We are in the Golden Era for Boston sports coaches.
Right now we have three active coaches (Bill Belichick, Terry Francona, Doc Rivers) who have won a championship with their respective teams. Until 2004 there had never been a period in Boston sports history in which even two of the four active coaches had a Boston title on their résumé (makes sense, I guess, when you consider that one team didn't win its first title until 2001 and another went 86 years between crowns).
With that in mind, here is our list of top coaches in Boston pro sports history. The only rule is this: We are grading only for the work done while in Boston. So, managing the 1961 Yankees doesn't help Ralph Houk, and the 9-8 effort submitted by Rod Rust with the Montreal Alouettes in 2001 was memorable but sadly not a factor on this chart.
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10. Bill Russell (162-83, two NBA titles)
I don’t feel great about this one (can’t shake the Sacramento run), but he did win two championships, which pretty much gets you a spot on the list. I can’t imagine there are many coaches who have two NBA titles and zero division crowns, but Russell managed to pull it off.
(What do think, will we ever see another player-coach in a major sport? I think probably not, especially when you consider that we are in the era of 30 assistant coaches for every team. I guess the best bet would be baseball, where you could get a guy in his early 40s playing twice a week with most of his energy focused on managing — as Pete Rose did in the 1980s. Not the best example in terms of a role model, but you get the point.
9. Duane Charles Parcells (32-32, one AFC title)
With Tedy Bruschi retired, there are now no players left from the Bill Parcells era in Foxboro. Bobby Grier has a 1-0 lead. See, Robert Kraft knew what he was doing.
Parcells was the anti-K.C. Jones, if you will (and I will, thanks). The Tuna needed to have his hands on everything. But, like K.C., he arrived at the job at the perfect time. The 1993 Patriots were in more dire need of a highly competent micromanager than any franchise I can remember. And sure, it got Joey Greco ugly at the end, but don’t forget this: Without Parcells, you never get Belichick.
It's hard to remember now — the Belichick era has pretty much wiped out the Parcells years from the memory of Pats fans — how important it was when Parcells took over in New England. It didn’t seem possible at the time, I’m not even sure there would be an equivalent today. Maybe if Belichick took over the Raiders, or Phil Jackson went to the Clippers. It just gave the franchise instant credibility that hasn’t gone away in 16 years. If you recall, the Patriots nearly went with a combination of Tom Donahoe as general manager and Dom Capers as coach before hiring Belichick in 2000. Let’s take a wild leap and assume that might not have worked out as well. Imagine how differently you’d then view the Parcells tenure. It would look like freaking Camelot. But Parcells managed to do what he does — burn some bridges on his endless search for a few dollars more. Just wait — he’ll leave Miami for somewhere else (I keep thinking San Francisco for some reason) in a year or two. And the Dolphins will have a much better team than before he arrived, and still he’ll be hated by at least half the fans. Happens every time.
8. Tom Johnson (142-42-23, one Stanley Cup)
Should he be on here? Is three years (really two-plus years, he coached just 52 games in 1972-73 before Bep Guidolin took over) enough? I don’t know, but I need a Bruins coach on this list. Guess I could’ve gone with Harry Sinden or Don Cherry or even Art Ross. Johnson has the best winning percentage in Bruins history (.738) so we’ll call that the tiebreaker. (The Bruins have won five Cups with five different coaches.) If Cherry had won a Cup, he’d be ahead of Johnson for sure (and higher on this list).
(Johnson, of course, was the coach for the last Stanley Cup-winning Bruins team, which was 37 years ago. The last time the Bruins won the Cup, “The Godfather” had not yet been released. Tiger Woods and Tom Brady hadn’t been born. Neither had Rodney Harrison (that one surprised me). Larry King was younger in 1972 than Anderson Cooper is now. Cloris Leachman was a sex symbol. My point is that it’s been a little while.)
