In any conversation focused around the best sports coaches of the last quarter century, two names are sure to be mentioned- San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich and New England Patriots mastermind Bill Belichick. Neither future hall of fame head coach broke any records on the hardwood or the gridiron; in fact, neither even played at the professional level. Therefore, their climb to the top echelon of coaches in the NBA and NFL proves that being a star athlete at the professional level isn’t a prerequisite for being an elite coach.
While myriad rotation players becoming quality bench bosses has further evidenced this claim, many star athletes have ignored it and pursued coaching after retirement. Derek Fisher and Jason Kidd recently did in the NBA, most have gone immediately from playing the game to coaching it. As a result, they’ve initiated their coaching careers with little to no experience, making it much more difficult to succeed at their first—and possibly only—gig. The best players in sports have always enjoyed being challenged, though jumping immediately from the playing field to the sidelines in a head-coaching role can be as tasking as LeBron winning a championship in Cleveland—pre Miami Heat days.
The 10 athletes to appear on this list each reached the summit of their respective sports before transitioning to a career in coaching—albeit a short-lived one. They would find out how difficult the role is and the requirements that must be met in order to one day enjoy the dominance they did as players. But for the following former players and coaches, they would never overcome the necessary coaching obstacles to eventually make a successful transition from player to coach. Here is a look at the 10 best athletes who failed miserably as head coaches.
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10 Bob Cousy
Widely considered the first great lead guard, Bob Cousy began his NBA coaching career in 1970 with Cincinnati after playing part of one year with the club the previous season. He finished with a mark below .500 in each of his only five NBA seasons as a bench boss. Before beginning his NBA coaching stint, Cousy enjoyed six masterful seasons as the bench boss at Boston College; he finished with a combined 114-38 record and guided the Eagles to the Elite Eight in 1967. However, after Cousy garnered NBA interest, he struggled to find the same groove he did as a player and NCAA head coach. Aside from his dismal stint as an NBA head coach, Cousy will be remembered for igniting the NBA players association and serving as its first president in 1958.
9 Bart Starr
An all-time great for one of sports’ most storied franchises, Bart Starr owns the highest playoff passer rating (104.8) and record (9-1) in NFL history, but when the Green Bay Packers decided to hire Starr as its next head coach in 1975, even the former superstar quarterback ostensibly had his doubts. Starr had just one year of coaching under his belt as the team’s quarterbacks coach in 1972, and later revealed he took the job to take one for the team.
In 2013, Starr admitted that coaching the Packers was a mistake. In fact he went so far as to say, “the greatest mistake I made in my life was to coach... I didn’t have the guts to say to the Green Bay Packers, ‘Thank you, but no thank you. I wasn’t prepared, and it showed over the first few years,” he reiterated. He finished with a 52-76-2 record in nine seasons as the Packers head coach from 1975-1983.
8 Art Shell
Art Shell was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame for his stellar play as an offensive tackle, and originally it looked as though he would perform just as well as a head coach—the NFL’s first black head coach in the sport’s modern era. However, Shell was fired twice by the man who made him the NFL’s first black head coach.
Davis re-hired Shell after admitting he mistakenly fired him in 1994. Al Davis re-hired Shell in 2006, but after the Raiders scored just 12 touchdowns in 16 games and finished with a 2-14 record in 2006, Shell was fired again. Before returning in 2006, Shell owned a 54-38 record as the Raiders head coach but his inability to lead the team in his most recent stint earns him a spot on this list.
7 Ted Williams
The greatest hitter to ever live, as he was frequently referred, spent his entire 19-year career wearing red socks in Boston. Interestingly, he did so in two stints. From 1943-1945 Williams served in the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps during WW2 and returned to the team thereafter. The 17-time All star and two-time MVP owns the highest on-base percentage, .482, in MLB history. However, his long list of accolades ended once he moved permanently to the dugout.
In three seasons with the Washington Senators, Williams registered just one winning season. Even after the club moved to Texas as the Rangers, Williams couldn’t escape the poor track record that defined him in Washington.
6 Diego Maradona
Possibly the greatest to ever play the prestigious no.10 role, Diego Maradona electrified the football world whenever he marched onto a pitch. At the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, he solidified himself as a football legend as he captured the tournament’s trophy and Golden Ball award while captaining Argentina. However, it was during this World Cup that Maradona scandalously scored the “Hand of God” goal in a quarter final against England, and it foreshadowed his post-player career as a coach.
His most notable coaching position came as the head coach of the Argentina national team in 2008, but his lack of managerial experience ultimately sealed his fate. The team barely qualified for the 2010 World Cup and they declined to renew his contract after Argentina was crushed by Germany in the quarter finals.
5 Magic Johnson
The five-time NBA Champion was the catalyst behind the rise of Los Angeles Lakers organization, and did so with his dazzling style of play. Magic is one of seven players in history to win an NCAA title, NBA championship, and an Olympic Gold Medal; he accomplished the latter as a member of the historic 1992 United States “Dream Team.” While retired as a player, Johnson returned to the NBA as the Lakers coach in 1994 but quickly resigned after a 5-11 record. The following season, at age 36, Magic made his return to the hardwood in what would eventually be—despite taking the Brett Favre retirement route—his swan song.
4 Mike Singletary
On the field, Mike Singletary was known as the integral piece of the legendary Chicago Bears defense of the 1980s. Unfortunately, his time as a NFL head coach will be remembered for an incident that occurred off the gridiron. Singletary provided an unforgettable post-game press conference outburst directed at Niners tight end Vernon Davis during his only head coaching opportunity with the San Francisco 49ers from 2008 until 2010. He subsequently coached the Minnesota Vikings linebackers unit and acted as assistant head coach to Leslie Frazier from 2011-2013. He was relieved of his coaching duties on the Vikings staff when Mike Zimmer was hired in 2014 and is currently without an NFL coaching job.
3 Wayne Gretzky
As the greatest hockey player ever, and one that played the game in a cerebral way, many believed Wayne Gretzky could seamlessly transition from player to head coach. “The Great One” could not beat you in a race or win the hardest shot competition, but his understanding of the game was unparalleled. He would always be in the right place at the right moment, and capitalize on his opportunities each time he was there. Gretzky became a part owner of the Phoenix Coyotes after his retirement, and grabbed the reigns as the team’s head coach immediately following the 2004-05 NHL lockout. Under the guidance of Gretzky, the Coyotes failed to reach the postseason, and finished no higher than 12th in the Western Conference.
2 Bryan Trottier
The first-ballot hall of famer and six-time Stanley Cup champion played 18 seasons in the NHL, but his head-coaching career did not even last 82 games. Despite playing 15 seasons with the New York Islanders, Bryan Trottier accepted a head-coaching job with his former rivals the New York Rangers in 2002. He grabs the runner-up spot on this list because he was axed after just 54 games that season. Trottier did however hoist a Stanley Cup as an assistant coach with the Colorado Avalanche.
1 Isiah Thomas
Had Isiah Thomas been graded solely on his head-coaching stint with the Indiana Pacers, he would have undoubtedly avoided a spot on this list. However, most NBA enthusiasts associate his coaching legacy with his abysmal job as head coach of the New York Knicks. After taking over for Larry Bird, who took the Indiana Pacers to the NBA Finals in 2000, Thomas won more games than he lost as the head coach of the team. With the Knicks though, Thomas finished with the fifth-worst winning percentage in team history. To make things worse in the Big Apple, Thomas lost a sexual harassment lawsuit after being sued by a former Knicks executive.
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