Aside from winning, it’s hard to predict what will make a coach popular in a city. Some achieve admiration with a low-key approach, some achieve it with a humorous or self-deprecating style, some achieve it with an iron fist and others talk a big game to rally the masses behind them.
Whatever the formula, there is no questioning Cardinals coach Bruce Arians’ popularity in the Valley. It’s fair to argue that he is the franchise’s biggest personality and most recognizable face. That belief is bolstered by Arians’ starring role in the NFL Films production “All or Nothing,” which debuted on Amazon on July 1.
Cynics might suggest that “All or Nothing” is little more than a P.R. push for the franchise, particularly the power triumvirate of team president Michael Bidwill, general manager Steve Keim and Arians, but you accept that reality from a league-owned company.
It does not diminish the entertainment value or smattering of insights that the series provides. It does not diminish your love for Arians’ blunt-force humor, perfectly delivered one-liners and mantra-like mottos such as “if it ain’t perfect, it ain’t right.”
We’re not sure where Arians ranks in a poll of the Valley’s all-time most popular coaches, but the question sparked another question: Who belongs on the list? Since the Valley has only had major professional sports since the Suns were born in 1968, we have confined the list to the coaches who made a mark in the past (almost) half-century, reasoning that few would even remember previous personalities, particularly in an era where media were nowhere near as prevalent.
To compile the list we factored in two main elements: winning and charisma. Here is our list, but this is not a ranking. Do you think we missed or slighted anyone?
Bruce Arians, Cardinals, 2013-present: In three seasons, Arians has posted a 34-14 record, been named AP Coach of the Year, won an NFC West title, made two playoff appearances and advanced to the 2015 NFC title game. His 13 wins last season were the most in Cardinals history. Aside from the on-field success, Arians has wormed his way into Valley hearts with a down-home approach, off-color remarks, blunt honesty and that ever-present twinkle in his eye. Who else could get away with lying to the media about the Cardinals’ draft plans by simply admitting it in a press conference, as Arians did when reporters called him on vowing not to select a quarterback in the 2014 Draft, then taking Logan Thomas in the fourth round? “I lie pretty good,” he said to a chorus of laughter at the team’s headquarters in Tempe.
Todd Graham, Arizona State football, 2012-present: Graham rubs some the wrong way with his fast-talking, promise-making style, but there is little doubt that he is the kind of leader ASU football needed to re-energize a fan base that had been through some mediocre and undisciplined years under Dennis Erickson. Neither Erickson nor his predecessor, Dirk Koetter, made much of a connection with the fan base. Koetter even admitted he didn’t like that aspect of the job, despite its crucial role in the success of a college football program. Graham works tirelessly on the community aspect of the program, so much so that the fatigue is visible on his face and in his voice at points during the season. In four seasons at ASU, Graham has a 34-19 record, a Pac-12 South title and Pac-12 title-game appearance and two bowl wins (Fight Hunger and Sun). The Devils staggered to a disappointing 6-7 finish last season after talk of a national championship, ratcheting up the pressure on Graham this season despite a trio of unproven quarterbacks who must battle it out for the starter’s role.
Dave Tippett, Coyotes, 2009-present: Tippett’s public persona would seem to negate any chance at making this list, but Coyotes fans love his no-nonsense approach and that iconic image of him gritting his teeth on the bench. Media see a different side of Tippett: a guy who is quick to laugh and loves to recount detailed stories from his days as a player or up-and-coming coach. Tippett led the Coyotes to their greatest era of success, producing three straight seasons of 97-plus points (2009-12), the franchise’s first division title and a run to the 2012 Western Conference Final. He also stuck it out through some lean recent years and a challenging roster, earning him loyalty points in the eyes of fans.
Mike D’Antoni, Suns, 2003-2008: D’Antoni was the kind of guy everyone could imagine sharing a laugh with over a beer. It was impossible not to like the guy. He had that friendly West Virginia drawl, he admitted he liked talking to reporters, he had close friends in the media (seriously), and he opened up his office to reporters before games to sit on the couches and chat. He posted a 253-136 (.650) overall record with the Suns, and in his four full seasons as head coach (2004-08), he was named 2004-05 NBA Coach of the Year after leading the Suns to a franchise record 62-20 (.756) mark. He posted four straight 50-plus win seasons (two 60-plus win seasons), won three Pacific Division titles and posted a 232-96 (.707) record over that span. D’Antoni’s teams led the NBA in scoring for three consecutive years (2004-07). Had it not been for an utter dearth of NBA leadership, D’Antoni may have also led the Suns to their first NBA title in 2007, but the league chose to suspend Boris Diaw and Amare’ Stoudemire for a pivotal Game 5 against the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals — a moment that ranks among the most notorious and unfair in Valley sports history.
