Monday, October 4, 2010

Top 10 Worst Coaches in New York Sports History

It's official: The Mets have given a rather imperative directive to manager Jerry Manuel and general manager Omar Minaya: In the words of the immortal Ralph Kramden...

Get out. Get out! GET OUUUUUUUUT!

Shee-eesh! What a grouch!

Well, you'd be a grouch, too, if you'd had to put up with those two.

Since the tenures of Manuel and Minaya are now finished, I can now consider them for this list and the next.

Top 10 Worst Coaches in New York Sports History

I'm going to limit "history" to 1920 on forward, since we have a much more detailed record of what they've done, and it's also the beginning of baseball's Lively Ball Era, the founding year of the NFL (with the Giants having been founded in 1925), and the first full decade of the NHL (with the Rangers having been founded in 1926). This pretty much absolves the worst manager in Yankee history, Harry Wolverton, who managed them for just 1 season, 1912, and went 50-102. (Say this for George Steinbrenner: Of all the guys he hired and fired as manager, he didn't allow any of them to stay long enough to do serious damage.)

Note that these are not necessarily managers (in baseball) or head coaches (in the other sports) who put up losing seasons, but the list also includes those who had presumably good teams that blew it late in the regular season or in the postseason.

Note also that, since they won with the Yankees, Casey Stengel and Joe Torre are absolved of their awful performances managing National League teams in New York (both with the Mets, Casey also with the Brooklyn Dodgers).

I'm also limiting this to the 4 major league sports, which means college coaches, the leaders of the WNBA's Liberty and pro soccer's Cosmos, Arrows and MetroStars/Red Bulls are off the hook. (Terry Shea, Craig Littlepage, Mike Jarvis, Pat Coyle, and Juan Carlos Osorio, you can all thank me later.) And expansion-team coaches (such as Casey with the Mets, and those of the early Titans/Jets, Nets, Islanders and Devils) get a free pass.

I could find no Devils coach who lasted long enough to have more than one significant postseason failure without also winning a Stanley Cup, unless you want to count Lou Lamoriello himself, who was a really good coach at Providence College but not at the NHL level.

Not quite making this list is Jerry Manuel, Mets, 2008-10. At 204-213, .489, he wasn't good, but he only had 2 1/2 seasons, and, let's face it, the Joe Torre of 1996-2003 was not going to win a Pennant with what Omar Minaya gave Manuel. This also absolves Willie Randolph. But, boy, am I going to let Minaya have it when I do the list of the Top 10 Worst Executives in New York Sports History.

10. Allie Sherman, Giants, 1961-68. 57-51-4, .528. Doesn't look like such a bad record, does it? Well, in 1961, he inherited a team that had already been to 3 of the last 5 NFL Championship Games, and had won the title in 1956. He got them back to the title game in each of his first 3 seasons. He lost the 1961 title game to the Green Bay Packers, 37-0 in the snow at Lambeau Field. He lost the 1962 title game to the Packers, 16-7 on a frozen field at Yankee Stadium. The Packers were 13-1 that season. He lost the 1963 title game to the Chicago Bears, 14-10 on a frozen surface at Wrigley Field, with quarterback Y.A. Tittle injured during the game. Can't fault him for any of those losses. Then everybody seemed to get old at once in 1964, including Tittle and Frank Gifford playing their final seasons. From 1964 onward, he was 24-43-3 for a .364 percentage, and in 1968, the fans at Yankee Stadium sang, "Goodbye, Allie" to the tune of "Good Night, Ladies," a precursor to "Joe Must Go" (Walton), "Ray Must Go" (Handley) and "Fi-re Ko-tite!" (Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap!) Still, Allie did get them to those title games, and he faced a better team each time.

9. Mike Milbury, Islanders, 2 terms between 1995 and 1999. 57-112-24, .358. Perhaps his biggest problem was that, at the time, the Atlantic Division had very strong teams in New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington, and, sometimes, Madison Square Garden. Or, perhaps, his biggest problem was Islander ownership not having money to spend on good players. Or, perhaps, his biggest problem was that his general manager was an idiot. Who was his general manager? Mike Milbury.

8. Phil Watson, Rangers, 1955-59. 119-124-52, .492. The only man to coach the Rangers at least 4 full seasons with an overall losing record. He did, however, win 2 Stanley Cups as a player, with the 1940 Rangers and the 1944 Montreal Canadiens.

