Man (or Woman) in the Mirror: When Do You Fire the Boss?

National Football League Hall of Fame star Mik...
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The San Francisco 49ers fired their head coach Mike Singletary yesterday.

I don’t know Singletary, but have followed his career since 1985 when I lived in Chicago for five years (comprising what I refer to as the longest decade of my life) and he played for the Chicago Bears.

Singletary was an undersized, underpowered linebacker who played with lots of smarts and heart, and it’s no coincidence that the Bears won a Super Bowl and were highly competitive with him on board. He played above, not at his talent and it led him to an early selection to the NFL Hall of Fame after an earlier selection to the US College Hall of Fame.

If you were to take the prototype of a player who would be a successful coach, a Singletary template would be a great place to start. Like some other professional coaches (Phil Jackson in the men’s NBA, recently retired Joe Torre in US men’s major league baseball), Singletary “overachieved” through hard work, grit, and playing smart.

The 49ers will finish with a losing record this season, and like their nominal geographic rivals the Oakland Raiders, the once proud and successful franchise has sunk into mediocrity and near-irrelevance. The 49ers won Super Bowl championships in 1981 (Super Bowl XVI), 1984 (XIX), 1988 (XXIII), 1989 (XXIV), 1994 (XXIX). The Raiders won Super Bowl championships in 1976 (XI), 1980 (XV), and 1983 (XVIII).

Professional sports are an interesting sector where frequently (but not always) well-to-do owners get to put their egos and fortunes on the line in pursuit of profits and championships. More often than not owners realize neither.

The most successful franchises have one pattern in common; patient ownership who hires smart, is a strong presence but interferes little, and lets the people they hire do their job. In US professional football that description fits the owners of the New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts, Pittsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints – winners of seven of the last ten Super Bowls. Those successful owners tend to avoid churning coaching or general management ranks in part because that sort of churn not only bleeds on to the field, but is a short term action for more systemic problems in terms of talent assessment and acquisition.

Here’s the year-by-year record that shows wins, losses, and head coach(es) since an ownership change put Denise York in charge of the 49er franchise in 2000:


Year Wins Losses Head Coach(es)
2010 5 10 Singletary
2009 8 8 Singletary
2008 7 9 Singletary,Nolan
2007 5 11 Nolan
2006 7 9 Nolan
2005 4 12 Nolan
2004 2 14 Erickson
2003 7 9 Erickson
2002 10 6 Mariucci
2001 12 4 Mariucci
2000 6 10 Mariucci

Four head coaches in ten years, two winning seasons years ago (but dumped the coach anyway).

Mike Singletary will likely be fine. Like baseball’s Joe Torre, who did short stints managing the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves (getting fired both times) before tremendous runs later in his career with the the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Yankees, winning coaching is a function of the smarts and heart you bring, the latitude, talent resources on your team, and the quality of your competition.

But when you see such a pattern as presents itself with the 49ers – or the now-sad sack Oakland Raiders (7 coaches in 10 years, two winning seasons) – the answer is likely not with coaches or general managers, but in the owner’s box.

The 49ers will now play a game of chase to find someone to take the vacant coaching role, and perhaps a general manager to fill that spot. Like the least-thought of employer in a small town, the people who will be engaged will either be talent looking for their first break, somebody over-the-hill looking to clock some time before finally retiring, or somebody great who will be expensive and come with a number of guaranteed years in their contract. That’s the pattern that’s played out for the Raiders, and has played out to date for the 49ers. The fundamental fix – ownership and their role – gets deferred until another day.

And when it comes to facing that man (or woman) in the mirror, most owners will take a pass and run from confronting that real source of the problem.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.