Monday, October 22, 2007

Winning, Part II

In guiding souls to prominence, what is more pertinent in a leader: A philosophy-laden leader, or a strategist and a tactician as a leader?

This was a question posed by AJC's own Sekou Smith, and one that brings about much thought. Since sports is a microcosm of life, we are going to use sports to examine the question.

Even strategies have philosophies. Perhaps the philosophy is to bludgeon a team with short passes or an up-tempo offense or small ball tactics. To instill doctrines, surely a strategy is there, albeit more subtle. Philosophers pay more attention to the psychologies of their pupils. They aim to maintain optimal biorhythms in their players/team. More apt to play mind games, these types invoke fear in opposing teams in a different way: their cunning is often in the minds of opposing coaches. Opposing coaches find themselves trying to decipher the next moves of a philosopher, whereas strategy is easier to defend against. That is why philosophers are more preferred to establish a dynasty than a tactician.

Give me a coach who can design convoluted machinations all day, but I would take the guy who has a M.O. that can't be defensed. It's hard to defend what you cannot see.

It is possible to be both a philosopher and strategist, but such occurrences are rare (we will get to this later).

The strategist is more tangible, keeping a team pliable to each game, making and implementing switches to adjust in the heat of the battle. That is what makes Joe Torre different from a Jack McKeon. Let us observe the following case study.

Torre has the been the recipient of talent, and inherited a team in 1996 that just made the playoffs for the first time in 16 years in Buck Showalter (1996 was also the first year that the wild-card format was implemented. The Yankees were a wild-card team that year). His first year as manager: World Series. Surely, he was an influence in that leap, but it was made less salient by the fact that the Yankees added a number of impact players the year of Torre's arrival: Tino Martinez, Mariano Duncan, Kenny Rogers, Ruben Sierra, David Cone, and Mariano Rivera, among others. Torre had something he never had before, talent, and he had it in abundance. His job was made easier, for he didn't have to be a strategist anymore (his previous stints in St. Louis and Atlanta and NY Mets were met with inadequacy.) Torre's claim to fame in a pinstripe uniform stemmed from his dexterity with managing talent. His ability not to overreact, to stay calm, trickled down to the multi-million dollar egos that tend to do that when things don't go their way. His influence was more visceral, and less concrete. Therefore he gets the role of the philosopher.

Jack McKeon took over a Florida Marlins team in 2003 that was 16-22. He quickly came in and instilled a new culture in the Florida Marlins clubhouse. He brought a laid-back, yet stern attitude to a young Florida Marlin bunch. His style was perfect for the short-term: for he wasn't brought in to be a long-term solution. In fact, he wasn't expected to turn this precocious bunch into winners either. But he did. The Marlins would go on to a 75-49 record during McKeon's tenure, and eventually the World championship. They overcame a 3-1 deficit against the Cubs and upset the Yankees in the process. But how McKeon accomplished this lies the splendor: he allowed his top two hitters Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo, to wreck havoc by debunking traditional methods (they had a combined 118 walks; in fact, the team was ranked 13th in base in balls). He allowed a young Miguel Cabrera to shine and had the clairvoyance to place him in the clean-up spot as a 20-year old on the biggest stage. He also contradicted a common practice of giving pitchers at least four days' rest, by sometimes placing his pictures on the hill with three days' rest. There wasn't much philosophy in the sense of slogans and quotes and tacit confidence. McKeon simply placed his players in positions where they could succeed through minute tactics; almost transparent at first glance. McKeon is a strategist.

There are stark differences in the methods of a philosopher and strategist. A philosopher doesn't indulge in the X's and O's as much as it instills a paradigm. Mike D'Antoni is not successful because he created Phoenix's up-tempo style. He is successful because he allows his talented team to flourish; he simply reminds them to keep it up. His mode is to reinforce and delegate roles and keep everybody's psyche at a maximal peak. On the other hand, Larry Brown micromanages (which succeeds in drawing the ire of his players, but is successful nonetheless). Brown's success lies in his ability to get the most out of less. His 2000-2001 Philadelphia team made to the NBA Finals, despite a dearth of big name talent outside of Allen Iverson. It is with this example where we notice our most startling differences in the two titles: strategists make their bones through lesser talent, whereas philosophers manage the higher talent.

Philosophers don't care what you do, they are going to stick to their game plan. Strategists are flexible so they can adjust to the ebbs and flows of the game. Think of the philosopher as the big, huge corporation (Disney) and the strategist as the smaller, flexible organization (Southwest Airlines). Both are flourishing, but through different methods.

There are downfalls to both, but for long-term flourishing, bet on the philosopher. All the great dynasties in sports (Yankees, Celtics, Lakers, Bulls, Reds, 49ers) were operated by a philosopher at the head coaching spot. But philosophers THRIVE on premium talent, in fact, they cannot burgeon without them. Everybody cannot manage talent. Philosophers can.

Schemers have the hardest problems managing talent, because they rely on more parts. These types of coaches need not as much talent as philosophers, but they don't last as long. See Larry Brown, Chuck Daly, Don Nelson, Mike Shanahan, Mike Scioscia, Rick Adelman, Joe Gibbs, Marty Schottenheimer. These guys are excellent coaches in their own right, but live and die with physical execution. This success is short-lived, and it is really hard (next to impossible) to instill a empire with these type of leaders.

There are instances of both: Vince Lombardi, Bill Walsh, Greg Popovich, Sparky Anderson, Billy Donovan and Bob Knight, to name a few. These cases are rarities, but when you catch both in one, you have a legend on your hands.

So which coaching adjective is better for your teams, the thinker or the maneuverer? I'll leave that for you to debate.


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