Wednesday, November 29, 2000
Updated: September 13, 6:10 PM ET
Coach killaz I have known
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist
Paul Westphal just got snuffed as Seattle SuperSonics coach. He joins a rather large fraternity. They all end up there, sooner or later.
The assumption, and we can believe it's a good one, is that superstar Gary Payton -- with an assist from Vin Baker, one of his few as a Sonic -- did in Westy. On his way out, Westphal quoted John Wooden, the greatest coach in American team sports history, period, end of story, for the way he handled himself and his men. Westy said, "(Wooden) said out of 15 guys, five are with you no matter what, five are never with you, have their own agenda, and five guys are in the middle. You have to win over those five guys in the middle."
Paul Westphal is no John Wooden. And it wasn't the five middle guys who did Westy. It was a Coach Killer.
Who are the Coach Killers?
Their profile: Excellent players (or powerful general managers), often "franchise" players. They have to be, to win a power struggle with a coach. But a Coach Killer isn't necessarily a bad guy. It's usually a tough call. Not everybody is GP, who might not know or care that Westy had mad game in the '70s, when GP was just a little piss-ant trying to get a run on some battle-scarred East Oaktown hellhole.
Let us not get overly emotional about Westy either. He has been fired before. He's a coach.
In getting fired, Westphal has at least performed this public service: He has opened the door to the ESPN.com Page 2 Coach Killer File. Now, you be the judge. All the following are bona fide Coach Killers. At times, the coaches deserved to get done -- it was just their time. Sometimes, maybe they didn't. Apply your own logic, standards, morals, prejudices, guesses, random choices, whatever. You decide who the bad guys are.
Popped Paul Westhead in 1980. Westhead had lucked into the job after Lakers coach Jack McKinney fell off a bike and badly injured himself. Westhead, an assistant, came in and kowtowed to the wrong superstar (the aging one), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He demanded Earv slow the ball up, wait for Kreemie. Magic looked at him like he was crazy. You blockin' Showtime, baby! You in the way! Move!
Jerry West and Jerry Buss had a difficult decision in front of them. Westhead or Magic? Hmm. Shut the door on your way out, will you, Paul? Ironically, Westhead then became an up-tempo run-and-gun coach at Loyola Marymount for a while. Look at it this way: If Magic doesn't do Westhead, you never hear of Pat Riley.
Magic Johnson, Coach Killer. Bad guy, or good guy?
Had Dan Reeves taken for a ride in Denver in the middle '90s, after Elway took Denver to three Super Bowls with no weapons other than himself. To honor Elway's accomplishments, Reeves picked a UCLA sophomore quarterback named Tommy Maddox in the first round of the 1994 draft, with receiver Carl Pickens still on the board.
You see Elway's point, almost hear the dialogue with Denver owner Pat Bowlen: Wait a minute. I make his rep and instead of hooking me up some skill players, he drafts at my spot? Look, Pat, I love you, we've got deals going we'll keep going, the missus and yours get along, but you need to figure a way to move me, get what you can. I'm not in Dan's plans ... sure, Pat, I'll have some champagne ... no, you don't have to do that ... Next thing you know, Reeves is in the Meadowlands, trying to pass off Maddox on the Big Blue Faithful, who were even less forgiving than Elway.
John Elway, Coach Killer. Bad guy, or good guy?
Big Blue Faithful, Multiple Coach Killers. Bad guys, good guys, or the veritable salt of the earth?
Choked P.J. Carlesimo at practice one day, leading to deep, heartfelt outrage across America and snickers and head nods from players who had labored under Carlesimo in the NBA. P.J. brought a Full Metal Jacket drill sergeant mentality to jobs at Portland and Golden State. Neither place is Seton Hall; the people being screamed at were large professional athletes well past the age of 21. Bad blend.
P.J.'s manner might have hidden an insecurity that he had no pedigree as a player and not much of one as a coach. Let's be frank. P.J. making $3 million a year to coach hoop? All together now: steal-ing mon-ey. That's no reason to get choked, but look at it this way. Neil Reed got choked for free at Indiana.
Latrell Sprewell, Coach Killer. Bad guy, or Bobby Knight disciple or ... never mind.
Was supposed to turn around the Washington Mystics, the WNBA team with the best attendance record. In fact, Chamique, a sweet young lady and fine collegiate player, has the lateral quickness of a crocodile, something of a disadvantage on D. She is not Sheryl Swoopes.
Mystics coach Nancy Darsch was in the unenviable position of being the coach who pointed this out to Chamique, instead of being smart and lobbying the league to allow more zones. Chamique went public and said the Mystics would never win with Nancy as coach, never, never, never! Nancy took the honorable route and resigned; having already been Rebecca Lobo'd in New York, she pretty much knew the drill.
Chamique Holdsclaw, Coach Killer. Bad gal, or good gal, or just not very quick afoot?
