By Jeff Merron
Page 2 staff

The Nets are blazing under new interim head coach Lawrence Frank, who tied an NBA record with his ninth straight win last week, the best start ever for an NBA head coach. What makes the feat especially impressive is that it comes in midseason, with no time to put together his own team his way. Before previous head coach Byron Scott was fired, the Nets had lost five straight; since, they've been unbeatable.

Does it get any better? Time will tell, for Frank at least. If the Nets can make it to the NBA finals again, Frank just may take a place among this list of the best replacement coaches of all time.

Bob Lemon
Bob Lemon took advantage when Billy Martin's temper got him fired.

10. Bob Lemon (New York Yankees, 1978)
Billy Martin, during that time he was stuck in Steinbrenner's revolving manager's door, got pushed out into the street with the Yankees at 52-42 and riding a five-game winning streak. You may recall the circumstances.

The Yankees were in third place in the AL East, 10 games out, when, after a victory over Chicago on July 23, Martin uttered his immortal words about Reggie Jackson and George Steinbrenner: "The two deserve each other. One's a born liar; the other's convicted."

Since one was his biggest star and the other his boss, Martin was gone. Bob Lemon took over two days later and guided the Yanks to a 48-20 (.706) finish, good enough to tie the Red Sox and force a one-game playoff for the AL East crown. That was the Bucky Dent epic victory, which the Yankees followed with an AL title win over the Royals and a World Series victory over the Dodgers.

Within a year, Martin was back again managing the Yankees. And within a year and a half, he was fired again. And so on. ...

9. Galen Hall (Florida Gators, 1984)
Florida's football program was reeling when Hall took over as head coach in the fourth game of the season. The man he replaced, Charley Pell, had been ousted after the NCAA charged Florida with 107 violations -- including money changing hands between players and agents. Florida was declared ineligible for a bowl game.

And the Gators had been struggling early in 1984 under Pell. He coached just three games -- a season-opening loss to Miami, a tie with Louisiana State, and an easy win over Tulane.

And Hall, Pell's former assistant? He led the Gators to eight straight wins to close out the season, as the Gators finished 9-1-1, ranked third in the nation by the AP and seventh by the coaches.

8. Wally Lemm (1961 Oilers)
In 1960, the Oilers won the first AFL Championship, under Coach of the Year Lou Rymkus. But the following season, with pretty much the same team, Rymkus' met with much less success. After pasting the Raiders in the season opener, 55-0, the Oilers lost three in a row, then tied the Patriots. With the team at 1-3-1, Rymkus was fired. Wally Lemm got the call.

Under Lemm, the Oilers showed what made them champs. "Wally was a terrific coach who got us together and we won the next nine straight," Dave Smith told Stanley Grosshandler of the Pro Football Researchers Association. "We were a high scoring team. (George) Blanda got 112 points, Bill Groman scored 18 TD's, (Billy) Cannon, 15, and Charley Hennigan, 12."

Under Lemm, the Oilers finished with 513 points in just 14 games, the first pro team to break that barrier. The Oilers beat the Chargers, 10-3 to win their second straight AFL title, and Lemm was named Coach of the Year. Early in 1962, Lemm took a job coaching in St. Louis. He would return to coach the Oilers a few years later.

Steve Fisher
Former Michigan coach Steve Fisher was known for his success in the NCAA tournament.

7. Steve Fisher (Michigan basketball, 1988-89)
Talk about bad timing -- just before the NCAA tourney started, Michigan's head coach, Bill Frieder, announced he taken a coaching job with Arizona State, to begin the following season. He thought he'd stick around and coach the Wolverines through the tourney.

He was wrong. Michigan AD Bo Schembechler told him to get lost, saying, "I don't want someone from Arizona State coaching the Michigan team. A Michigan man is going to coach Michigan."

Frieder said he felt bad for the Michigan team, but "they're good players and they'll do all right."

They hadn't done all right before in the tourney. Though terrifically talented year after year, the Wolverines never made it to a regional final with Frieder as head coach.

