Coaching is a challenge, to say the least. Coaches are expected to accept the blame when the chips are down and they must be careful not to take too much credit for their team's success. In all sports, the coach is usually the one to take the fall when a change is needed. It’s often said that it’s easier to fire a coach than it is to fire the players. There have been several instances of coaches being unfairly sacrificed but more often, the firing is justified.
Over the years, we have witnessed many great players across all major sports. It would be a fair assumption that a great player would be a great coach. While there are some examples of this, there are many more examples of great players that fail miserably as coaches.
There could be any number of reasons for this. Some great players turned coaches get frustrated with their player’s inability to play as well as they did. The players don’t read the ice like the coach did when he was playing. The quarterback doesn’t read defenses as well and the pitcher isn’t as precise. One thing is for sure, coaching is a completely different from playing.
Some of the best coaches were not great players. In fact, most great coaches who were once players had very forgettable and brief playing careers. Whatever the reason, it is largely true.
Let’s take a look at some of those sports greats who tried their hands at coaching after their storied playing days ended. Here are 14 legendary athletes who failed as coaches.
14 Bart Starr
Between 1956 and 1971, Bart Starr led the Green Bay Packers to three NFL Championships and two Super Bowl victories. Not only was he selected to the Pro Bowl four times, he was also the MVP of Super Bowls I and II. He was the league MVP in 1966 and has many other distinctions.
Shortly after winning Super Bowl II, the Vince Lombardi era ended and the Packers found themselves struggling.
Starr hung up his cleats after the 1971 season but he stayed in the organization as a quarterback coach. He became the Packers head coach in 1975 but he was unable to find much success. In his nine seasons, the Packers barely squeaked out one winning season as Starr was let go after the 1983 season.
13 Bryan Trottier
Bryan Trottier made an immediate impact during his 1975 rookie year with the New York Islanders. He was a crucial part of the Islanders dynasty which won four Stanley Cups and scored 500 goals in his 15 years in New York. He signed with the Penguins as a free agent in 1990 and would help the Pens win their first two Stanley Cups. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility following his retirement in 1997.
After serving as an assistant coach with both Pittsburgh and Colorado, he took the head coaching position with his old nemesis, the New York Rangers. He quickly became the target of criticism, as he was accused of stifling his offensively gifted team. After a disappointing 54-game stretch, the Rangers let him go. He would find work as an assistant but was never again a head coach.
12 Diego Maradona
Diego Maradona is well known for his prolific soccer career in which he scored one of the most controversial goals in soccer history. The “Hand of God” in the 1986 World Cup will likely never be forgotten. His pro career lasted from 1976 until his retirement in 1997. It was a career filled with goals, huge contracts, and controversy including his role in an ugly brawl that injured 60 people at the 1984 Copa del Rey final.
After his retirement, he tried his luck at coaching, but found little success. He was hired to coach the Argentinian national team but he failed to lead the team to glory. His less than ideal behavior and differences with management would see his international coaching tenure end in 2010.
Maradona is a prime example of a superstar player who lacked coaching skills.
11 Art Shell
Pro football Hall of Famer Art Shell was a bruising multi-Pro Bowl tackle that played his entire career with the Raiders. He was part of three Super Bowl winning teams between 1968 and 1982. The Raiders of the late '80s were far from bad but they had not seen any playoff success since their 1983 Super Bowl victory. In 1989, Raider fans rejoiced when their old star tackle took over as head coach. The team responded well, but not well enough to make any deep playoff runs, despite making the playoffs three times.
The Raiders finished the 1994 season with a respectable 9-7 record but it wasn’t good enough to qualify for a run at the Super Bowl. Al Davis gave Shell his walking papers after that season. He had compiled a 54-38 regular season record but it was his playoff record and perhaps Al Davis' trigger finger that doomed Shell.
Art found work as an assistant with other clubs before being re-hired by the Raiders in 2006 at the head coach. This season is the real reason he makes this list, as he was fired after the club went 2-14, in one of the worst seasons in Raiders history.
