Monday, January 4, 2016

Top 10 Best New York Head Coaches

Tom Coughlin resigned as head coach of the New York Giants today, at the conclusion of a 2nd straight 6-10 season, and a 4th straight season missing the NFL Playoffs. It's for the best, and probably a year or two too late.

But he's a Hall of Fame-worthy coach, and a good man -- in spite of being a Red Sox fan.

Where does he rank in the pantheon of New York Tri-State Area head coaches? I first did this list on October 8, 2010, now over 5 years ago -- and Coughlin has added a Super Bowl win since.

Top 10 Best Managers & Coaches In New York History

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 legendary basketball coaches Clair Bee of Long Island University, Nat Holman of City College of New York, Howard Cann of New York University, and St. John's University coaches 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.
* Joe Girardi, Yankees, 2009. (He still has a chance at another.)
* 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.

Dishonorable Mention to Leo Durocher, Dodgers 1938-48 and Giants 1948-56. True, he led 2 New York baseball teams to Pennants (the 1941 Dodgers and the 1951 and '54 Giants) -- something only Yogi Berra has also done (the 1964 Yankees and the 1973 Mets) -- 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 now know that Durocher cheated to get the Giants the '51 Pennant. To say nothing of how he turned coat from Dodgers to Giants. One does not simply do that. Besides, there was only room for one libertine New York baseball manager on this list.

Dishonorable Mention also 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 1 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.

10. Gil Hodges, Mets 1968-71. He only managed 4 seasons, 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 in the 1969 World Series.

Gil died of a heart attack, on the eve of his 48th birthday, and on the eve of 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...

9. Tom Coughlin, Giants 2004-16. (Well, the 2004 season to the 2015 season.) Throw in being the inaugural head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars from 1995 to 2002, and he's had just 2 NFL jobs in 21 season -- an astounding run in today's sports.

An assistant to Bill Parcells (who is on this list) on the Super Bowl XXV winners, he had also been head coach at Boston College, including the occasional home game at the old Foxboro Stadium. And then he goes and upsets the Foxboro-based New England Patriots in 2 Super Bowls. A quarterback at Syracuse University, and a quarterbacks coach at Syracuse and BC, he helped make a Heisman Trophy winner out of Doug Flutie, a pro quarterback out of Glenn Foley, one of the best passers of the 1990s out of Mark Brunell, and the most successful (if not, yet, the greatest) quarterback in New York history out of Eli Manning.

Did I mention the 2 Super Bowl wins? Let's put that in perspective: Only Owen (1934 and '38), Parcells (1986 and '90) and Coughlin (2007 and '11) have coached New York teams to 2 NFL Championships. (Weeb Ewbank won 3 World Championships in pro football, but 2 were in Baltimore.) And while Owen beat the '34 Chicago Bears and the '38 Green Bay Packers, and Parcells beat the '86 Denver Broncos and '90 Buffalo Bills -- in each case, no mean feat -- Coughlin had to beat the Patriots, who were much more favored than the teams that Stout Steve and the Big Tuna beat.

Coughlin's record as an NFL head coach is 170-150. 102-90 of that is with the Giants. The 68-60 with the Jags is a little misleading, as he coached them as an expansion team, but look at his 1st 2 seasons: 4-12, then 9-7 and upsets away to Buffalo and Denver to reach the AFC Championship Game. He's 12-7 in the postseason, including 8-3 with the Giants. 5 Division titles, 4 Conference Championship Game appearances, 2 NFC Championships, 2 World Championships. He belongs in the Hall of Fame.

Coughlin is the greatest coach in Giants history. But he is not the greatest coach in New York football history. More about that later.

8. 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 but '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.

7. Joe Torre, Yankees 1996-2007. Another "push-button manager"? Unlike pre-1969 managers, Joe had to through not just 1 round of postseason play, but 2; and unlike 1969-93 managers, he had to go through not just 2 rounds, but 3. He won 17 postseason series, more than any manager ever. (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"? As Joe McCarthy would have said, "My God, man, you were never that!"

6. Lester Patrick, Rangers 1926-39. The Rangers' head coach for their 1st 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. (Again, "Tex's Rangers.") The Silver Fox had already been a sensational player, as had his brother Frank Patrick, but both men -- sometimes together, sometimes not -- made their biggest marks in suits rather than sweaters.

His greatest achievement came in Game 2 of the 1928 Stanley Cup Finals, when Lester, at age 44, 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), and he allowed just 1 goal as the Rangers beat the Montreal Maroons in overtime and went on to win their 1st Cup.

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 player as well, 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 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.

He stepped aside after the 1986 season, but came back 2 years later, and in 1993 got them back to the Conference Finals. 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 returned 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 739-win banner honoring him was brought down from the Nassau Coliseum rafters, and was replaced with one with the number 1500. More even than Denis Potvin, the late Al Arbour was the New York Islanders.

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. So were the Patriots when he stepped in there. (1993-96. At the time, that was not the job for a man with a heart condition -- but he hasn't had heart trouble since.)

He got the Giants to win Super Bowls XXI and XXV, stepped aside for health reasons, took the Patriots job, 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 Broncos at the half at Mile High Stadium. The Broncos' talent won out, but the Tuna had brought Gang Green back from the abyss, as he had with Big Blue.

3. William "Red" Holzman, Knicks, 1967-82. Boston Celtics fans will say that their own Arnold "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 kind of control, Red, a student of Clair Bee at LIU, 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 1st 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 (winning a title with the 1951 Rochester Royals, the team now known as the Sacramento Kings), he understood teamwork like few coaches ever have. 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 the 1969 Mets, are probably the 3 most beloved single-year sports teams in the City's history.

2. John McGraw, Giants (baseball) 1902-32. More even than Connie Mack, the Little Napoleon was the defining baseball manager of the 1st 1/3rd of the 20th Century. A star 3rd baseman with the National League version of the Baltimore Orioles in the 1890s, he took his win-at-any-costs attitude to the Polo Grounds, and turned the 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. He remains the only NL manager to win 4 straight, and 1 of only 2 to win 3 straight, and he did that twice. He won the World Series in 1905, 1921 and 1922.

Playing on those 1921 and '22 Giants was an outfielder, a decent player, who studied the master well. Eventually, the student became the master of all of baseball.

1. Charles "Casey" Stengel, Dodgers 1934-36, Yankees 1949-60, Mets 1962-65. 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 Casey or his managing style.

But he took control of the transition, and got his own guys in: Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, 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 in The Bronx, winning 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, making the Yankees 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.)

When Casey was hired after the 1948 season, a lot of people, remembering him as a player, and as manager of the Dodgers and Braves, called him "a clown." As the late Newark Star-Ledger columnist Jim Ogle, long the director of the Yankees' Old-Timers Day proceedings, 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."

Was Casey Stengel the greatest baseball manager ever? The greatest game boss in New York sports history? Yes, and yes. That's my opinion. The facts to support this opinion? As the man himself would say, "You can look it up."

No comments: