As a player, Wayne Gretzky was known, unambiguously, as The Great One. Even at that, the sobriquet may have qualified as an understatement.
He retired as the NHL's career leader in goals and assists (both in the regular season and playoffs). He won four Stanley Cups. And while the rub-your-eyes-in-disbelief-and-take-another-look moment isn't an official NHL stat, you'd have to believe Gretzky is the leader in the clubhouse there as well.
Last week, Gretzky resigned as head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes after four undistinguished seasons. His record (143-161-24) wasn't necessarily the catalyst. Rather, with the team in financial distress and up for sale, The Great One perceived himself to be The Unwanted One -- neither of the two potential new owners of the team, he believed, was interested in his services.
Along the way, a long-standing and unambiguous stereotype was reinforced: Great players make lousy coaches.
Gretzky's profile doesn't leave much room for debate. His Coyotes finished fifth, fifth, fourth and fourth in their division and never made the playoffs. In terms of winning percentage, his .473, compared with the 53 other NHL Hall of Fame players who tried their hand at coaching, ranks 25th -- just south of Sid Abel, and just north of Sprague Cleghorn.
And so it goes -- Wayne Gretzky, Milt Schmidt, Ted Williams, Frank Robinson, Otto Graham, Norm Van Brocklin, Willis Reed, Wes Unseld. Ironclad, right?
Not so fast, Ebbie Goodfellow.
Research by an unlicensed statistician, after hours of quality time with the fine family of Sports Reference Web sites, reveals intriguing data. It turns out that Hall of Fame players cast into a coaching role aren't infallibly useless. Not all are engaged in a futile effort to recreate their finest days as an athlete, unable to relate to those who do not possess their own preternatural athletic skills. The numbers:
-- NBA: 38 Hall of Fame players-turned-coaches, combined .523 winning percentage, 11 world titles.
--Baseball: 59 Hall of Fame players-turned-managers, combined .513 winning percentage, 12 World Series titles.
--NHL: 54 Hall of Fame players-turned coaches, combined .503 winning percentage, 27 Stanley Cup championships.
--NFL: 35 Hall of Fame players-turned-coaches, combined .478 winning percentage, 10 world titles.
Collectively, Hall of Fame players win more than they lose as coaches. So why the unflattering perception? For starters, we expect the greatness of surpassing athletes to extend into every aspect of their lives. So when Magic Johnson walks away after a forgettable 5-11 cameo with the Lakers, we perceive it as his failing instead of our unforgiving expectations.
Too, great athletes are often thrown into difficult situations by team owners looking to cover systemic dysfunction with a feel-good cosmetic Band-Aid. This doesn't explain the entirety of Bart Starr's nine-year run as Green Bay Packers coach, but it gets the conversation started.
Sometimes a great athlete's good work as a coach doesn't receive proper recognition because it doesn't live up to his playing career. Larry Bird won 147 games in three seasons as coach of the Indiana Pacers. Jerry West's Lakers won at a .589 clip during his three seasons as coach. Walter Johnson was 97 games over .500 during his seven seasons as manager of the Washington Senators. Yet their athletic afterlife is considered an uninspiring footnote to their legendary playing careers.
Has any coach or manager cleared the high bar he set for himself as a Hall of Fame player? Two come quickly to mind. In eight seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers, Billy Cunningham established a .698 winning percentage (second all-time among NBA coaches with 500 games) and won a title. And Toe Blake, who scored 235 goals in a 14-year playing career, won eight Stanley Cups in 13 years as a head coach.
Mostly once-great athletes succeed or fail for the same pedestrian reasons that mortals succeed and fail. Gretzky, for example. He averaged 35.75 wins with a franchise that averaged 31.4 wins its first 25 NHL seasons. He didn't turn the Coyotes around. Neither did he run them into the ground.
He began his coaching tenure with a cautionary note -- "Coaches are human, too," he said four years ago. He had it half right. Coaches are allowed to fail, albeit grudgingly. Great expectations, on the other hand, never take a day off.