Cleaning out the locker

By Pete Steele

Of the thousands of layoffs besetting the economy in the last six months, it is safe to say that professional sports is not one of the sectors getting hit the hardest. But then again, maybe it is. NFL coaches dropped like flies in the days immediately following the last weekend of the season. Some of them were deserved (Messieurs Marinelli and Martz of the Lions, we’re looking at you, even if it was actually Matt Millen’s fault). Others, however, have been highly questionable. I’d put the firing of Mike Shanahan, the multiple Super Bowl-winning coach of the Denver Broncos, and Jon Gruden, whose Buccaneers missed the playoffs only because of a fluke loss to Oakland in the last game of the season, in this second category. But the NBA firings don’t hold a candle (pun intended) to what’s been happening in the NBA, with six coaches gone before Christmas; and the season starts in November. Sam Mitchell, 2007 NBA coach of the year with the Raptors? Gone. Maurice Cheeks, who led Philly to a surprise playoff berth last year? Gone. Randy Wittman of the hometown T’Wolves? Gone. What’s hard to swallow about this rash of firings isn’t so much that the coaches being canned are often high-caliber leaders with playoff appearances and awards to their names. Sometimes even a good coach can start to struggle if he doesn’t adapt his system (briefly looking back at the NFL, Shanahan is a case-in-point). The problem is that they’re taking place after such a small number of games, before teams have had the chance to develop into the squads they will be during the middle and end of the season. Also, more often than not, the team is suffering not from a bad coaching scheme but from severely marginal talent. No coach is going to be able to deliver covered wagons full of wins to Oklahoma City (who fired coach PJ Carlesimo in December) as long as they’re relying on Kevin Durant to be their star player. Lastly, and most infuriatingly, is the feeling that most of these firings are happening because of misguided expectations by GMs that a coach can take a team from worst to first in one year, a la the Boston Celtics of ’08. That kind of freak accident only happens when you assemble Big Three type talent in the same place during one offseason. It’s not normal, and if coaches are going to be held to that kind of standard, few are going to hold on to their jobs.

My other plug comes on behalf of beleaguered Michael Phelps. He’s been denounced by the United States Swimming Association, suspended from competition for three months, and dropped from his Kellogg’s sponsorship. Discussions are raging across the country about whether he’s a worthy role model for America’s children. Certainly, no one who saw the photo of Phelps and the bong would argue that there was anything subtle about it. He was smoking marijuana, for sure. But this is also the result of eight years of pent-up hormones. Eight years of swimming (gulp) 11 miles a day. At the pace I swim, if I tried to do that, I would be spending over half of my waking life in a pool. Many people have already forgotten this episode, and the rest of y’all need to relax.