Professional sports can be a funny business. After hearing of George Karl’s termination it’s easy to wonder why anybody in his right mind would want to be a professional sports coach.
Karl wins two out of every three games he coaches. He led a team with no defined superstar to a three-seed in this year’s playoffs. That same team had a 15-game win streak—tied for ninth-best all time. He’s also the reigning Coach of the Year? He also lost in Round 1, so let’s ax him.
To be fair, the decision wasn’t merely based on the playoffs. Karl wanted a contract extension. His right-hand executive migrated to Toronto. The Nuggets feared Karl would be a malcontent during his contract year. So much for giving a guy the benefit of the doubt. He seemed rather professional when coaching through two bouts of cancer—making the bench whenever his body allowed. Damned if sports isn’t a wild business.
When you consider other coaching terminations it becomes even more ludicrous. Lionel Hollins ran into a San Antonio buzz saw in the playoffs, but still took Memphis to the conference finals. Let’s take a second to comprehend this. The Grizzlies are a good team, in large part because of Hollins. This team went 22-60 in 2007. Hollins helped make bigman Hasheem Thabeet relevant. He redeemed point guard Mike Connley’s career. The Grizz, long-time punching bags, are actually good. And they fired their coach. How bizarre.
Then there’s Vinny Del Negro and the Clippers, another team with a terrible history. They won 17 games in a row this year—tied for sixth-best all time. In any other year that streak would’ve garnered enormous attention; this year it was a footnote to Miami’s 27-game streak. Del Negro worked with a bunch of talented payers who didn’t get along and still led them to the playoffs. That wasn’t good enough for the Clippers.
Coaches get it from both ends. On one hand there are the players. If a superstar doesn’t like his coach, he usually has the cache to get the coach fired. Popular thought is that coaches are a dime a dozen, superstars are treasured commodities. When league salaries ballooned in the late 70’s coaches lost most of their power. The role switched from an autocracy to more of a manager/motivator.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is upper management. Coaches must answer to their bosses, which can be even more difficult. If the team under performs, the coach falls on the sword. If management wants to change a team’s identity—maybe high-octane offense for grind-‘em-out defense—the coach loses his job. If new management comes in and believes if it ain’t broke, fix it, well the coach is first to go. Situations like the San Antonio Spurs or Pittsburgh Steelers are rare. Continuity just doesn’t exist in professional sports. There are too many shifting pieces and philosophical differences.
It seems like the only group coaches don’t answer to are the fans. Fans just want teams that win. Philosophies don’t really matter as long as a team posts more W’s than L’s. But look at the aforementioned NBA coaches; they all went to the playoffs. Lovie Smith went 10-6 in a stacked division and was fired by the Chicago Bears. If teams win fans buy tickets. The correlation is fairly straightforward. Yet teams still manufacture reasons to clear out successful coaches.
NFL coaches perhaps have it the worst of all. Black Monday has become part of popular nomenclature for the National Football League. There is a specific day when teams axe coaches: the first Monday after the regular season ends. It’s pretty morbid to think about. It’s even more odd when juxtaposed to modern corporate life. Imagine one day a year when up to a third of Fortune 500 CEOs get canned. Weird, right? Now imagine that nearly every CEO the country has been on that chopping block, past success be damned.
George Karl was fired on the same day the NBA Finals kicked off. The timing is somewhat apropos. It’s both a way to bury the story and say, “you’d still be employed if we were playing tonight.” Karl’s been around the league for a long time and will probably have a new gig before next season tips. Still, it’s hard not to wonder why coaches keep coming back. Sure there’s prestige, but at times like this it seems more like masochism.