*“He can take his guys and beat yours. He can take your guys and beat his.”
This paraphrased quote regarding Bear Bryant epitomizes an exceptional coach. I don’t claim to know lots about college football but Bryant’s record speaks for itself. And his reputation among those in his industry led to the above quote.
There are a lot of coaches who are good. Practically any coach in a professional league is good, and probably qualified to hold that job. But there are very few coaches who are exceptional. This is why there are very few coaches who can sustain greatness when the roster turns over.
Phil Jackson did a great job coaching the Bulls when he had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. He became legendary when he had Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles. Later he broke the record for championships won as a head coach when he had Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. Two things must be highlighted when discussing Jackson’s career. All of those championships were won with Hall of Fame talent (Gasol is the only person worth arguing about here). Not that I begrudge Jackson for winning with great players – just about every championship caliber team has great players. But that does mean he wasn’t necessarily a great coach; perhaps a great massager of egos, perhaps a great minutes manager, perhaps a great inspirational speaker. Those are all skills that great coaches might have but are not the main reason someone is generally deemed a great coach.
Jackson was hired as the President of Basketball Operations for the New York Knicks recently. He proclaimed that he wasn’t going to coach the team so that meant that the biggest decision he would have to make (after he fired Mike Woodson following the season) was hiring a coach. Somehow the only names that began circulating were those that were familiar with Jackson’s preferred offense – the triple post (Triangle). Steve Kerr became the favorite despite not having any coaching experience. (Two asides: I realize I started talking about coaches and now I’m talking about the job Jackson is doing as an executive. And I recognize that everyone has a preferred way of doing things.) Something is wrong with this picture if the only way Jackson can be successful is when someone basically runs the offense that Jackson would run. That is the exact opposite of what folks were saying about Bear Bryant.
This doesn’t mean that Jackson is a bad coach – I already said that everyone who coaches in the NBA is at the least good at their job. But perhaps it means that he is simply good to very good coach and great at picking jobs where the talent can fit his scheme. Mike D’Antoni was an offensive genius when he had Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire running his offense in Phoenix. In New York he looked competent with only Stoudemire. In Los Angeles he looked downright bad even with Kobe Bryant (because Bryant was used to playing a different style) If D’Antoni is only good when he has certain players, it is fair to wonder the same about Jackson if he insists on getting a coach that must run his system (even if he has to overpay that coach and the coach has no experience). On the other hand Tom Thibodeau is a genuinely great coach who, two seasons in a row, has gotten a variety of players to the playoffs that pundits thought were mostly flotsam and jetsam.
I admit that I am a frustrated Knicks fan. I admit that I hope I’m wrong and that the team turns things around next season. But I don’t think I’m being unfair. Jackson was a very good coach. But at any point in his championship years could he have taken the other team’s roster and beat his? And if he wasn’t that special as a coach why should I believe any different of him as an executive?
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.