During the NFL Combine two weeks ago, details surfaced about a proposed trade between the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers centered around Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh, whom the Browns coveted. At first sight, this seems to be unusual given the fact that trades, in the modern era of sports, are being facilitated for players and not coaches. On second thought, you might wonder, “How important is the head coach?,” followed by, “Well if he is that important to pro sports, what is his value then?”
According to several inside sources, Cleveland was willing to give up multiple draft picks for Harbaugh, who undoubtedly is one of the most successful young coaches since coming to the NFL. Reports also say that the close relationship between Harbaugh and former Browns General Manager (GM) Mike Lombardi was the reason why Cleveland made a bid for the Niners coach. Lombardi, however, got fired this month after just one season as the GM, despite doing a splendid job in trying to strengthen the analytical component of pro football while completing several good trades (e.g. the Trent Richardson deal with Indianapolis) to improve the team over the next few years. If you connect the dots, it could have been Lombardi, who tried to bring in one of the best coaches in the NFL, before he surprisingly got ousted by the new ownership.
The Building-Block “Coach”
Lombardi’s focus on installing a great coach, who also serves as a mentor and talent developer for his players, doesn’t come as a surprise. Teams begin to understand that pure talent-hoarding is worth nothing if there isn’t a philosophy behind it, driven by an excellent coaching staff. To go even further, the wrong coach at the wrong time might diminish the growing process of a young player. Jim Harbaugh has proven that he is able to bring out the best in his players by giving them a role within a team-oriented strategy. In the eyes of the Cleveland Browns, Harbaugh would have been the brain to this massively talented body of young players.
Everyone knows by now that this scenario won’t happen. Cleveland moved on and hired Mike Pettine to be their new head coach in light of the front office overhaul. But still, it tells you a lot about the increasing value of good head coaches in professional sports. So valuable, in fact, that several draft picks were offered.
Image: Boston Globe
A Branching Trend
Not every sport is comparable. There are valid arguments for big differences between the NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA, especially in regards to the role of the head coach. However, the Harbaugh pursuit happened in basketball last summer when the Los Angeles Clippers traded their 2015 draft pick in exchange for Doc Rivers of the Boston Celtics. LA was determined to bring in one of the best coaches in the NBA to work with all stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. The franchise realized that maximizing its talent is only possible with the right head coach at the helm. After just half a season, Rivers was able to elevate Griffin’s game while giving the team a new identity. The result is the fourth spot in the Western Conference, just four games behind the leading Oklahoma City Thunder and a desirable destination for players like Glen Davis or possibly Danny Granger, both of whom are in pursuit of a ring.
Head coaches are becoming increasingly important to the world of modern sports again. Half of the San Antonio Spurs coaching staff began their career as a head coach this season (Mike Budenholzer for the Atlanta Hawks and Brett Brown for the Philadelphia 76ers) simply because they are coming from a winning organization with a successful style of play. The same can be said for Chip Kelly in Philadelphia. He brought his spread offensive to a desperate Eagles organization which adjusted the roster to his philosophy. Due to the injury of starting quarterback Michael Vick, Nick Foles took over and blossomed in this role. In the past, big names with big contracts would have succeeded against young, unproven players. In understanding that the path to success is finding the right players for a winning system, the Eagles put an end to the Michael Vick-era in Philadelphia.
Call It a Comeback
In spite of all this, Jim Harbaugh would not be the first NFL coach to be traded. However, he would’ve been the first NFL coach since Herm Edwards in 2006. Jon Gruden, Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells were also traded. And truth be told, the man on the sideline is more significant in the NFL than the NBA because of the lesser amount of games and the nature of the game. Basketball has always been an athlete-driven sports, both in marketing and on the court. Yet, the growing perception in professional leagues is that a great head coach can beat a great player. Franchises want to become dynasties. While great players are rare, teams try to emulate other successful programs such as the New England Patriots or San Antonio Spurs. Both teams are constructed well, starting with the head coach all the way down to the last player on the roster.
Jim Harbaugh clearly is on his way to join this exclusive club. He reached the NFC championship game in all of his three seasons with the San Francisco 49ers after they were a disaster under former head coach Mike Singletary. Reasons enough for the Cleveland Browns to make this godfather offer. We all buy players’ jerseys and celebrate their performance on the field. From a marketing standpoint, this will never change. However, teams understand that by evaluating and developing talent, the proper head coach is the most important piece of the puzzle for a winning future. The 49ers didn’t reach the playoffs under Singletary and the Dallas Mavericks wouldn’t have won the 2011 NBA title without head coach Rick Carlisle. Even the star-studded Miami Heat wouldn’t be as successful without the forward-thinking Erik Spoelstra. Head coaches are no longer just game managers. They define success with their vision, their strategy and dedication to the team.
Jim Harbaugh might not be the most likable head coach in the NFL. He is probably not even the most likable Harbaugh in football. However, if you are a 49ers fan, you feel exhilarated about him being the head coach of your team. He makes his players better by putting them into a winning situation. Head coaches like Jim Harbaugh or Doc Rivers change the outcome of a game. And the best thing about the reincarnation of the head coach – young candidates have the chance to thrive, as seen with Brad Stevens with the Boston Celtics and Frank Vogel with the Indiana Pacers.
Written by Robert Jerzy for Highsnobiety.com
The Return of Head Coaches in Pro Sports is a post by staff on Highsnobiety.