Written by Sean Ryan
Coaching those crispy pinstripes in the Bronx during late October or the fabled Lakers at Staples Center in May might be every coach’s dream; however, people quickly forget the immediate expectations and demand for championships that accompany those jobs. Conversely, an interim head coach given the clipboard and whistle mid-season couldn’t be in a better position.
Think about it for a moment. Almost always, the interim head coach gets thrown into a disastrous mid-season situation where either the former head coach’s performance failed to meet front office expectations or both parties had a falling out. The fans start thinking, “Maybe we’ll get someone in the draft or a solid free agent.” Another classic and one of my personal favorites, “Can we please just skip to next season already?” Everyone checks out of the team’s remaining schedule while hoping for progress in the near future. No one cares who took over as “interim head coach,” essentially giving them a free pass. It’s like getting called last minute as a babysitter and the parents tell you, “We’ll pay double for tonight.” GO TIME.
Before getting into the positive aspects of being an interim head coach, we should acknowledge the fact that there’s never any job postings (for good reason) so it takes some luck to stumble into one. I mean what organization in a competent state of mind heads into a season saying, “Boy I hope we get a chance to fire our coach and start building for next year.” Another tough aspect of interim head coaching depends on the situation you’re walking into. For example, Baylor fired head coach Art Briles prior to the 2016 season in the wake of a major sexual assault scandal involving the football program which shook the campus. Not only did Briles get fired, but President Ken Starr lost his job and athletic director Ian McCaw stepped down when the dust finally settled. Jim Grobe replaced Briles on an interim basis by signing a one year contract, which he ended with a 31–12 win over Boise State in the Cactus Bowl and a 7–6 record. Still, I can’t imagine that was an entirely enjoyable season with all the mixed emotions surrounding the football program. Kudos to Grobe for persevering and leaving Baylor in a much better spot than he received them.
Although a lack of job postings and entering difficult situations sound rough, nothing’s worse than receiving the label of head coach even though the front office knows there’s an interim in parentheses before it.
Example #1: Jim Tomsula
After the San Francisco 49ers parted ways with Jim Harbaugh in an incredibly ugly fashion, they hired Jim Tomsula, whose previous coaching experience included seven years as the defensive line coach for Niners. People criticized the hiring and pointed to Owner Jed York’s desire to have full control of the team (owners rarely do well in the front office). Although Tomsula won his first game [opening weekend Monday night against Minnesota — one of the weirdest games I’ve ever watched], he finished the season 5–11 with Blaine Gabbert starting at quarterback. Just a few hours after the last game of the season against the St. Louis Rams, he was fired (I hope he at least made it onto the plane!). Don’t feel bad though Jim. You won 3 more games than Chip Kelly who was fired after 1 season too!
Example #2: Byron Scott
After the Mike D’Antoni era ended in LA (not soon enough), Byron Scott interviewed three times for the vacant position. Eventually, the Lakers signed him to a two-year deal with the option for a third. In his first season Scott finished 21–61 as the Lakers began their slow rebuilding process. The following year, they finished with a franchise-worst 17–65 record in Kobe Bryant’s final NBA season. Scott’s 38–126 record, the worst of any previous Laker head coach who held the position for two seasons, didn’t flatter the front office. Shortly after the season, the Lakers chose not to exercise their option on Scott’s contract, deciding to pursue a new head coach. Ironically, they hired Luke Walton, who as an interim head coach, led the Golden State Warriors to an impressive 39–4 record before Steve Kerr recovered from back surgery and resumed his position.
OKAY now that we’ve acknowledged the few negatives, let’s get back to the tremendous upside.
First, as stated above, the organization essentially threw in the towel by firing the head coach mid-season and fans only care about finding some hope for the future. As the interim head coach, you get the first opportunity to win the job by turning around the team’s performance. All the remaining games may not mean anything to anyone else, but to the interim head coach, it’s a job interview. USC’s current head coach Clay Helton served twice as an interim head coach before winning the job following his second stint. After USC fired Steve Sarkisian during the 2015 season for alcohol abuse and lack luster results (3–2 start with conference losses to Stanford and Washington), Helton finished the year with a 5–2 record. The Trojans, impressed with his performance, removed the interim label five days before the Pac-12 Championship game. The following season murmurs of a premature coaching hire started to swirl around Helton after a slow 1–3 start in the first four games. The Trojans responded with rattling off 8 straight conference wins and an historic comeback in the Rose Bowl to beat Penn State 52–49 in one of the greatest college football games I’ve ever seen. While everyone in southern California probably wrote off the Trojans following Steve Sarkisian’s firing, Clay Helton put his head down, went to work and won the job.
Another benefit from interim head coaching is the valuable experience you gain in your career. Some coaches spends years, as an assistant coach, waiting for an opportunity to take the next step forward on the coaching ladder. For instance, JB Bickerstaff spent 11 seasons as an NBA assistant coach with various teams before he stepped in as the interim head coach of the Houston Rockets in 2016 when they inexplicably fired Hall of Famer Kevin McHale after a 4–7 start (McHale reached the Western Conference Finals the previous season). Bickerstaff “turned” the season around (if you wanna call it that) by going 37–34, securing an 8th seed in the West and a quick first round playoff exit. Although the Rockets hired Mike D’Antoni (might win coach of the year) to replace him, Bickerstaff immediately received a job offer from the Memphis Grizzlies as an associate head coach. Just to be clear, Bickerstaff will be an NBA head coach at some point in the near future.
While some coaches spend years waiting for a head coaching opportunity, others spend decades content in the same position. An interim position allows them to step into the spotlight and see firsthand all the added responsibilities without the stress of expectations. Syracuse assistant coach Mike Hopkins spent 20 years under Jim Boeheim before being promoted to head coach-desginate, Boeheim’s future replacement, prior to the 2015–2016 season. Before the season, Boeheim received a nine game suspension from the NCAA for improper benefits received by players in the basketball program. Hopkins filled in as the interim head coach, compiling an overall record or 4–5 and 0–3 in conference. Just two years later, Hopkins received a six year contract from the University of Washington to replace the winningest coach in school history Lorenzo Romar, who secured the #5 recruiting class in the nation before Michael Porter Jr. and other tops recruits were released from their letters of intent). It’s safe to say UW must trust Hopkin’s vision for the program as most first time coaches receive a three year contract with an option for a fourth.
Other benefits to interim coaching include the potential to remain on the coaching staff even if another candidate gets hired as head coach. Sometimes, not often, incoming coaches prefer to keep someone from the previous staff so there isn’t a complete turnover for the program. Especially in college where you have 18 and 19 year old kids who committed to a school with the intent to play for the coach who recruited them. The retained interim coach can also offer opinion on players’ skill level, tendencies, personality and other crucial elements that may take the new coach some time to figure out.
Interim head coaching positions might be as chill as Sean Penn’s classic character Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Zero expectations accompany these positions as well as an opportunity to win the job before anyone else applies, added accolade for your coaching resume and a small possibility of remaining on the staff if another coach gets hired. Some interim coaches enter into tough situations like following a fall out between the organization and past coach, or a scandal which lead to multiple people losing their jobs. While those negatives should be acknowledged, the potential benefit an interim position offers is substantially greater. It gives the opportunity for high reward without expectations.