Earl Lloyd was right. So was Bum Phillips.
Lloyd, the Pistons coach from 1971-72, said upon taking over for the just-resigned Butch van Breda Kolff, “This is a funny business. When you sign on as coach, you are signing your own walking papers.” Phillips, the old football coach of the Oilers and Saints, said of his profession, “There are two kinds of coaches: those that have been fired, and those that are gonna get fired. And I’ve been both.”
Bum: “There are two kind of coaches…..”
It dawned on me, watching Dick Jauron stumble along as interim coach of the Lions nowadays, that the term “interim coach” is sort of a redundancy. After all, is there such a thing as a permanent coach? It’s just that some are more interim than others — only they might not even know it.
But some do. Lou Lamoriello is the general manager of the New Jersey Devils. He hasn’t been a full-time hockey coach since the mid-1980s. Earlier this week, Larry Robinson resigned as coach, committing a “self ziggy” — the “ziggy” is that Detroit word for a coach firing — citing health reasons. So Lamoriello himself took over, albeit on a very temporary basis. What else would you expect, considering Lou hadn’t coached an NHL game since 1988, in the playoffs, taking over for the suspended Jim Schoenfeld. The Devils lost that one, 7-1. But last week, in Madison Square Garden, the Devils won, 3-1. I guess Lou got a lot smarter in 17 years.
Front office types dressing themselves up as coaches is nothing new, of course, and sometimes it’s to satisfy ego, other times it’s done out of necessity, with the GM-turned-coach looking about as comfortable as a man passing a bowling ball-sized kidney stone. The Rangers’ Phil Esposito fancied himself the cure-all for the club when he fired his coach in the late 80’s, toward the end of the season, the playoff run gaining full steam. But the Rangers soon rebelled against Espo’s ways and the team went into the tank, getting swept in the first round. Kevin McHale fired Flip Saunders as Minnesota Timberwolves coach last season, taking the reins himself, admittedly with a lot of discomfort and reluctance. The move didn’t have much of an effect on anyone except maybe McHale himself, who quickly retreated back upstairs when the season ended, his worst fears confirmed.
Eddie Stanky committed a self-ziggy, after one game. Stanky, hired as Texas Rangers manager midway thru the 1977 season, wasn’t hired to be an interim guy; he was supposed to be THE guy. But after managing the one game, Stanky quit, saying he was homesick. Real thorough interviewing process there, huh? Ted Turner, Atlanta Braves owner, fired manager Dave Bristol and actually managed the team himself, for one game in 1976 — and not with the notion of being as interim as you might think. But the league stepped in and spoiled Ted’s fun, ordering him out of the dugout after the one game (a loss). And how many people exist that can give Ted Turner the ziggy — other than Jane Fonda?
Stanky, before homesickness entered his life
Being an interim coach, in the real sense of the term, must be similar to being a substitute teacher. The players/students gotta know you’re unlikely to remain long term. So how much respect and cooperation do those sorts get? Not to mention, they’re taking over a group who performed dysfunctionally enough to get the previous guy canned. Yet each of them fancies himself as motivator and teacher and leader enough to bring the team from its doldrums. For many it’s their first time as head coach, and they know it very well could be their last. It’s ironic, but the interim coach often has more of a motivation to succeed than his players. And the players can see right through that.
Interim coaches hardly ever get the job for real. They are, after all, still considered part of the slime in which the team has soaked itself….
When the Pistons fired Dickie Vitale in 1979, they turned the keys of their Edsel over to assistant Richie Adubato. Richie had Bob Lanier, brooding Bob McAdoo, and not much else. Fantasizing that he could repair what was irreparable, Adubato soon challenged his team’s work ethic. He ranted and raved on the sidelines. He pissed Lanier and McAdoo off. They weren’t going to take any guff from an unknown coach from Jersey named Richie Adubato. And, as expected, Richie was gone at the end of the season, having gotten the ziggy, the interim label fitting him like a glove.
When a coach gets the ziggy, someone already working for the organization makes a handy-dandy temporary replacement. Assistants minding their own business are frequent targets. We’ve already discussed GM’s turning into whistle blowers. But leave it to the Lions to try something outside of the box. In 1976, having fired coach Rick Forzano, GM Russ Thomas turned to Tommy Hudspeth, who was working somewhere in the player personnel department. To this day, I don’t know where in the world Hudspeth came from, yet he coached most of ’76 and all of 1977, too. When he got the job, everyone said “Who?” and when he left a year and a half later, everyone was still saying “Who?”
Who? Tommy Hudspeth!
Interim coaches hardly ever get the job for real. They are, after all, still considered part of the slime in which the team has soaked itself, leading to the “real” coach’s ziggy to begin with. In Detroit, it’s happened a few times, when the interim guy was asked to stick around. Wayne Fontes was an interim coach for the Lions once upon a time. Larry Parrish took over the Tigers from Buddy Bell in 1998 and was retained. Herb Brown guided the Pistons after Ray Scott got the ziggy and was hired permanently, sort of, until he got the ziggy and Bob Kaufman, the GM, took over. See a pattern here?
Sometimes replacements come from out of nowhere. After the Red Wings started miserably in 1985, coach Harry Neale was on the chopping block. Finally, during the holidays, Neale’s head was lopped off and, lo and behold, he was replaced by former player Brad Park, who was working as a TV analyst for ESPN. Park, who had played the previous two seasons in Detroit, had zero coaching experience when he was plucked out of the broadcast booth. Still, he bragged to associates that he could have the mess in Detroit cleaned up “in about six weeks.” Not only was Park a first-time coach, he turned out to be a poor soothsayer, too. If anything, the Red Wings got worse under Park, who didn’t enamor himself with GM Jimmy Devellano. “We were like oil and water,” Jimmy D. explained upon giving Park the ziggy shortly after the season.
Park as a Red Wing: as a coach, not so good…
The odds of Dick Jauron being retained as Lions head coach beyond this season lie somewhere between 50-1 and those of the sun rising in the west, if you want to know the truth. For his part, Jauron says he’d like to stick around. “It’s one of 32 jobs like it in the world,” Jauron explained. “It’s a special position to be in.”
You know what, Dick? Enjoy it while you can. But that’s one way to shed the “interim” tag: don’t get asked back.