Los Angeles Coaches Under Severe Scrutiny

Richard LeivenbergContributor IIIFebruary 11, 2013

Los Angeles Coaches Under Severe Scrutiny

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    So, your dream job is to coach or manage a professional sports team, and not just any team, but one of those glamorous, powerful and tradition-laden teams like USC, UCLA or the Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers and Dodgers.

    Well, you better think twice because right now every one of those managers and coaches are under severe scrutiny and in jeopardy of losing their vaunted jobs.

    Some, like Ben Howland of UCLA, with a current record of 18-6, are being howled at daily for not being John Wooden or having a more upbeat coaching style.

    Who would want to be Mike D'Antoni, the Lakers coach, who is not Phil Jackson and thus under constant criticism for having too upbeat a style?

    With a new, high-priced roster and a management team led by super-vocal former Lakers superstar Magic Johnson, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly better win a World Series or it's "Hasta la vista, Baby!"

    Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Clippers have never won anything, but are now suddenly competing for an NBA championship, so Coach Vinnie Del Negro is under constant fire.

    The USC football team, rated the No. 1 team in the BCS at the beginning of last season, is losing recruits, losing steam and Lane Kiffin's coaching job may be the next big loss.

    What's a coach to do?

    Should these guys take the fall for their teams, their traditions or their managements' problems?

    Would you want this job?

    Let's take a closer look at this unusual trend in the ever-trendy City of Angels.

Ben Howland, UCLA

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    In most college basketball programs, Ben Howland would be revered, handed the keys to the city with a statue of him being readied for his retirement 20 years down the road.

    But, UCLA is another story.

    Despite a 10-year career in which he has taken the Bruins to the Final Four three times and produced more NBA players than any other program, Howland continues to be criticized for his efforts.

    It is true that his teams have only been to the NCAA tournament twice in the last four years, where they were eliminated in the second round. Not a stellar performance for Bruins basketball.

    Howland runs a methodical, defense-oriented system that favors the pass and strays from the sensational. His system, his record and perhaps even his hard-nosed demeanor have led to lower attendance and continual criticism.

    Last summer, Sports Illustrated blamed Coach Howland for a downturn in the Bruins program and said he had lost control of the team. At the beginning the year, SI had placed the Bruins' Reeves Nelson on its cover and the team finished with a woeful 19-14 record.  Nelson was the subject of controversy and he was suspended, then eventually left the team.

    It looked like Howland's days were numbered, but then he produced one of the best recruiting classes ever by getting the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the country, Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson, to sign on.

    The tide had turned. Or had it?

    Even with a current record of 18-6, impressive wins against Arizona and Washington while moving up the standings in the Pac-12, Howland's star is not rising. His biggest critic to date has been Bill Walton, the UCLA great who calls the games on radio and who called for Howland's job while on the air in a conversation with play-by-play announcer Dave Pasch (via USA Today's Scott Gleeson):

    Walton: I'm not in charge. If I were, things would be different. ...They should just announce that everybody can come down closer and fill in the empty seats."

    Pasch: "You've criticized the attendance now five times. Give me a solution. How do you fix it?"

    Walton: "Play better basketball."

    Pasch: "OK, well, that's obvious. How do you play better basketball?"

    Walton: "Better style."

    Pasch: "Alright, so, is that the coach? Is that the players?"

    Walton: "It's the coach.

    Pasch: "So you're not a Ben Howland fan?"

    Walton: "No."

    Howland is an introvert who happens to teach basketball for one of the greatest college basketball programs ever. He is a strict disciplinarian who does not play to the crowd. His players learn the fundamentals of basketball, and not unlike his great predecessor, John Wooden, Howland expects his players to live and play with the highest character.

    Howland is paid $1.5 million per year and is supposed to produce championships. One wonders if he will be on the UCLA sidelines next season if he fails to top the field this year.

Mike D'Antoni, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Who would you rather have coach your basketball team, Mike D'Antoni or Phil Jackson?

    That was the choice after the Los Angeles Lakers fired coach Mike Brown after only five games earlier this season.

    Amid an uproar from fans and critics alike, the Lakers management chose D'Antoni, and it's been downhill ever since.

    D'Antoni happens to be a pretty good coach with a long record in the NBA that has included five years with the Phoenix Suns and four years with the New York Knicks.

    None of those coaching jobs produced champions, and champions is what Lakers basketball is all about. That is why they brought in Dwight Howard and Steve Nash this past season to join Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace and Pau Gasol in what looks like on paper to be the best starting five in the NBA.

    So, D'Antoni has been up against it from the beginning despite having lost Nash to a leg injury for two months, having a half-speed, halfhearted Dwight Howard playing center intermittently due to a variety of injuries, having to deal with personality and playing issues from Pau Gasol and trying to institute his run-and-gun, fast-break offense with a team that is older, slower and taller than any team he has ever coached.

    Welcome to L.A., Mike.

