You may be more than one coach away

American sports fans have the undying belief that they are one coach away from being able to win the championship.  Regardless of sport, Americans believe in the cult of the genius coach who can turn any situation into a trophy presentation.  That is completely false.

Some teams are 2 or 3 coaches away from having a hope of winning a championship.  All coaching situations require different skill sets.  Here are the different types of situations and the different type of coaches needed to make them work.  (The idea for this post came from John Infante (Twitter handle @John_Infante) of www.athleticscholarships.net.)

The Foundation

Sometimes a program, club, or franchise is god-awful.  Either you are an expansion franchise or a franchise whose previous regime made horrible personnel and budgetary decisions.  This situation requires The Teacher.  A person with patience and vision who can help establish a foundation for the future.  This is the most frustrating situation for fans because the team is still going to be bad and will be for a while.  This coach may not be the coach to win a championship but he does create a situation that provides the fans with glimpses of hope.  See the 2012-2013 Charlotte Bobcats.

The Relegation Survivors

This is a subset particular to soccer.  These are the clubs with little financial strength who depend upon the money from being in the top flight of their country for day-to-day survival.  They exist down on the bottom of the top table or at the top of the second table and are always fighting for survival.  There are some coaches who thrive in the weird hothouse at the bottom of the Barclay’s Premiership through some quirk in their personality and style.  This keeps them employed even though fans and owners get tired of the constant drama and fire the coach hoping to get to the next level.  Which is…

Mediocrity

This situation is where a team has been bad, but it has talent.  There was not a lot of discipline or accountability from the previous coaching staff so the players settled into a comfortable crappiness.  This team needs The Grinder.  In English soccer this is the guy who comes into a club that has either just gotten promoted to the Premiership or just staved off relegation and over the course of 2 or 3 seasons establishes the club as solidly mid-table.  They are never in danger of being relegated, but they never threaten to get into position to play in Europa Cup or Champions League.  Think Martin O’Neill at Sunderland or Tony Pulis at Stoke City.  Eventually, fans want a bit more then never being horrible.

Championship Quality

This is the place the vast majority of teams wish they could inhabit.  Actually, most teams are mediocre or just championship quality and float between the two changing coaches accordingly.  Championship quality means the team is always in the discussion at the beginning of the season as a potential championship team or a dark horse championship team.  This team is almost always the bridesmaid, but has the talent and the pedigree to win it all.  The questions about this team almost always center on whether the coach has the acumen to take them over the top.  The thing about these coaches is that they are usually the very best of the previous three skill sets and this may or may not be their ceiling.  Scott Brooks at Oklahoma City is the best example of this coach going right now.  Of course, this is a stage that a team and coach can easily elevate themselves out of into trophies or slip out of into mediocrity.  The first gets a pay raise and the second gets you fired and it is the second hardest place to stay.

Interestingly, it is easier to stay Championship Quality in college sports, especially if you have one or two national championships.  See Jim Boeheim and Roy Williams.  Actually the list in college is really long.  In professional sports staying Championship Quality too long gets you fired.

The Trophy Winners

This is the land of Popovich, Belichick, Krzyzewski, Jackson, Mourinho, and Ferguson.  These are the teams always in the discussion mostly because of the person in charge.  Yes, they all work for quality organization, but it is through this person’s skill and will that their teams are almost always in the discussion to win it all.  Some of these coaches had all the skills needed for the other levels and worked their way to top.  Others are the guys you hire when you have a championship quality team that has not gotten better in a few years. They come in and somehow push the team over the top.  Guys like Phil Jackson and Jose Mourinho may be derided by some as only coaching stars and never building a team, but theirs is a very particular and valuable skill set.  Fans should be prepared however.  Because these guys leave things go bad in a hurry.

Your happiness as a fan is predicated on where your favorite team falls on this continuum and whether you have the right coach.  It is important for fans to remember that one guy is not necessarily going to provide the answers to all of these levels.  No one can know whether Mike Dunlop can transition from teacher to mediocre to championship level.  Scott Brooks is going to get this season and maybe next to prove that he can push the right buttons to win a champion.  If I knew all the answers, I would not be writing this blog.  I would be sitting in Las Vegas at sports book making lots of money.

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