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Steve Wulf
June 06, 1988
The San Diego Padres' Larry Bowa is the latest victim of the mania in pro sports for winning at all costs—now
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June 06, 1988

Another One Bites The Dust

The San Diego Padres' Larry Bowa is the latest victim of the mania in pro sports for winning at all costs—now

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We just feel it's time for a change."

Larry Bowa has heard those fateful words, and as of Saturday, he was no longer manager of the San Diego Padres. Chuck Tanner got the word on the evening of May 22, and now he is no longer managing the Atlanta Braves. A similar firing line was given to Mike Keenan of the NHL Philadelphia Flyers on May 11, Jacques Martin of the St. Louis Blues on May 17 and John Wetzel of the NBA Phoenix Suns on May 3. In addition, Jean Perron of the Montreal Canadiens resigned under pressure on May 16, and K.C. Jones confirmed on May 22 that he would not coach the Boston Celtics next season.

Those changes turned the merry month of May into a sort of Canned Festival for skippers. Were all of those Mayday distress calls necessary? Not on your life or on the disrupted lives of the men who got the ax. While it is certainly the prerogative of the clubs in question to fire and hire whomever they choose, they should have better reasons than "We just feel it's time for a change."

But then times have changed. This is the era of the One-Minute Manager and the One-Minute Coach. So far in this decade, major league baseball has had 95 managerial changes, more than VA per club. (The New York Yankees alone have had 13 new skippers since 1975—all right, so five of them were Billy Martin.) Hockey is even more pink-slippery than baseball: NHL teams have changed coaches 98 times—or better than 4½ times per team—since 1979-80. The NBA has had 66 coaching changes in the '80s, an average of almost three per team. One of this season's casualties was Hall of Famer Bill Russell, trotted out with great fanfare as the savior of the Sacramento Kings in October, slam-dunked, with a 17-41 record, in March. The NFL is a little more stable, but its 28 teams still have provided head coaching jobs for 61 different men in the decade. It's safe to assume that every headman who got fired was told, "We just feel it's time for a change," or words to that effect.

They probably didn't hear the more telling reasons, such as "I want a championship, and I want it now" or "TV ratings and attendance are down." Or: "Your press has been very bad lately." Or: "Our slugger's agent says you have to go." Or, the most likely reason of all: "We're firing you to cover up our own incompetence."

Firings have always been a fact of life for the coaches and managers in the Big Four pro team sports. But in simpler times, a skipper had to worry only about the performance of his team. Now he has to answer to an owner who is less patient and more than likely eccentric; to the various vice-presidents hired by the eccentric owner; to the players, who are emboldened by huge salaries and greater bargaining power all around; to the press, which second-guesses his every wrong move; and probably to some guy in the marketing department.

Despite all the firings—and because of them—there is never any shortage of candidates for coaching or managing positions. The 26 current baseball skippers have managed 55 different teams. Fourteen of them have worked for at least two clubs. Two have managed five different teams, and the champion, Dick Williams, has skippered six, in order: Boston, Oakland, California, Montreal, San Diego and Seattle. There must be something good about the job. What follows, though, is the downside of being a mentor in this day and age:

Uneasy lies the head that doesn't wear a crown. "There's more emphasis on winning today than in the past," says Frank Robinson, who replaced Cal Ripken Sr. as manager of the Baltimore Orioles after the sixth of the club's record 21 straight season-opening losses. "Not just winning, but winning a championship. There used to be pressure to win, but if you showed progress, usually the organization was satisfied. There's no such thing as showing progress now. It's win or else, which makes it almost impossible to manage. If you win your division, you're pretty safe. But there are only four divisions."

Not that making the playoffs in other sports guarantees job security. John Mackovic was sacked by the NFL Kansas City Chiefs after leading them into the 1986 playoffs for the first time in 15 years. And consider what happened to Keenan, the former coach of the Flyers.

Over the last four seasons, Keenan had a record of 190-102-28, second in percentage only to Terry Crisp of the Calgary Flames among active NHL coaches. He led the Flyers to the Stanley Cup finals in 1986-87, where they lost in seven games to the Oilers. The team had an off-year in 1987-88, due in part to the prolonged absence of 50-goal scorer Tim Kerr, but Philadelphia did finish third in a strong division and made the playoffs. Still, general manager Bobby Clarke surprised Keenan with the pink slip, telling him the team didn't seem to play with enthusiasm. In fact, several of the Flyers had gone to Clarke to complain about Keenan. Which brings us to another problem facing coaches.

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