After 16 Years, Buffalo Sabres Drop Coach

Feb 24, 2013

Transcript

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The wide world of sports moves fast and if you don't keep up, sometimes you get left behind. That is what happened this past week in Buffalo, New York. Lindy Ruff, the coach of the Sabres - that is Buffalo's hockey team - he was fired during his 17th season leading the team.

And that got NPR's Mike Pesca thinking. He joins us now.

Hey, Mike.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Hello, Rachel.

MARTIN: So you're thinking about coaches?

PESCA: I'm thinking about coach tenure because when Ruff was fired, he was the second-longest tenured coach in major professional sports. The longest being Gregg Popovich of the Spurs. So what makes a coach stay? What makes a coach go? And the answer is a little complicated.

Well, first of all, what ingredient in the mix is winning? Bad coaches get fired. There are no long-tenured coaches who have overall losing records.

MARTIN: That makes sense to me.

PESCA: Yes. That does make sense, does it not. You could be a GM...

(LAUGHTER)

PESCA: ...if that were the criteria. But the weird thing about Ruff is he didn't win that much. He was good. He was a good coach. But - and early on he brought his team to the Stanley Cup finals, which helps to have some early success. And he was named coach of the year about 10 years ago in a narrow vote. But other than that, the Sabres were seen as an underperforming team under Ruff. And I think a big factor of what gets a coach long tenure is actually almost winning the championship. If you look at some of the longest-tenured coaches who were recently fired - Andy Reid of the Eagles, you know, made it to the Super Bowl but didn't win one; Jerry Sloan of the Jazz brought his team to the finals, didn't win the finals.

So, sometimes owners like to keep coaches around. But I think there was a particular dynamic, an odd dynamic, in Buffalo. Because, like a lot of places, is a team that really loves its Sabres, feels really loyal to the coach. Ruff was a former Sabre and they loved him. The big thing that happened was there's new ownership in place, post-Golisano and the GM, Darcy Regier. He fired his friend Lindy Ruff and not a lot of people are thinking that Darcy Regier should go.

MARTIN: But I would imagine that there is also some benefit to just changing it up after a while. I mean, you have the same coach for a long time. Maybe you need new blood.

PESCA: That's it, that's it. Players tune you out. It's a cliche, but it's true, as actually most cliches are. They're just boring. But players say this, and Pat Riley said this, and after a while the players do tune you out. So, if you get a new coach with just slightly different ways essentially saying the same thing, sometimes that new coach works out or at least it's acknowledged that it was time for the old coach to go. With Lindy Ruff, many desperate fans in Buffalo had been saying this for a while.

MARTIN: Is it any different, Mike, with college athletics? I mean, there's some long coaching legacies when you think about Bobby Knight in Indiana, Joe Paterno. I'm sure there's a lot of others.

PESCA: Right. So, in college, there's the opportunity for the coach sort of to become a fiefdom and become one of the more powerful men on campus, you know. It's not the strict employer-employee relationship when it comes to the kind of power that a college coach can accrue. And it's just impossible for a professional coach to do that, especially if it's not a combination coach and GM, and that kind of combo position is becoming more rare as time goes on.

MARTIN: OK. What is your curveball for us this week?

PESCA: Well, this week we saw a video of what was hailed as the worst free throw ever. A Georgia college junior named Shanteona Keys. She just launched the ball about three feet. It just did not go far at all. And this came on the heels of what in December was held as the worst free throw ever. An Appalachian State reserve center named Brian Oakum. It went about four feet. It was just as if a baby had thrown the ball. Now, it got me into a little rabbit hole. This is this world if you put in worst free throw ever in Google or in YouTube, you get tons of hits of really bad free throws. Some of them are just ugly deliveries and the ball goes in and some of them people don't quite understand how the ball could have traveled such a short distance. I realize it's hard to explain these, but let's get the audio involved. And these are some of the reactions to the worst free throws ever.

MARTIN: OK. Let's listen.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Second free throw. My goodness.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'm not sure what that was. Good Lord.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Uh-oh. Oh, my goodness. That's one of those you don't even want to watch.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Yeah, I know. We need to see. Houston, we got a problem.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Whoa. Hold on a minute. You think this opened the doors to the building? Can we get a replay on that in the truck? I got to see that free throw again.

MARTIN: NPR's Mike Pesca always nailing the free throw. Thanks so much, Mike.

PESCA: Yeah, I try.

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MARTIN: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.