Coaching is one of the most thankless, stressful occupations in the world. It requires dozens of hours of unseen preparation for a game in which the result can change based on the slightest mistake from a player or a bounce in the wrong direction. No matter the reason for the result, the head coach or manager is always responsible for the conduct of his players on and off the field of play. Once a champion is crowned at the end of the season, players go off to celebrate and relax while enjoying their victory. A successful coach is not afforded this luxury because they must immediately begin preparation for the following campaign, where every other team will be looking to knock the champion off its lofty perch.
Conventional wisdom says that great athletes do not always make good coaches and throughout sports history there are examples of this. From Wayne Gretzky to Larry Bird, many legends on the field of play have found it difficult to transition to life on the sidelines. What is far more common is for athletes to have a strong background in the sport and a familiarity with the competition level. This allows them to transition into a role that does not require athletic prowess to succeed. However, this list is dedicated to the individuals that were never able to find success on the field and instead changed their perspective to gaining a strategic advantage over their opponents.
Being an athlete at a skill level lower than your teammates and opponents is never an easy feat. To continue on this path, an individual must develop into a particular role and create a tactical approach that is superior to that of their opponents. Doing this requires an intensive study of the mental aspects of their sport and an ability to improve the play of those around them. This list features professional coaches that have managed to carry these abilities over long after their playing careers have ended. While they may not have found the glory they originally sought on the field, they were certainly able to find it coaching their teams to victory from the sidelines.
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15 Ken Hitchcock
Looking at Ken Hitchcock, it takes less than a second to understand that he was likely never the most athletically astute individual. Growing up in Western Canada, Hitchcock never played professional hockey, but always seemed to thrive in motivating his teammates. He took that skill to heart and began a coaching career at the youth level and in hockey schools before becoming an assistant with the Philadelphia Flyers and eventually head coach with the Kalamazoo Wings. He won a Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars in 1999 and nearly repeated the feat the following season. He has amassed over 700 wins so far during his 19-year career and continues to be an innovator of the game, with his recent quick goaltender change irritating league officials by exploiting the loophole to give his team an extra break.
14 Erik Spoelstra
Now in his eighth season as the head coach of the Miami Heat, Erik Spoelstra has quickly inserted himself among the NBA's elite coaches. After a successful high school career, he decided to stay in his hometown and play for the University of Portland. Following graduation, he went undrafted and played two unheralded seasons as a player/assistant coach for German club Tus Herten before he was offered a role with the Miami Heat. He has since climbed from being a game tape editor all the way to the sideline and became only the third coach to appear in four consecutive NBA Finals with two Championships in 2012 and 2013 as the sideline leader of Miami's "Big Three."
13 George Karl
George Karl is one of the most accomplished coaches in NBA history, being one of only seven to earn over 1,000 career victories. Karl averaged 6.5 points per game during his five year career with the San Antonio Spurs as the team transitioned from the ABA to the NBA. He would on to successful coaching stints with Seattle, Milwaukee, and Denver before becoming the current coach of the Sacramento Kings. He has made the playoffs in 22 of his 27 years as a head coach.
12 Chuck Noll
Being an undersized guard in the NFL has never been an easy task and that statement rang true for legendary football coach Chuck Noll. Noll played several seasons for the Cleveland Browns as a guard and linebacker in the 1950s, mostly running plays into quarterback Otto Graham. This role taught Noll the mental side of the game and he asserted himself as one of the smartest players in the league. When Noll took over the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1969, the franchise had never won a playoff game in their history. By the time he was finished with the team in 1991, the team had won four Super Bowls and become one of the NFL's most iconic teams. Noll set the precedent for Steelers excellence and his legacy and impact on the sport will never be forgotten.
11 Tommy Lasorda
There is no other way to put it, Tommy Lasorda was a terrible Major League pitcher. Over his three year career, he appeared in 26 games and had an awful 6.48 ERA. Thankfully, he realized his baseball skills and knowledge could still be useful and became a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers. From there, he climbed through the managerial ranks from the lowest level to become the manager of the Dodgers in 1976. Lasorda would go on to manage the team until 1996, filling the airwaves with colorful interviews and giving Dodgers fans two World Series titles in 1981 and 1988. He had an extraordinary ability to develop talent, which saw him manage nine National League Rookie of the Year Award winners. Following his retirement from professional baseball, Lasorda also managed the United States to an Olympic Gold Medal at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.
10 Rafa Benitez
The football career of Rafa Benitez was cut short by multiple injuries, with him never playing football at the highest level. However, Benitez excelled in the mental aspects of the game and was promptly hired by Real Madrid as a youth coach. From there, Rafa rose through the coaching ranks, winning trophies and earning promotion to eventually becoming manager of La Liga champions Valencia. Through his journey as manager of Liverpool, Inter Milan, Chelsea, and Napoli, he has won virtually every European competition and only needs domestic titles in England and Italy to complete his legendary resume.
