Would that we could all turn around a bad string of luck by firing someone.
This person doesn’t have to be on the payroll. Just some guy in your orbit who is not helping you maximize your potential. You thought you’d be retired at 40 and deliriously happy all the time. You’re not. That has to be someone’s fault. Maybe it’s your friend Bill’s.
Invite Bill over for a coffee and let him know these things aren’t anyone’s fault, but you’re headed in a different direction. Organizationally. Tell him you’ll always admire him and that it is an honour to have him in your life. While you’re still waving at him as he pulls out of your driveway, delete him from your contacts.
Now you have to go out in a panic to hire a new friend. You can’t be friendless for too long. People would talk.
Most friends are taken. So you just grab the first friend you can find. He knows you’re in trouble, so he’s able to overcharge you – you’ll be driving him to work and back every day. But this new friend has a lot of high-level friendship experience. You’re pretty sure he’s the one who will turn your life around and make you a champion.
It makes about as much sense in sports as it does in real life.
To believe that firing the coach will turn your fortunes is to suggest that coaches have a determinative role in performance. So determinative that they are not only able to make a bad team good, but to make a good one bad.
No player has that much power. Auston Matthews cannot make the Maple Leafs bad. The most he can do is make them a little less good.
If a head coach can do that, he is the most important person in the franchise. If so, why do teams churn through so many of them? And having failed in one place, why are most hired again elsewhere?
What about the players? If a guy has always been good, should he not also be good this year? If he shows up and shlumpfs around the rink for the first month of the season, should the question everyone’s asking not be, ‘What’s up with you?’ Instead, it’s become ‘How is the coach to blame for you being this way?’
There is something to losing the room. God knows we’ve all mentally quit on a bad boss at some point in our careers. But you don’t need to be Esther Perel to stay on the good side of professional hockey players. They’re as passive as cattle.
As management, if you’ve hired the sort of guy who loses rooms maybe the correct person to fire is yourselves. But complete organizational decapitations are rare. Once you do that, people start talking about firing the owner.
This strange dance – entire team is bad, one person absorbs all the blame – is so familiar we assume it must work. It doesn’t. They’ve run the statistical analysis in all leagues over and over again. What you tend to get is a small bump in performance – so a bad team becomes slightly less bad, but not good. Firing the coach doesn’t solve anything. It just puts the problem off to another day. Which is something, I suppose.
The Edmonton Oilers are getting that small bump right now.
They’ve sleepwalked through the start of the season. The goaltending was especially atrocious, but every part of the team was poor. The Oilers were so far below their own expectations that they could only have been worse if they’d started skipping games.
The best reason to fire the coach is to change the narrative temperature. If the fans are chewing off your leg, throw them a bone. Something they can yell at each other about instead of you.
Edmonton head coach Jay Woodcroft is a human bar argument. On the one hand, he has the best winning percentage in Oilers history. On the other, he turns goalies into pumpkins. Discuss.
Given what he achieved in Edmonton (nothing that mattered), you could argue that Woodcroft has earned all the millions he was paid this past week. Just as everyone was starting to think about turning on the Oilers’ big stars for becoming deflated Macy’s Day Parade inflatables, he gave them something else to talk about.
There is a rhythm to a coach firing the Oilers could depend on. Before he goes, everyone wants him gone. After he’s gone, everyone thinks you were too hasty. That’s a week of sports-radio chatter right there.
The media bore of most coaches eventually. So they tend to cheerlead a new guy in the hopes of making a friend. If the new guy doesn’t want to be friends, he’ll pay for that later. But for the first little bit, he’s fine either way. He gets at least a season’s worth of slack.
After a few days sifting, the story usually becomes ‘the old guy was better than people said, and the new guy might be better still.’
He’s probably not. He’s got the same team with the same problems and the same crap goalies and the same tired stars. But it’s no fun to start talking about that now. Save some bullets for next year.
It is a pattern as familiar as the swallows returning to Capistrano. It is the big red button every GM can press any time he wants. But he can only press it once, maybe twice, before the guy above him in the org chart presses his own big red button.
Woodcroft was fired right after winning a game. The new coach, Kris Knoblauch, has won two games since. So I guess they’re good again?
They’re not, but that doesn’t matter. When the Oilers flop out of the playoffs again, we’ll start the conversation about coaching from zero. All the pressure that had built up over three seasons under Woodcroft has been relieved. The wheel is turning once again.
This works the same everywhere, and the same way with sports teams as individuals. You don’t change your circumstances by changing other people. If you want things to be fundamentally different, the only thing you can really change is yourself.