6. (Tie) Joe McCarthy (223-145) and Dick Williams (260-217, one AL pennant)
Reason why the Red Sox didn’t win a World Series for 86 years, No. 48,884:
Tom Yawkey managed to get just six combined seasons of service in Boston from McCarthy and Williams, each a Hall of Famer (McCarthy arrived in Boston with nine pennants and seven World Series wins. His .615 winning percentage is still tops all time. Bill James, among many others, considers McCarthy the best manager in baseball history) who had considerable success with the Red Sox. But both were opinionated and weren’t afraid to clash with ownership. Yawkey was more comfortable with racists (oops, I meant “yes men”) such as Pinky Higgins, who managed the Sox for eight years (or two more than McCarthy and Williams combined) and never finished higher than third place. Here’s an excerpt from Howard Bryant’s terrific book, “Shut Out: A story of race and baseball in Boston,” that lets you know who old Pinky might’ve voted for had be been alive for the 2008 presidential election …
“Higgins swore never to field a black player. As a final act in the spring of 1959, he had sent Pumpsie Green back to the minors in a spiteful, last-second gesture. The Red Sox struggled early in the season with poor infield play, and Larry Claflin, a columnist for the Boston Record American, asked Higgins if he would bolster the infield by recalling Green, who, in the minors, was hitting over .300 and playing solid defense. Higgins responded by calling Claflin a “ni—er lover” and spit tobacco juice all over him.”
And why did it take so long (20 years after he retired) to get Dick Williams into the Hall of Fame? He managed the 1967 Red Sox, won two World Series with the A’s and took the Padres to the World Series in 1984. I don’t think there have been 10 better managers in the post-WWII era. He actually reminds me a lot of Parcells. Williams would instantly make his teams better but would inevitably leave after battling ownership.
1966 Red Sox: 72-90
1967 Red Sox: (Williams’ first season) 92-70
1970 A’s: 89-73
1971 A’s: (Williams’ first season) 101-60
1976 Expos: 55-107
1977 Expos: (Williams’ first season) 75-87
1981 Padres: 41-69 (strike season)
1982 Padres: (Williams’ first season) 81-81
5. K.C. Jones (308-102, two NBA titles)
Right man, right time.
There is a talent in knowing that it’s best to stay out the way. That’s not to suggest that Jones did nothing but roll the ball out during his five years as head coach of the Celtics, but he knew Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish were ready to take the lead. They had been Fitch’d out and didn’t need the next guy to yell at them for eight months. And Jones, to his eternal credit, recognized that instantly.
All Jones did in five seasons as head coach was win five division titles, four Eastern Conference crowns and the two NBA championships (and yes, I think it would’ve been three without the injuries in 1987). He was in charge of the best team I’ve ever seen in any sport, and when his tenure with the Celtics was finished he had won more than 75 percent of his games with the club. I’m thinking that if Red Auerbach had a list of his five biggest regrets in basketball, the decision to force Jones out the door so they could keep Jimmy Rodgers would have to be in the top three. The golden rule that Red forgot to follow, of course, is never give up a proven winner for a guy with a perm.
4. Tommy Heinsohn (427-263, two NBA titles)
I know, I’m surprised, too.
Why are the 1974 and 1976 teams so overlooked? No kidding, if it weren’t for the triple-OT game vs. the Suns in '76 you would hear nothing about those seasons. You never hear about the 1974 NBA finals. Why is that? We’re talking about a series that included a pair of overtime games (including a double-OT Game 6 classic) and a Game 7 win on the road (in Milwaukee). Against Kareem in his prime. For a lot of franchises that win would be the defining moment, the one that fans would compare to all others. I know, the Celtics aren’t just any franchise, but still it strikes me as strange. The 1985 Pats have a higher Q rating. My best guesses as to why they fell through the historical cracks?
- Not a great period in NBA history. Quick, who won the title in 1975? And who did they beat? How about 1978?
- Orr. And the timing couldn’t have been better for a handoff, truth be told. Russell retired in 1969 and Orr had his first MVP season a year later. And it was his town for the next half-decade.
- I think there has been some rewriting of history. When Bird arrived, it is true, the franchise was at the absolute pit of its existence. But it’s almost as if people think that the Celtics were awful for 10 years and Larry Legend rescued a former dynasty on its last breath. Not the case. There were two terrible seasons. That’s it.
