Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The challenge of coaching on an interim basis

When Johnny Davis (pictured here) was named interim head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies late last week, he described his role this way:

"You just try to keep the team focused. Obviously, we're in transition, and there's uncertainty surrounding the team right now. The former coach is gone. The new head coach has not arrived. There's trepidation there, angst, there's uncertainty. All I'm trying to do is hold things together."

Last month, Spurs beat writer Mike Monroe wrote that "nothing in sports is more difficult than turning around the mentality that infests losing situations that have become chronic. Little wonder that few interim coaches end up getting the job on a permanent basis."

As quarterback father-son duo Archie and Peyton Manning write in their book "Manning," "interim coaches are the equivalent of substitute teachers, unlikely to get the allegiance they deserve." [Interestingly, between 1960-December 2004, interim NFL coaches were 16-43 in their debut games.]

According to Alvin Gentry, who served as interim head coach in Miami and Detroit:

"It's a tough life. Interims are coaching teams that failed to live up to expectations. They have only a limited amount of time to audition for the permanent job, fully flesh out their own philosophy and make changes in strategy and style. Interims can also face authority and communication issues, since players don't expect them to be around long-term."

As this article points out, one challenge is that "an interim coach doesn't have much time to implement his own philosophy and style. The players are accustomed to the system of the previous coach, who used training camp, preseason and regular season games to establish his own approach. It's hard to make radical changes during the season, with a tight game schedule and few opportunities to practice. What an interim coach can do is attempt to communicate with and motivate the players."

Says DEN coach George Karl:

"The toughest thing is you'd like to try to make some changes and try to do some different things. Time just won't allow you to do that. I don't think you ever get your system in place until the next year. You move in that direction, but you don't philosophically get your stuff completely in until your training camp next year."

The Cowboys played the 49ers about a month after SF had promoted Mike Singletary to interim head coach. Before the game, Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips talked about how "for interim coaches, motivating players is the basic challenge."

"It's a tough situation when you go in as an interim, because a lot of things are already in place. First off - and this is really important - you have to get the players to play for you," Phillips said. "That's a lot harder than it sounds. There are some technical things you can do to get better. But once (a team) has put in all the hours of training camp and all the things that are done in the offseason, there isn't a whole lot of impact that you can make."

In 1998, June Jones stepped into the interim role as head coach of the Chargers, going 3-7 with the team.

"It's always hard for whoever is named (interim head coach) because his loyalty has been to that person who was just fired so sometimes it's hard to step in," said Jones, who now coaches at SMU after nine seasons at Hawaii. "We changed practice times and started practicing in the morning and did some things like that differently. You can change up the routine but the main thing is you try to find different ways to put the players in more of a leadership role, to try to get them to take ownership of the team."