Friday, February 22, 2013

Top 10 Best Coaches In New York Sports History (through 2012)

Yesterday, I posted an updated version of the 10 worst.  Here's the 10 best.

Eligibility: Has to be with a major league team. If I go to colleges, that means I have to go out to the suburbs and consider Rutgers, Princeton and Army... and they really don't feel like "New York teams." So, sorry to Clair Bee of Long Island University, Nat Holman of City College, Howard Cann of NYU, and St. John's bee-ball bosses Joe Lapchick, Frank McGuire and Lou Carnesecca. And I won't even consider a manager/head coach unless he won at least one World Championship in his sport.

Honorable Mention to those New York Tri-State Area head coaches who didn't make this list despite winning World Championships: Miller Huggins, Yankees, 1923, '27 and '28; Bucky Harris, Yankees, 1947; Ralph Houk, Yankees, 1961 and '62; Davey Johnson, Mets, 1986; Earl Potteiger, football Giants, 1927; Steve Owen, football Giants, 1934 and '38; Jim Lee Howell, football Giants, 1956; Frank Boucher, Rangers, 1940; Mike Keenan, Rangers, 1994; Jacques Lemaire, Devils, 1995; Larry Robinson, Devils, 2000; Pat Burns, Devils, 2003; and, so far, Joe Girardi, Yankees, 2009.

Dishonorable Mention to Leo Durocher, Dodgers 1938-48 and Giants 1948-56. True, he led 2 New York baseball teams to Pennants -- something only Yogi Berra has also done -- and helped the restore the Dodgers from a joke franchise into a powerhouse. But that was much more due to the maneuverings of executives Larry MacPhail and Branch Rickey. And we know that Durocher cheated to get the Giants the '51 Pennant. To say nothing of how he turned coat from Dodgers to Giants. That was simply not done. Besides, there was only room for one libertine New York baseball manager on this list.

Tom Coughlin?

Mention both Honorable and Dishonorable to Billy Martin, Yankees 1975-88 (on and off). He was an alcoholic, a womanizer, a free-spender, an umpire-baiter, a lunatic and a paranoiac -- everything Leo the Lip was. But Billy the Brat had less to work with. True, he had Reggie Jackson -- against his will -- but he never had a Willie Mays.

And he still led the Yankees to the 1976 Pennant and the 1977 World Championship. With one more good starter, who knows, he might've gotten the Yankees at least the Division Title in 1985. The relationship between Billy and Yankee owner George Steinbrenner has been likened to that between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton: They couldn't live with each other, but neither could they live without each other. Who knows what Billy could have done if George had simply let him manage... aside from George stepping in in August 1977 and telling him, "Billy, bat Reggie 4th, or you're fired." That, as Lisa Swan of Subway Squawkers pointed out in a comment the first time I posted this list (when I had Billy ranked 10th), was one time George knew better than Billy.

10. Gil Hodges, Mets 1968-71.  The great 1st baseman of the 1950s Dodgers only managed 4 seasons in New York, and only once in his career (including his earlier managing job with the Washington Senators) did he ever win more than 83 games in a season. But that was in 1969. A "miracle"? Not with Gil Hodges around. It shouldn't shock anyone that the even-tempered Hodges outmanaged the hotheaded Earl Weaver of the Baltimore Orioles in the 1969 World Series.

Gil died of a heart attack, on the eve of his 48th birthday and the 1972 season. I wonder how Met history might have been changed had he simply still been alive on June 15, 1977 (he would've been just 53), and had been able to protect Tom Seaver from M. Donald Grant. Maybe it wouldn't have made a difference, because, once Mrs. Payson was no longer around to protect anyone, Grant probably would've fired Gil anyway. Face it, if he could trade Seaver, he could pretty much do whatever he wanted.  It was only the sale of the team by Mrs. Payson's dimwitted daughter that stopped him.

That Hodges is not yet in the Baseball Hall of Fame can be explained by the fact that Hall voters do not combine achievements as a player and as a manager: You can be elected as one or the other, but not both.  But the Mets retired his Number 14, and elected him to their team Hall of Fame.