10 Mike Singletary
Here we have another Hall of Fame player who quickly crashed and burned as a head coach. After 12 outstanding seasons with the Chicago Bears which included 10 Pro Bowl appearances and a Super Bowl ring, Singletary retired in 1992.
Following a failed bid to coach Baylor in 2002, he returned to the NFL as a linebackers coach with the Baltimore Ravens in 2003. In 2004, he joined the 49ers coaching staff as an assistant head coach and linebackers coach. Despite his efforts, he was unable to secure himself a head coaching position. His luck changed in 2008 when San Francisco hired him as interim head coach in the wake of Mike Nolan’s dismissal. Although the season was a write-off at the time of Singletary’s hiring, he managed to briefly turn the team around. He also managed to upset a lot of players, staff, and fans.
After another two seasons of mediocrity, he was fired. He has since been able to find work as a linebackers coach, but nobody seems willing to give him a head coaching job.
9 Ted Williams
Between 1939 and 1960, Ted Williams was one of the most feared hitters in baseball. He played his entire career in Boston and earned himself a place in the Hall of Fame. Williams is the last baseball player to have a .400 batting average in a full season after hitting .406 in 1941. Unfortunately, Williams never won a World Series.
He finished his long career with an incredible lifetime batting average of .344 and 521 homers.
Nine years after retiring, the expansion Washington Senators hired him as their manager. He had a good inaugural season in which the Sens went 86-76. He was voted “Manager of the Year” and things were looking up. His success didn’t last long. The Senators regressed sharply and it was clear that Williams did not have a coach’s pedigree.
The Senators relocated to Texas in 1971 where they produced an awful 54-100 record. That was the end of Ted Williams’ not-so-illustrious managing career.
8 Isiah Thomas
Isiah Thomas’ career statistics are mighty impressive. In his 13-year Hall of Fame career, Thomas was a 12-time All-Star, two-time NBA Champion, and is the Detroit Pistons’ all-time leading scorer.
In the 2000-01 NBA season, the Indiana Pacers were coming off a three season stretch in which they lost twice in the Conference Finals and then lost in the NBA Finals in the 1999-2000 season. The Pacers thought that Thomas could put them over the top, but it was not to be. Indiana would have three straight mediocre seasons and Thomas was given the axe after the Pacers were bounced in the first round for the third straight year. He would have even less success coaching the New York Knicks. In his two seasons there, his payroll-bloated team went 56-108.
7 Bob Gainey
This Hockey Hall of Fame inductee enjoyed many triumphs in his sixteen-year career with the Montreal Canadiens. On top of winning five Stanley Cups with the Habs, he was a four-time Selke Trophy winner and a four-time All-Star. Like others on this list, his talent on the ice didn’t translate into being a very good coach.
After finishing his playing career in Europe, he was hired as the head coach of the Minnesota North Stars. In his first year behind the bench, the North Stars made it to the 1991 Stanley Cup finalsm but lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was a great start but he would never again match that success as a head coach. He spent six mediocre seasons in Minnesota/Dallas before finally stepping down to focus on front office duties.
Bob Gainey was hired as Montreal’s GM in 2003. In 2006, he fired head coach Guy Carbonneau and named himself head coach. He coached 57 games over the next two seasons but once again he stepped down after the team struggled.
He has not coached since but has remained employed in the front offices of Dallas and St. Louis.
6 Kevin McHale
This Hall of Fame power forward spent his entire 13-year career with the Boston Celtics where he won three NBA Championships. Once the seven-time All-Star ended a holdout in his 1980-81 rookie year, he proved himself worthy of such a generous contract. McHale continued to be a force until his retirement in 1993.
After his playing days ended, Kevin immediately found employment in the Minnesota Timberwolves front office and was quickly promoted to GM. In 2005, he was made interim coach of the Timberwolves to finish the season. He hired Dwane Casey to coach the team but fired him after an unsatisfactory start to the 2007-08 season. Once again, McHale stepped into the coaching position to finish the season.
