The cycles of coaches in the four major sports
Larry Brown is a basketball lifer.
Don’t believe me? He has coached: the Carolina Cougars and Denver Nuggets in the ABA, stuck with the Nuggets when they joined the NBA, parlayed that job into a two-year stint at UCLA, moved onto the New Jersey Nets, coached the Kansas Jayhawks to the 1988 NCAA National Championship, jumped ship and went back to the NBA with the Spurs, Clippers, Pacers, Sixers, Pistons, Knicks and Bobcats, and squeezed in a 2004 appearance as Team USA’s coach during the Summer Olympics.
This fall, he will return to coaching as the top man at Southern Methodist University. On opening night, he will be 72 years old, a full five decades older than any of his players. The most time he’s had off since he began coaching in 1972 was the 22 months between his dismissal from the Knicks and being hired by the Charlotte Bobcats.
While every sport doesn’t have a coach with Larry Brown’s exact penchant for nomadic behavior, they all have someone who is well-traveled. The reason Brown has held so many different jobs is due, in part, to his famed reputation for keeping his eye on the next challenge (or the next payday, depending how cynical you might be).
Brown’s story got me thinking – is it something about the nature of the NBA that allows recycled coaches to continue to find work? Are the other three major sports similar in this regard? Superficially, it seems as though basketball and hockey are prone to hiring and firing coaches with more regularity than the other sports. But the gulf between perception and reality can be a big one.
What would the numbers say about it?
What I attempted to do was to accumulate data about the coaches in the four major sports – how long they have been on the job, how many were on their first jobs, how many coaching changes have occurred in each of the sports, how common an in-season change happens, etc.
Note: Because I lack creativity, I refer to coaches who have already held a head coaching position elsewhere as “re-treads” throughout this article.
For the NFL – I considered who the coach was at the beginning of the 2002-03 season and moved forward from there. I also included the newest crop of coaching hires in the statistics. Ten full seasons’ worth of data, plus an extra off-season.
For MLB – I considered who the manager was at the beginning of the 2002 season and include this season (2012) in all facts and figures. Ten full seasons, plus two and a half months (in which no manager has been fired).
For the NBA – I considered coaches from 2002-03 onward, not including the dismissals of the coaches from since the regular season ended (i.e. Paul Silas from the Charlotte Bobcats). For the “Job Duration” figures, I used whoever coached at the beginning of the 2011-12 season. Ten full seasons’ worth of data.
For the NHL – I considered coaches from 2001-02 onward. I did this because the NHL did not play a season in 2004-05. For the “Job Duration” figures, I used whoever coached at the beginning of the 2011-12 season. Ten full seasons’ worth of data.
What the numbers say
First, I was interested to know how many of the managers / coaches were on their first big league job in either 2001-02 (NHL) or 2002-03 (NFL, NBA and MLB). Then, I took a look at each sport at the beginning of their most recent season to see how many first-timers were coaching.
|Sport||Year||# of re-treads||%|
|MLB||2002||16 of 30||53%|
|NFL||2002-03||10 of 32||31%|
|NBA||2002-03||13 of 29||45%|
|NHL||2001-02||13 of 30||43%|
|SUM:||52 of 121||43%|
Ten seasons later, the data looks like this:
|Sport||Year||# of re-treads||%|
|MLB||2012||18 of 30||60%|
|NFL||2012||10 of 32||31%|
|NBA||(beginning of) 2011-12||21 of 30||70%|
|NHL||(beginning of) 2011-12||17 of 30||57%|
|SUM:||66 of 122||54%|
In summary: What we have seen over the past decade is a cumulative 11% increase in re-tread coaches across the four major sports. Those currently occupying the top coaching position are more likely to have been a head coach (or a manager) somewhere else before they got their current gig.
Baseball’s drop in first-time managers was minor (2), hockey’s was substantial but not over-the-top (4) but the change in basketball re-treads versus rookie coaches is astounding; only 9 of the 30 NBA coaches at the beginning of the 2011-12 season were still on their first job, meaning 21 of them had already been a head coach someplace else.
Based on this data alone, one might conclude that basketball loves recycled coaches significantly more than any other sport. But since the above data is a snapshot (one of 2002, the other of 2011-12) what might the comprehensive picture look like?
Taking into account all the coaches in each sport over the past ten league years, the statistical breakdown is as follows:
|Sport||Total # of Re-treads||Total # of coaches||%|
What this set of data shows is that while the NBA leads the way in giving former coaches another shot, the NHL is very similar. Both sports have similarly high yearly turnover and dismissal rates – coincidentally, many hockey and basketball teams also share arenas, they begin and end play at about the same times of the year, and there are exactly as many games in each sport’s season (82). The sports themselves are about as different as two can be, yet everything on the periphery – right down to the fluid nature of the coaching situations – is eerily similar.