9. Joe McCarthy, Yankees 1931-46. They called him "a push-button manager," and the fact that he inherited Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey, Red Ruffing and Lefty Gomez prevents him from rising higher on this list. Then again, Marse Joe always knew which buttons to push.

The Yankees won the Pennant under his leadership in 1932, '36, '37, '38, '39, '41, '42 and '43, winning the World Series in all by '42. Seven World Series: No manager has ever won more. In postseason play, his teams were a whopping 29-10, including sweeps in '32, '38 and '39.  Oddly, even though he was managing in the major leagues as late as 1950, he never wore a number on his uniform.  But he is in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the Yankees have honored him with a Plaque in Monument Park.

8. Tom Coughlin, Giants 2004-present.  His regular season record currently stands at 83-61, a solid .576.  He's 8-3 in postseason play.  And, in the 2007 and 2011 seasons, just when it looked like the players were about to revolt and lead to his firing, he settled everybody down, righted the ship, and led Big Blue to win the Super Bowl.  That alone would get him into the Top 10.  The fact that both of those wins are against the cheating bastards from Foxboro makes it all the sweeter.  Face it, when a team comes into the Super Bowl undefeated, and is going for a perfect season, it takes a damn good coach to prevent it.  George Allen couldn't do it in 1973, but Tom Coughlin did it in 2008.

7. Joe Torre, Yankees 1996-2007. Another "push-button manager"? Unlike pre-1969 managers, Joe had to through not just one round of postseason play, but two; and unlike 1969-93 managers, he had to go through not just two rounds, but three. He won 17 postseason series, a total matched only by Tony LaRussa.  (Bobby Cox? 12.) He was 17-8 in postseason series and 76-47 in postseason games. He won 6 Pennants and 4 World Championships. And he raised the Yankee legacy higher than anyone had before.

Sure, some of his moves (particularly with pitchers) seemed baffling, especially later on in his career. But "Clueless Joe," the name the Daily News gave to him on its back page after he was hired? As Joe McCarthy would have said, "My God, man, you were never that!"

He is not yet eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame, but the Yankees have kept his Number 6 out of circulation, and when he is elected, it seems likely that the number will be retired, and a Monument Park Plaque dedicated.

6. Lester Patrick, Rangers 1926-39. The Rangers' head coach for their first 2 Stanley Cups (1928 and '33) and general manager for their first 3 (add 1940), he built the team that boxing promoter and Madison Square Garden big kahuna George "Tex" Rickard founded. (They were named for Rickard: "Tex's Rangers.") The Silver Fox had already been a great player, as had his brother Frank Patrick, and both would be elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame as players rather than "builders" (the HHOF's name for coaches and executives).  But both men -- sometimes together, sometimes not -- made their biggest marks in suits rather than sweaters.

Lester's greatest achievement came in Game 2 of the 1928 Stanley Cup Finals against the Montreal Maroons, when, at age 44, he had to substitute for his injured goalie Lorne Chabot. He volunteered, having played the position only once in his life, and not having played at all in 12 years (he had been a defenseman).  Lots of players have since played to that age and beyond, including some goalies, but at the time it was unusual.  Putting on a Number 16 jersey (the NHL mandated uniform numbers starting with the 1926-27 season), he told his players, "Boys, don't let an old man down." With their help, he allowed just 1 goal as the Rangers beat the Maroons in overtime and went on to win their first Cup.  It made him the oldest player ever to play in the Finals, a record that still stands.  (In 2008, Chris Chelios was with the Detroit Red Wings at age 46, but did not appear in the Finals.)

He stepped aside for his former best player, Frank Boucher, and watched as Boucher led them to the '40 Cup. Put it this way: The Rangers didn't win a Cup without either Patrick or Boucher being involved until the franchise was 68 years old.

But as glorious as Patrick's career was, he wasn't the best hockey coach in Tri-State Area history. That would be...

