The word cool, is one of the most relative, subjective adjectives in the English language. What’s cool to one, is by no means cool to others.
But as sports fans, we are surrounded by cool. The cool young player, the hip veteran, the flashy rookie. Coolness permeates from LeBron James’ pores, Manny Ramirez’s swing and in Roger Federer’s backhand. We see it every time another athlete dates a model, or shows up at a Hollywood event.
Coolness is all over sports: except in coaching.
Coaches are the anti-cool, guys who spend long hours in the office, whine to the media and in many cases appear to have poor hygiene. NFL coaches are workaholic grumps, baseball managers are usually portly and easily winded even on a short stroll from the dugout, and the guys in charge in the NBA usually look better suited to sell you a ’94 Mitsubishi than teach the intricacies of the pick-and-roll.
But not all coaches. There is a rare, select breed that can illicit a premium response from his players on the field, while also appearing right at home in the press room. Guys who can make a speech, and get every guy on his couch ready to go to battle for them.
They’re few, and they’re far between, but they’re out there. Here are the ten coolest coaches in sports.
10. Terry Francona, Boston Red Sox: I’ve got to admit, I’ve had my beefs with Francona in the past, and most certainly will in the future. I think he changes pitchers too often, and could use his bench more efficiently. But he’s also won two World Championships in five years, where they hadn’t won any in the 86 years prior to his arrival. And in Boston, winning championships is the only way to get yourself on the front page of newspapers. Francona will never be known as one of the astute minds of the game, but that’s not his prerogative. With his incessant dugout shaking and constant stares into the distance, he looks like someone who’s just seen a ghost, not the manager of the most consistent team in baseball over the past half a decade. He’s more of a friend to his players than stern figurehead: think of Francona as the 35-year-old on your street who still lives with his parents and plays video games with the neighborhood children. Not an authority figure, but not quite on the other side of the coin either. But as the players change, and the egos- Nomar, Pedro, Manny- continue to get shuffled out of town, the wins keep piling up. The Red Sox were one win away from a World Series berth a season ago, despite the constant Ramirez drama and nagging injuries to David Ortiz and Josh Beckett. They were a team that was literally held together by athletic tape and bubble gum. And they were also held together by Terry Francona.
9. Urban Meyer, Florida Football: More than any other sport, college football has a wide variety of personalities, all with varying degrees of success. While Pete Carroll hangs out in the California sunshine all week, Meyer is a calculated Midwesterner, who in the course of four seasons at Florida, has completely changed the dynamic of the sport. Meyer burst onto the college football landscape in 2004, as the head coach of the University of Utah, which went undefeated that season, routing an overmatched Pitt team in the Fiesta Bowl. Meyer parlayed that season into a gig at Florida, arguably the best, if not most stressful job in the sport. It took the new ballcoach just two years to wrap up his first National Championship- albeit with someone else’s players- and won a second this season. Upon arriving at the Swamp, Meyer vowed to have the fastest team in college football and he’s got it, and there’s no one close. The Gators fly around the field on defense, and blow past people on offense. Defensive tackles chase down the oppositions running backs, while Florida’s skill position personnel run circles around the other team. Now everyone’s recruiting 5’10 jitterbugs for their backfields, rather than the power guys who were getting scholarships three years ago. And those 290 pound defensive linemen, boring! Get me somebody that’s 265 lbs. and runs a 4.5 40. With Tim Tebow and the entire defense returning for another season, Florida will again be the favorite to win the National Championship. But it’s not only Meyer’s players who are the fastest around, their coach is blowing by the competition too.
8. Jim Leyland, Detroit Tigers: No list of the coolest coaches would be complete without Jim Leyland. He’s the quiet guy at the end of the bar, cigarette lit, whiskey in hand, not saying a word. From your vantage point he doesn’t appear to be taller than 5’6, but you’ve got this nagging feeling that if you look at him the wrong way you’re going to get a pool stick over your head. That attitude and image is what has made Leyland one of the premiere managers in Major League baseball for the past 23 years. It started with Bonds and Bonilla in Pittsburgh, and progressed to the Florida Marlins, and their 1997 World Series championship. He’s since been to Colorado and Detroit, and while he’s only got that one ring, respect follows Leyland like the stench of a hard days work. Even now, in his mid-60’s, Leyland commands respect and gets it. In his first year in Detroit, the once struggling franchise found its way to the World Series, and no small reason was Leyland. While they struggled in 2008, better times are to come; Leyland wouldn’t have it any other way. With a cigarette in mouth (he actually used to smoke in the dugout until it was banned) and a fungo in his hands, Leyland is ready to lead the Tigers back to the top of the AL Central. What’s that, you don’t the sound of that? Go talk to the short guy with the mustache over there.