    No less a person than Magic Johnson has called D'Antoni on the carpet numerous times, including this tweet:

    Coach D'Antoni has to start teaching better pick & roll defense and better defensive rotations...He also has to make s… say.ly/wPN4Uwj

    — Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) January 7, 2013

    D'Antoni waves off criticism with a dry and wry sense of humor. His system may not be right for this Lakers team, and the sports talk shows have been filling the airwaves with the D'Antoni vs. Phil Jackson debate, the D'Antoni vs. Gasol debate, the D'Antoni vs. Magic debate and on and on since he arrived.

    With a current record of 24-27, lying four-and-a-half games below the cutoff spot for the playoffs, should the Lakers fail to make the postseason, there may not be any debate about where D'Antoni will be next year.

Vinnie Del Negro, Los Angeles Clippers

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    It’s funny how things go for coaches sometimes, though Vinnie Del Negro, the head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, may not think of it that way.

    Here is a guy who became head coach of one the worst franchises in all of sports. So, how tough a job could it be, right?

    He had been head coach of the Chicago Bulls, taking them to the playoffs two seasons in a row. But with a lackluster .500 record, he was fired. Sounds like the perfect resume to run the lowly Clippers.

    In a bad news, good news first year, the team finished with a miserable 32-50 record but superstud forward Blake Griffin picked up the Rookie of the Year award. Then things got wild and very, very good for the Clippers and their skipper.

    In a weird set of circumstances that had commissioner David Stern countermanding a trade that would send Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers, the All-Star point guard ended up with the Clippers. Under Paul’s stewardship, the Clippers finished fifth, just a game behind the Lakers, and began looking like a real NBA team that could actually be competitive.

    With Paul and Griffin leading the way, and with management actually going out and securing a solid group of players, including Jamal Crawford, Eric Bledsoe, Matt Barnes and Lamar Odom, the Clippers soared to the top of the standings this season. They even beat the Lakers, Spurs, Heat and Thunder. Not so terrible for so terrible a franchise.

    So why is Del Negro the Rodney Dangerfield of NBA coaches? With all of this newfound success, he seems to get none of the credit. Instead, it is all about Paul and Griffin, the great bench and Crawford the stellar sixth man. 

    He has been called a coach with little imagination and a lack of direction.

    It is as if the team would be just fine without him when, in fact, he should be getting consideration for Coach of the Year.

    Up until recently, the Clippers had been steamrolling other teams. In December, they went on a 15-game winning streak, and with a double-digit scoring margin, they looked like not just the best team in Los Angeles, but the best team in the league.

    Yet, when Paul went down with an injury, the team hit the skids, going 3-7 in the last 10 games and looking like a team that may have hit the wall. 

    This is where coach Del Negro comes in. While he may not have gotten the credit for the team’s early success, he most assuredly will be blamed for their failure.

    As Paul returns to the lineup and the Clippers head into the second half of the season, it is up to Del Negro to get the team up to speed again.

    If not, the joke will be on him.

Don Mattingly, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    How would you like to be handed an All-Star team on a silver platter?

    That is what Don Mattingly has been given with the revamped Los Angeles Dodgers. Yet, this platter is already getting to feel very, very heavy.

    Under its new management, the Dodgers have secured some of the game’s top names, including Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett. Put these guys with Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw, Andre Ethier and a solid pitching roster, bullpen and bench, and you have the makings of a World Series champion.

    Hired by Frank McCourt, the former team owner, Mattingly was retained by the current management, which paid $2 billion for the team. That’s billion as in big bucks, which connotes to big wins, which means a World Series championship or bust.

    But, Mattingly goes into the season without a secure contract. He had asked management to exercise its one-year option before this final year of his contract, but they refused.

    The Dodgers payroll is upwards of $200 million, yet they did not lock up their manager. 

    And, with that kind of money on the line, the manager will be under the heaviest of expectations.

    How will he do?  Will he be given a short leash on which to perform? What if the team has a few bad games?

    This is a tough way to go in almost any job let alone the manager of a baseball team where any number of factors could put a team in disarray.

    Donnie Baseball has been through many tough times as a player and now faces the challenges that come with managing (per the Los Angeles Times' BillI Plaschke):

    "I've played many years on a one-year contract, so I'm good, but the one area you have to deal with is the questions you're asking me now," Mattingly said. "That's a potential distraction for my club. That becomes part of the story line. My job is to cut out all the noise for these guys. That noise can get us away from playing our best baseball.”

Lane Kiffin, USC Football

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    Lane Kiffin, the head coach of USC football, may be one of the most polarizing figures in L.A. sports, although the pendulum is swinging more to one pole than the other.

    Just recently, in a recent Los Angeles Times poll, 76 percent of respondents wanted Kiffin fired. USC is as close to a professional football team as Los Angeles has, and the expectations run very high. Losing seasons are not tolerated. Coaches of losing teams are cut fast.

    USC entered the year as a preseason favorite, ranked No. 1 by the AP and just about everyone who watches college football. They had a highly ranked senior quarterback in Matt Barkley, an even higher ranked recruiting class and a returning defense that was second to none.