7. Alex Webster, Giants, 1969-73. 29-40-1, .420. Allie's replacement had been a very good player, once the G-Men's all-time leading rusher. Maybe putting him on this list is a little harsh, because he didn't have a whole lot to work with. But no Giant coach who lasted that long had a record that bad. And by the way, Ray Handley, 1991-92? He did go 8-8 his first season, and 6-10 the next, but he was only there for 2 seasons, not long enough to truly do some damage, so he doesn't get on this list. Nor does the other "Must Go" guy, Joe Walton of the 1983-89 Jets. He did get them to the Playoffs twice, despite being in the same division at the same time as Dan Marino's Dolphins and a pretty good Patriots team. It was the rise of Marv Levy's Bills that really doomed him.

6. Isiah Thomas, Knicks. 56-108, .341. Only 2 seasons, so I can't rank him higher. (Or would that be "lower"?) And, let's face it, like Milbury, he had an idiot for a general manager. Of course, like Milbury, his general manager was himself.

5. Eddie Donovan, Knicks, 1961-65. 84-194, .302. He was just 43 years old when he left the head coach's post, and never coached another game in the NBA. However, let the record show that he became the team's general manager and, with head coach Red Holzman, built the 1970 and 1973 NBA Champions. So while he's on the list of the Top 10 Worst Coaches, he would also make, assuming I go on to make the list out, the Top 10 Best Executives.

4. Bill Fitch, Nets, 1989-92. 83-163, .337. He won 944 games in NBA regular-season play, got the Cleveland Cavaliers to their first-ever Eastern Conference Finals in 1976, won a World Championship with the Boston Celtics in 1981, and got the Houston Rockets to the Finals in 1986, and if the Celtics didn't have one of the best teams ever that season he might've won another title. But he also lost 1,106 regular-season games, more than any coach before him, and the last 2 NBA teams who thought he could be trusted were the Nets and the Los Angeles Clippers, the 2 "little brother teams." Only in his last season with the Nets did he get close to .500, 40-42. (Lenny Wilkens now has more losses, but Lenny also has the most wins, and is well over .500.)

3. Willis Reed, Knicks 1977-79 and Nets 1987-89. 82-124, .398. A truly great player, but great players often don't make good coaches. Aside from Stephon Marbury, he may be the only man ever to so badly cock up both area NBA franchises.

2. Chuck Dressen, Dodgers, 1951-53. 298-166, .642. A baseball season was 154 games back then, and in each of his 3 seasons, Dressen got the Dodgers to at least a 157th game. And he won 64 percent of his regular-season games. So how could he be so high on this list?

1951: The Dodgers led the National League by 13 games on August 11. They blew it, and faced their arch-rivals, the New York Giants, in a best 2-out-of-3 playoff. We all know how that ended: Bobby Thomson hits one out off Ralph Branca, and "The Giants win the Pennant!" Dressen had Branca and Carl Erskine in his bullpen. Erskine had a great curve, but Dressen brought in Branca, who had only a fastball, to face Thomson, who couldn't hit anything BUT a fastball, and who had already homered off Branca in the first game of the playoff. Branca didn't lose that Pennant, Dressen did.

1952: The Dodgers won the Pennant, but lost the World Series to the Yankees in 7 games. True, the Dodgers were without their best pitcher, Don Newcombe, who was serving in the Korean War -- but so was the Yankees' best pitcher, Whitey Ford. And Dressen trusted Billy Loes twice, with disastrous results.

1953: The Dodgers won 104 games, tying a franchise record that still stands, and ran away with the Pennant. Again, they lost to the World Series to the Yankees. Dressen still didn't have Newcombe, and the Yankees had Ford back (but then, Ford was serving in '51 and Newcombe hadn't yet been drafted), and Dressen trusted Johnny Podres 2 years too soon in Game 5, where he got rocked, and trusted Erskine too little in Game 6, and pulled him too early and the Yanks clinched.

After the '53 season, Dressen's wife told him to demand a three-year contract from Dodger owner Walter O'Malley. O'Malley's policy was to give his managers only one-year contracts, figuring it would motivate them more. Mr. and Mrs. Dressen wanted the security. O'Malley wanted the control and the fear factor. He fired Dressen, not for his mismanaging, but for his impudence. O'Malley hired Walter Alston, and 2 years later, the Dodgers finally won it all. (In fact, it was on October 4, 1955, 55 years ago today.)

