Coaches struggle with superstars

When it comes to team sports, coaches are in charge, right?

They build teams, design practices, set lineups, keep morale high—everything needed to guide a team toward being number one.

But Jerry Sloan and Jeff Fisher will tell you that there’s more to coaching than that.

Sloan, who coached for 26 years in the National Basketball Association, resigned as head coach of the Utah Jazz Feb. 10.

Fisher, who was the head coach of the National Football League’s Tennessee Titans for 16 years, was asked earlier this year not to return for the 2011 season.

These two long-tenured and well-respected coaches are no longer employed because they had disagreements with star players on their teams.

The modern coaching scene in professional sports is no longer solely determined by winning or player development. It’s also determined by how well coaches can get along with, and accommodate, their team’s superstar athletes.

Superstars want playing time, a scheme or system which suits their style of play, other stars or producers playing with them and, of course, a well-paying, long-term contract.

If you think you’ve got it rough, try entering the coaching profession.

For Sloan, the big picture was that his time was up. The little picture though was that his old-fashioned approach to managing the locker room could not help ease tensions with franchise point guard Deron Williams.

Williams and Sloan got in a locker room argument after losing to the Chicago Bulls in overtime. Rumors spread that Williams, who is in his sixth NBA season, told management that the situation was at an “it’s him or it’s me” point.

Williams denies ever making this declaration or implying that this was the case.

“We had a disagreement, because Jerry’s very fiery, and I am too,” Williams said on Salt Lake City’s KFAN radio. “Sometimes we clash on things, but I would never force coach Sloan out of Utah.”

But perhaps Williams didn’t need to force Sloan out of Utah. Sloan knew that if things came to a boiling point, he would be asked to resign and possibly even be vilified in the weeks leading up to that point of no return.

Sloan instead bowed out quickly and unselfishly. But no matter how quiet his exit, the situation speaks loudly to those paying attention—the old coach is going to be trumped by the young superstar.

But in some cases, neither the coach nor the star wins.

Fisher, whose 16 years at the helm of the Titans made him the longest tenured coach in the league, was fired after he seemingly prevailed in a battle for employment with quarterback Vince Young. Young was released for being inconsistent and flaking as a franchise quarterback in Tennessee.

But Fisher was let go because he could not follow through on more meaningful playoff appearances and victories, following the 1999-2000 season’s “Music City Miracle” and near-Super Bowl victory against the Saint Louis Rams.

This situation is somewhat more comforting because both Young and Fisher were let go for not doing their jobs—not because they couldn’t work well together or one wanted the other gone.

The saying, “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” does not ring true for professional sports coaching.

The NBA is worse off without a Hall of Fame coach like Sloan, and the NFL is worse off without an honest and intelligent coach like Fisher.

But that’s how the game is played, and coaches usually lose.