Highlander Hot Take: Head coaches take too much of the blame
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Highlander Hot Take: Head coaches take too much of the blame

The first two rounds of the NBA and NHL playoffs are finally in the books. While a bunch of franchises have aspirations to win it all, only one team will call themselves world champions. Teams that fall short often try to diagnose what went wrong. This often leads to the team’s head coach losing their job.

Darvin Ham courtesy of Flickr

This year, teams haven’t been shy to make drastic changes following playoff disappointment. In the NBA, the Los Angeles Lakers were quick to fire Darvin Ham after they lost to the reigning champions, Denver Nuggets, in five games. Similarly, the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs fired Sheldon Keefe after losing in the first round for the fourth time in five years.

Coaches are quick to lose their jobs when things go wrong, but there are plenty of factors that go into team success. Head coaches are especially limited by the talent at their disposal, a responsibility bestowed onto the general manager (GM). GMs build the team’s roster via trades, free-agent signings and draft picks.

While in some cases, coaches do influence these decisions, this is the exception and not the rule. Time and time again, head coaches are hamstrung by bloated contracts, draft busts and careless ownership. During his time with the San Jose Earthquakes, Matías Almeyda suffered the consequences of terrible roster construction.

Upon his arrival in 2018, there was a lot of excitement buzzing in the Earthquakes fanbase. Almeyda had just concluded a very successful four-year tenure with Mexican giants Chivas Guadalajara. With Chivas, Almeyda won the 2015 Copa Mexico and the 2017 Liga MX Clausura. For the Earthquakes, the future looked bright under Almeyda. However, Almeyda’s time in San Jose was doomed before he even started.

Before Almeyda’s appointment, GM Jesse Fioranelli signed wingers Vako Qazaishvili and Magnus Eriksson to big money Designated Player (DP) contracts, but Eriksson and especially Vako were ineffective in the MLS. With the team’s third DP contract occupied by an aging Chris Wondolowski, Almeyda was stuck with the current crop of lackluster forwards. In his first couple of seasons in San Jose, the Earthquakes struggled to score goals as Almeyda grew increasingly frustrated.

After Vako’s and Erikkson’s contracts expired, the Earthquakes used their two new DP slots on wingers Christian Espinoza and Chofis López; two players Almeyda heavily advocated for. Adding to that, the emergence of young forwards Cade Cowell and Benji Kikanović had the Earthquakes firing again. In 2020, Almeyda led the Earthquakes to just their second playoff appearance in eight seasons.

With an injection of new blood in the attack, it looked like Almeyda could finally bring some silverware to San Jose. Unfortunately, Almeyda developed pent-up frustrations from his first couple of seasons and a lack of investment from ownership. Tension between the head coach, GM, and owner started to boil over and negatively affect the team. After a slow start to the 2022 MLS season, the San Jose Earthquakes parted ways with Almeyda.

Almeyda was quickly scooped up by AEK Athens of the Greek Super League. The season prior, AEK finished in a disappointing fifth place behind crosstown rivals Panathinaikos. Almeyda had his work cut out for him. Nevertheless, Almeyda guided AEK to their first Greek Super League championship in five seasons.

He was able to complete this quick turnaround because AEK invested in Almeyda like the Earthquakes never did. Almeyda wanted to bring Kikanović with him, but AEK couldn’t reach San Jose’s asking price. So they pivoted to Orbelín Pineda, Almeyda’s former disciple while at Chivas. The Mexican international added creativity and flair to AEK’s midfield en route to winning Super League Greece Foreign Player of the Season. Simultaneously, Almeyda was recognized as the competition’s best coach.

Meanwhile, the San Jose Earthquakes are still plagued with the same issues. Following Cowell’s sale to Chivas in the summer, there is an overreliance on Espinoza to create high-danger chances. The recent arrival of attacking midfielder Hernán López should help, but the Earthquakes still have one of the smallest wage bills in the entire league. John Fisher, owner of the San Jose Earthquakes, has shown a reluctance to change this and it keeps current GM Chris Leitch from building up the rest of the roster. Particularly, the team’s defense has suffered. So far this season, the Earthquakes have given up a league-high 33 goals and lost ten of their first fourteen MLS games. 

Let’s not forget, there are many occasions where the head coach is at fault for a team’s failures. Still, blame is typically passed onto the coaches rather than the GM. GMs are afforded better job security because they might do something drastic if they feel their seat getting warm. It’s possible, GMs could carelessly trade future assets in an effort to save their job. A mistake like this could set a franchise back years or even a decade. This means coaches end up paying a price for when things go wrong.

In leagues without a salary cap floor, like the MLS or the MLB, owners need to be held accountable by the league and the player’s association to keep wage bills high and the teams competitive. It’s tiring seeing coaches routinely getting fired due to subpar rosters relative to a team’s expectations.

Coaches are often tasked with elevating poor teams into the playoffs or leading an average team to a deep postseason run. Bad coaches can hold back a talented team, a la Josh McDaniels with the Raiders. However, even the best coaches are limited by talent-depressed rosters. The people responsible for assembling competitive squads, whether it be the GM, owner, or a combination of both, should be held accountable for not holding up their end of the deal.

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