Steve Fisher, who'd been the assistant coach for seven years, took over, with a tournament game his first ever as a head coach. Michigan won six straight -- including an 80-79 overtime nailbiter over Seton Hall in the championship game -- to win it all.

6. Pat Riley (Los Angeles Lakers, 1981-82)
Westhead , who coached the pre-Showtime Lakers to an NBA Championship in 1979-80, was shown the door 11 games in to the season when, as the legend goes, Magic Johnson laid down his rule: get rid of Westhead, or trade me. Westhead was shown the door, sans ceremony. Assistant Pat Riley took over.

In fact, owner Jerry Buss and GM Jerry West had already decided to oust their head coach, for pretty much the same reason Johnson asked to be traded -- he didn't like Westhead's new, ultra-structured offense at all. It wasn't Showtime, and it didn't fit the team's talents. Said Buss in June, after Riley's Lakers won the championship, "'The irony, which makes what Magic did unfortunate, is that I had already decided to fire [Westhead]. But I don't think anyone will ever totally believe that.''

Fortunately, Riley was cool with the fast free-flow that Magic could create. And magic ensued. After a 7-4 start under Westhead, the Lakers won 11 of their next 13, and Riley coached the Lakers to a 50-21 record in their remaining regular season games, then to a 12-2 record in the postseason.

"Riley's greatest achievement," wrote Phil Elderkin in the Christian Science Monitor, "was the way he persuaded his players to simultaneously climb onto a bicycle built for 12." Among Riley's offcourt W's -- meshing mid-season signee Bob McAdoo with an established team, fixing tense relations between Johnson and backcourt-mate Norm Nixon, and simply getting along well with Kareem.

Paul Westhead
Paul Westhead was replaced for his structured Lakers offense before coaching high-scoring Loyola Marymount.

5. Paul Westhead (L.A. Lakers, 1979-80)
Just 14 games into the regular season, well-respected Lakers head coach Jack McKinney injured himself badly in a bicycle accident. The Lakers, then at 10-4, installed McKinney's assistant and close friend, Paul Westhead, as the interim head coach.

McKinney appeared physically able to return in February, but Lakers owner Jerry Buss, who professed to be concerned with McKinney's health, decided to stick with Westhead, who had taken over his friend's team without a hiccup. Westhead had things running smoothly -- and took L.A. all the way to the NBA title.

"Westhead has done a tremendous job -- as a teacher, as a motivator, and as a coach who got close to his players without ever letting them take advantage of him," wrote Phil Elderkin in the Christian Science Monitor late in the season. "In fact, that is probably his secret -- his ability to get along with people."

Westhead stayed (but not for long, as you'll see), McKinney, despite the fact that he had hired Westhead; despite the fact that the Lakers were, in many important ways, his team; despite the fact that he had a year left on his contract, was dismissed at season's end.

4. Harvey Kuenn (Milwaukee Brewers, 1982)
The Brewers became "Harvey's Wallbangers" after Kuenn, with only one game of previous managing experience, took Milwaukee all the way to its first (and still only) World Series appearance after replacing Bob "Buck" Rodgers in early June.

The Brewers beat the Angels in the ALCS, but lost to the Cardinals in a seven-game World Series.

Rodgers was fired with the Brewers in a 7-14 nosedive, in fifth place in the AL East at 23-24 and falling fast.

Kuenn, the team's hitting coach, had been a rookie of the year, eight-time all star, and batting champ in his playing days. He had an easygoing personality that the players loved. "A lot of players under Buck felt they had to prove themselves every time they walked on the field,'' Paul Molitor told the United Press shortly after Kuenn took over. ''With Harvey they feel a little more comfortable, and, I think, more relaxed.''

The Brewers thrived under Kuenn, winning their first four games, 19 of their first 26, and going 72-43 the remainder of the season to finish 95-67, edging out Baltimore for the AL East flag by one game. Kuenn was named Manager of the Year.

The new manager, who had gone through three major operations, including a leg amputation, in the years before becoming manager, led the Brewers to an 87-75 record in 1983, but was fired at the end of that season.

