The Wisdom of Jerry Sloan
Insights from the longest tenured head coach in professional sports.
by Bryan Crawford
Turnover is becoming more and more common in professional sports these days. The NBA is no exception. In fact, the NBA may have more turnover than any other professional sports league around. In this league, players change uni’s, coaches change benches, and GM’s get fired on the regular. It’s a never ending carousel, except when you’re talking about the Utah Jazz and Jerry Sloan.
Since 1988, Sloan has been the man on the sidelines in Salt Lake City. In his 22 years as coach of the Jazz, he’s only missed the playoffs three times. In 25 years of coaching in the NBA, with the exception of the year he was fired in Chicago during the ’81-82 season, he’s only missed the playoffs four times. The rest of his resume you can look up on your own, but that’s not only longevity, that’s a lot of Ws. How he’s never won a COY award is beyond me, but that’s another story.
Last year he received a much bigger honor when he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame with a legendary class that included David Robinson, C. Vivian Stringer, Michael Jordan, and his former point guard, John Stockton. Soon to be 68 years young in a couple of weeks, Sloan has probably forgotten more basketball than many of us even think we know. But despite his age, no one views him as someone whose time should be up. When you’re winning with the consistency that he has, those types of thoughts and arguments just don’t hold up.
His recipe for success? Well, he’s from the old school. The old, old school. He does things the only way he knows how to do them, the way they were done when he was a player. Take into consideration that the Utah Jazz are the only team in the NBA with a curfew on the road. And not a “curfew,” but an up-and-down-the-hallway knocking on your door curfew. These are grown men making millions of dollars yet when they come to your town don’t expect to see any of them experiencing the local night life. And if you do happen to catch one of them out, you’d better get your autographs and your pictures while you can because I can guarantee you they won’t be wherever you are for very long.
So how does Sloan do it? How does he manage to hold down the same job when a guy like Larry Brown—who’s only been coaching for three seasons longer than he has—is on his ninth team? And how does he maintain longevity and stability when change is such a constant?
“There are coaches who are a lot better than I am that have gotten fired, I know that for a fact,” said Sloan. “I don’t know if [teams] have the staying power to try and keep a guy as long as I’ve been able to keep my job in Utah. Our ownership has been supportive and when y’all [the media] get a little rough on coaches, a lot of [owners] cave in. Ours never caved in.”
That last comment addressed what has been the topic of discussion for a very long time and it’s either widely agreed upon or dismissed altogether and that is the notion the media has the power to actually get coaches fired. But when you have a career winning percentage of .603, TWO losing seasons in a quarter century, and a run of fifteen straight playoff appearances, when a guy like Jerry Sloan hits a rough patch, a writer who calls for his job could very well end up losing theirs. His resume demands that you give him an opportunity to get things back in order.
“[Winning] is a lot easier when you have good players. I lost 56 games when we didn’t [have good players]. That’s common sense. You can’t be a good team unless you have good players. You have to have good players. I’ve been fortunate to have good players for a long period of time and when we lost those guys [John Stockton and Karl Malone] we had to start all over. But the job still remains the same. That doesn’t change. You have to coach whoever’s there and try to get them to play as well as they can. And that’s why sometimes, you have losing teams.”
He also feels coaches should be given a chance to prove something to the players who are essentially seen as the proverbial inmates running the asylum. “I think [sticking with a coach] would send a message to the players. Players [feel like] ‘I don’t have to play for this guy so when the next guy comes in, I’ll wait and play for him.’ It’s an attitude that players have.”
And how does he deal with that kind of attitude from guys? “I tell our players I’m gonna be here and you may not.”
End of discussion.
“I’ve been really fortunate that [Larry Miller] gave me an opportunity to say that when he first started out [as team owner]. Coaches are going to be here, players are expendable,” offered Sloan. “That’s very difficult to say because you’ve got a lot of great players and as soon as something goes wrong it’s usually the coaches fault and I accept that. But you have to have support. If you don’t have support [from management] then you don’t have a fighting chance.”
He also has a soft spot for coaches who aren’t given a chance to prove their worth due to a lack of organizational support. “I feel bad for coaches that do a good job and really don’t get an opportunity to coach. They probably deserve [an opportunity] as much as anybody… It’s a tough job to coach a team in this league day-in and day-out and try to be able to do what you think is reasonable within the team concept.”
How long Jerry Sloan will continue to coach is a question only he can answer and one I dare not ask. But one thing is for certain, when he does hang up his whistle and his whiteboard, it’ll be on his own terms and he’s earned the right to do so.
When a conversation about great NBA coaches comes up, he may not get name dropped as often as guys like Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, or Red Auerbach; but that’s only because he hasn’t won an NBA championship and he coaches in Salt Lake City, Utah which isn’t exactly the same as coaching in LA, Boston, New York, or Chicago. But a championship wouldn’t be enough to cement his legacy anyway. It would be mere decoration in the larger story of the man from tiny McLeansboro, IL whose life and legacy will be defined by one thing. Loyalty.