Experienced Coach Best Approach

We’ve had a lot of discussion in town lately about the value of head coaching experience when a new coach is hired for a team. In our baseball experience in town, the Cardinals have almost always been able to lure someone with a winning history. The Rams have hired one coach with NFL head coaching experience since they’ve been in St. Louis, and Dick Vermeil led them to their only Super Bowl championship. And the Blues have had mixed results with their hires.

It’s been rather amazing with the Blues since the hiring of Ken Hitchcock. Including their 3-2, overtime loss to Vancouver at Scottrade Center Thursday night, the Blues are now 19-5-6 under Hitchcock, with a 13-2-3 mark at home. Upon his arrival, Hitchcock was able to quickly implement a new, sensible system that best suited the players, and the club has been dominant ever since.

Thursday night was a perfect example. The only thing that kept Vancouver in the game was the superb play of goalie Roberto Luongo. Against the top team in the Western conference, the Note took it to the Canucks, outshooting them 10-7 in the first period, 16-10 in a virtuoso performance that Hitchcock called their best period of the year in the second, and 33-21 for the game. Hitchcock’s system takes advantage of the Blues’ young legs, and with their conditioning, they skate for 60 minutes. The Blue dramatically out-chanced the Canucks, as they do most teams.

With an inexperienced head coach in Davis Payne, the Blues struggled out of the gate. The organization was worried about the development of their young players, and didn’t want to take the chance that they wouldn’t be given the best opportunity to blossom here. The front office knew that Payne was a good teacher, but didn’t know if he had the gravitas to get the players performing to their full potential. Because Hitchcock has won a championship, because he’s gotten players like Jere Lehtinen, Jamie Langenbrunner, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Simon Gagne and Rick Nash started in the NHL, he brought instant credibility to the locker room.

That credibility brought a desire to listen and to perform to the Blues’ locker room. And the resulting high level of performance has the Blues near the top of the NHL standings. It’s simple, really. Young players under-perform. Organization brings in a respected coach that can quickly command their respect, teach them and get the most out of them. Players respond. Team succeeds.

That has happened with the Blues, and it is what could happen with the Rams. As you know, there are numerous potentially good young players on the Rams roster. Sam Bradford, Rodger Saffold, Lance Kendricks and Danario Alexander on offense, and Chris Long, Robert Quinn, James Laurinaitis and Bradley Fletcher on defense.

Unfortunately, some of those players have gone 10-38 in the last three seasons. They need an experienced leader and staff to latch onto. They need a manager that has instant credibility walking into the locker room, and position coaches that walk through the door with instant respect. That sort of leadership comes to people in two ways. It can be earned over time because of time spent with a coach, or it can come because of a high level of success enjoyed elsewhere.

Hitchcock walked through the Blues’ locker-room door with a Stanley Cup ring, a Western conference championship, and eight 100-point seasons. The Blues craved instant credibility, and he had it because of what he had done elsewhere.

The Rams can put someone in place that can earn that sort of respect, and that person in turn can hire a staff that commands respect. But that takes time, and as the last two Rams’ coaching staffs have shown us, there’s no guarantee that novice coaches at their position are going to succeed.

When you hear Gregg Williams’ name as a defensive coordinator, do you even consider the possibility of failure? When you hear Jim Washburn, do you remember failed defensive linemen that he’s coached? Does a guy like Jeff Fisher, with 16 full seasons as a NFL head coach, bring instant credibility to whatever team he goes to? You bet he does. The same would apply to a coach like Mike Sherman, Brian Billick or Marty Schottenheimer.

I’m not saying a first-time head coach can’t succeed. It happens all the time. Or that a recycled coach is going to win. Dennis Erickson, Dennis Green, Dick Jauron and now Chan Gailey are proof of that. All I’m saying is, if you want to be sure you get the most out of the young players you’ve invested in, the best way to assure that is by hiring someone that’s done it.

The Blues didn’t know if they could get their kids to improve enough with Payne, so they turned to a guy with a pedigree. It would be wise for the Rams to take the same approach.