The 5: Surprising coaching hires in Arizona sports history
Dec 1, 2017, 2:30 PM | Updated: Dec 2, 2017, 2:15 pm
As we await the expected hiring of Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards, it’s hard to not notice that people have lukewarm to very hot takes over the matter.
Edwards is not a traditional candidate. He wasn’t on other programs’ radars. And his resume lacks, especially when it comes to coaching experience at the college level.
That’s not to say we haven’t seen this before. Coaching hires often take odd twists and turns, ending with a result nobody saw coming.
Here are, subjectively, five of the most surprising coaching hires in the Phoenix area’s sports history. At times they’ve turned out great. Others, not so much.
From the booth to the dugout, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ hiring of Bob Brenly seemed risky at the time. The move came after the D-backs fired their first manager, Buck Showalter, following the 2000 season in which they went 85-77.
The inexperienced Brenly, a former MLB catcher, had never coached in the majors and spent his post-playing career as a color commentator for the D-backs. Yet, he was hired over Terry Francona, who had coaching experience dating back to 1992 and had managed the Phillies from 1997-2000.
Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo went in a new — perhaps risky — direction with Brenly, who was a more player-friendly leader than his predecessor. Of course, picking Brenly over the two-time World Series winner in Francona wasn’t so bad.
He went 303-262 in his career with two NL West titles and managed a group of stars — including pitchers Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling — to a 2001 World Series victory over the New York Yankees in 2001.
Gretzky joined the organization as a part-owner with a group led by Steve Ellman and head of hockey operations in 2001. The “Great One’s” head coaching duties began when they re-assigned him in 2005 without any coaching experience.
From 2005-09, his Coyotes went 143-161-24, missing the playoffs each year and finishing fourth or fifth in the Pacific Division.
Gretzky, the NHL’s all-time leading scorer, departed the Coyotes as the sale of the franchise between Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie and the NHL drug out through bankruptcy court. The sale to Balsillie was never completed.
A less-than-friendly relationship between legendary Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler, then the athletic director, left Wolverines basketball coach Bill Frieder with an open mind. He’d rebuffed interest in joining the Arizona State program in the past but realized that perhaps a change of scenery was necessary in 1989 — especially since he felt he would be fired anyhow.
So after accepting a job just after Selection Sunday, Frieder believed he’d coach out Michigan’s tournament run.
He believed wrong.
Schembechler cut ties with Frieder immediately, and the Wolverines would march to an NCAA Tournament win behind assistant Steve Fisher.
To Tempe he went. Frieder coached the Sun Devils to a 130-107 record from 1989-97, taking them to two NCAA Tournaments, including the 1995 Sweet 16, before leaving the program amid a point-shaving scandal.
A year removed from his final season playing for the Phoenix Suns and bridged by a stint as TNT analyst during the 1995-96 season, Ainge, in his first year as an assistant coach, took the reins of the 1996-97 Suns. He followed Cotton Fitzsimmons’ third stint leading the team that ended with his resignation eight games — all losses — into the season.
Phoenix would go on to lose their first 13 games before Ainge’s team, led by Kevin Johnson, rallied to a 40-42 mark that ended with a five-game, first-round series playoff loss to the Seattle SuperSonics. The regular season was also highlighted by the trade where the Suns acquired Jason Kidd from the Dallas Mavericks.
Ainge would compile a 136-90 record with three playoff appearances as a head coach from 1996-99 before resigning 20 games into the 1999-2000 season to spend more time with his family. He never took another coaching job before joining the Boston Celtics to lead their front office, which he’s still doing to this day.
It wasn’t necessarily so shocking because Terry Porter had coached the Milwaukee Bucks to sub-.500 basketball in two seasons on the job from 2003-05. It was that he absolutely didn’t fit the profile of a coach that would get the most out of the darkest — albeit brief — portion of the Seven Seconds or Less Era.
Brought in by general manager Steve Kerr to replace offensive mastermind Mike D’Antoni, Porter took over a team led by Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire and Shaquille O’Neal.
That Kerr is now coaching the fast-paced, league-changing Warriors makes it even more wild in retrospect. Porter, who left his job as an assistant with the defense-first Detroit Pistons, was expected to turn a run-and-gun team into a more traditional squad with the defensive attention the prior versions didn’t have.
But instead, the Suns faltered to a 28-23 record by the All-Star break before firing Porter and hiring assistant Alvin Gentry to refocus Phoenix back to its run-and-gun ways.