7. Mike D’Antoni, New York Knicks: Defense has never been a buzz word for cool in the NBA; it’s about as hip as playing Go Fish with your grandma. But it wasn’t until D’Antoni came along, that defense went from un-cool to a legitimate four letter word. In his four full seasons as head coach of the Phoenix Suns, D’Antoni’s teams averaged 58 wins per season under his offensive philosophy of “Seven Seconds Or Less,” which essentially meant that he wanted his team to have the ball up court and a shot hoisted within seven seconds of gaining possession. Sure the Suns never won a championship, but in the process D’Antoni’s offense made Steve Nash- a middle of the road NBA point guard for most of his career- into a two-time NBA MVP, and took good players like Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion, and turned them into superstars. More importantly, it made the NBA fun to watch again. After years of being subjected to watching the Spurs and Pistons grind their way to a lot of 88-81 wins, here came a team and coach which wanted to push the ball, score a lot of points and get fans on their feet. D’Antoni and Phoenix parted ways this past spring, and the coach found his way to New York, where basketball and winning haven’t gone hand and hand since the Patrick Ewing-Pat Riley era of over a decade ago. Sure the Knicks aren’t ready yet to compete for a championship, but they’re playing competitive basketball with the spare parts of David Lee, Nate Robinson and Al Harrington that Donnie Walsh has been able to scrap together. In the process the team has been able to shed a lot of bad contracts and even worse egos, all with the intention of making a run at LeBron James in 2010. Whether the Knicks get him or not, only time will tell. But if you were looking for an indication of how James would fare in D’Antoni’s system, you got it Wednesday night when the King had a 52 point, 10 rebound, 11 assist explosion playing against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden. The bottom line is this: James is already sewing up a Hall of Fame career, and will likely go down as one of the top 10 players in the sports history. But if he wants to go down as the best ever, there might only be one place do it, and with one man- D’Antoni- as his coach.
The Mad Hatter Les Miles makes this list for the first, but certainly not last time
6. Les Miles, LSU Football: Miles is a relative newbie to the pantheon of cool coaches, but my guess is that he’ll be here for some time. With his trademark purple windbreaker, and perfectly positioned LSU cap, “the Mad-Hatter,” as ESPN’s Rece Davis has named him, is one cool customer. And cool in the toughest situations. In his early time in Baton Rouge, Miles was often denied credit for his successes, as his wins were simply the byproduct of Nick Saban’s players. But that changed in the fall of 2007, as Miles entered the season with the no. 2 ranked team in the country and a realistic shot at a National Championship. In the tightest game of the early season against Florida, Miles rolled the dice time and time again, converting five of five fourth downs in the game, and sealing the first of many big wins on the season. Two weeks later, rather than setting up for a potential game winning field goal in the closing seconds against Auburn, Miles again went for it, and Matt Flynn completed a touchdown pass to Demetrius Byrd. The pass sealed a Tigers victory with one second left. LSU went on to win the 2007 National Championship, and wrap up Miles’ fate as one of the coolest coaches in the game. While 2008 was a struggle, there’s little doubt the Tigers will be back on top. They recently secured the top high school recruiting class of 2009, as players continue to come to Baton Rouge to play for LSU. Time and wins will tell if Miles can stay on this list, but if the youth of America (16-18 year old high school recruits) think he’s the coolest coach in the SEC, than who am I to disagree with them?
5. Jim Calhoun, Connecticut Basketball: Alright, I’ll be honest this is a bit of a homer pick. Calhoun isn’t cool like so many others on this list because of his look or the way he dresses. He’s more like the old man at the deli that returns his soup because it’s too cold, only to complain when it’s returned because he burned his mouth. Calhoun is never happy, whether it’s in regards to the referees, his players or himself. That’s just the type of personality he is. But I can say from personal experience, when he walks in a room, you stand up straight, put your shoulders back and listen. He walks with the confidence of a rock star, but will give you a hardened stare that makes even the toughest 20-somethings freeze in their tracks. It’s the reason that in an era of young coaches with slicked back hair making promises of playing time and NBA glamour to young kids, they still flock to Calhoun. He knows how to get in your head, break you down, chew you up, and spit you back out an NBA ready player. Caron Butler, Ray Allen, Emeka Okafor and a host of others all came to Storrs with virtually no fan-fare, but Calhoun turned them into bona-fide professional superstars, and millionaires in the process. And even at the age of 66, he keeps on ticking, as he has UConn currently ranked no. 1 the country. Did I mention he’s also survived cancer scares on two separate occasions? If that isn’t cool, I don’t know what is.