5. Al Arbour, Islanders 1973-94. Arbour, who had been a pretty good defenseman in Chicago, Toronto and St. Louis, took a 2nd-year expansion team, got it to the Stanley Cup Semifinals in only their 3rd season (beating the Rangers in the process), and built a force that dominated the division then named for Lester Patrick from 1978 to 1984, eventually reaching 5 straight Cup Finals and winning 4 straight Cups -- in each case, still a unique achievement for an American hockey team. From April 1980 to May 1984, he won 19 straight postseason series -- a record for any coach, and for any team, in any sport, anywhere in North America.  It's hard to believe that the Islanders, who have been so mediocre for so long, could have been that dominant, but they were: The Nassau Coliseum was nicknamed "Fort Neverlose."

Arbour stepped aside after the 1986 season, but came back 2 years later, and in 1993 got them back to the Conference Finals. Put it this way: Under Arbour as head coach, the Isles have won 31 postseason series; with all others, they've won 1.

Having coached 1,499 NHL games, on November 3, 2007, at the request of Islanders coach Ted Nolan, Arbour was signed to a one-day contract to coach his 1,500th. At age 75, he became the oldest man ever to coach an NHL game. The Islanders beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 3–2, giving Arbour his 740th win. The banner honoring him with the number 739 on it, standing in for a retired number, was brought down from the Coliseum rafters, and was replaced with one with the number 1500. More even than Denis Potvin, Al Arbour, now 80, is the New York Islanders.  He is in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

4. Bill Parcells, Giants 1983-90, Jets 1997-99. He didn't just win games, he saved the reputations of franchises. Both the Giants and the Jets were jokes when he stepped in. He got the Giants to win Super Bowls XXI and XXV, stepped aside for health reasons, took the New England Patriots job (which, at the time, was not a job for a man with a heart condition -- but he hasn't had heart trouble since), got them into Super Bowl XXXI (but didn't win), and then saved the Jets from the 4-28 Rich Kotite disaster, getting them to the 1998 AFC Championship Game -- and they were leading John Elway and the Denver Broncos at the half at Mile High Stadium. The Broncos' talent won out, but the Big Tuna had brought Gang Green back from the abyss, as he had with Big Blue.

Parcells has the image of being what the average New York Tri-State Area football fan likes to think he is: Smart as a whip, but still in touch with his blue-collar roots (regardless of whether the jersey he wears over that blue collar is Giant blue or Jet green -- or even Rutgers scarlet), knowing just how much crap to take, and knowing what to do when you reach your limit; finding the balance between having good humor and being a tough bastard.

Of course, with the way Parcells has left teams, and where he's gone afterward, and how he's teased teams he's ended up not joining, he seems to be missing one quality that New Yorkers and New Jerseyans tend to hold in very high esteem: Loyalty.  And, whenever The One Great Scorer calls him to that great stadium in the sky, Parcells will have to answer for foisting Bill Belichick on America.  But he is finally, rightfully, in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

3. Leonard "Red" Holzman, Knicks, 1967-82. Boston Celtics fans will say that their own Red Auerbach was the coach who invented modern pro basketball; but then, Auerbach was also the general manager who got the players, not just the coach who led them. Not having that amount of control, Red became the model for all NBA coaches who followed him.

Before him, the Knicks had been 0-for-3 in NBA Finals. With him, they won 2 out of 3, beating Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and the Los Angeles Lakers in 1970 and '73, losing to the Lakers in '72. Keep in mind, the Knicks were the last of the "old" New York teams to win a World Championship; even the Mets and Jets, less than 10 years old at the time, had beaten them to it. That's what made 1970 so special. In '73, on the way to the Finals, they became the first team ever to beat the Celtics in a Playoff series Game 7 at the Boston Garden.

A very good player in the 1940s and '50s, who understood teamwork like few coaches ever has, he taught it to his players, leading with respect rather than fear like a Vince Lombardi would. He made a work ethic something to embrace, rather than something to consider drudgery. And still, his teams added sizzle to their steak. The 1970 Knicks, along with the 1955 Dodgers and 1969 Mets, are probably one of the 3 most beloved single-year sports teams in the City's history.