The Boston Celtics
The franchise is a giant Coach Eater. You're always following Auerbach, is the problem. Rick Pitino came in, got total control, hired the players he wanted that would listen to him, only to find that, yes, they listened fine, they just couldn't beat anybody once he stopped talking. Pitino threatened to quit -- as coach -- if they didn't start playing D. Like they had switches in their asses they could flip, or something. They were already playing defense. The best defense they could, anyway.
The Boston Celtics, Coach Killers. Bad tradition or good tradition, or Always One Duncan Away?
Did himself. Hari-kiri.
My own all-time personal favorite. Did Ron Meyer in Indy, then June Jones in public on the sidelines in Atl when he was with the Falcons (and only with them because they went Run and Shoot, inflating his stats and ego). Where Magic and Elway had real philosophical differences with the coaches they offed, and were vindicated when their teams won multiple world titles, Jeff George's big concern is not how well the team does; it's how well and deep and often he throws the ball regardless of how the team does. And he does throw a beautiful ball. Just look at it, or ask him.
Once a season, with each new team he joins, like clockwork, some media-friendly DB like LeRoy Butler gets beat by one of George's 45-yard deep seam bullets, then after the game says, "Yeah, I got beat, but Jeff George is the only man in football who can throw that pass," which might or might not be true but definitely takes the heat off the DB for not getting there in time. Of course, they usually do get there in time, because George has this annoying habit (it must be annoying to his receivers, anyway) of holding the ball long after they've come out of their break, holding it, holding it, holding it, so he can challenge himself by getting the ball there deeper downfield, and coincidentally after the DBs have begun to recover. He hates to throw little checkdowns. Blitz him up the middle and his raison d'etre is gone.
After Indy and Atl, George lasted one year in Oakland. Gruden put him on roller skates when George actually said, "I'm shutting it down," after a chest injury. George then went to Minnesota. Why? Because he loves winter sports and Fargo? Or because of Moss and Carter?
Ooo, let me guess ... anyway, Denny Green wised up like Gruden. If Culpepper killed him, at least it wouldn't be because he was trying to throw a ball with no ripple somewhere into Eden Prairie.
Jeff George, Coach Killer. Good guy, or bad guy, or complete narcissist.
Czech Coach Killer. Did Ted Whatshisname so good and with so much ammo we couldn't even remember Ted's name after the hit. Was it Ted Giannoulous? No, that was the Chicken. Did somebody order a hit on the Chicken? Ted's own father wouldn't have recognized him, so far away from the game did Dominik Hasek drive him. Hasek shut it down until the Buffalo Sabres got rid of a Canadian-born coach who took them to the playoffs. Might be a deeper story, but since we don't know it, choose:
Dominik Hasek, Coach Killer. Good guy, bad guy, or Euro-botic Dominator?
Shanked Art Shell on the sidelines at the L.A. Coliseum a few years back, before the Raiders moved back to Oakland. Shell actually had a big-time winning record as Raiders coach, never did lose to Dan Reeves and John Elway. Expectations were high the year he got fired; during one game, on the sidelines, Shell wagged a finger at Hostetler, told him to stop turning the ball over, give the defense a chance. When Hostetler snapped back at him, Shell supposedly used the WB words, and we don't mean Warner Brothers. Hoss was lucky all Art did was say something, right, Howie?
It isn't fair to make Hoss a Coach Killer; by then Al Davis was looking for a way to let Shell down easy. It was Al who hired him in the first place, after all. The shame of it is, Art never got another shot. But what the hell, Art, you know you were good, I know you were good, Al knows you were good, Howie knows you were good, and now the folks at home know you were good. Maybe you'll get a shot in Atlanta one day. Who knows?
Jeff Hostetler, Quasi-Coach Killer. Good guy, or bad guy, or just a retread backup trying to get by?
Junior Griffey and Jim Bowden
Trader Jack McKeon has been running shops since I first hit the beats 25 years ago. Was running the A's then, on one of Charlie Finley's shoestrings; 25 years later he was running the Reds. Junior comes in, good power numbers but turns out to have rabbit ears. When your check stub has more numbers than your birth date, who cares what Marty Brennaman says on the radio? Junior does, apparently. He goes and busts a tender hammy trying to prove something when he should've known all along that he knows his body and Brennaman doesn't. Junior had an accomplice in doing Trader Jack -- Reds GM Bowden, who, warming to the taste of blood, did Ronny Oester before Oester even got the job.
Junior Griffey, Coach Killer. Good guy, or bad guy, or future World Series idol?
Jim Bowden, Coach Killer. Good guy, or bad guy, or future Yankee GM?
We've barely exposed the tip of the iceberg here. The Coach Killers are out there, lurking, in your city, and mine. Where will one strike next? We only hope that Grant Hill's broken foot doesn't wind up trippjng Doc Rivers. Tune in next week, sports fans, when me, you and Road Dog will delve into the greater mysteries of Allen Iverson and Larry Brown.
In the meantime, say a rosary for Norv Turner, if you care and that's your thing.
Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."