So what is there exactly to like about the job? One NBA coach ponders the question and then smiles. "The first and the 15th of the month," he says. Fair point. If the life span of coaches has dropped precipitously, salaries have gone up just as dramatically. The median salary for NBA and NFL coaches hovers around $3 million, while major league managers and NHL coaches make slightly less. Even top NFL coordinators command more than $1 million a year, and NBA assistants routinely earn high six-figure salaries. What's more, rare is the fired coach who is out of the game for long. There may be no second acts in life, but in coaching there are often second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and—in the case of New York Knicks coach Lenny Wilkens—seventh acts. That even the most vilified coach (think Tim Floyd, formerly of the Chicago Bulls) will reappear (as Silas's successor in New Orleans) only adds to the absurdity. "They're so lousy they deserve to get fired midseason, but they're so good another team wants them right away," says Auerbach with his familiar chuckle. "It's out of whack." Even as he twists, Bzdelik takes some comfort knowing that if he gets canned, the odds are good he won't go unemployed for long.
This ability to reenter the labor force is a good thing: The job may be fraught with more challenges and less security than ever, but to a man, fired coaches ache to get back in the game. Last month Joel Quenneville, fired in February as coach of a St. Louis Blues team that was 29-23-7-2 at the time, did some work as a television analyst. After the first period he plopped down his headset and asked his partner, "When can I get back to coaching?" Midway through a recent rant on the woes of his profession, Karl stopped himself and said, "I feel a little hypocritical, because the truth is, if the right offer came, I'd get back in tomorrow."
There's something addictive about the job. It's matching wits against a counterpart. It's watching the marginal player effectively deploy that drop step he's rehearsed for hours after practices. It's taking disparate parts and melding them into a symphonic whole. It's the comfort in the routine, the feeding of the ego...the paycheck twice a month. Ask Riley what he misses about the job he quit last fall and he sounds like Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now wistfully describing the smell of napalm in the morning. "You walk out to the middle of the [practice] floor, and you say the three greatest words that any coach will ever say, which are, 'Bring it in.' And they come in, and you start the whole process again."
For all the ambient turmoil, Bzdelik and the rest of the bleary-eyed lifers will soldier on, undeterred by the office politics, the antsy owners, the culture that no longer receives the respect that it once did. They've just come to view their calling a little differently. "There used to be a saying about coaching: It beats a real job," Bzdelik says with a wry smile. "You don't hear that much anymore. Man, this is a real job."