LOS ANGELES — Picture the prototypical NFL coach.
He’d probably look a lot like Hall of Famers Vince Lombardi or Tom Landry, roaming the sideline in a suit and fedora, jaw set permanently to scowl. Or maybe it’s Bill Belichick, stationary in a hoodie and headphones, unsmiling and seemingly unimpressed.
Now compare that with the hyperkinetic Pete Carroll, whose laid-back, players-first approach led the Seattle Seahawks to 15 victories and a Super Bowl berth this season.
Four coaches, two styles, one result. Yet for all their differences, there’s one trait besides success they all have in common: Each remained true to his personality. And that, say former players and coaches from professional sports, might have more of an influence on a team’s performance than game plans and batting orders.
“The key to great coaching is consistency,” says Heath Evans, who played fullback on Super Bowl teams led by two distinctly different men, Belichick in New England and Sean Payton in New Orleans.
“The coaches that fail are ones that are inconsistent. The ones that play favorites. The consistency isn’t about winning. It’s consistency about who you are and what you do every single day.”
And that can differ depending on the coach or manager. When Kevin Millar played for the Boston Red Sox, his manager, Terry Francona, had just two rules — show up on time and play hard.
And he was often a little lax about Rule No. 1.
“We had shaved heads. We had (Fu Manchus). We came out hitting in cutoff shirts, sleeveless sweat shirts. We didn’t care,” says Millar, who won a World Series under Francona in 2004. “That didn’t matter at 4 o’clock.”
The New York Yankees, meanwhile, regulate everything from facial hair (it’s banned) to pregame dress (the team logo on the cap has to be facing forward). Yet they’ve averaged a baseball-best 94 wins the last six seasons under the military discipline of crew-cut Manager Joe Girardi, winning the World Series in 2009.
Two teams, two managers, two styles, same results.
“That’s the job of the manager — to figure out what kind of team or guys he’s got,” says Millar, who retired as a player to become a commentator on the MLB Network. “There’s certain guys that aren’t going to respond to that in-your-face manager. There’s certain guys that need that pat on the back and that open-door communication.
“It’s the manager’s job which way and which direction he wants to go.”
Steve Mariucci made sure the San Francisco 49ers knew they were changing direction when he replaced George Seifert as coach in 1997.
“The first thing I said to the team is I expect everybody to be themselves,” says Mariucci, now an NFL Network commentator. “I’m not George Seifert or Bill Walsh. Steve Young, you’re not Joe Montana. Everybody has got to be themselves.
“You have Pete Carroll, who is this high-energy players’ coach. And then you have a Tom Landry, who was a stoic figure who never smiled. He just kind of did it his way. I think we all try to win whatever way we can.”
But personality, no matter how appealing and natural, can grow stale over time.
That may explain why Dusty Baker, the second-winningest active manager in baseball when he was fired last fall, has been with three teams in 11 years. It might also explain why Mike Scioscia, perhaps the closest thing baseball has to an old-school football coach, has in some quarters recently seen his approach wear thin in Anaheim, where he’s gone four years without a playoff appearance after reaching the postseason six times in the previous eight years.
“I do feel there’s a shelf life within an organization for a leadership team,” says John Hart, who managed briefly before spending 14 years as a major league general manager. “I don’t know what it is. It might be five years, might be seven, might be nine. But in baseball you go through cycles. There are times when you need a different voice.
“I had Mike Hargrove. Not a great strategist but a guy that sort of was able to mesh a clubhouse easily. And I had Buck Showalter, who was a brilliant strategist . . . and had a different persona.”
Hart fired both men — Hargrove after he won five consecutive division titles with the Cleveland Indians and Showalter two years after he won a manager-of-the-year award with the Texas Rangers — and both went on to win elsewhere.
“It’s not an indictment of the manager or the man,” says Hart, who, like Millar, is an analyst with MLB Network. “Sometimes it’s just the situation.”
Even Carroll struggled in his first stint as an NFL head coach. He went 33-31 in four seasons with the Patriots and New York Jets before coming to USC, where he earned a second shot at the pros by winning seven straight conference titles.
Now he stands out in the ranks of uptight NFL coaches by, among other things, playing catch with ball boys during pregame warmups. And his players have embraced the laid-back atmosphere partly because it’s different and refreshing.
But don’t be fooled by appearances, warns Herm Edwards, a former player who coached four NFL playoff teams with the Jets and Kansas City. Although Carroll’s approach is relaxed, he says, it’s not lacking for discipline and expectation.
“The best thing you do as a coach is develop an environment where these guys can have some success,” says Edwards, who still speaks forcefully in the confident, clipped cadence of a coach. “Vince Lombardi was that way. He cared about these guys not only as football players but also as men.
“Football players expect discipline now. This is the world you live in when you’re a football player, an athlete. You want someone to discipline you. You want to have consistency. You want a guy that puts you in position so that you can have success.”
Robert Horry, a seven-time NBA champion who played for Phil Jackson with the Lakers and Gregg Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs, agrees — sort of.
“You have to really look at the makeup of your team,” says Horry, who made the playoffs in each of his 16 seasons. “If you’ve got a young team you’ve got to be hard on them, make them disciplined. Because young teams have a tendency to slack off.”
Veteran teams, on the other hand, coach themselves. And if they do well, the coach did a great job; if they don’t, the coach will be fired, left to shuffle off to try again somewhere else.
So the ultimate arbiter of success isn’t style but substance, which has always been coldly measured in wins and losses.
“It comes down to winning,” Millar says. “The moral of this whole story is you’re allowed to have fun. This is what you’ve dreamed about your whole life, being in the major leagues.
“We’re not at war. You’re playing a kid’s game. There’s going to be a winner and there’s going to be a loser that night. You’re going to get dirty pants, you’re going to make an error, you’re going to strike out, you’re going to hit a home run.
“That’s how simple it becomes. But we like to complicate it.”