Still, as my Grandma, an old Dodger fan from Queens would say, "Oh, that Dressen! He was so stupid!" I tried to tell her Bobby Valentine was dumber. She wouldn't buy it. She was right: Bobby V made his share of mistakes, but never got the chance to make as many big ones as Dressen.

1. Rich Kotite, Jets, 1995-96. Here we go, the one we cannot top. Or "bottom," as the case may be. Born in Brooklyn, grew up on Staten Island, went to that Borough's Wagner College, played tight end for the Giants, not at all a bad player -- although he did play for 2 guys on this list, Sherman and Webster. And he was an assistant coach under Joe "Must Go" Walton. Were these bad omens?

In 1991 and '92, he got the Philadelphia Eagles into the Playoffs. In 1993, 8-8 wasn't enough. In 1994, he got the Eagles off to a 7-2 start. Then, trailing the Dallas Cowboys by 17 points in the 4th quarter on a soggy afternoon, James Joseph scored a touchdown to pull the Eagles within 24-13. Kotite decided to go for the two-point conversion. Huh? Going for 1 would've gotten them within 10, just a touchdown and a field goal from a tie; going for 2 would've gotten them within 9, but the touchdown they still needed could've been the time to go for 2. The Eagles didn't get it, and lost. During the post-game press conference, Kotite went the Milli Vanilli route: He blamed it on the rain: "I must have read my chart wrong. It must have gotten wet." You mean you knew it was raining, and didn't have a protective sheet over the chart to keep it dry? How about this: Don't rely on the chart, dumbass! Down by 15, maybe you go for 2; down by 11, no way! The Eagles lost all their remaining games, finished 7-9, missed the Playoffs, and Kotite was fired. Crap like this is what makes people in Philly go up to cops and say, "Officer, I want to report a crime: The Eagles are killing me!"

On January 4, 1995, a date which lives in infamy -- and not just because it marked the first day as Speaker of the House for Newt Gingrich -- Jets owner Leon Hess announced that he had hired Kotite to be the team's head coach and, effectively, its general manager. Why Kotite? Well, he was a local guy, a blue-collar guy who could appeal to local fans. But Hess knew that Kotite had led the Eagles to a couple of Playoff berths. Words that Hess probably knew would outlive him: "I'm 80 years old. I want results now!"

He got results, all right. In 1995, the Jets went 3-13. One of those losses was the first win in franchise history for the expansion Carolina Panthers. (While the Panthers did reach the NFC Championship Game the next season, that first year they were only 4-12.) In 1996, the Jets had their worst season ever, 1-15. Two days before the team's '96 finale, GM Kotite fired coach Kotite. Owner Hess hired Bill Parcells, and got much better results, although Hess died before Parcells could get the ultimate result for the Jets, like he did twice for the Giants.

Kotite was just 54 years old when he left Weeb Ewbank Hall, but has never again even been hired as an assistant coach. Anywhere. Not the pros, not college, not even in high school. In 2004, in a book titled The Great Philadelphia Sports Debate, co-authors Glen Macnow and Angelo Cataldi, both hosts on Philly's sports-talk radio station WIP, took the question of who was the worst coach in Philadelphia sports history. Macnow said Doug Moe, who'd been a good coach with the Denver Nuggets, but was a disaster in his half-season with the 76ers. After Macnow's 2 pages detailing this, Cataldi said, "No, the worst coach in Philadelphia sports history was Rich Kotite," and then provided an argument that any prosecutor would love to have thought of for his closing.

Think about this: The worst team in the history of Philadelphia sports was the Quakers, who played one season in the NHL, 1930-31, and finished 4-36-4, for a "winning" percentage of .136 that makes the decades of ineptitude of the Phillies (pre-Charlie Manuel), A's and Eagles look brilliant by comparison. The worst single-season team in that city was the 1972-73 76ers, 9-73, .110.

In his last 39 games as an NFL head coach, with 2 different sets of players, Rich Kotite was 4-35. That's a percentage of .103. In neither case could he use the excuse of leading an expansion team, or not having a lot of money to spend. (Eagles owner Jeff Lurie was a Hollywood studio head, and Hess was an oilman, and both were billionaires.) Kotite is the worst head coach in the sports histories of both Philadelphia and New York.

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