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Firing the coach to ignite the team

Across pro sports, dismissing a coach at midseason seldom propels a team into the playoffs. But some teams respond with marked improvement, including the NHL's Kings and Ducks this season.

February 09, 2012|By Helene Elliott
  • The St. Louis Blues' decision to change coaches and bring in Ken Hitchcock has worked wonders so far. However, not all coaching midseason coaching changes work out as well.
The St. Louis Blues' decision to change coaches and bring in Ken Hitchcock… (Carlos Osorio / Associated…)

The reason can be as vague as a sense that a team isn't motivated, or as obvious as a superstar's rebellion.

The decision to change a coach or manager during the season might be made early — the Detroit Tigers were 0-6 when they fired Phil Garner and replaced him with Luis Pujols in 2002 — or late, as when the New York Rangers dismissed Michel Bergeron with two games left in the 1988-89 season.

The switch made no difference in either case: The Tigers were 55-100 the rest of the way and the Rangers lost those two games and were swept out of the playoffs, leading to the dismissal of General Manager Phil Esposito.

Changing coaches or managers in season is a common tactic to jolt teams in Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL, but those moves only occasionally have dramatic impact. Firing an NFL coach in midstream is not as common — probably because of the relatively short schedule — and usually means the team has conceded the season.

The Ducks and Kings are among seven NHL teams that have fired their coaches this season and are among the few that have shown noteworthy improvement. The biggest gainers are the St. Louis Blues, who were 6-7-0 when Davis Payne was replaced by Ken Hitchcock but are 32-14-7 and challenging for the West lead.

Two coaching changes made during this lockout-shortened NBA season haven't helped much, and neither did their explanations, drawn from the general managers' book of cliches.

The Sacramento Kings (9-16 through Wednesday) were 2-5 when they replaced Paul Westphal with assistant Keith Smart.

"You start to keep seeing the same things over and over again," Kings president of basketball operations Geoff Petrie said, "You can't sit around and meditate forever about how you're going to approach them or try and change them."

The Washington Wizards (5-21) were 2-15 when they fired Flip Saunders in favor of Randy Wittman.

"We felt the team had become unresponsive and we will look to Randy to provide a different voice and a change in philosophy moving forward," Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said in a statement.

Translations? Desperation.

Here's a look at some memorable in-season changes over the years:

Can't tell managers without a scorecard

According to MLB.com, teams made 38 in-season managerial changes between 2000 and mid-2011 and only four of those new managers led their teams to the playoffs. None of the four changes last season — by the Oakland Athletics, Washington Nationals, Florida Marlins or Chicago White Sox — produced a playoff team.

MLB.com also found only 16 teams had reached postseason play after changing managers during the season and only two of those teams won the World Series. The 1978 New York Yankees were the first, after Billy Martin was fired and replaced by Bob Lemon, and the Florida Marlins duplicated that in 2003.

The Marlins' unlikely reversal was led by Jack McKeon, who took over after Jeff Torborg was fired. Torborg's handling of the pitching staff was questioned after four starters developed injuries and the Marlins were 16-22. "This is a better team than we've played," then-General Manager Larry Beinfest said. "The fans here in South Florida deserve to have hope this summer. There is enough time left to turn it around and get back in it."

Every general manager says that. In this case, he was right.

Under McKeon the Marlins finished 91-71 and won the NL wild-card berth. He was voted the NL manager of the year at age 72.

"They had the courage to go out and hire an old goat like me," he said after winning the award.

The 2009 Colorado Rockies were the last team to make the playoffs after changing managers in season. They were 18-28 on May 29 when they fired Clint Hurdle — who had led them to their first-ever World Series berth in 2007 — and replaced him with bench coach Jim Tracy, the former Dodgers manager.

"It came down from knowing it was the right thing to do for the organization and the right thing to do for Clint," General Manager Dan O'Dowd told the Denver Post after his team fell 24 games below .500 over two seasons.

Hurdle accepted responsibility for the poor results and added, "Hopefully, this will give them an opportunity to move forward in a much more consistent fashion."

It did. Tracy compiled a 74-42 record and became the first manager to lead a team to at least 20 games over .500 after being at least 10 games under .500. The Rockies got the wild-card berth but lost the division series to the Philadelphia Phillies.

Taking a chance

The Pittsburgh Penguins reached the Stanley Cup finals in 2008 but stumbled through a series of injuries the following season. They were out of a playoff position after 57 games, prompting General Manager Ray Shero to fire Michel Therrien and appoint Dan Bylsma, a low-profile former player with little minor league coaching experience. Bylsma's Penguins went 18-3-4, rose from 10th in the Eastern Conference to fourth and won the Cup.

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