone.

Bruce Bochy endured four losing seasons with the San Francisco Giants before leading the team to three championships in five years (Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Bruce Bochy endured four losing seasons with the San Francisco Giants before leading the team to three championships in five years (Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

The NHL’s three longest tenured coaches – Mike Babcock (Detroit), Claude Julien (Boston) and Joel Quenneville (Chicago) – have each won a Stanley Cup and appeared in two Stanley Cup Finals.  They have endured multiple personnel changes to keep their respective teams in contention for each of the past six years.

Ultimately, patience wins out in sports.  It takes time to establish a culture, and too many franchises give up on head coaches far too quickly.  Everything starts at the top of the organization, and instability at the top creates dysfunctional teams – a la the New York Knicks, Oakland Raiders, and Cleveland Browns.  Only one team can win a championship every year.  29 other teams may characterize reaching the playoffs and falling short of a championship a “failure”.  This causes teams to panic and fire head coaches, in order to find a short-term solution to the team’s problems.

Teams who make in-season coaching changes almost never end up winning championships – the lone exceptions being the 2003 Florida Marlins and 2006 Miami Heat; the Marlins have not reached the playoffs since while the Heat endured three middling seasons before LeBron James revived the franchise.  Short-term pains equal long-term gains, and more often than not, head coaches need at least three years to acquire their style of players to assemble their schemes.

Sometimes, elite head coaches fail to reach the top of the mountain.  Although Jerry Sloan never won a championship with the Utah Jazz, he led the team to 15 consecutive playoff appearances, 2 NBA Finals appearances, and provided the town with its best stretch in franchise history.  Dusty Baker revived the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs, and Cincinnati Reds, combining to win nearly 1,500 games and taking each team to the playoffs.  Though he did not win, teams have enjoyed quality success under his tutelage.

Great head coaches do not always win.  After all, only one team every year can claim to win a championship.  However, that does not mean these teams should relieve quality coaches of their duties after experiencing respectable success.  Both John Fox and Jim Harbaugh received raw deals from their teams, as they created unreasonable expectations due to their own successes.  Teams repeatedly make the same mistakes on taking quality seasons for granted.  Thus, a quarter of the teams have head coaching vacancies after every season, which creates an extremely unhealthy environment for coaches to establish a strong culture.