Tortorella Represents a Small Window for the RangersFriday, February 27, 2009 10:13
Anyone who has played sports for any length of time is familiar with the type: the fire-and-brimstone coach who thinks that the best way to deliver his instructions is at Led-Zeppelin-concert volume. We’ve all had that coach that feels that public embarrassment is the best motivator; the guy that would make Don Rickles say, “Maybe you should dial that back a notch.”
He was bombastic and acid-tongued. Merely speaking with him was an exercise in endurance. You didn’t so much listen to him as weather the storm that would undoubtedly be set off by asking the stupid question with which you were wasting his time. To challenge him was sheer lunacy. To show weakness or fear in front of him was disastrous.
I often wonder what makes coaches think that becoming an autocratic martinet is the best way to motivate players. Didn’t they have to play for guys like this when they were kids? Do they not remember how miserable it was?
But then I remember how hard I played because I was so afraid of the ridicule and the disappointment of my peers and I realized something: they’re right. It can work. Fear and loathing of an authority figure is a great motivator in the short term. That’s why it works with kids and college students. They’re only going to have to deal with it for four years at most.
Some of the greatest teams in history had nothing in common save a unifying hatred of their coach. Herb Brooks was despised by his players, and for many of them it’s taken the erosion of time and Brooks’ unfortunate passing to wear away at that veneer of anger. Brooks brilliantly engineered all of this because he had such a short time to bring that team together.
And within that nugget lies the problem. This particular Roman candle it has a very short fuse. Once lit, it lasts for a short while and more often than not, usually ends as a dud. This is a different era. With the short lifespan of coaches in the NHL and other professional leagues, players often have seniority on their coaches. The screaming act wears thin in a very short while.
I’ll always remember the collapse of another fire-and-brimstone coach as the quintessential example of why this philosophy will ultimately fail at the pro level. Ray Rhodes won the Coach of the Year Award in his first season with the Eagles. But within two years he was out of a job. He would often whip his players into a frenzy with exhortations of “They’re coming into your house to rape your wives and kill your children,” with regard to the opposing team.
As you might imagine, it’s hard to top that one. I mean, after the first week that your house fails to get raided by the Vandals, Visigoths, and Vikings (hah!) it’s hard to remain vigilant.
John Tortorella won a Cup in Tampa, but his act eventually wore thin. There’s only so much you can threaten a player with before trading him or cutting him becomes something he no longer fears. He started a very public feud with Vinny Prospal that eventually blew up in his face. Shortly after engineering a trade that sent Prospal to Philadelphia, Torts was gone and Prospal re-signed in Tampa at the end of the season.
In the short term, I think he will make the Rangers a much better team. Tortorella’s screaming, yelling, and posturing on the bench will motivate players beyond what Tom Renney’s impotent line-juggling could ever hope to do.
However, the second Glen Sather offered Torts the job, the clock started ticking. In the background, like an infinite number of 24 promos played simultaneously, the clock on Tortorella began counting down–whether or not he wins a Cup before that timer elapses is the question.
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