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Knee jerk is not the way to judge coach

The Olympic break is a good time to remember that for the last few years the letters columns and talk-show raves have been full of complaints from Sabre fans who were "sick and tired" of Lindy Ruff's work behind the bench.

The disgruntled were not about to be placated by reason. They didn't want to hear about the Rigas bankruptcy or the difficulties of staying in contention when you're a small-market team. All they knew was that under Ruff's system, the norm was a 2-1 or 3-2 game. And after Dominik Hasek forced his way to Detroit, the Sabres were on the lower end of those scores more often than not.

The disgruntled got the idea that Lindy was addicted to boredom, that he was the senior coach in the NHL and that he had been here too long in a sport in which teams change coaches as often as Jaromir Jagr changes sticks.

One lost season, multiple rule changes and an honest resolve to enforce the rules later, Ruff's IQ appears to have made a quantum leap. It turns out he doesn't like boring hockey any more than the average fan. Now he has the speed and youth to put on the ice a team that has the customers on the edge of their seats for 60 minutes.

Which brings us to Dick Jauron, the Bills' new coach.

He hasn't yet coached a down here and is still only a third of the way through getting acquainted with his new players, but the letter writers and radio show callers are already unhappy with him. They wanted a bigger name with a glossier resume.

Yet Jauron has at least one big factor in his favor: He wants to be here. I still can't figure out what Mike Mularkey was thinking when he walked away from the Bills with three years remaining on a $1 million-a-year contract and the owner welcoming his return. Yes, he lost his patron, Tom Donahoe, and Ralph Wilson says he plans to "get more involved" with the football end of his enterprise in 2006. But there are just 32 of these jobs available on the planet. If Mularkey thinks he has to work in a comfortable cocoon then he wasn't cut out to be a head coach in the first place.

Jauron had more downs than ups as coach of the Chicago Bears, but during his interim stint as Detroit's head coach last season he made the Lions a better team than they were before he took over. It says here that he's a wiser choice than hiring an unknown. The NFL is in the midst of a new hiring trend. Of the 10 head-coaching vacancies in the league this winter, seven were filled by assistants getting their first top job in the pros. Oakland tried to make it eight of 10 but were rebuffed by Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator, Ken Whisenhunt.

Maybe it's the Charlie Weis syndrome. The ex-Patriots offensive coordinator has been a revelation as Notre Dame's head coach but the Irish signed him to such an ironclad contract extension that NFL teams can't get at him. A lot of teams were looking for the next Weis.

Meanwhile, a number of head coaches are lying low with the expectancy that at least half the unseasoned hires will not work out. Mike Sherman, who had a great deal of success in Green Bay, took an assistant's job with Houston. St. Louis' Mike Martz joined Detroit's staff and New Orleans' Jim Haslett is with the Rams. Jim Fassel and Steve Mariucci are still at large.

Success usually depends upon how astutely teams hire their head coaches in the first place.

Larry Felser, former News columnist, appears in Sunday's editions.

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