Sunday, January 28, 2007

The curse of inexperience

Of all the things Cleveland sports fans can select to worry about, you'd think the coaches of their teams wouldn't be one of them.

Cleveland's current coaches -- the Indians' Eric Wedge, the Browns' Romeo Crennel and the Cavaliers' Mike Brown -- all come from the type of background you'd expect rising head coaches to have. Wedge is a gifted orator and organizational whiz kid from the Tribe's own farm system, one of the most meticulously self-analyzed in all of baseball.

Crennel is an apple off the Bill Parcells coaching tree who had Bill Belichick for a mentor. Brown counts Bernie Bickerstaff, Gregg Popovich and Rick Carlisle among his mentors.

Prior to Crennel was Butch Davis, who was a protege of Jimmy Johnson. Prior to Wedge was Charlie Manuel, a stuttering bumpkin to hear him speak, but in actuality a smart, well-traveled baseball man. He was the mechanic of the most-feared baseball offense of the 1990s.

Virtually all Cleveland coaches have had a list of job references long and famous enough to make your average Monster.com subscriber salivate.

And yet with all that immaculate pedigree and extensive sideline preparation, each Cleveland team has made just one playoff appearance in this decade. The Indians have finished above .500 thrice since 2000, the Cavs twice and the Browns just once.

So where does all that perceived ability go when a coach is hired by a Cleveland team? If you want to go on a witch hunt and look for another long, dark corridor in the complex labyrinth that is the Cleveland curse, save your legs. The answer doesn't involve that much voodoo.

If you want to look for answers, take a look at the combined number of games that Wedge, Crennel and Brown had served as a head coach prior to their current gigs:

Zero. In the case of Crennel and Brown, zero on any level.

Inexperience is a near-epidemic among Cleveland head coaches. In 60 years, the only Browns head coach with prior NFL head coaching experience was Nick Skorich, and even then, he hadn't been a head coach for almost a decade upon receiving the job in 1971.

The last Indians manager with prior experience was John McNamara, at the tail end of a career that will be mostly remembered for him sticking with Bill Buckner defensively in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, setting the stage for one of baseball's immortal gaffes.

McNamara lasted from the middle of the 1990 season to the middle of the '91 season, when he was replaced by Mike Hargrove.

The Cavs have been the least offensive when it comes to hiring coaches without experience. Since 1986, Lenny Wilkens, Mike Fratello, John Lucas and Paul Silas were all hired with extensive prior experience as NBA head coaches.

But then, one has to ask, with the most important player in franchise history entering his prime years, why deviate from that and roll the dice by hiring Brown?

No one doubts that Brown, Crennel and Wedge all know a lot about their respective sports. No one who knows what they are talking about thinks these guys are idiots. But the danger of hiring a guy with no experience is that he's not going to be able to take a holistic view of the team.

No, I'm not talking about yoga and tea leaves. As professional sports become more complex and technology-driven, coaching staffs become more compartmentalized. Assistant coaches are allowed to retreat into their area of specialization with only limited regard for what else is going on.

Brown and Crennel got to where they are by burying their noses in their defensive playbooks. Offense fell on the shoulders of another assistant coach. Motivating the troops was something the head coach handled, or in some cases, the players themselves.

Wedge got to where he is by being a good interview, having good organizational skills and having the good fortune of being on the same mental wavelength as his boss, which never hurts.

No one ever tested Wedge's in-game strategic skills prior to him becoming the Indians manager. No one ever tested the ability of Crennel or Brown to work an offense. No one ever tested the skills of any of the three in handling a locker room full of subordinates who go through mood swings just like the rest of us.

The leap from concepts to reality is the toughest jump to make when you have to pry your nose out of a playbook and start managing people, or dispense with the platitudes of a fiery first-day-of-spring-training speech and start leading your team through the seven-month march of a baseball season.

Before you finger Wedge's aversion to base-stealing, or accuse Crennel and Brown of being cave-bat blind when it comes to offense, realize that it's the leadership skills they lack. Realize that the biggest part of their on-the-job training as head coaches comes when they have to pull in the reigns on a slumping club and hold them accountable. That's where all three Cleveland coaches lack the most.

The trouble is, that's probably the most important part of a coach's job.

The best coaches inspire their teams and get their players to a point where they feel an effective amount of shame in failure. Coaches of great teams might be tactical geniuses, yes, but chances are they are simply pushing the right psychological buttons.

That's the wide-angle view of a team that only experience can teach a coach. And, unfortunately, experience is in short supply among Cleveland coaches.

5 comments:

POJO_Risin said...

Erik--

Really interesting angle, and one I agree with 100%.

It's funny.

The major issue is conviction. People say that Brown has to motivate his team more...so he starts running out on the court...high-fiving his players. It looks painful on TV. I can imagine what it must look like to the players.