Baseball is about average for the 4 sports at 49% – meaning if your team has an opening, it’s a half-and-half bet that someone who has already managed will take control. In football, on the other hand, two out of every three job positions goes to someone who has never coached an NFL game before. For as complex a game as football is (not to dismiss the complexities of basketball, baseball or hockey), this trend of hiring rookie head coaches seems very odd.
It’s not just that the inexperienced head coaches are being hired – football coaches also enjoy the longest average tenure in the four major sports. See below:
Average # of seasons on current job:
The reality is, an NFL head coach had better make the most of whatever head coaching chance he gets – because while he will have a longer tenure than his colleagues in other sports, he won’t enjoy the same opportunities for re-hire.
Football coaches also know they’re unlikely to lose their job in the middle of a season. One or two bad weeks to open a year won’t get you let go, the way it can in hockey or basketball. On average, there is barely over 1 in-season coaching change made every NFL season; basketball and baseball average between 4 and 5 such dismissals per year, and there are more than 5 per season in hockey (including a whopping TEN this past season).
In-season coaching changes, 1987- present:
In-season coaching changes
Over the last ten years, some franchises have had a staggering number of coaches. Certain teams have a propensity to hire re-treads, others have one to give first-time coaches a chance. And still others in big markets seem to think they can only hire coaches with previous experience…
Franchises with the greatest number of coaches, past decade(includes coach at the start of first season):
|MLB||8, Seattle Mariners||7, Kansas City Royals|
|NFL||7, Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders||6, Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers, St. Louis Rams|
|NBA||8, New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers, Memphis Grizzlies||7, Bulls and Timberwolves|
|NHL||12, New Jersey Devils||Since nobody else has had more than 8, I am going to go ahead and dishonorably mention the Devils again.|
Most likely teams to hire re-treads coaches or managers, past decade (includes coach at the start of first season):
|Sport:||Team:||Who were they?|
|MLB||Cincinatti Reds (4 of 5 managers)||Bob Boone, Jerry Nannon, Pete MacKannin, Dusty Baker|
|NFL||Seattle Seahawks (3 of 3 coaches)||Mike Holmgren, Jim Mora, Jr., Pete Carroll|
|NBA||New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers, Memphis Grizzlies, (tie, 6 of 8 coaches)||Too many to name*|
|NHL||New Jersey Devils (9 of 12 coaches)||No first names: Robinson, Constantine, Burns, Robinson again, Julien, Lemoriello, Lemaire, Lemaire again, DeBoer|
*Fine. For the Knicks: Don Chaney, Lenny Wilkens, Larry Brown, Isiah Thomas, Mike D’Antoni, Mike Woodson. For the Sixers: Larry Brown, Chris Ford, Jim O’Brien, Maurice Cheeks, Eddie Jordan, Doug Collins. For the Grizzlies: Sidney Lowe, Hubie Brown, Lionel Hollins, Mike Fratello, Johnny Davis, Lionel Hollins (again).
Teams most likely to hire coaches with no previous experience, past decade (includes coach at the start of first season):
|Sport:||Team:||Who were they?|
|MLB||Chicago White Sox||Manuel, Guillen, Ventura|
|NFL||Minnesota Vikings||Tice, Childress, Frazier|
|NBA||Atlanta Hawks||Kruger, Stotts, Woodson, Drew|
|NHL||Pittsburgh Penguins, Dallas Stars||Penguins: Hlinka, Kehoe, Olczyk, Blysma. Stars: Hitchcock, Wilson, Tippett, Gulutzan|
Big market, must have previous experience?
So, you want to be a coach or a manager in New York or Los Angeles? Well, good luck with that. You better get your practice in a Podunk town like Memphis, San Antonio or Salt Lake City – because in order to get hired where the lights are brightest, it seems you’d better have a pretty full resume.
|Sport||Teams (New York and L.A.)||Total # of re-treads||Total # of coaches|
|MLB||Yankees, Mets, Dodgers, Angels||7||12|
|NBA||Knicks, Clippers, Lakers||14||18|
|NHL||Rangers, Islanders, Kings||12||19|
63% of the coaches in New York or Los Angeles had already coached before going to the Big Apple or the City of Angels, 14% above the average across the four major sports for the last decade.
Four things to take away from this absurdly long and dense column:
- The NBA is just as bad (even, statistically, a little worse) than the NHL when it comes to giving coaches another shot, even if they failed in another place.
- An NFL head coach is significantly less likely to get fired in the middle of a season, and is significantly more likely to be on his first top job, than his counterparts in the NHL, NBA and MLB.
- I have no idea why more NFL coaches are not re-treads. The complexity of the sport would seem to lend itself to those who have been in the top role before – and since NFL head coaches stick around a lot longer, you would think General Managers and owners would be more comfortable with a known commodity than a guy who has been a career assistant, and has never been a head coach at any level (as the Packers did with their last two hires – Mike Sherman and Mike McCarthy).
- Big market teams like their re-treads. It sure smells like another example of the big cities using us trusting, naïve Midwestern folks as their elaborate farm system. Which gives me another reason to dislike them…
BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below!