He would take on the head coaching position with the Houston Rockets beginning in 2011. The Rockets made it to the Conference Finals in 2014-15 but a poor start to the 2015-16 spelled the end for McHale. He compiled a respectable 232-185 regular season record, but never found much playoff success.
5 Mel Ott
Mel Ott was the centerpiece of the New York Giants between 1926 and 1947. He spent his entire career with the Giants where he belted 511 homers and maintained a career .304 batting average. He was an 11-time All-Star and is in the Hall of Fame.
Starting in 1942, Ott became a player-coach with the Giants. The Giants would never place higher than third in the standings and Ott was eventually replaced by Leo Durocher during the 1948 season. Ott then retired. He took a coaching job in the Pacific Coast League in 1951 but he never made it back to the majors.
4 Elgin Baylor
Back in 1958, the Minnesota Lakers were an aging team coming off a 19-53 season. Elgin Baylor was just what the team needed. From the moment he first stepped on the court, he was an impact player right through to his retirement in 1972. He was Rookie of the Year and he earned several other distinctions, such as being an 11-time All-Star.
After his retirement, Baylor took an assistant coaching position with the New Orleans Jazz in 1974. He took the head coaching job in 1976 but it didn’t go as planned. He coached the lackluster Jazz until 1979 when he stepped down after racking up a less than stellar 86-134 record with no playoff appearances. The Jazz relocated to Utah and Baylor found long-term work with the Los Angeles Clippers.
3 Eddie Mathews
Eddie Mathews had a long and fruitful baseball career starting in 1952 with the Boston Braves and ending 17 years later with the Detroit Tigers. He walloped 512 home runs and drove in 1,453 runs. He won two World Series titles and was an All-Star nine times in his Hall of Fame career. After winning his second World Series ring in 1968, Mathews retired.
Like many baseball greats, Eddie Mathews got into coaching but it was a brief and highly unsuccessful venture. He took over as the Atlanta Braves coach in 1972 and ended up with a 23-27 record. His second season resulted in a 76-85 record and he didn't make it through his third season. After posting a 50-49 record to start the 1974 campaign, the axe fell and Eddie Mathews’ coaching career was over.
2 Herm Edwards
Herm Edwards had a terrific nine-year career as a cornerback with the Philadelphia Eagles before splitting his last year between Atlanta and Los Angeles in 1986. He had 33 interceptions and is legendary in Philly for his fumble recovery in a game against the New York Giants.
After his playing days ended in 1986, Herm got some coaching experience at the college level. He then returned to the NFL and worked as a defensive backs coach with the Chiefs. In 2001, he was given his big opportunity as the head coach of the New York Jets. In his first season, the Jets finished with a 10-6 record but were beaten in the first round of the playoffs. The team would get progressively worse, even though Edwards would make the playoffs two more times. They posted a lousy 4-12 record in 2005 and the Jets let Edwards sign with Kansas City. He turned a 9-7 Chiefs team into a 2-14 team in just three years and was quickly let go.
1 Wayne Gretzky
When “The Great One” Wayne Gretzky entered the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers, he was quickly surrounded by talent. Rehashing his accomplishments would take days, but we all know he was the best player in the history of hockey. His coaching career is a completely different story.
When he took over as the Phoenix Coyotes bench boss to start the 2005-06 season, there was naturally a lot of hype and high expectations. Unlike his rookie year in Edmonton, Gretzky’s Coyotes were not especially loaded with talent, but there was still a belief that he could work his magic. It was a disaster. The Coyotes hovered around .500 and never once saw the postseason under Gretzky.
The Coyotes were battling bankruptcy in 2009 and Gretzky decided to step down amidst the uncertainty of the team’s future. He left with a record of 143-161-24. A far cry from what was expected.