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Blessing or curse? How Hall of Famers like Phil Housley fail or succeed as coaches

The basement sports bar of Phil Housley’s home in Lakeland, Minn. is filled with cases of trophies and trinkets. There’s the MVP award he received as a kid playing squirt hockey in South St. Paul, his Lester Patrick Trophy for service to the game in the United States, and babushka nesting dolls he collected on trips to Russia with Team USA. He has silver medals (the gold ones are in a safe), trading cards and his dad’s old hockey helmet. Framed jerseys from his eight NHL teams line the walls.

It’s a fascinating museum, but you only need to look at one piece of memorabilia to gain an instant understanding of where Housley stands in the hockey world. Hanging prominently in the hallway is an autographed poster from his 2015 induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

“This signifies everything that I’ve done in the NHL,” Housley told an inquiring visitor.

He’s right. Those three letters — HOF — are shorthand for greatness. In Housley’s case, the greatness was as a player. What it doesn’t indicate is how well Housley will fare in the next iteration of his NHL career, the one he is in now: Serving as head coach of the Buffalo Sabres.

Hall of Famers in every sport have been tapped to lead teams and revive franchises. They reliably elicit respect and often bring buzz, too. But Hall of Fame players’ ability to deliver wins as coaches is far less predictable. That’s because the qualities of a great coach bear only some similarities to what it takes be a great player.

Housley is only a year and a half into his first head coaching gig, and his results with the Sabres have been mixed. Last year his young, rebuilding team was worst in the league; this year, the Sabres have shown streaks of brilliance and are fighting for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

If the Sabres do well over the next couple seasons and Housley manages to establish himself as a stellar head coach, that hall of fame status won’t be the driving reason behind it. Rather, there’s another piece of memorabilia in his basement that provides a clue into a little-known part of Housley’s career that much more neatly translates into what he’s doing today. It’s a circular framed plaque with an image of a pony holding a hockey stick above the words “Coach Phil Housley.”

This is a keepsake from Housley’s days coaching the Stillwater Ponies, the high school team in his hometown, and that job that may have given him the preparation other hall of famers-turned-coaches have lacked.

• • •

Phil and Karin Housley, at their Minnesota home, reflect on his 2015 induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame. (Angela Jimenez/Special to The News)

Hall of fame status elevates an athlete into the stratosphere of his or her sport. When Housley was hired in June 2017 as Buffalo’s head coach, nearly every story referred to it. “There is that credibility right off the bat,” Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill acknowledged shortly after the press conference.

Or take basketball great Nancy Lieberman, who excelled on the court against both women and men and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. When Lieberman finally broke into the NBA competitively in 2015 as an assistant coach with the Sacramento Kings, she was greeted on courts around the league by people calling out those three words: “Hall of Famer!” Fans did it. Security guards did it. LeBron James did it.

They did it out of respect; Lieberman knew that. But when she was with her team, standing next to her fellow assistants who were smart, accomplished, tenured coaches, she sometimes tried to play down the tributes.

“You want to blend in,” Lieberman said in a phone interview. “But it is a definite respect factor.” The Hall of Fame, she added, “is a really small fraternity, and when you’re in it, it’s a blessing.”

But not necessarily as a coach. When a Hall of Famer takes the helm of a team, it’s easy to expect — or at least hope — that those superstar skills as an individual athlete will reflect in the leadership of a team.

Hall of Fame athletes who become coaches: how they fared

Sometimes it works. Former Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird spent three years as head coach of the Indiana Pacers. His teams never missed the playoffs and won the Eastern Conference championship in 2000. Hockey Hall of Famer Jacques Lemaire won eight Stanley Cups as a center with Montreal Canadiens, and added another as head coach of the New Jersey Devils in 1995. Lemaire coached for 17 years, leading his teams to the playoffs 10 times. Mike Ditka, a Pro Football Hall of Fame tight end, became a sidelines star with the ’80s Chicago Bears, whom he coached to a Super Bowl XX championship over a New England Patriots team led by another Canton enshrinee, Raymond Berry.

