Cook: Pittsburgh in midst of coaching golden era
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Penguins coach Dan Bylsma won the Jack Adams Award as the NHL coach of the year Wednesday night, but the big winners are the fans. They have a terrific young coach. Bylsma is well on his way to becoming the longest-tenured and most successful coach in franchise history. More Stanley Cups are in his future.
If you think about it, all Pittsburgh sports fans are pretty lucky when it comes to their coaches. Bylsma has won a Cup in his first 2 1/2 seasons. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has won a Super Bowl and taken the team to another in his first four seasons. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, in his first season, has done a marvelous job getting his team to .500 in late June against all odds after 18 consecutive losing seasons.
We've had great coaches here -- Hall of Fame coaches -- but I'm not sure the city's three professional sports teams have had better coaches at the same time. That's mostly because the Penguins were largely irrelevant before Hall of Famer Bob Johnson took over behind the bench in 1990.
Steelers Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll and the Pirates' Danny Murtaugh, who many believe should be in the Hall of Fame, overlapped briefly, primarily from 1971-73. Murtaugh led the Pirates to a second world championship in 1971 -- he also was manager in 1960 -- at a time when Noll was just building the Steelers dynasty of the 1970s.
The legendary Noll won the franchise's fourth Super Bowl after the 1979 season, just months after Chuck Tanner led the Pirates to the '79 world championship. But, again, the Penguins were mostly unsuccessful at that time with Johnny Wilson as coach. Their long list of coaches from the franchise's inception in 1967 until '90 hardly produced greatness: Red Sullivan, Red Kelly, Ken Schinkel, Marc Boileau, Wilson, Eddie Johnston, Lou Angotti, Bob Berry, Pierre Creamer, Gene Ubriaco and Craig Patrick. None lasted more than four seasons.
The Penguins' fortunes changed dramatically when Johnson took over as coach and Mario Lemieux's career as a player took off. The team won the Cup in '91 only months before Johnson died from complications of brain cancer. It won again in '92 with Scotty Bowman as coach. Bowman was, arguably, the greatest coach of any sport at any time, winning a record nine Cups with the Montreal Canadiens, the Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings.
Pirates manager Jim Leyland led his team to three consecutive division titles in 1990-92 but couldn't get to the World Series. Noll wasn't nearly as successful during that time and retired after the 1991 season. Bill Cowher was just getting started in what surely would be a Hall of Fame career if he had not resigned after the 2006 season after 149 regular-season wins and a Super Bowl title after the '05 season.
Tomlin has much work to do before he's Hall of Fame-worthy, but he's off to a great start. He could have been NFL coach of the year last season. The work he did without suspended quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the first four games and injured starters Troy Polamalu, Aaron Smith, Willie Colon and Max Starks for all or a large part of the season was nothing short of remarkable. He also did a deft job handling the James Harrison helmet-to-helmet hits controversy. You just won't find better coaching.
Well, unless maybe you look at Bylsma's work last season.
It's nice to know the NHL got the Adams Award right. Bylsma led the Penguins to fourth place in the Eastern Conference despite being without injured Jordan Staal for the first half of the season and injured Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for the second half. That the team was bounced from the playoffs in seven games in the first round by the Tampa Bay Lightning without the great Crosby and Malkin didn't detract from a strong year.
Then, there's Hurdle. He has made the Pirates matter again with his energy and enthusiasm. Who saw that coming? He refused to allow the team to fold when it lost six games in a row in mid-May to fall to 18-23, then again this week when it lost four in a row to drop to 35-37. Now, he faces perhaps his biggest challenge in keeping the Pirates at or near .500. The powerful Boston Red Sox come to PNC Park for three games this weekend before the Pirates head to Toronto to play the Blue Jays next week. The Pirates have lost 13 consecutive interleague road games.
So who's the best of the three -- Tomlin, Bylsma or Hurdle?
You have to eliminate Hurdle at this point because his body of work needs to be bigger. He's also the one coach/manager of the three without a championship.
That leaves Tomlin or Bylsma.
I'll take Tomlin.
Ask me next week and I might say Bylsma. They are that close. They are that good.
You really are lucky.
First Published June 24, 2011 12:00 am