Interim Coaching: Why It Doesn’t Last
As interim coaching season seems to be upon us, spanning from the NFL and college football season to post-March Madness and pre-NBA playoffs, we should take a look at whether interim coaching actually does anyone any good.
Do interim coaches last, if hired permanently? Or are interim coaches just auditioning for a head coaching job elsewhere? Maybe interim coaches are loyal supporters of their school, players or front office? These are some of the questions I’ll tackle today, spanning most of the pro leagues (NFL, NBA, NHL) as well as college football.
The Houston Texans were an absolute mess last season. So much so, the Texans’ ownership decided to let their head coach Gary Kubiak go and put the interim tag on former Cowboys head coach and then-defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. He went 0-3 and the Texans finished 2-14 overall and guaranteed the top slot in this year’s NFL draft. Adding more salt to the wound, he was fired as the Texans’ defensive coordinator as former Penn State coach Bill O’Brien was hired as the head coach.
Phillips was not a really good coach in Dallas from 2007-2010, his previous spot, as the Jerry Jones-run Cowboys went 34-22, but went 1-7 in 2010 before Jones fired him. He wouldn’t have been a good hire, in my opinion, in Houston. Phillips is currently not coaching this year.
Romeo Crennel, a former Bill Belichick assistant, is another example. He went from the Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots to the Cleveland Browns from 2005-2008. With the Browns, he went 24-40 and was fired. He popped up in Kansas City and was the interim coach when Todd Haley was fired. But, like Cleveland, Crennel was not a good interim head coach nor a good semi-permanent head coach with a 4-15 record in two seasons at the helm. Crennel, after a year out of the league, is back as the defensive coordinator in Houston, replacing Phillips.
When the Phoenix Suns fired Alvin Gentry, who had an underperforming Suns team and roster after the Mike D’Antoni years were long gone, they hired their president of player development and former NBA guard Lindsey Hunter. Don’t mind that Hunter had never coached in the league, but the general manager Lance Blanks said:
“I think the simple answer is that the organization needed a jolt…We needed something that would shock the system of us, the players, and risk trumps safety in this business. We felt this was the right person to take the risk on.”
How’d that work out for the Suns for the remaining 41 games of the 2012-2013 season? The Suns went 12-29, a winning percentage of 0.293. He was not retained and the Suns hired former Jazz and Suns guard Jeff Hornacek for the job. You can’t blame Hunter for an awful Suns team, whose offensive rating was next-to-last in the league and had players that did not mesh with each other. The Morris twins were not developing, Goran Dragic did not have a breakout season in a wasted race to the finish that year, and you had defensively-challenged Luis Scola and the troubled Michael Beasley on the roster, too.
Since his hiring, Hornacek has led the Suns close to a playoff berth, depending on how the Western Conference race ends in a few games. Not hiring Hunter was the best decision for the Suns.
When the Washington Capitals were doing well and were in their prime, Bruce Boudreau lost his players and was fired after they struggled to make it through the grueling Eastern Conference postseason. Boudreau had a 201-88 record with the Caps for over 4 and a half seasons. He ended up being hired at Anaheim and has done well there. But, his replacement was Dale Hunter, a former Washington Capital player. Hunter led the Caps into the playoffs, where they lost to the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference semifinals and he left the NHL to coach his junior hockey team in Canada. He was a Caps coach for six months and this was an odd arrangement. However, Hunter finished with a 30-23-7 record overall in his short NHL stint. The Capitals have struggled with another former Capitals player as their coach, Adam Oates, as they have missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
When USC football unceremoniously dumped its head coach, the controversial offensive mastermind Lane Kiffin, they put the interim tag on their offensive line coach Ed Orgeron (who had been a head coach at Ole Miss, a SEC school that is Eli Manning’s alma mater). He played out the rest of the season and went 6-2 (with USC finishing 9-4), but was not given the head coaching gig before bowl season. However, his record at Ole Miss could have played a part as he was 10-26 overall in the SEC.
The USC athletic director, Pat Haden (a USC alum) even promised him that he has a spot on the staff as a highly-paid assistant. Upset, he quit the team and left. He said (as Sports Illustrated reported):
“I want to be the head coach at USC…I love being a head coach. I think that it’s something I’m able to do, and do well. And I want to be the head coach at USC when I get the chance. I think I can perform on a very high basis to do what the Trojan family wants me to do.”
That was the most recent example. But, CBS Sports did a fantastic, in-depth look at how interim coaches fared when hired or when they were not retained by their school. Most coaches finished the year with losing records and weren’t retained. Colorado fired Dan Hawkins and let assistant Brian Cabral coach, and went 2-1. Minnesota in 2010 fired Tim Brewster, let assistant coach Jim Horton go to work and he went 2-3 but got them to a bowl game. In their case, Colorado let Cabral go and hired Jon Embree, who was a disaster of a coach at 4-21 after two seasons. Minnesota hired Northern Illinois’ Jerry Kill and he has done a fantastic job there with two straight bowl games.
One of the outliers was Dabo Swinney of Clemson, who replaced Terry Bowden and has gone 30-7 since with an ACC title.
Then there’s that weird thing in college football where coaches leave for jobs before the bowl game and teams use their current assistant coaches as stop-gaps or hire the new guy outright.
So where do you stand? Do you hire your interim coach, or do you let him walk?