Tommy Heinsohn is seventh all-time in winning percentage. He won five division titles and the two championships. The 1973 team, another forgotten group, won 68 games, a team record. Clearly the guy could coach. So, I sometimes wonder (A) Why he never coached again, and (B) how he managed to get through games (much less seasons) without actually murdering referees. I know it’s his shtick to some degree (sometimes I feel that Tommy thinks he has to be Johnny Most, the one guy that’s on “our” side), but there is no doubt in my mind that Tommy believes the three refs get together before the game and figure out how to screw the Celtics. Just a crazy way to go through life. Of course, a cynic might note that when Tommy was doing the national games for CBS there was no screaming at refs and cheering for Celtics players. How was he able to hide those feelings, that same cynic might ask. I’ll let that slide and instead use this space to celebrate a five-year stretch of coaching that included an average of 59 wins a year, five Atlantic crowns and the 1974 and 1976 titles. Whatever he has become over the last 15 years or so is his own making. But he deserves a spot on this list.
3. Terry Francona (548-396, two World Series titles)
Nine things you might (or might not) know about Terry Francona:
1. He was a teammate of Bill Lee (1981-82, Montreal)
2. Francona was the 22nd overall pick of the 1980 draft. The 23rd pick? Billy Beane.
3. His father (the original Tito) was twice traded for Larry Doby, once in 1957 and again in 1959.
4. He turned out to be the perfect fit as a manager for Theo and the crew, but he sure wouldn’t have been their kind of player. In 1,826 career plate appearances, Francona drew just 65 walks (career .300 OBP).
5. He was teammates with a 23-year-old Jamie Moyer with the Cubs in 1986.
6. On his baseball-reference.com page, the most similar player to Francona at ages 25 and 26 is current Sox batting coach Dave Magadan.
7. Though Francona did not sign, he was originally drafted by the Cubs with the 38th overall pick in 1977. The 39th pick was Bobby Sprowl, one of the legendary flameouts in Red Sox history.
8. In 1986, using the pseudonym “Midnight Snack,” Francona released a solo R&B album. Though it sold only 16,000 copies, it was a minor hit with the critics and even received a Grammy nomination for best R&B album (it lost to Billy Ocean’s “Love Zone”).
9. Francona has a 22-9 career postseason record. That .710 winning percentage is the highest mark in playoff history for all managers with at least 20 games.
Here’s what I wrote about Francona from a column a few months back:
I know this is hard to believe, but one more World Series win and Francona is going to the Hall of Fame. Every manager with at least three World Series is in (with the exception of Joe Torre, a lock for future enshrinement). Do you feel like you have a Hall of Famer in the dugout with Tito? Tough to argue with 90-95 wins a season and an 8-0 record in the World Series, I guess.
2. Bill Belichick (103-43, four AFC titles, three Super Bowl wins)
I started out this column with idea of placing Belichick in the top spot. My argument would have gone something like this:
- Auerbach never had to win in the era of the salary cap.
- Auerbach never won a title without Bill Russell. And Bill Russell (never to be confused with an innovator on the sidelines) won a pair of titles as a coach with Bill Russell as his best player. You have to wonder how many other coaches could have won with a core of Russell, Hondo, Cousy and Sam Jones.
- I think going 14-3 in the one-and-done world of the NFL playoffs (extra points, of course, for doing so in an era that demands parity) might be more impressive than winning nine NBA titles in the 1950s and 1960s (an era that allowed you to easily keep a team together).
All three of those thoughts have plenty of validity. But I have to be fair, all three put together don’t make up for the six extra championships on Auerbach’s ledger. And no, this has nothing to do with Belichick getting his clock cleaned by Rex Ryan last week.
1. Red Auerbach (795-397, nine NBA titles)
Not much to add, I figure you already know enough about this guy. But I do think that sometimes I (and others) are guilty of just looking at Auerbach the coach as someone who did nothing without Russell. Not true. Sure, no titles, but some pretty solid seasons.
1946-47 Washington: 49-11
1948-49 Washington: 38-22
1951-52 Celtics: 39-27
1952-52 Celtics: 46-25
So, this wasn't Lionel Hollins lucking into Bill Russell. Auerbach was already an established winner by 1956.
By the way, if this were a list of the top 10 executives in Boston sports history, you’d have the same guys ranked at 1 and 2 (though, to be fair, it isn’t even close. Belichick at 2 on that list would be closer to 100 than to 1. Red is the best front office guy in any sport by 50 miles).