I’ll never forget when I knew Trey Hillman was about to be fired. I was sitting next to him on the dais in the media interview room in the bowels of Kauffman Stadium. In my role as the Kansas City Royals reporter for their flagship radio station, I got to ask Hillman, the Royals manager, the first three questions during his post-game press conference before heading upstairs to host my Royals post-game call-in show. The Royals had lost another game in which they struggled to score runs and their bullpen imploded and I asked Hillman what could be done to fix the struggling offense.
“You start to think about squeezing in the first inning,” Hillman said.
Things had gotten so bad, the Royals manager was talking about bunting in a run in the early innings, which almost never happens; even the most offensively-challenged or small ball-oriented teams don’t squeeze bunt that early. And, bunting early won’t get a team out of its offensive doldrums; if your team has the talent to score runs, it eventually will; if it doesn’t, it won’t. There isn’t a managerial strategy that can alter how many runs an offense scores to a significant degree. This is a man, I thought to myself, who has run out of ideas. It wasn’t long before Hillman was fired.
When you’ve covered sports long enough, it’s not hard to figure out when a manager or head coach is on the verge of resigning or being let go. Sometimes, the giveaway is the badmouthing of the leader by his players. Other times, it’s the lack of respect or attention the coach/manager gets from his superiors. But, the surest sign is public statements like Hillman’s, when it’s clear the coach or manager has no idea how to get his team out of their morass. I saw something similar over the last few months, when Kansas City Chiefs head coach Romeo Crennel was clearly a dead man walking. In his press conferences after games and during the week, Crennel didn’t seem to have many answers as to why the Chiefs, picked by many to contend in the AFC West, were on their way to a 2-14 season and the first overall pick in the NFL Draft. Crennel tried to shake things up by firing himself as defensive coordinator, by indicating that players who turned the ball over would sit out for at least a handful of plays and by making a quarterback change. None of those moves worked, mainly because the Chiefs’ problems were so embedded, they weren’t going to be fixed with a few in-season changes. The day after the season ended, the Chiefs announced that Crennel was given his walking papers.
The unfortunate thing for managers and head coaches is that, generally, they’re pawns and the problems with their roster are often out of their control. There wasn’t much Hillman could do with a roster filled with young players who weren’t ready to contribute and/or didn’t belong in the Majors, over-the-hill players and dead-end veterans. At the time, we knew the Royals were a year or two away from having talented young players from their farm system ready to help, but it seemed Hillman had already lost his way and wasn’t worth keeping around for the impending youth movement. In Crennel’s case, what was seen as a talented roster wasn’t as talented as initially thought and there was little depth. Also, Crennel had a very young team that had little-to-no experience with winning at the professional level and terrible quarterback play in a league dominated by teams with excellent quarterback play. Most Chiefs fans knew Crennel was hamstrung and, as a result, directed the majority of their ire toward general manager Scott Pioli, with whom the Chiefs also parted ways.
When a team is struggling or not playing as well as some expected, fans and media are always looking for signs that a manager or head coach is on his way out. Fans often focus on in-game coaching decisions, but rarely do those indicate anything about a manager’s fate either way. Sure, some managers or coaches are more aggressive when they think they’re on the hot seat, but some will become more conservative, playing it close to the vest in an effort to avoid making waves. And, in my experience, players don’t react to game-to-game coaching decisions in the same way fans do; when players don’t win, they’re more likely to put the blame on themselves. Of course, players will notice egregious mistakes or miscalculations in strategy but, even then, they’re more likely to blame the poor results on their poor execution. That’s especially true in baseball, where there are games every day and relatively little time is spent dissecting each an every maneuver.
Media often focus on what’s going on in the locker room or clubhouse as a way of taking the temperature of a team. But, many times, that approach bears little fruit. Off-the-record comments from players and assistant coaches are the most revealing but, on the record, there usually is very little that indicates a team’s dissatisfaction with their boss. And, even if a team doesn’t like their manager or head coach, it doesn’t always mean a manager or head coach is in trouble. Likewise, a coach or manager who is liked by the players isn’t always safe. When he led the Royals, players often chafed at Hillman’s managerial style. There seemed to be a feeling that Hillman – who had never played, coached or managed in the Major Leagues before the Royals hired him – was out to prove he knew more about baseball than anyone else. One player even told me – off the record, of course – that Hillman’s first name was Trey because he thought he was three times smarter than everyone else. A strong argument could be made that Hillman never had control of the clubhouse or the respect of the players. On the other hand, the Chiefs players seemed to love Crennel; he had an avuncular way about him and was a hard guy to dislike. Even when the Chiefs were at their worst and Crennel was at his wits end with the media or with his players, it was hard not to feel sorry for Crennel. On the flipside, I don’t ever remember media feeling sorry for Hillman, even though he was dealt a bad hand. Crennel never had success as an NFL head coach and he clearly was out of ideas when it came to trying to fix what was wrong with the Chiefs, but most of his players seemed to like and respect him.
So, how are those who cover a team – and even some media who don’t cover a team – able to figure out when a coach or manager’s time is almost up? Some of it is simply intuition and an understanding of history. But, much of it is parsing what the coach/manager is saying, or not saying, to the media. Coaches who seem to be out of ideas and/or look or act defeated on a regular basis are usually taken out of their misery sooner rather than later.Follow @raford3