I’ve had the great fortune to have served in the coaching profession for the last 33 years. My greatest joys have come from working with young people on some 70 teams. Thousands of coaching decisions have been made involving games, matches, meets and athletes. Many decisions are carefully thought out and calculated, while others are made rapid fire by the seat of the pants. There is always pressure to show respect for your sport and to do what is best for your individual athletes and for the team.
Each season the coach goes through a process in hopes of getting the team to play at its best level. Some teams are big winners, while others struggle to eke out a win. In both cases, coaches learn and grow. In so many ways, a coach’s life is defined by his body of work. Over the years, I have probably garnered more respect than I have ever deserved, but I have also felt some heat from those who have had the benefit of forming their opinions after the fact.
This past week, we have read extensively about Mike Shanahan and Bruce Bochy, two head men that have been criticized and celebrated for decisions that they alone were responsible in making. What we sometimes forget is that every coaching decision brings success to one side and failure to the other. As a result, coaches are constantly adjusting to the situation at hand.
Shanahan is the future hall of fame coach who has been called upon to resurrect the Redskins. The Skins have struggled since the first departure of Joe Gibbs. Recent Redskin coaches have been saddled with a deep-pocketed owner who has been too involved in football decisions. The roster has been infused with big name players who have shown varying levels of greatness at previous stops, but have often arrived at Redskin Park with more baggage than just their suitcase. Shanahan was brought in over the off-season with the promise of the authority to make most of the football related decisions. While much of the preseason press dealt with the Haynesworth soap opera, the offense was being rebuilt around Donovan McNabb. McNabb is a gifted quarterback, but at age 33 and 240 pounds, he has probably seen his best days. All in all though, the Skins have had a decent season … until last Sunday. Washington played down to the competition in losing for the second season in a row to the improving (but still lowly) Detroit Lions. Washington played awfully, but the blame for the loss fell on the shoulders of Shanahan, who made the decision to bench McNabb in the last two minutes. Rex Grossman entered the game, proceeded to fumble on the first play, and the Skins went home losers.
Shanahan’s decision instantly took him from “genious” to “idiot” status. In Shanahan’s defense, he had watched the Skins offense sputter the entire second half and apparently felt the need to try to create a spark. Grossman has never been confused with Peyton Manning, but he has been an NFL starter. Shanahan’s hunch failed, creating a firestorm in the ESPN world.
Bochy is the manager of the World Series Champion San Francisco Giants. Bochy was a fine big league catcher, and has now managed for 16 years in the majors. He has five division championships under his belt, but has also finished last or next to last in his division 8 times. His managerial career seems to be all or nothing. With the Giants, Bochy is blessed with an organization that understands the need to grow talent from within. The farm system has produced a great pitching staff, while the position talent appears to be two to three years away. With the exception of phenom catcher Buster Posey, the remainder of the Giants’ “retreads” have been carefully assembled by General Manager Brian Sabean.
Bochy’s decision elevated his status from a “.500 guy” (actually .495) to “brilliant manager.” The Giants had played the entire season with Juan Uribe at short and Pablo Sandoval at third. In a calculated risk (“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”), Bochy benched Sandoval for the World Series in favor of veteran Edgar Renteria. Renteria had previous World Series experience with Florida and St. Louis, but had spent most of this summer on the disabled list. Unlike Grossman, Renteria was flawless. He played steady defense at short, hit two huge homeruns, and batted .412 on his way to the MVP award.
Two experienced coaches made personnel decisions. One decision resulted in a negative outcome, while the other paid off in spades. From youth leagues, to high school, to college, to the pros, coaches make hundreds of decisions each day. We applaud their strategy when they’re successful, while we question their grey matter when things don’t quite work out.
It is the life of a coach, making all of his decisions in the present tense.