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In L.A., the hire ground is shaky

May 05, 2013|BILL PLASCHKE
  • Former Lakers coach Phil Jackson, left, and some current L.A.-area coaches who share the misfortune of not being Phil Jackson: (clockwise from top left) Clippers' Vinny Del Negro; USC football Coach Lane Kiffin; UCLA basketball Coach Steve Alford; and Angels Coach Mike Scioscia.
Former Lakers coach Phil Jackson, left, and some current L.A.-area coaches… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

He was once the face of college basketball, Hoosiers personified, a small-town kid who this spring brought a smile, a swagger and a national championship resume to the UCLA program.

Yet before he even coached one practice, someone had created a Facebook page titled "Fire Steve Alford."

He was once baseball's best manager, the steady force who brought the Angels their first and only world championship, the creator of what many now consider halo heaven.

Yet recently, a blog called "Halos Heaven" conducted a Mike Scioscia poll that asked: "Is he toast?"

He coached the best team in franchise history, his Clippers filling Staples Center and capturing the city buzz and charting a previously unimaginable bright future.

Yet there is not one, but two, Twitter accounts named after Vinny Del Negro's imminent demise, @FireVinnyDelNeg and @FireVinnyDNegro.

Welcome to the home of what has become the toughest job in sports, a place where perspective is forgotten, continuity is ignored and patience comes to die.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, May 08, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 68 words Type of Material: Correction
Coaching in L.A.: In the May 5 Sports section, a column about sports coaches in the hot seat said that New York Jets Coach Rex Ryan has coached the team for six seasons and that New York Mets Manager Terry Collins has headed his team for four seasons; in fact, Ryan has coached the Jets for four seasons and Collins is in his third season as Mets manager.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, May 12, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 68 words Type of Material: Correction
Coaching in L.A.: In the May 5 Sports section, a column about sports coaches in the hot seat said that New York Jets Coach Rex Ryan has coached the team for six seasons and that New York Mets Manager Terry Collins has headed his team for four seasons; in fact, Ryan has coached the Jets for four seasons and Collins is in his third season as Mets manager.

If you want to coach a major sports program in Los Angeles these days, lose your sense of pride, find your sense of humor and prepare to spend every waking hour apologizing for not being Phil Jackson.

Welcome to Hot Seat City.

"Coaches who come to L.A., you always think you're ready for it," said Warren LeGarie, a prominent agent for NBA coaches. "But you are never ready for it."

How could you be?

How could one of LeGarie's clients, Mike Brown, know that he would be fired just five games into this season? How could another of LeGarie's clients, Mike D'Antoni, know that he would be welcomed by thousands of Lakers fans chanting for another coach?

How could USC football Coach Lane Kiffin know that, mere months after going 10-2 with a depleted roster, he would have to interrupt a postgame news conference to announce he wasn't getting fired?

How could Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly guess that his owners would preach stability and continuity in assembling the most expensive team in baseball history, then refuse to extend his ordinary contract past the end of the summer?

"Coaches all want the beauty of L.A.," said LeGarie. "But there is a real difficulty in L.A."

Recent trends are turning that difficulty into a near impossibility. Suddenly, it seems, coaching a team in the best market in sports has become one of the worst jobs in sports.

Of the 10 coaches of Los Angeles' major sports programs, five are under such duress and could be fired by the end of the year: Kiffin, D'Antoni, Del Negro, Mattingly and Scioscia.

Four other coaches are secure only because they've been on the job less than 18 months: UCLA football Coach Jim Mora, UCLA basketball Coach Steve Alford, USC basketball Coach Andy Enfield and Ducks Coach Bruce Boudreau.

The coach here who is completely safe is the Kings' Darryl Sutter, and that's only because he won a Stanley Cup championship.

"Coaches literally are targets now," said LeGarie.

The bull's-eye has become bigger in Los Angeles than in the traditionally tough markets. As sports has slowly joined hands with entertainment, the entertainment capital of the world has become sports' toughest audience. From screaming columnists and snappy social media sites to chanting fans and pressured officials, coaches here are judged more skeptically, ripped more furiously and held to a higher standard than anywhere.

You think New York is mean? Rex Ryan has made the playoffs just twice in six seasons with the Jets, while Terry Collins has had a losing record over his four seasons with the Mets. You'd hate to coach in Philadelphia? Not if you're Andy Reid, who lasted 14 years there without leading the Eagles to a Super Bowl title.

In Los Angeles, at UCLA, Ben Howland made three Final Fours in 10 years -- and it wasn't enough.

"Clearly, the life span of a Los Angeles coach or manager is much shorter than ever," said Fred Claire, the general manager of the Dodgers when Tom Lasorda was in the middle of a 20-year reign as manager. "There just isn't patience among the decision-makers anymore. With all the money being spent, management thinks there's a magic wand that can fix everything."

Indeed, there is a record amount of Hollywood-style money flowing through Los Angeles' teams, and coaches are drowning in its wake.

Howland's firing was at least partly due to his inability to fill the expensive new Pauley Pavilion, and entirely possible because of the new Pac-12 TV contract that gave UCLA officials the funds to pay him off.

The Lakers' new billion-dollar TV deal with Time-Warner has placed a more desperate emphasis on winning, and allowed them to make impulsive changes -- see: Mike Brown -- when they don't win.

The expectations for Don Mattingly increased, and the patience with Mike Scioscia decreased, in direct proportion to the amount of money both franchises recently spent for star players.

"You're talking wealthy, high-profile teams with one objective," said George Belch, a professor in San Diego State's sports marketing program.

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