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Toughest job in the major sports? Tough call

Over the past few days, some of the topics suitable for talk radio and the neighborhood bars include coaches. Is Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who is close to his 10th NBA championship as a coach, the best in basketball history? Is he the best coach in all team sports history? What about Rays manager Joe Maddon and his lineup choices and strategies? Can new Bucs coach Raheem Morris go from defensive backs coach to an NFL head coach? It gets us thinking about coaches. How much influence does a coach have over a game? A season? A team? In the four major sports — football, baseball, basketball, hockey — which coach has the most impact? Which has the least? Which coach has the toughest job? Here's a case for and against each of the four major sports.

Football

Argument for

. No sport relies more on coaching. A coach puts in schemes, calls the plays, makes constant adjustments during the game. Before every play, there is actual coaching. The coach is expected to make a snap decision that could decide game. You have fourth and 1, down by two with 2:40 left. Do you go for it? Try a long field goal? Punt? You have only a moment to decide.

.With a game only once a week, the preparation is more demanding and the outcome is crammed with pressure. A one-game losing streak is like a seven-game losing streak in baseball.

.With 53 players on the active and practice-squad roster, a football coach deals with more players than any other sport. It's more egos, more chances for trouble, more issues.

Argument against

. While the head coach is in charge, no sport delegates as much as football. There's a coordinator for defense, offense and specials teams as well coaches for every position. In some occasions, the NFL head coach is responsible for the sum, but not really any of the parts.

.No coach has more technology at his disposal. The football coach wears a head set, has access to photos and video and is constantly getting advice from others who are wearing head sets and have access to photos and video.

.No one has more help. Aside from the slew of assistant coaches, the NFL infrastructure has so many people to oversee every aspect of a player that the head coach rarely needs to involve himself in the minutiae that most bosses do.

Baseball

Argument for

. The manager's wheel is constantly turning. Not only does he have to manage that day's game — which includes making lineups, when to pinch-hit, defensive and pitching changes — he also has to manage future games. What he does today can impact what he can do tomorrow and the day after. A manager can never take a moment off.

. It's a long season. You are going to have injuries, players unhappy about playing time and losing streaks. A manager has to keep his team healthy, happy and optimistic. He does that by finding playing time and off days for everyone and motivating when it's nearly impossible to motivate.

. He is, for the most part, on his own. Sure, he has a pitching coach and a batting coach and a bench coach to offer advice. But, ultimately, every decision — bunt, steal, change pitchers, pinch-hit — is up to the manager. And because of that, every decision he makes is second-guessed on a daily basis by everybody.

Argument against

. No Win-one-for-the-Gipper speech is going to help a batter hit Roy Halladay or a pitcher keep A-Rod in the ballpark. Other coaches in other sports can change defenses or offenses. But in baseball, it really just comes down to pitcher vs. hitter and the manager really has no control on that outcome.

. Managers can play hunches, but many decisions are made simply by looking at data. This guy hits well against that guy so put him in the lineup. That guy struggles against that pitcher so give him the day off. Most play every day at the same position and same spot in the order. You bring your setup man in for the eighth and your closer for the ninth. Some decisions are paint-by-number .

. Expectations aren't super high. Consider this: Tony La Russa is considered one of the greatest managers in the history of baseball. Entering Tuesday, he had won 2,492 regular-season games. He had lost 2,173. That's a .534 winning percentage. If most people had a good day at work 53 percent of the time they would be fired.

Basketball

Argument for

. The coach is responsible for the style of play, both offensively and defensively, that often dictates whether a team is successful. As the game goes along, the coach has to make adjustments in play-calling and the lineup on the floor.

. A superstar in the NBA might be the biggest diva in sports and it's up to the coach to make sure that star is happy. Consider that Orlando's Dwight Howard is one of the most coachable stars in the NBA and even he got into it with coach Stan Van Gundy this postseason. Sometimes a coach has to swallow his pride or he moves on to a million jobs (like Larry Brown) because he can't stand his players any more.

. No sport has as many wannabe divas — the role players who think they're superstars. You need them to win consistently and a coach has to figure out a way to get them involved without upsetting the team's true star. It's easy to coach Michael Jordan, but it's a little harder to coach Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman.

Argument against

. An NBA coach has to deal with only 12 to 15 players. Of those, only 10 or so actually play. And of those 10, you only have to keep two or three happy. When you think about it, in most cases, if an NBA coach can keep his one superstar happy, everything else falls into place.

. The game really hasn't changed a whole lot in the past 25 years and there aren't any innovations to deal with — not like football. Some coaches have their pet wrinkles, such as Phil Jackson's Triangle Offense, but there isn't much an NBA coach hasn't seen.

. In the end, there's only so much a coach can do. Either he has that superstar player who can carry him or he doesn't. If he does have that superstar player, a coach can say, "Give the ball to LeBron and get out of the way.''

Hockey

Argument for

. A coach has to be able to reach every single player on his team because no sport relies more on a team concept than hockey. The other sports are often one-on-one match-ups, but hockey is five skaters working in unison to beat five other players also working in unison.

. It's the quickest game of the four sports and decisions on line match-ups and combinations must be made in an instant.

. It's the most physically demanding sport with two to four games a week for six months, not counting playoffs. No coach has a harder job motivating his players on a game-by-game basis than a hockey coach.

Argument against

. Hockey players have the least amount of ego in sports and no sport polices itself more than hockey. Players have accountability to motivate themselves and the leadership in hockey is a tremendous benefit to a demanding coach.

. A hockey coach gets not one, but two breaks in a game to revamp strategy. Plus, he has help from assistants who often run the defense and special teams, leaving the head coach less responsibility.

. An elite goalie can make a coach's job simple. A superstar goalie can mask a team's problems and deliver a Stanley Cup even though the 18 skaters are far from being the best — or best-coached — team in the league.

Our pick

A football head coach has a ton of help. A basketball coach can rely on a superstar. To us, it comes down to hockey and baseball. A hockey coach must get every single player on the same page every night, but a baseball manager makes dozens of decisions a game that can impact not only that day's game but the next day, too. Think of it this way: does anyone take more heat when a team loses a single game than a baseball manager? That makes it the toughest coaching job in sports.

Toughest job in the major sports? Tough call 06/09/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 9, 2009 8:35pm]
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