I've seen it with Crennel and with Wedge...perhaps in different ways (coaching staffs, positions, lineups). I remember everyone whining about Belichick and his non-descript personality. Then came that infamous Belichick commercial where he was dancing.

Painful.

Too often, the public asks something of a coach that they can't give.

It forces them to move out of their strengths...

and towards weakness...while on the job.

THAT never works.

But of course, if you are weak enough to allow the pressures of media, or even an administration, to change to a style that you aren't familiar with, or want to be familiar with...perhaps you shouldn't be a coach...

yet.

Belichick learned that, and never wavered in New England. Of course, it helped having ownership that believed in him. I keep harking back to the Browns and Belichick, and the flak that he took for every move he made...and the Testeverde fiasco...with the media...and Modell's.

The question becomes, "Do we keep our mouths shut and let them do their thing?" or, "Make them do what we want, in which case they'll fail?"

Strength of character....should make that a moot point.

Erik said...

I think there is a point to the whole "keep ours mouths shut and let them work" angle.

Whether we want to admit it or not, Cleveland fans are pretty whiny. So is the media. All it takes is a week's worth of adversity, and the "It's all falling apart, we'll never win a championship" chorus kicks on full volume. Doesn't matter if it's the dudes at the bar on Friday night, or Tony Grossi and Bill Livingston in front of a laptop, the message is the same.

Coaches and GMs say they don't read the papers, but if they are getting "You suck, do it differently" from all sides, it's bound to affect them.

I think a lack of experience does hurt a coach in that situation, because he can really believe that he isn't doing a good job. And, as you said, the front office, also getting the same flak, has their confidence in the coach waver.

Lost in all this is some shred of realism. In the first half of Sunday's Cavs game, Mike Tirico made a comment about Brown saying that the title talk had gone overboard in Cleveland this past summer. Apparently, he feels that title-starved Clevelanders have a bit of an unrealistic view of what it's going to take for the Cavs to win it all. Hubie Brown concurred, saying the Cavs aren't there yet.

But in Cleveland, we're so collectively desperate for a title, there are only two settings: Winning and disaster. That mentality never helps a coach, certainly an inexperienced one.

Andy said...

Erik,

I heard Mike Tirico's comments and I agree with your assessment as well about the title talk being premature. But, I think it stems from the sense of urgency that the town feels regarding LeBron James and his tenure in Cleveland. I think fans figure that he has three years to win it all and if he doesn't, then Cleveland will never win anything (so they must be able to do it now right?). If you have listened to the national media hype regarding LeBron over the past few years (since the ping pong ball came up Cavs picking number 1), you have heard how LeBron James will win multiple NBA championships in his career. So, the fans buy into it and expectations are raised to an almost unattainable level. I think that's why the championship talk is premature. What if LeBron James never wins a championship with Cleveland or any other team? It sure seems to me after watching the Cavs this season that he can't win with that group of stiffs hanging around him.

Erik said...

I am a pretty staunch believer in the Cavs roster. When you consider the sheer number of draft picks this team has whiffed on since the start of the decade, the mere fact that they have fielded a competitive team is a minor miracle.

I might be wrong, but I think that the Cavs team that beat San Antonio twice, won four straight to start January and hung with Phoenix for three quarters is the real Cavs. The team that lost to Philly in double overtime is the meathead Bizarro Cavs.

Which begs the original question, if LeBron is entering his extension years next season and the pressure to win is higher than ever, why has this team been entrusted to a guy who has no prior experience as a head coach?

Even if Brown had been flat top-sporting AAU coach 15 years ago, I'd still feel better about him than I do now because I'd at least know he's had some experience leading a team.

There are times when I think his players just don't listen to him all that much. That's how the Cavs play like crap for weeks on end.

Ben said...

I wouldn't worry about James leaving. Everyone talks about his short contract that enables him to cash in more (by getting more years at his full value after the new CBA kicks in). You know how he maximizes that value? Staying with Cleveland. They can pay him the most. The only way he'd still get the max money (NBA contract wise) is by sticking with the Cavs OR agreeing to a sign and trade. I don't see the Cavs doing that.

Also, with LeBron's contract kicking in next year, now is the time for the Cavs to be patient. They have a few years of LeBron. The last thing I want the Cavs to do is freak out right now and trade away too much stuff for 'a point guard better than Eric Snow'. Ya, everyone knows they need a PG, but a short term fix without looking at the long term implications can really hammer a team (look at the Wolves or even the Cavs with Snow- he was a short term fix/need with McInnis, now he's an albatross).

As for Brown motivating, I'd like to see him get more technical fouls. Stand up for his guys. Get thrown out of a game when things aren't going your way. Break more clipboards.