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Director of NBA Coaches Association blames firings on 'fear'

Published December 20, 2008 6:21 pm

Six coaches gone » Owner's patience thin as economy goes south
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In 25 years of working for the NBA Coaches Association, executive director Michael Goldberg says he "doesn't recall anything like" the outbreak of pre-Christmas firings that has rocked the organization's membership.

Goldberg's memory is fine, of course.

The fact is, there have never been six head coaches fired as early as mid-December in the history of the 62-year-old league.

So what gives?

Goldberg has a theory: "It's a very strange occurrence, but we're also living in very strange times as a nation and I'm not 100 percent sure these occurrences are not reflective of the mood of the country, which unfortunately is fear. People don't know what to do."

NBA owners, at least, don't seem to have the same patience as they do in a stronger economy.

"In trying to analyze this," Goldberg said, "I think there is a tendency -- today more than ever -- to put a premium on winning. And I can't argue with that. ... These franchises are such big businesses and they are so expensive to operate, you have to win to reap all the rewards -- selling tickets, selling suites, selling sponsorships."

With teams struggling early, Goldberg believes, ownership became "concerned that their seasons would be finished by the end of December. They looked at a vast wasteland in January, February and March, when nobody is coming to games, sponsors already squeezed by the economy are fleeing and nobody wants to buy season tickets for next year."

In that scenario, according to Goldberg, head coaches became the lightning rod for management's nervousness.

"One option -- the easiest option, probably -- is a coaching change," he said. "Then ownership sits back and says, 'Let's see what follows.'"

Bobcats coach Larry Brown told the Charlotte Observer , "I don't know if it's expectations or if it's a job [ownership] thinks anybody can do."

Underperforming players likely have long-term contracts and are "hard to trade," Brown said. " ... So it's just easier to get rid of the coach."

Already this season, Oklahoma City, Washington, Toronto, Minnesota, Philadelphia and Sacramento have changed head coaches. At the time of the firings, those six teams owned a combined record of 29-78.

Still, Goldberg doesn't believe in a quick-fix approach that starts by changing coaches.

"It is extremely shortsighted, in my opinion," he said. "... The idea of changing coaches at the first sign of trouble is a mistake. A critical element here is stability. There must be a feeling within a franchise that someone is in charge -- that there is a game-plan in place. ... Nobody wants to be 2-10, but it happens.

Saying he "understands the frustration of owners" when expectations are not met, Goldberg offers a handful of recent examples where head coaches survived tough times and later prospered.

"Coaching is more than giving a Knute Rockne speech," he said. "I look around and see Jerry Sloan, Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson. In baseball, there's Joe Torre. And what about Tampa Bay? They were 0-100 two years ago. This year, with the same manager, they were in the World Series. It's called stability."

It helps in the NFL, too.

"[Tom] Coughlin was hanging by a thread last year," Goldberg said. "But cooler heads prevailed and looked what happened: the Giants end up winning the Super Bowl."

The NBA's most surprising firing this season happened on Dec. 13, when Philadelphia canned Maurice Cheeks.

"He was widely acclaimed last year for taking the 76ers as far as he did," Goldberg said. "This year, 20 games into the season, he gets fired. I don't get."

Cheeks' problem involved expectations.

After last season, the 76ers spent $105 million on Elton Brand, Andre Iguodala and Louis Williams, with the idea of challenging Boston in the Eastern Conference.

When the Sixers started slowly and fell far behind the red-hot Celtics, Cheeks was fired.

No wonder Kevin McHale, who took over for Randy Wittman in Minnesota less than two weeks ago, addressed the pressures of the job when he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press , "This job, man, is like dog years. I'm, like, 50. But I feel 350."

Along with the six coaches who have been hired in the last four weeks, eight are in the first year with their respective teams.

That means 14 of the 30 NBA coaches patrolling the sideline this weekend have been on the job for less than six months.

Even Time magazine, not exactly known for its sports coverage, noticed the startling trend of coaching turnover in the NBA.

"Head coaches may be hearing all this talk about how 'we're all in this together,'" former coach and ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy told the magazine. "In reality, not really. Unless your name is Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Jerry Sloan or Doc Rivers, if you lose three games in a row, you're instantly on the hot seat. I really do believe that."

An unnamed team executive agreed with Goldberg that the sagging economy has created a uniquely unstable environment.

"Where teams would be patient with coaches before, today they have to act as quickly as they can," the executive said. "If a change on the bench can create value for your team, you're going to do it. You can't risk alienating your fans by just standing by while a team loses. In this climate, they won't be responding to those season-ticket notices come spring."

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CoachTeamDate FiredReplacementRecordx-Record Since Firing
P.J. CarlesimoOklahoma CityNov. 22Scott Brooks1-121-12
Eddie JordanWashingtonNov. 24Ed Tapscott1-103-9
Sam MitchellTorontoDec. 4Jay Triano8-92-6
Randy WittmanMinnesotaDec. 8Kevin McHale4-150-6
Maurice CheeksPhiladelphiaDec. 13Tony DiLeo9-142-0
Reggie TheusSacramentoDec. 15Kenny Natt6-181-1

x--through Friday