JANUARY 19, 2007
This is another sports heavy post, just warning ya.
The big news yesterday in the sports world, among other stories, was that Marty Schottenhiemer had been re-hired as the San Diego Chargers head coach. Rumors and speculation had been flying around for 48 hours that Marty was going to be fired, due partly to his coaching meltdown and partly to his icy relationship with his boss, but in the end the Chargers brass decided to bring Marty back for atleast another year in a somewhat complicated contract.
Before people jump on the Chargers for re-hiring this guy, and a lot of people already have, we all have to realize that Marty Schottenheimer is a great football coach; in fact, he’s one of the most established in the NFL, and he’s well respected around the league. Marty is, by all accounts, a “player’s coach.” There’s something about the guy that feels good: guys like playing for him, and as a motivater in the locker room he’s supposedly unmatched. While his playoff record is only 5-12, his regular season record is great: he has the most wins on any coach who has never won a Super Bowl.
The Chargers were certainly faced with a dilemna: “Do we fire an undeniably great coach, who the players love playing for, simply because he has a rocky record in the playoffs? Do we really want to disrupt team chemistry at this point in our franchise’s history, when we have arguably the most talented team in the entire NFL, and will most likely be in the playoffs again next year?” With these questions facing them, the Chargers made the right decision: they offered a contract extension and gave Marty another chance. In these circumstances, it really isn’t right to fire a great coach for reasons like this.
A few years ago, the Boston Red Sox were faced with a similar decision. Grady Little, the manager of the team at the time, was leading the Red Sox against the hated New York Yankees in the 2003 ALCS: they were one game away from the World Series. And against all odds, in the final game of the series, the Sox were poised to travel to the Promised Land of the World Series, a land in which they had not triumphed in 85 years at the time. Aging superstar Pedro Martinez was pitching in the game: he had a season long history of losing his good stuff, dramatically, around the seventh inning. On this particular night, Pedro pithced well into the sixth inning, and the Sox did enough on offense so that the game was in their hands. And then, in the seventh inning, the seams started come undone: the Yankees started hitting Martinez, and though they were able to get out of the inning relatively unscathed, it seemed dramatically obvious that it was time to bring in the bullpen, who had been very good up to this point. So what happened? Inexplicably, Pedro was left in the game, and as confused, frightened, and enraged Red Sox fans watched around the world, Pedro was shelled and the game was tied. Pedro was yanked, but the damage was done: in extra innings, the Yanks won on a walk-off homer. It was a horrible, horrible night for Red Sox fans.
At this point, we need to talk about Grady Little. Little, in his two years with the Red Sox, was a very, very good baseball coach. He was a simple country boy who gave amusing press conferences, but he got the job done: the Sox played very well under him, and the general consensus was that he was a “player’s coach.” The guys on the team really liked playing for him: he knew how to manage a clubhouse, let the guys with egos have their way, and generally steer the ship in the right direction. That’s really all you have to do as a baseball coach. Grady excelled at this: there wasn’t a mean streak in the guy, but he got them to work. But Grady had some problems, which became noticable to anyone who followed the Sox through the regular season: he made bone-headed decisions during games. In fact, some of them were downright inexplicable for a major league manager. He pulled batters out of games at the wrong times; he left pitchers in for too long and didn’t go to the bullpen at the right times: in general, he was kind of a goofball, and the media and fans worried about this all season. It was not breaking news coming into the playoffs that Grady was somewhat of a loose cannon. But in what seemed to be a completely unlosable game, Sox fans just assumed the Grady would have enough sense not to doom everything to Hell. But he did. He dropped an atomic bomb on the Red Sox season and Red Sox fans, and this was unforgivable.
It didn’t take Red Sox management long to make a decision: they fired Grady Little, good coach that he was. Some in the local media brought up the point that he was a pretty good coach and it was unjustified, but for the most part the consensus was “good riddance.” Those most affected seemed to be the players: I distincly remember captain Jason Variteck being visibly upset about the decision: the media and fans may have hated the guy, but the players liked him. The important part of the story is what happened next: the Sox hired another manager, another guy with very little charisma, who seemed if anything to be a little more bland. A few postitions on the roster were tweaked: and in the following season, the Sox swept the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. Grady Little forgotten.
Looking back, the Sox probably made the wrong decision: they fired a guy genuinely liked by the players, who could handle a high profile team and a vicious local media. They were only one inning and a bad decision away, surely Grady wouldn’t make the same mistake twice? Why fire the guy just for one bad decision? The reason: because, inevitably, the same or similar mistake would be made again. Some people learn from their mistakes, some don’t: Grady is one of the latter. When the leader of a team, or business, or government, or anything of this nature, is a liability, despite his popularity and ability to lead, he or she simply has to go.
And this is why, by making the right decision and keeping a respected head coach, the Chargers have handicapped their team. Throwing Marty’s record out the window for the moment, I have watched two playoff games which prove to me that he will almost certainly never win a Super Bowl: the game in the first round against the inferior New York Jets two years ago, when he played “Marty Ball”, a term named after himself in which ultra-conservative tactics allow the other team to win despite being the lesser team; and this past Sunday’s game against the Pats, in which he inexplicably played too aggressively and made some of the most bizarre coaching decisions anyone has ever seen, costing his team in the end. I would not be surprised at all if the San Diego Chargers make the Super Bowl next year, perhaps even listed as favorites in Las Vegas: but deep in my heart I know Marty will never, ever, win the big game. He will find a way to screw it up, despite being a great coach. The Chargers should have done the what the Sox did two years ago: make the wrong decision, and do the right thing.