    They began the season as expected with a 6-1 start, but ended 1-5. They lost to crosstown rival UCLA, arch rival Notre Dame and plain old rival Georgia Tech in the Hyundai Sun Bowl. It was the first time since 2001 that the team finished with six losses.

    Last, week as high school football stars signed with their favorite schools, SC lost out on a number of high-ranked players, finishing second to UCLA in the overall quality of their recruits.

    Kiffin came to the Trojans from Tennessee, leaving the Vols in a one-and-done that made him look pretty bad. Before that stint, he was Al Davis’s whipping boy as a 31-year-old head coach of the Raiders, a really bad fit for him and the team. He is used to tumult and seemingly invites it. USC athletic director Pat Haden has called him the “anti-Teflon” coach because even stuff that shouldn’t stick to him does.

    It is no secret to Kiffin that his head is on the chopping block, and even though he has been given repeated votes of confidence from Haden, he remains under fire. 

    Beset by questions about his coach, Haden has gone on record saying "Lane is my head coach 150%" (per the Los Angeles Times' Gary Klein).

    Oh, how many times have we heard that from Athletic Directors, and what will it take for him to lower that percentage to say, zero percent?

    Just today, Kiffin is being questioned about the firing of one of the most popular people on his staff, running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu. Even Trojan players are visibly upset about the move:

    Not only did we lose the best coach, we lost the only Trojan who was on staff. Real sad day

    — soma vainuku (@somavainuku) February 9, 2013

    As the Trojans look to next season, Kiffin will be offered a chance for redemption. It wasn’t even two years ago that his team was 10-2, so maybe those high preseason rankings jinxed the man and his team.

    Who knows, maybe he can swing the pole his way again.

    If not, he may be first of many L.A. sports coaches to be looking for work.

The Rest Are Safe...for Now

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    Sometimes it only takes a championship, a winning season that includes a beatdown of the crosstown rival or the addition of a few great players to give a coach or manager some breathing room.

    It took Darryl Sutter, coach of the Los Angeles Kings, just a few months to make history and thus keep his job for at least another year. Sutter joined the Kings in December 2011, finished the season in third place in the Pacific Division and entered the playoffs as the eighth seed in the Western Conference.

    In the playoffs, they beat the first seed Vancouver Canucks, second seed St. Louis Blues and third seed Phoenix Coyotes to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals, the only team to accomplish that feat in the 119-year history of the Stanley Cup Finals.

    The Kings went on to defeat the New Jersey Devils, four games to two to give L.A. their first Stanley Cup in the 45-year history of the franchise.

    Not a bad start, and one that will allow Sutter a chance to build on his success. That is, unless he somehow figures out a way to turn the champs into the chumps.

    You see, the Kings have had 24 coaches in a little more than 40 years as a franchise. You do the math. They move coaches faster than Gretzky hit a puck. 

    For Sutter's sake, he better hope he can alter that trend.

    Meanwhile, the big news in L.A. football is not USC, nor even the possible coming of an NFL franchise, but the rise of UCLA football.

    Not only did UCLA beat USC in their fall classic, they beat the pants off of them in recruiting, which is as much a product of head coach Jim Mora Jr. and his hard-nosed, super-competitive attitude toward the game and his team as the team's winning record of 9-5.

    The win over USC was the first since 2006 and followed last year's 50-0 stomping. It was Mora's first game in the rivalry, and he took it to the Trojans 38-28.

    Mora is as tough as they come and faces down everyone from critics to the media. He ripped ESPN's Doug Gottlieb on the air one day and then a little while later through the press off of his practice field. Mora suffers no fools, and to him everyone is a fool.

    That kind of tough-guy demeanor is obviously attractive to recruits and fans alike, especially in the face of USC's dominance over the years. 

    There's a new sheriff in town, and his name is Jim Mora Jr.

    Mike Scioscia, the manager of the Los Angeles Angels, has got to be happy after his team's offseason deals, which included the acquisition of Josh Hamilton from the Texas Rangers.

    Or, maybe he's a bit nervous.

    The Angels now have Albert Pujols AND Hamilton in the same lineup. Is this some kind of joke? If these guys play up to their normal standards, the other teams in the league sure won't be smiling.

    But, like his L.A. National League counterpart at Dodger Stadium, Scioscia has the to deal with some very high expectations. Higher than even last year when they added the perennial All-Star Pujols to their roster.

    With Rookie of the Year and five-tool sensation Mike Trout leading off and their ace Jared Weaver the key starter, the Angels will surely be favored to take the American League pennant this time around.

    Last year, it looked pretty good for them, but Pujols hit line drives instead of homers for the first part of the season and the bullpen gave up way too many leads in the late innings.

    Scioscia escaped criticism due to player injuries and maybe due to his long tenure with the club, but this year will probably be different.

    Management spent $317 on Pujols and pitcher C.J. Wilson last year and another $125 million on Hamilton.

    There really will be no excuses for anything less than a World Series championship, and Scioscia most likely will be the fall guy should that not occur.