Red is the only man in the Basketball Hall of Fame based on having coached a professional team in the New York Tri-State Area, and a banner with the number 613 on it, signifying his regular-season wins as Knick head coach, hangs in Madison Square Garden, standing in for a retired uniform number.

2. John McGraw, Giants 1902-32. More even than Connie Mack, the Little Napoleon was the defining baseball manager of the first one-third of the 20th Century. A star 3rd baseman in the 1890s, he took his win-at-any-costs attitude to the Polo Grounds and turned the baseball Giants from the worst team in the majors at that point to the best in just 2 years. He won Pennants in 1904, '05, '11, '12, '13, '17, '21, '22, '23 and '24 -- the only National League manager to win 4 straight, and one of only 2 to win 3 straight and he did that twice. He won the World Series in 1905, 1921 and 1922.

In 1937, he and Mack were the first 2 managers elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Anyone who remembers him as an active manager would be over 85 years old, but he deserves to have his achievements remembered.  Although they haven't been in New York in over 55 years, the San Francisco Giants honor McGraw, and his favorite player, star pitcher Christy Mathewson, with "NY" signs with their retired numbers, as both served the club in the era before numbers were worn.

1. Casey Stengel, Dodgers 1934-36, Yankees 1949-60, Mets 1962-65. A former player of McGraw's, the Ol' Perfesser didn't do too well managing in Brooklyn. Nor in his next job, with the Boston Braves. He missed a few games after he was hit by a cab, and a Boston sportswriter named the driver as the man who did the most for Boston sports in 1943. Casey had a young Warren Spahn at the time, and had Spahn at the end of each man's career with the 1965 Mets. Spahn said, "I'm the only man who played for Casey both before and after he was a genius." And no matter what kind of genius he was, he could do nothing with the early Metropolitans, except promote them and make them lovable losers: "Come and see my Amazin' Mets! I been in this game 100 years, but they've shown me ways to lose I never knew existed before!"

But while he brought fans to the Mets, he brought championships to the fans the Yankees already had. They were in a transition when he arrived in 1949, with the stars that McCarthy managed starting to age -- and some of them, such as Joe DiMaggio, Tommy Henrich and Phil Rizzuto, didn't exactly like him or his managing style.

But he got his own guys in: Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, the aforementioned Billy Martin, and, of course, Mickey Mantle. Remembering McGraw's platoon style, lefty hitters against righty pitchers and vice versa, he had guys who were starting half the time and pissed off at him the other half, so they were always trying to prove him wrong by playing great when they did play -- thus proving both sides right.

He managed 12 seasons, won 10 Pennants to tie McGraw's record (and break Mack's American League record), and won 7 World Series to tie McCarthy's record. He won the World Series in 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952 and 1953, the only MLB team to win 5 straight. He won the Pennant in 1955, the Series in 1956, the Pennant in 1957, the Series in 1958, and the Pennant in 1960 before being fired, allegedly due to his age (70, although others have managed that long, and well, including Torre.)

As Newark Star-Ledger columnist Jim Ogle said, "Well, the clown did pretty well. He won 10 Pennants in 12 years, and he made the Yankee legend and mystique grow volumes." More than at any other time in their history, under Huggins, under McCarthy, under Houk, under Martin, even under Torre, these were "the lordly Yankees."

Both the Yankees and the Mets have retired his Number 37.  The Yankees gave him a Plaque in Monument Park, and the Mets gave him the equivalent honor by electing him to their team Hall of Fame.  The road around Shea Stadium, and now the one around Citi Field, were named Casey Stengel Plaza.  And the MTA rail yard between the ballpark and Flushing Meadow-Corona Park is named for him.

Was Casey Stengel the greatest baseball manager ever? The greatest game boss in New York sports history? It is my opinion that he is both of those things. The facts to support this opinion? As the man himself would say, "You can look it up."

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