9 Branch Rickey
Before Branch Rickey revolutionized the sport of baseball by signing Jackie Robinson and breaking the color barrier, he had played portions of four seasons in the Major Leagues. He was a career .239 hitter in only 380 plate appearances, but managed to change the sport once he transitioned to the management aspects of the game. Rickey not only invented the farm system framework widely used throughout baseball, he helped end baseball's racial segregation by drafting Roberto Clemente.
8 Joe McCarthy
It is rare for a manager to have never played baseball in the Major Leagues, but Joe McCarthy still managed to find success after spending fifteen years in the Minors. McCarthy served as manager of Wilkes-Barre and Louisville before being hired by the Chicago Cubs and leading them to a National League title in his third season. After being fired the following season, McCarthy became the manager of the New York Yankees, where he would go on to win seven World Series titles and become the franchise's all time leader in wins and winning percentage.
7 Tony La Russa
Over the course of his six seasons in the Major Leagues with the Oakland Athletics, Atlanta Braves, and Chicago Cubs, Tony La Russa only saw 203 plate appearances and hit for a career average of .199. La Russa’s first managerial position with the Chicago White Sox yielded similar results: he barely managed above .500. In Oakland, La Russa’s genius began to shine throug, as he won his first World Series in 1989. He then joined the St. Louis Cardinals in 1996 and led them to three pennants and two World Series, eventually being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2014.
6 Bobby Cox
After bouncing between the farm teams of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves, Bobby Cox eventually spent two seasons as a stop-gap third basemen for the New York Yankees before injuries forced his retirement. Cox’s first Major League managerial opportunity came with the Atlanta Braves, but he was unable to help the team prosper. After a successful four seasons in Toronto, he became the general manager of the Atlanta Braves, eventually appointing himself manager in 1990. He transformed Atlanta into a dynasty, thanks to incredible starting pitching and won a World Series title in 1995.
5 Jose Mourinho
Before he was known as “The Special One,” Jose Mourinho was a struggling footballer trying to follow in his father's footsteps. After playing several seasons under his father with stops at Rio Ave and Belenenses, Mourinho understood he was lacking the skill and pace to become an elite footballer and dedicated himself to management. After studying sports science at the Technical University of Lisbon, he became the manager of Benfica. From there, he became a household name. After winning the Champions League with Porto and then moving to Chelsea, he helped build the club into European giants. From 2003 to 2012, Mourinho managed to win a trophy in every season, including eight domestic titles and another Champions League crown. While he may have struggled at times in his second stint with Chelsea, his status as one of the world's best managers has never been in doubt.
4 Pat Riley
After a playing career that consisted mostly of coming off the bench and guarding the legendary Jerry West in practice, Pat Riley would go on to help create some of basketball’s greatest dynasties. After spending two seasons as an assistant, Riley took over the Los Angeles Lakers in 1981 and helped Magic and Kareem win four NBA Championships. He joined the New York Knicks a few season later, leading them to a Finals appearance before jumping ship for Miami, where he won another title and helped create the LeBron James Big 3. He remains one of the most accomplished and influential figures in professional basketball.
3 Woody Hayes
Woody Hayes never played professional football following his career at Denison University where he played tackle. After serving in the United States Navy and achieving the rank of lieutenant commander during World War I, Hayes returned to Denison as head coach and would move to Miami University before making the move to Ohio State where he became a legend. Hayes went on to win three National Championships and 13 Big Ten Championships before being dismissed for punching a Clemson linebacker during the 1978 Gator Bowl.
2 Bill Belichick
Bill Belichick never aspired to play professional football after playing center and tight end for Wesleyan University. He actually preferred lacrosse and served as team captain during his senior season. Following graduation, he took an assistant position with the Baltimore Colts and served under Bill Parcells with the New York Giants before earning his first head coaching job with the Cleveland Browns in 1991. Following several unsuccessful seasons, Belichick briefly joined the New York Jets before spurning the team for the Patriots, where he linked up with Tom Brady and won four Super Bowls.
1 Arsene Wenger
Arsene Wenger had the misfortune of not being able to find a reputable club at an early enough age and when he was finally discovered by French 3rd Division club Mutzig, Wenger was already 20. He eventually played several professional season with Mulhouse and RC Strasbourg, while assisting with the youth and reserve teams toward the end of his career. Wenger bounced from Nancy-Lorraine to Monaco and Japanese club Nagoya Grampus Eight before landing at Arsenal in 1996. He cemented his place in club history as their longest serving and most successful manager with 15 trophies to his name.
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