The Best Coach Without A Title Debate

February 24, 2011

Read the opposing arguments from Optimist Prime and Bleacher Fan.

When Jerry Sloan walked away from basketball recently, he did so without basking in the glory of a championship. Rather, he did so in the shadow of frustration and dreams left unfulfilled.

Sloan, the coach of the Utah Jazz since 1988, has led a remarkable career. He retires with two Western Conference championships, 1,221 wins, and a .603 career winning percentage. But the fact that he has no NBA titles seems to overshadow much of Sloan’s accomplishments. He has, for years, been one of the greatest coaches in the NBA… but been vastly underappreciated. Now, in the wake of his retirement, reflecting on his career, we are pondering this question: Is Jerry Sloan the best coach across all sports to have never won a title?

Optimist Prime believes the answer to that question is a resounding YES! Bleacher Fan, on the other hand, believes that while Sloan is a great coach he is certainly not THE greatest coach of across all sports without a championship.

Admittedly, judging this debate will push me out of my comfort zone. I feel that losers have little to offer the world, yet I must declare at least one coach that has never won a championship… a winner. It will be an interesting debate to say the least.

Gentlemen, make the legacies of oft-overlooked coaches shine.

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The Best Coach Without A Title Debate… Sloan One Of the Best, Regardless of Ring

February 24, 2011

Read the opposing argument from Bleacher Fan.

I think an “across all sports” debate like this is one difficult to write, and impossible to judge. It’s akin to asking someone if his or her apple pie or steak was better. The standards for comparison are completely different, and both can be equally enjoyable without diminishing the other one in any way.

Given that, I certainly understand if somebody doesn’t agree with me that Jerry Sloan was the best coach across all of sports to never win a title. However, it’s my job to win this debate, and win it is what I intend to do.

I thought of a lot of different approaches that I could take in this debate. I could have argued statistics until I was blue in the face. For example, Sloan coached the Jazz to 15 consecutive playoff appearances. He is one of only three coaches in NBA history with 15 (or more) consecutive winning seasons (Pat Riley and Phil Jackson are the other two – solid company). He retired with a .603 winning percentage. Taking note of those statistics, however, I did not want to rely on those for my argument because it is far too easy to shoot holes in statistics or argue against them with other statistics that you believe to be superior.

I also thought of perusing the Internet to find people making this argument but, honestly, I am not sure why one guy on the Internet making this argument would make my article any more credible. That idea was quickly discarded.

I settled on what I believe to be the best argument for why Jerry Sloan was the best coach across all of sports to never win a title. At its core, the argument is very simple.

His two best teams, the 1996-97 and 1997-98 Utah Jazz, only lost championship series appearances to one of the greatest NBA teams of all time – the 1996-98 Chicago Bulls. More importantly, however, his best teams lost to a team led by arguably the greatest team sport athlete in history, Michael Jordan. Jordan’s name and on-court achievements generate respect from all corners of the sports world and even a few corners of the non-sports world (but who would want to live there?).

Sloan’s Jazz took the Bulls to the brink two years in a row (losing each series four games to two), so it seems obvious that the margin between one of the best teams in NBA history and Sloan’s best team is small, at best. In fact, if Michael Jordan doesn’t steal the ball and smoothly sink the game winning shot/push off (depending on your perspective, of course), it’s possible that the final Bulls championship team may have lost to the Jazz after all, given the fact that game seven of that series was going to be in Utah. Again, arguably the greatest team sport athlete in history, making the type of play expected from athletes of his caliber, is all that stood between Sloan and the immortality of being named a champion.

Sports are funny. Often the margin between hero and goat is miniscule. For players, however, there is no excuse – if you don’t score the goal or make the shot, the way you are remembered is directly a result of your actions.

For coaches, however, the standard is different. It is the coach’s job to put the player in the best possible position to execute the winning strategy. Jerry Sloan has his best player with the ball in his hands at the end of a crucial game. His best player lost the ball, and Sloan’s team lost the game. Should that affect the way Sloan is remembered? I say no. He is still one of the greatest coaches in sports ever, and definitely the best to be without a championship ring.

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The Best Coach Without A Title Debate… A Lifetime of Jazz, Concluded by the Blues

February 24, 2011

Read the opposing argument from Optimist Prime.

After 23 years, Jerry Sloan walked away from the Utah Jazz. Mid-season.

After 23 years, Sloan intimated that he just didn’t have the energy or the desire anymore, and that he knew “this was the time to move on.”

Translation – Jerry Sloan QUIT.

I don’t care that he coached the same team for 23 years, or that he won 1221 games. I also don’t care about his two Western Conference championships, or the Hall of Famers he’s coached, and I don’t care that he is one of only three coaches in the NBA with at least 15 consecutive winning seasons.

I don’t care about those things because none of them matter now. Why? Because Jerry Sloan is a quitter.

So tell me please, how can he be the greatest coach in sports without a title?

It is not like he left in the off-season, or even at the end of a contract because he was tired and ready for his golden years. There are no health issues that anyone is aware of, and no personal matters to attend to. He just decided at the end of a basketball game in the middle of the season that he was taking his things and going home.

He gave no warning, left his organization with no backup plan, and just walked away.

It may be harsh to call Sloan a quitter, but that’s exactly what I am doing, and I’ll say it again – Jerry Sloan cannot be the greatest head coach across sports without a title. Because he is a quitter.

Optimist Prime is going to portray Sloan as a legendary coach with a legendary tenure in the Jazz organization. But the only REAL accomplishment he ever showed was an ability to not get fired.

Owning the longest coaching tenure in sports with the same team does not make you great. In that “illustrious” tenure, which spanned 26 total seasons… the one that Optimist Prime will be raving about… how many times did he even SNIFF a shot at a championship? Twice, that’s it.

Think about the great AFC coaches of the NFL during the 1980s and 1990s. They were tasked with coaching in an inferior conference, loaded with inferior talent, against an NFC group that was better funded, and better skilled.

I’m talking about guys like Dan Reeves, and Marv Levy.

No matter how great of these coaches might have been, they simply did not have the weaponry to stack up against teams led by Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, or Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin.

But these were great coaches, and they had more comparative success in their shortened tenures than Sloan did over a much longer career.

Reeves coached for only 23 years, but won his conference four times. Levy managed to win four conference championships in only 17 seasons. Once again, Sloan boasts only two conference championships over a 26 year career.

While Sloan’s regular season W-L record is impressive, his playoff presence left much more to be desired. Over his career, he won only 98 playoff games, compared to 104 losses, for a playoff win percentage of .485 (that’s a losing record). Compare that to Reeves (.550), or Levy (.579).

If Sloan isn’t the greatest coach across sports without a title, is he at least the greatest coach in NBA history without a title? Once more, the answer is “no.”

That claim should belong to Don Nelson, who retired last season after 31 years in the NBA.

Nelson, a three-time NBA coach of the year, has won more games as an NBA coach than anyone else in league history. That puts him ahead of Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, Red Auerbach, and every other “great” to have coached in the league as far as wins go. But for all those victories, Nelson does not have a championship to his credit.

In fact, Jerry Sloan was never even the greatest coach in the league for a single season during his tenure, having never been recognized as Coach of the Year. While guys like Nelson, or even Mike Fratello (also without a championship) have managed to at least garner honors as the top coach within a single season, Sloan falls short of the mark yet again.

Make no mistake, Jerry Sloan had an impressive coaching career. But his legacy, highlighted only by endurance, and marred greatly by the manner in which he left the game, falls far short of the standards set by so many other great coaches out there never fortunate enough to win a championship.

I’m sorry, Mr. Sloan, but this is one more title you have failed to clinch.

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