But more often, Hall of Fame athletes-turned-coaches yield results that are mediocre or worse. Wayne Gretzky, whose nickname “The Great One” captures the widely held belief that he is the best hockey player ever, only had a .473 winning percentage in his four years as head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes. Ted Williams, oft-regarded as the best hitter in baseball history, had only one winning season in his four years as a manager and his teams never finished higher than fourth.

As a player, Frank Robinson was a Triple Crown slugger who won two World Series with the Baltimore Orioles and was named MVP in both the American and National leagues. He is notable as a skipper, too: Robinson was the first black manager in Major League Baseball, and spent 16 seasons in the dugout. But none of Robinson’s teams ever finished first in the standings, and in only six of 16 seasons did he post a winning record. Does that make him a bad manager?

No. If he were bad, he wouldn’t have kept getting hired. In fact, Robinson was named American League Manager of the Year in 1989 for lifting the Orioles to 87 wins and a second-place finish after a dismal 54-107 record the year prior.

Robinson wasn’t a bad manager, nor was he a winning one. He, like most coaches and managers, had mixed results. But in comparison to his smashingly successful on-field career, his managerial record could easily be cast as disappointing.

Lieberman, who spoke to the News by phone last week, knows the dynamic. “I think the old adage is that great players don’t make great coaches because of the expectation level,” she said.

That’s a difficult expectation to overcome. As an athlete, even as part of a team, you’re largely judged on your own successes. But as a coach, your success is reflected in your players, which means you need to connect with them as a leader and a teacher. As a Hall of Fame athlete, that can be especially tricky.

Jack Armstrong, a former Division I basketball coach at Niagara University and now a broadcast analyst for the Toronto Raptors, describes a scenario he has pieced together from two decades of conversations with NBA coaches and players: Imagine a coach who was a top-level player, one who had a strong “willingness to prepare and sacrifice,” working with players who don’t share that same approach.

“Sometimes you can’t connect to some of your players because they don’t have the same love of it,” Armstrong said. “You have to get down in the trenches and deal with guys that think they’re an A-plus athlete, when in fact they’re in the B, B-minus category. You’re the A-plus guy, and now you have to get them to the next level.”

Raptors broadcaster Jack Armstrong, at home in Lewiston, says coaches who were star athletes may struggle to relate to players who don't exhibit the same level of passion. (Buffalo News file photo)

The coach in Armstrong’s scenario may be thinking, “This guy is not as dedicated as I was.” But the coach can’t necessarily say that, especially in an era when star athletes are highly paid, richly prized investments who can easily end up on another team. Be too blunt and you might lose the player, mentally or actually. So instead, you try to nurture and coach the athlete.

“You’re doing it,” Armstrong said, “and you’re biting your tongue at the same time.”

The role of a head coach or manager is often compared to that of a CEO. Your executive team is your assistant coaches, your players are your staff, and your job is to set the vision and strategy, make the important calls, and mobilize your people in a way that maximizes their potential. Doing that means you can’t expect them to act or think the way you did as a player. You need to set a high expectation and help them reach it in their own way, not the way you would have as a player.

Mike Singletary, a Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker who compiled an 18-22 record during his stint as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, said that being a former top athlete can actually hinder you as a coach.

“I think most world-class athletes that decide to coach, they have to overcome their ability to be great as players,” said Singletary, who is now the head coach of the Memphis Express, a team in the Alliance of American Football, which begins play in February. “The thing that I’ve had to do is take my drive as a player and convert that into my conscience as a coach, and so it’s not as much emotional as mental. I think the guys that do a better job transferring are the guys that make it more mental than emotional.”

• • •

A good coach is instructive, not just instinctive, which conjures up a question about top performers: If you’re so good at a sport that it comes naturally, can you actually teach others to do it?

There’s an inherent flaw in that question, which suggests that top athletes are so naturally skilled that they don’t have to work as hard as others. Plenty of research suggests otherwise. One of the most common examples is the “10,000 hour” principle, popularized by the writer Malcolm Gladwell. At its core, the 10,000-hour rule suggests that it takes several years of hard, strategic training to become expert at a skill. Researchers have debated the reliability of the 10,000 hours, but the essence is true: Even the best players spent years getting better.

