According to one estimate, eight out of 10 Americans will be fired at least once in their working careers. Being fired is one of the most traumatic experiences an adult can face, emotionally comparable to divorce or the death of a loved one. "Dismissal is a personal disaster of great magnitude," writes Ed Brandt in Fifty and Fired. "A person feels he has been destroyed professionally, his personal worth has been reduced, his ego shattered, his competence questioned, and his family's well-being threatened.... It is not possible for a person to suffer his company's disrespect and come out whole."
It's no different in professional sports, although the sheer number of coaches and managers who are fired obscures the human element. A football coach who has been sacked, a baseball manager who has been given the ax, a general manager who has been handed his walking papers all feel the shame, anger, sadness, fear and self-pity of people who have been fired from ordinary jobs. Except that in sports the whole process is played out before millions of onlookers. Headlines announce the dismissal. Reasons for the move are aired and debated. Columnists speculate on the shortcomings of the cashiered coach or rally to his side against the owner. In a few days or weeks a new coach is named, and the focus shifts to him. Meanwhile, for the former coach, the pain and trauma endure, because despite the best efforts of pro sports to trivialize the experience with the asinine mantra that "coaches are hired to be fired," he or she is a human being. When human beings are fired, there are scars.
Probably the most notoriously bungled firing in the history of pro sports occurred in December 1976, when Chicago Blackhawk owner Bill Wirtz had someone shove a note under Billy Reay's apartment door. Reay had been the Hawks' coach for 13½ seasons. The note, which was found by his wife, informed Reay not only that he was dismissed as the team's coach but also that he was no longer part of the organization. This was three days before Christmas.
The late Harold Ballard, the mercurial former owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, was another boss without the courage or grace to fire a longtime employee face-to-face. In November 1981 he dismissed coach and general manager Punch Imlach, who had recently recovered from a heart attack. Ballard's way of telling Imlach was to take away Imlach's parking spot in the Maple Leafs' lot.
Of course, some dismissals are handled with sensitivity, and a few have been downright amicable. In April the Atlanta Hawks chose not to renew coach Mike Fratello's contract, and at the press conference announcing the decision, Hawk general manager Pete Babcock called Fratello "one of the five best coaches in the NBA."
Said Fratello, "I guess they're going after numbers four, three, two and one."
Far more often, however, any amicability is strictly on the surface. There are no painless firings, in sports or in the ordinary workplace. A person's life has been uprooted. His confidence is shaken. His future is in doubt. A piece of himself is missing, and even if it is no larger than a dream, it will never be retrieved.
Doug Collins grew up in Benton, Ill., a small town (pop. 7,800) in the southern part of the state. Jerry Sloan, the first enduring star of the Chicago Bulls, was Collins's basketball hero, and Collins himself became a star at Illinois State. He was a true child of the Land of Lincoln.
Collins was the first pick of the NBA draft in 1973, going to the Philadelphia 76ers. He played in Philly his whole pro career, retiring at 30 after tearing up his knee in 1981. Articulate and likable, Collins went into broadcasting. He did color commentary for 76er home games on radio. Then he started coaching, first as a volunteer at the University of Pennsylvania and then as a full-time assistant at Arizona State. After two years there, Collins decided that he didn't like recruiting, and in July 1984 he returned to the broadcast booth, signing with CBS-TV as an analyst.
All his life he'd been a comer, climbing from rung to rung with ease. In May 1986 he was contacted by Bulls general manager Jerry Krause. Krause wanted an independent observer to write a scouting report on the Bulls, who had just gone 30-52 in Michael Jordan's second year. Krause liked what Collins wrote. He fired coach Stan Albeck and signed Collins to a four-year deal. It was Chicago's ninth coaching change in 10 years.