Commentary

The evolution of player-coaches

Updated: June 21, 2013, 5:03 PM ET
By Steve Wulf | ESPN.com

Cowens/TorreGetty ImagesDave Cowens, left, and Joe Torre both held the title of "player-coach" but both player-coaches caution against it ever happening again.

Do you know why baseball managers are still wearing uniforms?

Let's answer that question with another question:

How many of the first six World Series were won by player-managers?

The answer is six: Jimmy Collins, John McGraw, Fielder Jones, Frank Chance twice and Fred Clarke.

Other player-managers who have won World Series are Jake Stahl, Bill Carrigan, Bucky Harris, Tris Speaker, Rogers Hornsby, Gabby Street, Bill Terry, Frankie Frisch, Mickey Cochrane and Lou Boudreau. While the most recent is Boudreau (1948), who helped himself with an MVP season at shortstop at the age of 29, the lineage of player-managers does help explain why senior citizens like Davey Johnson and Dusty Baker don't look entirely ridiculous in uniform.

The species is seemingly extinct now, but there was a time when the Boss activius strode and even ruled the sports world. Pro football Hall of Famers Curly Lambeau, George Halas and Jimmy Conzelman were all player-coaches. Hockey Hall of Famer Cy Denneny played for the 1929 Boston Bruins that he coached to the Stanley Cup. Bill Russell won two NBA titles (1967-68 and 1968-69) as the center and coach of the Boston Celtics.

The thought of a player-coach was recently revived when the Brooklyn Nets named newly retired Jason Kidd to be their new head coach. Evan Roberts of WFAN radio in New York even asked Nets GM Billy King about the possibility, knowing that the team might need a backup point guard if C.J. Watson decides there are greener pastures than Brooklyn.

But the last player-coach in the NBA has some advice for the Nets. "Don't do it," said Dave Cowens, who multitasked for most of the Celtics' 1978-79 season. "It was a bad idea then, and it's a bad idea now."

Being a player-coach was not exactly Cowens' idea to begin with. "John Y. Brown, the owner at the time, fired Satch Sanders as coach after we got off to a 2-12 start, and he didn't want to pay the salary of another one," he said. "So he asked me to become the coach, with no raise. I kind of took one for the team -- none of us wanted to have to learn another system in the middle of the season."

Oddly enough, there were two future NBA coaches in the Celtics' huddle at the time: Chris Ford and Don Chaney. Did they learn anything from Cowens? "Yeah, they learned what not to do," he said. "We went on a little run after I took over, but it was a long, sleepless season. I was glad when it was finally over, although if I had stuck with it, I could have been named Coach of the Year the next season. That's because we drafted this kid named Larry Bird."

Cowens, who's now overseeing his own basketball camps in New England, thinks the job of coach is far too complicated to entrust it to a guy in shorts. "You need that separation between coach and player, especially with the union," he said. "When Bill Russell did it, things were simpler. John Havlicek and Larry Siegfried drew up the plays. Bill was the coach because nobody could coach him."

So here's another question: Who was the last coach or manager in the four major pro sports to take his team into the postseason while also playing?

No, not Russell -- there is someone slightly more recent. No, not Pete Rose, baseball's last player-manager. While Charlie Hustle did double duty for the Reds for three seasons (1984 to 1986), he could finish no better than second in those pre-wild card days.

The answer is Charlie Burns, the player-coach of the Minnesota North Stars in their 1969-70 season. Though the North Stars finished the regular season 19-35-22, that was still good enough to get them into the Stanley Cup quarterfinals against Scotty Bowman's St. Louis Blues.

"I was just along for the ride," said Burns, now 77 and living in Wallingford, Conn., where he's coached youth hockey for many years. "Wren Blair, the real coach, got sick and asked me to take over. Not much to it, really -- I was just the extra forward to fill in on the regular lines.

"We had some good players -- J.P. Parise, Tommy Williams, Bill Goldsworthy. We got into the playoffs because we beat the Flyers 1-0: Barry Gibbs scored on an 80-foot shot that Bernie Parent lost track of, and Gump Worsley shut them out. Then we lost to the Blues in six games. I do remember Scotty Bowman complimenting me afterwards on the job I'd done.

"I don't think you could do both jobs today, though. Too much other stuff to think about."

[+] EnlargeDave DeBusschere
AP PhotoDave DeBusschere pitches against the Chicago Cubs in an exhibition game in 1962.

There are all sorts of reasons a dual role would not work nowadays: the inevitable management-worker conflict; sophisticated play calling; media demands; a recommended seven hours of sleep. But there is one nagging reason it might work: It has. Ask the Indians, whose only two world championships came under PMs Speaker (1920) and Boudreau.

"Can't be done nowadays," said Joe Torre, MLB's executive VP for baseball operations. "I know because I tried to do it in 1977, and even 36 years ago, I couldn't find the time to take batting practice. It was a temporary thing -- not like what Frank Robinson did with the Indians. I agreed to do it for three weeks until the trading deadline on June 15, when we were going to trade Tom Seaver away and get back some players in return. The night before the trade, I decided to pinch-hit to get one last major league at-bat. Flew out to right field off Joe Sambito of the Astros on the first pitch."

The next day, Seaver was traded to the Reds for Pat Zachry, Doug Flynn, Steve Henderson and Dan Norman. The Mets also traded Dave Kingman to the Padres for someone who would one day manage them: Bobby Valentine.

"It's funny you should ask about this," Torre said. "Yesterday I was at the Barclays Center for a Q and A with Jason Kidd, and somebody asked him if he was going to miss playing. He said he was done, and that's the right attitude. You can't do both. Even if you were a part-time player or pitcher, just think of the criticism you would get every time you put yourself in. The scrutiny alone makes it impossible."

Gone are the days when Dave DeBusschere could spend the summer pitching for the White Sox and then assume his role as player-coach of the Detroit Pistons.

And yet … You watch LeBron James simultaneously cajole and carry the Heat. You marvel at the way Peyton Manning conducts the Broncos' offense like a maestro. You see Yadier Molina shepherd the Cardinals' pitching staff while hitting .367. You can't imagine where the Bruins would be without Patrice Bergeron setting the pace of play and the tone of teamwork.

You realize that they, and a few other special players, are doing the things that fill the old job description of player-coach. They just don't have the title.

One last question: Name a team that won a championship without someone like that.

Steve Wulf

ESPN The Magazine senior writer

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