The catch: That doesn’t necessarily translate to coaching. Playing a sport is one skill. Coaching it is another. Think of it as the difference between playing in an orchestra and conducting one.

“There are very few conductors who actually excelled as performers,” says K. Anders Ericsson, the Florida State University researcher whose work formed the basis of Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule.

Ericsson, the author of “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise,” notes that some coaches have reported keeping diaries that help them reflect and prepare. Starting that as a young assistant, and coupling it with studying or learning directly from master coaches, would help a coach develop for bigger jobs.

Great athletes, he points out, may play into their 30s. If they only start thinking about coaching after retiring as players, they may have lost a decade or more of preparation time as compared to coaches whose athletic careers ended much younger.

“If you end your career in your mid-30s,” Anders said, “that raises issues about getting experiences and training to be able to be qualified.”

Motivation is an issue, too. The late Ted Williams’ struggle as a manager — especially when compared to his largely unmatched success as a hitter — is often noted as an example of gifted athletes who couldn’t coach. But one of his players, Tom Grieve, tells the story differently. It’s not that Williams couldn’t be a great manager. It’s that he didn’t want to be.

“This guy was one of the most brilliant people you could ever meet,” said Grieve, who is now a Rangers broadcaster. “If he was interested in something, I firmly believe he would be an expert at it.”

Grieve ticked off a list of endeavors at which Williams developed expertise: photography, fly fishing, flying fighter planes — and, of course, hitting. Ask Williams a question about hitting a baseball, Grieve said, and he would open up. “You would get answers that would last as long as you cared to talk to him, and with passion and excitement,” Grieve said.

During games, Williams would take a player who wasn’t playing, sit with him for four innings, and analyze every pitch through the eyes of a master hitter. But Williams didn’t call the games, instead leaving that task to his third-base coach. He had no patience for pitchers, either. “He had a strong disdain for pitchers — thought they were dumb, thought they were bad athletes,” Grieve said.

Williams' players, Grieve said, widely believed that their owner, Bob Short, talked Williams into the job. “I don’t think his heart was ever in managing,” Grieve said.

• • •

To be a great coach, you have to want to teach and lead. Phil Housley learned to do that in the early 2000s, when he retired from the NHL, moved home to Minnesota, and took over as coach of his local high school team. Housley tried to make the Stillwater Ponies locker room a “sanctuary” for his players, he said, “where they could just focus and get free from everything else. Play the game they love, but also challenging them and holding them accountable as well.”

Housley had a game approach and coaching philosophy in mind, but teaching it to teenagers — most of whom would presumably wrap their competitive careers after 12th grade — was a challenge.

Phil Housley is not happy with NHL justice. (Harry Scull Jr./ Buffalo News).

“The biggest thing is it taught me a lot of patience,” he said. “You had your systems. You had what you believe was going to be successful, but applying them to the kids, you’d think you’d automatically get it, and you really had to be patient in delivering and teaching the kids how to play the game the right way.”

Housley honed his coaching approach for nine years with Stillwater, and with USA Hockey coaching stints, before joining the Nashville Predators in 2013 as an assistant coach.

“He always had a saying, ‘You’ve got to let the game come to you,’ ” said Nashville defenseman Roman Josi. “I remember him always having our backs. He was always very positive on the bench.”

If Housley succeeds in Buffalo — if he becomes one of those hall of famers who makes it as a coach — it will likely be in part because he was able to apply those lessons developed at a lower level to his Sabres today. With a young, high-potential team, he still needs to be a teacher.

He makes me feel calm,” said Sabres rookie defenseman Rasmus Dahlin who, like his coach did in the early ’80s, made his NHL debut as an 18-year-old first-round pick. Housley has coached Dahlin on the mental aspects of the game, including separating himself from hockey when he's away from the rink.

“He's a great coach,” Dahlin said. “He's been through what I'm going through, so he knows all about it.”

He does know it. Now he needs to teach it, and lead it, and find a way to make those lessons and strategies result in wins.

For hall of famers, that’s the most daunting challenge.

Lance Lysowski contributed to this story.

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