Bob Brenly, Diamondbacks, 2001-04: Brenly’s place on this list was cemented when he led the Diamondbacks to an emotional World Series win over the vaunted New York Yankees in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In three-plus seasons in Arizona, he went 303-262, won a pair of division titles and managed the 2002 National League All-Stars. Brenly’s amicable nature and penchant for poking fun at his self-described mediocre playing career made him a fan favorite. On Oct. 18, 2012, he signed a five-year deal as the TV color commentator for the Diamondbacks.
Bill Frieder, ASU basketball, 1989-97: It’s hard to imagine another coach earning so much love by poking fun at himself, whether it was in interviews or in those famous commercials he did with Arizona coach Lute Olson. Frieder’s unkept style, sideline antics and disarming candor were a breath of fresh air in the Valley, but he had some success, too, leading the Sun Devils to a pair of NCAA Tournament berths and the Sweet 16 in 1995. With the program under federal investigation of for point shaving, Frieder resigned on Sept. 11, 1997, but he remains a popular Valley sports figure.
Cotton Fitzsimmons, Suns, 1970-72; 1988-92; 1995-97: Cotton posted a 341-208 record in his eight seasons in Phoenix, leading the Suns to the conference finals in 1989 and 1990. It was his impact on the franchise and the community that is better remembered. He was always approachable and always quotable and of course, there were those purple boots he wore the first time he got off a plane in the Valley. At the 1988 NBA Draft, fans booed the Suns’ selection of Dan Majerle, to which Fitzsimmons responded: “You’ll be sorry that you booed this young man.” He was right, as he was about many things in helping turn the Suns into one of the league’s marquee franchises during Jerry Colangelo’s tenure as owner. Fitzsimmons died in July of 2004, leaving a hole in the hearts of anyone who had the privilege of knowing him or covering him.
Frank Kush, ASU football, 1958-1979: In 22 seasons in Tempe, the gruff speaking Kush posted 19 winning records, won nine conference championships and rang up a 6-1 bowl record, including four Fiesta Bowl wins, and a 12-0 mark in 1975, earning ASU a No. 2 ranking in the final AP poll. His old-school approach played well in his era, until he was forced to resign in 1979 amid allegations that he punched punter Kevin Rutledge during a game. The scandal didn’t stick. Sun Devil Athletics erected a bronze statue of Kush that sits outside Sun Devil Stadium today. He’s kind of a big deal here.
Ken Whisenhunt, Cardinals, 2007-12: Whisenhunt helped spark the Cardinals’ current popularity in the Valley with an unexpected run to the 2009 Super Bowl off a 9-7 regular-season record. The Cardinals went 10-6 the following year and won the NFC West, but Whisenhunt’s popularity quickly waned when he mismanaged the QB situation after Kurt Warner’s retirement. He became increasingly hostile to public and media criticism. He was fired after a 5-11, 2012 season, going 18-30 in his final three years.
Alvin Gentry, Suns, 2008-13: Gentry was a good soldier during some tough times for the franchise, taking on additional roles and keeping a positive public face despite some internal turmoil. He led an unheralded group of Suns, led by point guard Steve Nash, to the 2010 Western Conference Finals against the Los Angles Lakers. With the series tied, 2-2, Suns guard Jason Richardson hit a 3-pointer to tie Game 5 with 3.5 seconds left at Staples Center. Kobe Bryant missed a 3-point attempt, but Metta World Peace grabbed the rebound and converted a put-back to send the Suns to a crushing defeat. They lost Game 6 at home and haven’t been back to the playoffs since. The Suns fired Gentry in January of 2013.
Paul Westphal, Suns, 1992-96: Westphal led the most memorable team in franchise history to the 1993 NBA Finals against the Michael Jordan-led Bulls, which accounted for the majority of his popularity. He also made that famous vow that the Suns would rally from a 2-0 series deficit in the first round against the Lakers. They did, winning the series in five games. He doesn’t quite make the main list because this team was really all about Charles Barkley.
Dave McGinnis, Cardinals, 2000-03: McGinnis was the kind of guy who learned every media member’s name, not because he thought it would help him, but because he was personable and believed in good manners. That same approach connected with fans, but he didn’t win enough to win over the Valley, going 17-40 in three-plus seasons before he was fired.
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