There’s an old adage that the best players in a sport do not make good coaches.
Well, Tim Duncan will try to change that.
Yesterday, news came out that former 2-time NBA MVP and 5-time NBA Champion Tim Duncan will become an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs, the team he suited up for for 19 years.
He’s not a head coach yet, and we don’t know if that’s even his intention, but seeing Duncan come back into sports via coaching makes me thing of some of the best athletes in sports who dabbled in coaching after their playing days were over.
Some of the players turned coaches below did better than others, but it’s an interesting case study, and something to keep in mind if Duncan looks to move up the ranks (perhaps as the heir to Gregg Popovich)
Larry Bird, Indiana Pacers (1997-2000)
One of the greatest players in NBA history, Larry Bird played his last game for the Boston Celtics in 1992. 5 years later, he became the head coach of the Indiana Pacers, the state in which he grew up.
Bird said at the time he would not coach more than three years, and that’s exactly what he did.
During his three seasons with the Pacers, Bird had a record of 147-67 (.687), leading his team to the Eastern Conference Finals each season, and to the NBA Finals his last season as head coach in 2000, where the Pacers lost in 6 games to the Los Angeles Lakers.
One wonders why someone who was so good at this would quit so quickly, Bird believed coaches only can be effective for three years before there needs to be a new voice in the room. The likes of Bill Belichick and Gregg Popovich may disagree, but that was his philosophy.
Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers (1994)
Like Bird, Magic Johnson was one of the greatest players in NBA history, and got a chance to become a coach in 1994.
The team had been coached by Randy Pfund to start the season, but he was fired after the team went 27-37 to start the season. Assistant coach Bill Bertka then took over for two games, but owner Jerry Buss wanted Magic to coach the team to finish the year since it did not look like they would make the playoffs.
The team was 5-1 in Magic’s first 6 games as coach, but went on to lose 10 straight games to finish the 1993-1994 season, missing the playoffs for the first time in 18 years.
Magic then resigned, ending his brief tenure as a coach.
It seems like this was a PR move more than anything, or Magic Johnson doing Jerry Buss a favor; simply put, Magic was not meant for this role.
Mike Ditka, Chicago Bears (1982-1992) & New Orleans Saints (1997-1999)
People mainly remember Mike Ditka as the coach of the Chicago Bears, but in the 1960s, he played for the team, and was one of the best tight ends the game had ever seen.
During his rookie season, Ditka had 56 catches for 1076 yards and 12 TDs, which earned him the NFL Rookie of the Year Award. He was a Pro Bowler his first 5 seasons, First Team All-Pro his first 4 seasons, and Second Team All-Pro in seasons 5 and 6.
Ditka was hired as the head coach of the Bears in 1982. During his tenure as head coach, Ditka was 106-62, winning the Super Bowl in 1985; that team is considered one of the greatest in NFL history.
Ditka posted 7 winning seasons in his 11 seasons with the Bears, each of which the Bears made the postseason. The Bears also appeared in 2 other NFC Championship Games (1984, 1988), each time losing to the San Francisco 49ers.
Ditka returned to coaching in 1997 with the New Orleans Saints, an infamous stint. He went 12-20 his first two seasons, then decided to make trade each of the Saints’ draft picks in 1999 (plus a first round pick in 2000) in order to move up and draft RB Ricky Williams. The team proceeded to go 3-13 in 1999, at which point Ditka was fired.
Wayne Gretzky, Phoenix Coyotes (2005-2009)
Arguably the greatest player in NHL history, Wayne Gretzky became involved with the Phoenix Coyotes after his playing days were over.
In 2005, this culminating in him becoming the head coach of the team.
During his first season, Phoenix posted a record of 38-39-5 (81 points), which is not awful, but it was good enough for 12th in the Western Conference.
In Year 2, the Coyotes posted the second worst record in the NHL, going 31-46-5 (67 points), a step back for team.
The team posted similar records during the next two seasons, going 38-37-7 (83 points) in 2007-2008 (Gretzky’s best season as a coach), and 36-39-7 (79 points) in 2008-2009.
Gretzky formally stepped down prior to the 2009-2010 season due to uncertainty surrounding the team’s future.
Gretzky as a coach was the mediocre one.
Ted Williams, Washington Senators/Texas Rangers (1969-1972)
One of the greatest hitters in the history of baseball, Ted Williams played with the Boston Red Sox from 1939 to 1960 (several seasons were partially or completely interrupted due to his service in World War II and the Korean War).
Williams became the manager of the second incarnation of the Washington Senators in 1969. During his first season with the team, he posted an 86-76 record, winning Manager of the Year.
That was the peak of his managerial career. During his second and third seasons with the Senators, the team went 70-92 and 63-96 respectively.
The team then moved to Texas, becoming the Texas Rangers, at which point Williams became the first manager in the history of the team in Texas. However, it was not a memorable season, as the team went 54-100, capping off another season in which Williams’ team finished worse than the season before.
He quit after four seasons, finishing his managerial career 273-364 (.429).
Credit to photo above goes to Darren Abate of the AP
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