3. Larry Robinson (New Jersey Devils, 1999-2000)
With just eight games remaining in the season, Devils GM Lou Lamoriello fired coach Robbie Ftorek -- an interesting move, considering the Devils had the third-best record in the NHL at the time.

But the Devils had been slumping, losing 12 of its last 17 games, and Lamoriello saw the writing on the wall -- another early exit from the playoffs -- and also heard some grumbling from the players.

Robinson, a Hall of Fame player who been on six Stanley Cup champions as a Canadien, had the players' respect. An assistant, he took over and in his first game at the helm led the Devils to an 8-2 win over the Islanders. Early in the playoffs, Devils captain Scott Stevens said Robinson was "very positive, very confident, very approachable" and "very much a players' coach," the New York Times reported. "He tells us to play with confidence and have fun."

Boy, did they have lots of fun. Robinson led a rejuvenated and loose Devils squad to playoff wins over the Panthers, the Maple Leafs, the Flyers (a great comeback from a 3 games to 1 deficit), and finally, a win over the Dallas Stars in the Stanley Cup finals.

2. Lenny Wilkens (Seattle Supersonics, 1977-78) Sonics head coach Bob Hopkins got the boot after the Sonics started with a 5-17 record, the second-worst in the NBA. The usually loyal Seattle fans abandoned the team in droves.

Wilkens, the Sonics personnel director at the time, took over on Nov. 30, and Seattle went 42-18 the rest of the way -- good enough to make the playoffs with a 47-35 record. Wilkens didn't just guide the Sonics, he transformed them, benching three opening game starters and trading the other two, Mike Green and Slick Watts. With the new, young, lineup, the Seattle became, almost literally, an entirely new team.

"The Sonics were a tense and bickering team under Hopkins," wrote David DuPree in the April 25, 1978 Washington Post. "Under Wilkens they are loose and happy. As a player, Wilkens was smooth, cool and always in control of the game. This is a trait he has transmitted to his team."

The Sonics used their speed, youth, and strong defense to keep cooking in the playoffs, beating the Lakers, Trailblazers, and Nuggets to reach the NBA Finals. They took the Washington Bullets all the way to Game 7, but would have to wait until the following season to win the NBA Championship under Wilkens.

Jack McKeon
Marlins fans gave Jack McKeon high-fives for giving them a World Series title.

1. Jack McKeon (Florida Marlins, 2003)
The Marlins' great 2003 run is still fresh in our minds, and the fact is, the Marlins wouldn't have made it to the playoffs -- don't even think about winning the World Series -- without the old codger at the reins.

On May 11, McKeon took over a 16-22 team that had lost seven of its last eight games, after the Marlins fired Jeff Torborg.

"This is a better team than we've played,'' Florida GM Larry Beinfest said. "The fans here in South Florida deserve to have hope this summer. There is enough time left to turn it around and get back in it.''

Some doubted the 72-year-old McKeon's ability, though. "(He's) a guy that just sits in his office, smokes cigars and talks to the media," said ESPN's Rob Dibble.

Dibble (and many others) were wrong. The Marlins won their first game under McKeon, and didn't stop, going 75-49 the rest of the way to make the playoffs as a wild card team, then shocked the Giants, Cubs, and Yankees to win it all.

After 54 years in organized baseball, McKeon, who made some great moves during the season, won his first world championship, and was named Manager of the Year.

Also receiving votes:
Paul Owens (1983 Phillies)
Owens replaced Pat Corrales and led the Phils to the NL pennant.

Cito Gaston (1989 Blue Jays)
Gaston took over from Jimy Williams with the Jays at 12-24. Toronto went 77-49 the rest of the way, losing in the ALCS.

Charlie Grimm (1932 Cubs)
The Cubs won the NL flag after Grimm replaced Rogers Hornsby, but lost in the World Series.

Gabby Hartnett (1938 Cubs)
Hartnett took the Cubs, who started with Grimm as manager, to the World Series.

Joe Morgan (1988 Red Sox)
Midway through the season, the BoSox were 43-42 under John McNamara. Morgan led them to 46 wins in their final 77 games. Boston lost to Oakland in the ALCS, four games to none.




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