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When in Doubt: Fire the Coach

Four and a half months, six coaching fires in professional baseball. I have chronicled the yearly blood baths at the end of college seasons, but this baseball season is on its way to a record. I'm painfully familiar with this year since the Mariners put Don Wakamatsu out of his misery and replaced him and his entire staff with their top level minor league coaches. The impending retirement of Jim Leyland and Bobby Cox and Lou Pinella highlight the fates and limits of being a coach.

Like Baltimore when they fired their manager, the Mariners quickly won a few games, but they will regress to their mean because in baseball of all sports, managers really contribute the least. The bromide of impatient owners facing unrealistic expectations, "when in doubt, fire somebody." You can't fire the team of guaranteed contract players, so the coaches get fired.

I believe that in college sports, coaches have far more impact on player development, team cohesion and growth. They get greater commitment, build tighter systems and have total control over personnel through recruiting. In pro sports free agency, guaranteed contracts, the self protective career needs of players mean coaches have significantly less impact. Pro coaches inherit and seldom shape the talent and roster. They may have systems but the systems depend either upon getting the right players for the system or convincing players to buy into their system. Good systems take 3-5 years to establish.

The real determinant, especially in baseball, of wins and losses is quality of performance. Here coaches have minimal impact upon the composition of the team and erratic impact upon the season to season performance of players. Lineups, pitching management, base-running decisions yes, but The GM builds the team. Teams regularly turn over 90 percent in five year increments in modern baseball, even with long term contracts.

Firing a coach/manager midseason is a ritual form of sacrifice to propitiate fans and sports gods. It almost never changes the projected number of victories and quick upticks regress to the norms of the team. The regression is more pronounced in baseball given the length of the season, but also true in the other pro sports. It might increase attendance slightly over the remaining term, but that's it. A midseason replacement might make some sense if the owner or GM has concluded they plan to fire the coach in the off season, and the team might as well get on without the coach who is now a lame duck. But this assumes the owner/GM gets a new permanent coach and is willing to go with youth and start a new system midseason, both highly improbable outcomes.

Firing the coach midseason is a reflexive act of despair or scapegoating. Sometimes nothing could be done with a team like any hapless manager of the Pirates or Royals knows. But somebody has to manage them to failure, then get fired. Teams like that make it impossible for managers to commit and worse for players to commit because they know the manager will be gone and the system has no traction.

Besides abject failure, teams with high expectations who underperform lose managers fast. Usually impatient owners and on the line GMs have alot invested in quick success of such teams and meeting the high expectations of fans. If a team stumbles, the GM  cannot dump the entire team of underperforming long term contract bound players, so someone has to go and take the blame. The most interesting cases are the teams who are on the bubble and who have the potential to get better and compete. These are the teams where coaches can really make a difference, but when such team fails, the coach is most exposed even when the answer may lie in ill constructed rosters as in the Mariners' or Orioles' case.

The reality in baseball and most other professional sports is that coaches success depend upon a fortuitous combination when coaches and players align for periods of time. The alignment takes time. Time depends upon patient management, supportive general manager and the coach's ability to execute the system under stress. The really great moments of alignment often involve a fine coach and superb star who exemplifies the system such as Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw  or Bill Walsh and Joe Montana.  Even the best coaches go through up and down periods as teams must rebuild after one generation grows older. Watching Bellichik's Patriots is a good example here. Jose Torre's Yankees went through these cycles as have Bobby Cox's Braves or LaRusso's Cardinals.

Of course none of this matters for two types of teams. Underfunded and underlead disasters like the Royals or Pittsburgh guarantee high turnover. The other would be the Yankee model. A rich proud mean owner like Steinbrenner at his worse when his dugout resembled a managerial charnel house. An impatient owner who wants to win WIN IT ALL NOW will undermine the very conditions of success by yanking managers at will if they fail to meet immediate expectations to win it all. Just look at the modern Redskins and half the NBA teams.

The most awful teams in baseball over the last decade also have the highest turnover in managers such as Mariners, Pirates, Orioles, Royals. It becomes a self-reinforcing cycle where no coach/manager has the time to work with a stable group of talent suitable to their system. Players know a manager will be gone soon and have no incentive to commit to or risk their bodies for a coach who will be gone in a year.

The the powers that be know winning teams depend upon leadership and management stability. Successful coaches breed long term plans and alignment of talent and system. Yet time and again owners and GMs panic, look for a quick fix or someone to blame, and fire the coach. It never really works midseason and in the pros very rarely achieves a quick turnaround.

We know what works, but very few owners have the courage of their knowledge.


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