By Jim • 

Always tricky timing when firing a head coach

During my long high school coaching career, I witnessed the firing of three football coaches, a pair of basketball coaches and a baseball coach or two.

Most coaches are fired because they don’t meet expectations, but some are fired even though they produce winning teams year-after-year. Like the Denver Nuggets’ George Karl, who was tossed out following the Nuggets’ elimination from the postseason playoffs after one round. Karl, for nine seasons in Denver, had qualified his club for postseason play, and he had a solid winning record plus years of experience in the NBA. The real salt in the wound came just a short time after he was named coach of the year when the team brass said thanks a lot, but so long. Oh, and by the way, that coach of the year award will come in handy if you apply for another job in the NBA.

At the high school level, a young basketball coach at West Salem High was fired this season right after his team won the Central Valley League title with an outstanding 23-3 record that spoke to the body of work both the coach and the players had contributed to the program. Insiders said parents didn’t approve of the way the coach handled his players — although some of the team’s stars didn’t agree with that assessment. In any event, he’s looking for another coaching and teaching job while a veteran coach has already been hired to fill the West Salem position next year.

Firings like these, for the most part, raise a few questions at the time, but soon fade from memory. And every coach, when he enters the profession, knows that if he’s not successful (most athletic directors and school principals meet frequently with coaches to set and review goals these days), he may get the pink slip. Yes, while winning is the goal (why play the game if you don’t set winning as an important goal?), there is more to athletics than winning. Character building, teaching life lessons, learning how to battle and defeat adversity, creating relationships — and more — are all important aspects of any sport.

But, unfortunately, for a coach, producing winning teams at most levels above summer leagues is the goal that is underlined by team officials. If you don’t win, see ya, you’re on the road again. It happens every year, but as in the case of George Karl, I’m not sure if I can ever get used to the fragile tenure of a professional or college coach let alone the high school mentor who doesn’t win enough games to please the higher-ups.

Sure, if the coach is abusive to his players and doesn’t follow policy, send him down the road pronto. But, a note to athletic directors at the high school level: mentor a coach, help the coach set reachable goals and hold frequent performance evaluations. Be flexible and try to see the whole picture. Look at how many key kids have been injured or ill during the season; help the coach recognize his weaknesses and improve his coaching techniques and style. Help him to build a program that is sustainable, not one that runs on all cylinders for a short cycle, then returns to mediocrity.

That advice, at the professional level, would probably get me run out of town. Professional coaches and managers are paid big money, and just how many general managers or team presidents really think a part of their job description is coaching coaches? No, long-time pros like George Karl know that getting past that first or second round is paramount, and those coaches who don’t can expect to be pink-slipped at the whim of the club’s administration, including the rich owners.

The good news is that men like Karl, if they so desire, will land jobs in other destinations; however, in the business of professional sports, this process is kind of like pushing your way through a revolving door, The next stop could be Chicago, New York, Portland or pretty much anywhere.

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