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Pulling coaching rank

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  September 30, 2010 02:33 PM

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Coaches are overanalyzed and underappreciated. Having your decisions dissected and your calls questioned is as much a part of their jobs as answering emails is for the rest of us.

Given the day-to-day scrutiny of our local sports teams and their leaders, we may not be fully appreciative of the current collection of coaches we have in this town. To wit, there are 13 US cities that field teams in all four major sports -- sorry, Major League Soccer, but most mainstream sports fans still have you in the waiting room -- Boston is the only one that has three coaches/managers who have won a championship with their current team.

If you don't know who those coaches are, you've wandered away from "Love Letters" and we're happy to have you. Patriots coach Bill Belichick (three Super Bowl titles, last championship after the 2004 season), Red Sox manager Terry Francona (two World Series crowns, last title in 2007) and Celtics coach Doc Rivers (one NBA championship in 2008) are all Lords of the Championship Ring. In defense of Bruins coach Claude Julien, no Bruins coach has won a championship since Tom Johnson lifted Lord Stanley's hallowed hardware in 1972.

The only other Big Four cities that even have two coaches who have won championships with their current teams are New York (Yankees manager Joe Girardi and New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin) and Chicago (White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen and Chicago Blackhawks bench boss Joel Quenneville.) But in the Big Four sports, New York has seven teams, not including the New Jersey Devils or the New Jersey Nets. Chicago benefits from an extra baseball team.

So, Boston clearly ranks No. 1 in coaching cachet, but how would you rank the Boston coaches today? Forget résumé and reputation. Right now, from one to four, who are the most masterful sports superiors in the Hub? Here's my list:

1. Doc Rivers -- The only reason the Celtics are still a championship contender this season is the return of Rivers, who somehow managed to coax an aging, disengaged, fourth-seeded team to within six minutes of an NBA title last season. Paul Pierce said that Rivers's decision to return was the key to bringing the Big Three back intact and adding Shaq. Rivers's ability to manage people and egos allows the Celtics to gamble on high-maintenance role players -- players like Shaq, Stephon Marbury, Nate Robinson, and Rasheed Wallace -- and walk an emotional high-wire with headstrong stars like Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo. Outside of Phil Jackson, there is not another coach in the league who could foster chemistry with this volatile bunch.

"I think Doc is the perfect coach for these guys," said Celtics general manager Danny Ainge. "These guys, a lot of them, the older group, the veterans, the Hall of Famers, the All-Stars, however you want to refer to them, they have strong personalities, but I think they want to be coached. I think they know they can't do it on their own. They have to do it in the team concept, and I think they'll have a great deal of respect for Doc."

2. Terry Francona -- There is not a more thankless job in sports than Red Sox manager. Like Rivers, Francona is a master of melding personalities and managing people. You try having an unhappy Mike Lowell on the bench most of the season. He's done perhaps his best managerial job this season, keeping the Red Sox in playoff contention until late September with the assorted McDonalds, Navas, Pattersons, and Navarros the team has been forced to trot due to season-ending injuries to starters Jacoby Ellsbury, Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia.

Tito has gotten a lot of use out of his Ben Franklin bifocals as he's come up with 139 different batting orders this season. He had his projected starting lineup play in a grand total of four games this season, according to baseball-reference.com. His alleged ace, Josh Beckett, went 6-6, his erstwhile All-Star closer, Jonathan Papelbon, has an earned run average above 4.00 and his short-armed bullpen has posted a worse ERA than the Seattle Mariners. Yet, the Red Sox could still win 90 games this season in the toughest division in baseball.

3. Bill Belichick -- It is odd to find Belichick in the third spot, but remember this is based on right now and not career accomplishments. If I had to win one game with equal talent, there still isn't another coach in football I'd take over our resident gridiron Einstein, who has won 70.7 percent of his games as Patriots coach, including the playoffs. However, there has been some slippage recently in Foxborough. Last year's 10-6 campaign was marked by some odd coaching/personnel decisions and locker room unrest.

This year, the Patriots lost to the archrival Jets on the road and got shut out in the second half. Three games into the season, Belichick, a defensive mastermind, can't figure out his defensive personnel, unseating three starters. The defense is young and still in its formative stage, but it's stocked with Belichick's hand-picked draft picks. If he can't coach these guys up, he has no one to blame.

4. Claude Julien -- Tough crowd for Claude. Julien has guided the Bruins to back-to-back appearances in the Eastern Conference semifinals after the franchise went a decade between winning playoff series. He was the 2009 NHL Coach of the Year, and has a .612 winning percentage behind the bench for the Black and Gold. Yet, the Bruins were a listless bunch for most of last season, during which Julien was criticized for being too slow to change up his lines and sticking with underperforming players too long (see: Ryder, Michael).

Plus, he presided over the Bruins' epic collapse against the Philadelphia Flyers, as the spooked-B's blew a 3-0 series lead and a 3-0 lead in Game 7. Worse, Simon Gagne's power-play game-winner was the result of a game-management miscue -- too-many-men-on-the-ice. That in-limbo line change wasn't Julien's fault, but championship teams don't wilt under pressure.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news


...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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