Several years ago, in the flush of Pittsburgh Super Bowl and Stanley Cup championships, I wrote that despite those prestigious accomplishments by the Steelers and Penguins, Pitt basketball coach Jamie Dixon, whose teams had not sniffed anything close to those honors, was the best coach/manager in the city. Better than the Steelers Mike Tomlin, better than the Penguins Dan Bylsma and, yes, better than the Pirates John Russell.
Time to revisit that topic with the Pirates now having a legitimate candidate of their own in Clint Hurdle.
It’s going on five years since the city has celebrated a championship. On June 12, 2009, the Penguins defeated the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena, 2-1, in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup final. Some 19 weeks earlier, the Steelers had defeated the Arizona Cardinals, 27-23, in Super Bowl XLIII.
Sports is a what-have-you-done-for-us-lately world, so in evaluating the local coaches, it's best to throw out past championships. Which coach is doing the best job in the here and now?
In alphabetical order:
Bylsma: His teams have become regular-season wonders and playoff disappointments. After winning the Cup, the Penguins were stunningly eliminated three straight seasons by lower-seeded teams in either the first or second round. Last season, they advanced to the Eastern Conference final before losing to Boston. Bylsma has been fortunate to have all-star caliber talent every year, led by Sidney Crosby. But Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have missed large chunks of playing time due to injury during Bylsma’s tenure.
It is to Bylsma’s credit that he has molded this high-flying group of offensively superb players into a strong defensive unit. The Penguins are first in the Eastern Conference in goals and third in goals against. Last year, they were first and fourth. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment has been staying on the job. NHL teams eat their coaches. Bylsma is close to five full seasons on the job and there’s not be a hint of a player uprising that has cost so many of his peers their jobs.
Dixon: The rap against Dixon is that his teams disappoint every year in the NCAA tournament. There’s no disputing that. Pitt has an ugly history of losing to lower-seeded teams. But unlike the other sports, Dixon has the help of neither of a salary cap nor a draft. In college sports, instead of the best new players going to the worst teams, they usually go to the best teams. The rich get richer. It takes NBA-caliber talent to advance to the Final Four and Dixon has rarely been able to attract such players to Pitt.
He does, however, do a lot with what he has. The improvement his players make has been remarkable. Raise your hand if you thought when he was being redshirted in 2010 and when he averaged 2.6 points a game in 2011 while playing 12 minutes a game that Lamar Patterson would be in the discussion for ACC Player of the Year in 2014.
Hurdle: None of the other three coaches walked into anything approaching the bad situation Hurdle did. Bylsma, Dixon and Tomlin took over teams that had been at least recently successful. Hurdle walked into one of the worst situations in the history of professional sports in 2011. Although his first two seasons will be remembered more for their monumental collapses than anything else, the fact Hurdle got the Pirates to the point from which they collapsed was remarkable in itself.
Like most good managers, he’s a master of player motivation and has been able to maintain a strong clubhouse. He got everything he possibly could out of the 2013 Pirates. They finished ahead of and then beat in the postseason a Cincinnati team that had better personnel. In the playoffs, the Pirates took a superior St. Louis team to the final game of a best-of-five series.
Tomlin: His star is in descent with consecutive 8-8 seasons after taking the Steelers to two Super Bowls and winning one of them in his first four seasons. But if his stature has been diminished among the fan base, it has not among the people who best know his work. Had Tomlin been fired at the end of the season -- and there was not a chance of that -- he could have had his pick any of the multiple NFL vacancies that came open.
His clock management skills have been widely disrespected and not without good reason. Some of the other criticisms of him are without much foundation. When the Steelers lose, it’s because he can’t get his team ready. But when they win, his efforts are never mentioned in that respect. Like all the other coaches here, Tomlin is respected and liked by his players. Considering the athletes of the 21st century and the strong opinion they have of themselves, that’s no small accomplishment.
My vote, as it was the last time, goes with Dixon, although all four men are worthy. Dixon’s shortcoming is as a recruiter, something the other three coaches don’t have to do. But as a teacher and strategist he is excellent.
That’s my vote, what’s yours? Feel free to rank them.