4. Joe Maddon, Tampa Bay Rays: By nature, baseball managers aren’t supposed to be cool. They sit in a pile of sunflower seed shells all summer and spit tobacco juice on themselves, while gnats circle overhead. Heck, there’ve been games where I thought Charlie Manuel was napping, and others where I was certain that Joe Torre was dead. Which is what makes Maddon so cool. With his thick-brimmed glasses, and quit wit, Maddon is the anti-manager. He’s got a chiseled face, athletic build and rides his bike on road trips. But more important than his looks, is that his players swear by him. While Terry Francona is likely to use six pitchers in an inning, and Torre the same pitcher six days in a row, Maddon keeps a calm demeanor and lets his players play. This guy is so relaxed, I always expect television cameras to pan to the dugout and see Maddon managing in a Hawaiian shirt and Birkenstocks. If you’re looking for fiery speeches and thrown water coolers, you’d better search somewhere else. Maddon is more adept to quote Voltaire or Gandhi in his motivational speeches than Casey Stengel or Connie Mack. Regardless the Rays respond to the 54-year-old, as after years of being the punch line in Major League Baseball, Tampa Bay won the American League East, and played in a World Series in 2008. How that performance will be topped in 2009 remains to be seen. But if there’s one man that has the answer, it will certainly be Maddon, the manager who seems to have it all figured out. With a little help from Mother Teresa of course.
Joe Maddon and the Rays have staying power
3. Phil Jackson, Los Angeles Lakers: Come on, you knew the Zen Master was going to be on this list. You know, that whole five spirits becoming one routine. The one that sees players meditating in silence before games, the aroma of scented candles filling players nostrils, and positive thoughts channeling through their minds. Ok, that may have been a bit exaggerated, but you get the point. Jackson is a unique cat. He does things his own way. And at the beginning we were all a little skeptical, as he happened to be the guy on the bench during Jordan’s six championship seasons, and got three more rings with the most dominant center of our generation in Shaquille O’Neal. But after taking a leave from the Lakers, and seeing them flounder in his absence, Jackson came back to L.A., and proved his doubters (me being no. 1) wrong. They’ve made the playoffs in each of his three seasons back, including the NBA Finals in 2008. Sure they lost to the Celtics, but look at who this guy is winning with. Take out Kobe, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum (who never seems to be healthy), and you have an aging Lamar Odom, and journeymen Trevor Ariza, Luke Walton and Sasha Vujacic. More importantly, while his methods have been a bit zany at times, they continue to produce results. And in an era in the NBA where the inmates run the asylum, Jackson has not only been able to handle hot-headed stars like Jordan, Shaq and Kobe, but thrive with them. And did I mention that during his time in Los Angeles, Jackson has dated Jeannie Buss- Lakers owner Jerry Buss’ daughter- and still kept his job? There’s no doubt that this guys tactics are a little strange. But they work for him, and produce championships. What’s cooler than that?
2. Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers: We all know that he became the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl, but lets be honest, Tomlin was cool before it was even cool to be cool. Got it? No? Than we’re stadium stairs until you do. Just kidding, but if I scared you imagine what it’d be like to play for Tomlin? In an era where coaches are taking on more of a role of substitute teacher than disciplinarian (cough Wade Phillips), Tomlin is an old school exception, as even at his tender of age of 36, he lays down the law, and grown men- some older than he- listen. He has taken one of the hardest jobs in professional sports and made it look easy, winning a championship in just his second year. And he has done it with the swagger of Terrell Owens and the confidence of Bill Parcells. What’s so cool about Tomlin is that five years ago he wouldn’t have even been given a head coaching opportunity. But with the chance he was given, he’s broken down all the barriers in his way (age and race discrimination), and in the process, changed the way head coaching searches are done. Guys like John Harbaugh and Rex Ryan- young, career assistants with no head coaching experience were never given jobs. Now, because of Tomlin, they’re the only guys being hired. There will come a time- and my guess is sooner, rather than later- when a movie will be made about Tomlin. And although the Steelers coach has a striking resemblance to Omar Epps, I still think Denzel Washington is fit for the leading role. Besides the fact that he has already played a football coach in a movie (Remember the Titans), who better than to play the coolest coach in the NFL, than Washington, the coolest man in Hollywood.
1. Pete Carroll, USC Football: What’s so cool about cool, is that different guys do it different ways, but all end up on this list together. While Tomlin is like an overprotective father staring down his daughter’s boyfriend, Carroll is like the cool uncle who always slips you a $100 bill and is dating a model half his age. In an era where virtually every school is competing on an even playing field, it was almost universally agreed upon that the dynastic era of college football was over. Only no one told Pete Carroll. The Trojans are 88-15 under Carroll’s watch, and have not lost more than two games since his first season in Troy. Players from all over the country flock to LA to play for a Carroll, a guy who’s as enthusiastic about his job as your 16-year-old hostess at T.G.I. Friday’s. And in a sport where coaches demand control like Eastern European dictators, Carroll is the anti-Bill Belichick, opening his practices to the public, and the game day sidelines to celebrities like Snoop Dogg. Seriously, could you see Charlie Weis using one of his players as an April Fool’s joke? Or Nick Saban letting Will Ferrell show up to practice in a superhero costume to motivate his team? Of course not, but that’s because there’s only one Pete Carroll. The coolest coach in all of sports.