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L. Jon Wertheim
May 03, 2004
Even highly successful coaches have learned that winning doesn't guarantee security
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May 03, 2004

Good Job. You're Fired!

Even highly successful coaches have learned that winning doesn't guarantee security

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During his typical 19-hour workday Jeff Bzdelik is a blur of motion. The second-year coach of the Nuggets starts long before the sun rises, breaking down tape of Denver's next opponent as if it's the Zapruder film. He sees his two teenage kids off to school, then heads to the Pepsi Center, where he runs a meticulously structured practice and afterward stays to help players, especially the younger ones, sand the rough edges of their games. In the afternoon he watches more game tape, holds meetings with his assistants and accommodates media requests. If there's time, Bzdelik sneaks in a quick workout.

During games Bzdelik (buzz-DEL-ick) moves like a windup toy along the sideline, shouting instructions and often calling out the opposition's play before it unfolds. He dies a little with each loss, gets a charge out of each victory and, regardless of the outcome, looks as exhausted as his players by game's end. If he's home by midnight, it was an early evening. There is nothing sedentary about his day. Which makes it all the more bizarre that he is on the hot seat—a spot he shares with nearly every coach in the pros these days, no matter how successful and dedicated he may be.

At 51, Bzdelik is one of those guys for whom the squeak of rubber soles against maple-wood forms the soundtrack of his life. For almost three decades he has followed the bouncing ball from town to town, climbing the coaching ladder. In his first job out of college he was an assistant at Davidson making $3,500 a year, living with his wife, Nina, in a one-bedroom apartment on campus. A half-dozen moves later, in 2001, he landed in Denver as a scout. To his surprise, he was named Nuggets coach in August '02, a three-year, $2.3 million contract his reward for 25 years of dues paying. After going 17-65 last season (a 10-game drop from the previous year), he coached the team to 43 wins and its first playoff berth since 1995. It marked the first time since the NBA went to an 82-game schedule in 1976 that a team had gone from winning fewer than 20 games to making the playoffs the next season.

Yet buzzards are circling. While under the terms of his contract Bzdelik is guaranteed a one-year extension at $1.5 million for reaching the postseason, the Nuggets can still pay him off and fire him—which they may well do if the team fails to advance past the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round. (At week's end the Timberwolves led the best-of-seven series 2-1.) Though general manager Kiki Vandeweghe says all the right things publicly—offering steady, if tepid, support-sources close to the G.M. claim that he is less than enamored with Bzdelik's coaching. When Bzdelik masochistically tunes into sports talk radio on the drive home, invariably he hears speculation about which candidate ( George Karl? Doc Rivers?) will succeed him. When he faces the media after games and practices, he knows the conversation will inevitably veer to his tenuous future.

As he does on any subject, Bzdelik chooses his words with painful precision. "I try not to think about it," he says. "When they release me—and it could be in six years or six days—I'll go knowing I gave an honest day's work. That's all I can do." Meanwhile, as the regular season wound down Denver's p.r. department was in the peculiar position of pushing Bzdelik for coach of the year honors while fielding questions about the likelihood of his returning next season.

It would be tempting to characterize Bzdelik as an "embattled coach," but the phrase has lost meaning. All coaches are embattled. Time was, they were masters and commanders—indomitable, square-jawed figures with names like Lombardi, Auerbach, Alston and Bowman—who demanded instant respect and were granted immunity from office politics. Part pedagogue, part demagogue, they molded men and championed the virtues of discipline, pride and accountability.

Today's coach cuts a vastly different figure. Beset by pressure to win now from ownership, bedeviled by unrealistic expectations of the media and fans, betrayed by underachieving players with fat, often guaranteed contracts, the contemporary bench boss is constantly under siege. As his base of power and job security steadily erode, the coach has come to resemble a well-paid temp—a Kelly Girl in Armani—who can take his team to the brink of a title yet still has to be prepared to clean out his office whenever the boss's number appears on his caller ID. "One of the real pillars of the game is being destroyed," says Karl, who was fired as coach of the Milwaukee Bucks last July. "Coaches are the leaders and teachers, and when their authority is undermined, it's bad for sports. It's gotten way out of control."

If that sounds melodramatic, consider the landscape of pro coaching. Over the past two seasons half of the NFL's 32 teams have changed coaches. Pro football players might have the shortest half-lives in sports, but the median length of their careers, 3� years, is nearly double that of their coaches. Eight NHL coaches have been fired since the start of this season, including the Ottawa Senators' Jacques Martin, who in January had received a two-year contract extension and at eight-plus seasons had been the league's longest-serving active coach. In the major leagues last year Grady Little capably commanded a Boston Red Sox team that won 95 games and came within—all together now—five outs of reaching the s World Series. Then he brain-cramped in not pulling Pedro Martinez from Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. When the Red Sox subsequently chose not to pick up the option on Little's contract—months of seemingly unimpeachable managing eclipsed by a single blunder—the move was met with a collective shrug.

Yet no league dispenses pink slips like the NBA, in which 17 of 29 teams have changed coaches since the end of the 2002-03 season. Among the defenestrated: Byron Scott, who had merely led the New Jersey Nets to the Finals two years running; Rick Carlisle, whose two-year tenure with the Detroit Pistons yielded an abysmal 100-64 record and a pair of division titles; and Paul Silas, who disgraced himself coaching the Hornets to the play-offs in each of his last four seasons in Charlotte and then New Orleans. Against that backdrop Bzdelik ought to be glad he made it past the All-Star break.

Last summer the Atlanta Hawks' Terry Stotts was so unsure of his status that he interviewed for other positions; now he's the longest-tenured Eastern Conference coach, with 17 months on the job. After having the temerity to leave Allen Iverson out of the Philadelphia 76ers' starting lineup in March, Chris Ford surely became the first interim coach to find his job imperiled.

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