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A Giant Among Coaches

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Deciding when to keep a coach around is far from an exact science. You can credit the Giants for keeping Coughlin, but then you better not hammer the Mets for not firing Willie Randolph, who was in a similar spot, at the end of the 2007 fiasco. (Coughlin, who started 0–2 last year, was in danger of not making it out of the first half of the year, either.) Sometimes owners ignore the media clatter, sometimes they don’t. It’s a crapshoot.

It’s sportswriting jargon to say a failing coach has “lost the locker room.” The symptoms of “losing a locker room” tend to involve, well, losing. When teams lose, players are unhappy and they spout off at the coach. Winning teams are never “outcoached.” When you lose, someone has to go. This is hardly new. Leo Durocher once said, “If you don’t win, you’re going to be fired. If you do win, you’ve only put off the day you’re going to be fired.” The clatter has always been there. It’s just louder now.

Where does this leave the other coaches in New York? Of the big five (Giants, Jets, Yankees, Mets, Knicks), Girardi would seem to be in the most trouble. He’s a little too low-key for Gotham’s purposes—the same was said of Coughlin, of course—and if the playoffs elude the Yanks again this year, the shouts of “He’s not ready!” will become deafening. Could Torre have won with that fractured, thin team? Probably not. But he knew to get out in time for the “renewal” story line to manifest in Los Angeles. Eric Mangini, just a year removed from Mangenius and Sopranos status, is safe if the Jets make the playoffs, but if they miss it, he’ll have turned stupid again. Jerry Manuel probably has a year in the new Mets stadium, and he’s buffered by the likelihood that Omar Minaya would suffer the ax’s first swing. And Mike D’Antoni has a halo over his head, not just because the Knicks are perversely fun to watch right now but also because he’s defiantly not Isiah Thomas. You could hire Willie Randolph to coach that team at this point and he’d be safe, so long as everyone thought he had a chance to bring LeBron to town.

Note that the previous paragraph has not a single assessment of any coach’s actual ability to coach a team. It’s all about where they stand on the fickle thermometer of public discussion. Girardi is not in the most trouble because he’s a lousy manager; he’s in the most trouble because it’s his turn. This is true everywhere. But it’s really true in New York.

This is perhaps the true genius of Bill Parcells, whose wisdom at team architecture pales in comparison with his skill at managing media and fan expectations. Like Larry Brown and Jerry Seinfeld, he’s a master at knowing how to jump out of the car right before it flies off the cliff. Then he’ll go to another franchise at the bottom and be called brilliant for molding it into something at least respectable. Knowing how to be an effective coach is difficult, but it is not rare. Knowing how to make everyone believe you’re a savior requires timing and a keen mercenary eye. It’s why D’Antoni is here, after all. Well, that and $24 million over four years.

No matter what happens this season for the Giants, they’re assuredly going to regress next year; seasons like this one come along once a decade at best. And it won’t be because Coughlin turned back into an idiot. This is how these things go. Even in New England, which has been blessed with more professional-sports success than seems natural, you’re starting to hear quiet grumblings about Bill Belichick and The End of the Patriots Dynasty. It’s the circle of life.

At the end of his tenure with the Yankees, when the Bombers were losing, it kind of looked like Joe Torre was just sitting there watching, chewing gum, doing nothing. Shouldn’t he be doing something? He was doing the same thing he ever was, of course. Like Girardi. Like D’Antoni. Like Coughlin. In sports, when your team is losing, it’s like in Sunset Boulevard: It’s not the team that used to be big. It’s the coach who got small.

You can write to Leitch at will.leitch@nymag.com.


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