By Al Mattei


The year 2000 has been one in which coaches have been taking an unusual amount of credit -- or blame -- for the performances of the athletes under their care.

Phil Jackson, after a year off coaching the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships, comes back to replicate NBA championship form with the Los Angeles Lakers. Dick Vermeil, after a long layoff coaching in the NFL, wins the Super Bowl and retires. Joe Torre, after beating cancer, manages the New York Yankees to a third straight World Series title. Tom Lasorda, after being let go by the Los Angeles Dodgers, leads the U.S. Olympic baseball team to an improbable gold medal victory.

This trend did not stop at men's sports. Van Chancellor won a fourth straight WNBA title with the Houston Comets, even as the debate raged about men coaching women in pro sports. Beth Anders coached the Old Dominion field hockey team to an unprecedented ninth NCAA Division I title. Cindy Timchal guided the Maryland lacrosse team to a sixth straight national championship.

In women’s college basketball, as Tennessee and Connecticut put on a great show in the Division I final played in Philadelphia, two of the finest coaches in the land -- Geno Auriemma and Pat Summitt -- were on the sidelines. And the veteran Anson Dorrance, in perhaps his finest coaching performance to date, steered the North Carolina women’s soccer team through the murky waters of self-doubt and stiff competition to yet another national title.

Coaching is one of those roles that has diminished significantly with the rise of the $200 million dollar athlete, whose presence and salary double as entertainment value. “Not one person buys a ticket to see a coach,” say the pundits who believe in the belittlement of coaches.

Yet, there are contradictions to this way of thinking. It is the coaches who are expected to take talented athletes, many of whom may have paychecks 10 to 100 times larger than the coach, and mold them in order to chase something money cannot buy -- success, championships, adulation.

And even with the success that teams may have, few can recall the coaches who have built the successes. Most sports fans don’t remember who managed the ’27 Yankees -- Miller Huggins. Instead, the fans remember Murderer’s Row -- Ruth, Gehrig, and the rest. Most sports fans remember Joe Namath’s role in the run-up to Super Bowl III rather than that of head coach Weeb Ewbank, who did not make any outrageous pronoucements or guarantees.

But many coaches -- in men’s and women’s sports -- have attempted to assume roles which are as large as, if not larger than, the athletes which they cajole, defend, mold, and teach. That has led to ugly incidents in many sports in recent years.

Many will remember 2000 as the year of the fall of Bobby Knight, the Indiana head men’s basketball coach. A more severe situation occurred at the University of South Florida, however, when women’s basketball coach Judy Ann Walters was charged with a pattern of racist conduct. She, like Knight, wad dismissed.

Backbiting hit the women’s basketball coaching ranks pretty hard in 2000. Besides the Walters incident, questions were raised in the Washington media about the confidence that the WNBA’s Mystics had in head coach Nancy Darsch. Quotes attributed to star forward Chamique Holdsclaw were printed, signaling the demise of the coach less than a fortnight later. Two experienced icons of women's basketball -- Cheryl Miller of the Phoenix Mercury and Nancy Lieberman-Cline of the Detroit Shock -- resigned their WNBA posts as well.

Part of what has made women’s sports more of a draw in the past few years is the purist’s view that the coach is the boss of the team. No one player, ideally, should be above the coach’s philosophy or system of play.

This is what has made some disdain men’s sports. Players with large contracts have revolted against coaches, and have not only gotten away with their actions, they have flourished elsewhere, while the victimized coach is placed in a weaker position.

Take, for example, the cases of three male athletes of different races and nationalities, who play three different sports: Jeff George, Patrick Roy, and Latrell Sprewell.

George, the Atlanta Falcons head coach, had a public disagreement with head coach June Jones in the midst of a televised game in 1996. George, after being suspended from the team, was shipped elsewhere, eventually landing with a Minnesota team which made the playoffs both seasons he was there. Jones was eventually fired.

Roy was a goalie for the Montreal Canadiens in 1995 when he was replaced in the middle of an 11-1 thrashing by Detroit. After getting to the bench, Roy turned around to team president Ronald Corey, stated, “This is the last game I play for Montreal,” and was traded to the Colorado Avalanche three days later. Roy won a Stanley Cup for the Avalanche; Montreal has not been to the Finals since the trade.

And in a bizarre situation in 1997, Sprewell went so far as to choke then Golden State Warriors’ head coach P.J. Carlesimo after a dispute on the practice court. Sprewell went to New York, where he was lauded as an important player in the Knicks’ run at an NBA title in 1999. Neither Carlesimo nor the Warriors have had success since.

In women’s sports, however, the players are usually not bigger than the coach. Some appointments in late 2000 are trying to send that kind of message, especially in Washington, D.C. In a town where soccer superstar Mia Hamm and basketball's Holdsclaw are now competing for the women’s sports dollar, two high-profile coaches have been hired for their professional teams.

The Washington Freedom, a team which will have Hamm on its roster, will have Jim Gabarra as its head coach. Gabarra not only has a terrific coaching record, he is the husband of Hamm’s former Team USA teammate, Carin Jennings.

And the nearby Mystics hired Tom Maher, the head coach of the silver medal-winning Australian women’s basketball team, to get the most out of Holdsclaw, Nikki McCray, and a team which is expected to make a serious run at a WNBA title in 2001.

There will be expectations placed on both men, on both teams -- and both of their key superstars. It will be interesting to see who gets the credit or blame for their actions in the future.

The same goes for the U.S. women’s soccer team, which went from cultural icon in 1999 to a group of seemingly burnt-out players, staggering over the Y2K finish line. The team, coming off a successful indoor tour after winning the 1999 World Cup, got a new head coach in April Heinrichs. The former Team USA star from the first World Cup in 1991 got off to a slow start with the team, dropping a pair of games to begin the season. Then, the team embarked on a remarkable series of successes. The first was the Algarve Cup -- the annual tournament that the Americans had never won until 2000.

Then there was the Pacific Cup, the U.S. Cup, the CONCACAF Gold Cup, and the commemorative tournament for the 100th anniversary of the German soccer federation. Throughout this, as well as that awful business with the U.S. players holding out for equal pay with their male counterparts, the team did everything right.

But the Americans fell in the Sydney Olympics on an overtime goal against Norway. Since then, there was a shocking loss to Canada, a comeback win over Mexico, and a draw with Japan.

That’s right; the Americans lost to Canada for the first time in 14 years, and had to get a pair of late goals against a Mexico team that had lost the previous five meetings by a total tally of 41-0. This late swoon can be pinned on Team USA’s indoor tour or the record number of international matches that the Stars and Stripes played in 2000.

But there are problems down the road. The team will not play a really, really meaningful match -- save for the Algarve tournament -- until the next World Cup. As the defending champion, the Americans do not have to qualify for Australia 2003, and need to stay motivated, even as the retirements of a number of quality veterans will necessitate a search for new talent. And, like it or not, the pressure will be on for Heinrichs and her staff to replicate the magic that carried Team USA to the 1999 World Cup title.