It’s a bit of a mystery why elite players often make terrible coaches. For whatever reason, they do – it’s quite the phenomenon. Two prime examples of this are Wayne Gretzky and Magic Johnson. While it might not be as obvious, this phenomenon works the other way too. There is a plethora of legendary coaches who were ‘not-so-great’ players. Don’t believe it? Take a look at this list filled with unbelievable stories of legendary coaches who weren’t great players:
Often compared to his younger brother, John Harbaugh definitely loses at the “who’s a better football player” contest. His younger brother Jim (who you might recognize as the coach of the Michigan Wolverines and former coach of the San Francisco 49ers) spent 12 seasons as a QB in the NFL. In comparison, as a player, John was best known for his special teams abilities while playing as a defensive back in college at Miami (Ohio).
While they are both considered premier coaches, John has bragging rights. In 2013, his Baltimore Ravens beat Jim’s San Francisco 49ers 34-31 in Super Bowl XLVII. John also beat Jim in one of the most American ways possible, a 16-6 Thanksgiving Classic win in 2011. This story is truly straight out of a movie plot.
Although he was never great as a player, John Harbaugh belongs to the Cradle of Coaches – the nickname given to Miami (Ohio). The school has a knack for producing some pretty great coaches over the years including Bo Schembechler, Paul Brown, Woody Hayes, Sean McVay, and many more.
Tony La Russa
La Russa was a journeyman role player in his 6 MLB seasons. He managed just 176 at bats in his career, playing for the Oakland Athletics, Chicago Cubs and Atlanta Braves. La Russa had a grand total of 7 RBIs, 0 HRs and a -0.7 WAR. Not great.
Where La Russa lacked in playing ability, he made up for in his ability to coach. Over 33 years as manager of the Chicago White Sox, Oakland Athletes and most-notably the St. Louis Cardinals, La Russa won 2,728 games, 12 pennants and 6 World Series. In 2014, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame (as a manager – not a player, if you were wondering).
You would never guess that as a player, Bill Belichick was better at lacrosse than he was at football. The brash coach played lineman and tight end at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He also captained the lacrosse team.
After he was unable to make a career out of playing football, Belichick got his start in coaching with the Baltimore Colts as a special assistant. He then worked his way up the ladder and eventually became one of the winningest coaches in NFL history. Like them or hate them, Bill Belichick (the sub-par offensive lineman, turned coach) and Tom Brady (the QB drafted in the 6th round) won 4 Super Bowls together as coach and QB. That just might be one of the greatest underdog stories of all time.
We’ll start by saying Jackson had likely the best playing career out of anyone on this list. But that doesn’t mean he was good by any means. Considered one of the greatest coaches in NBA history, he was just an average player. Jackson played 807 games over 12 seasons with the New York Knicks and New Jersey Nets, averaging 6.7 points per game.
Looking at advance stats – Jackson had a career 12.5 PER and 29.3 WS, which are both below average. Again, Jackson wasn’t the worst player ever, but you’d expect a bit more from one of the all-time great basketball minds. On a positive note, the Zen Master made a much better player than he did an NBA executive…
Last year’s Stanley Cup winning coach never really made it as a hockey player. He played for the Regina Pats in the WHL, a junior league. He scored 15 goals and had 60 assists in 191 games. Despite his individual lacklusterness, Trotz won a WHL Championship in 1980 with the Pats.
After that, he got an invite to attend training camp from the Washington Capitals’ minor league affiliate, the Hershey Bears. When he showed up to try out for the team, he was quickly told he would never make it as a player – his dreams crushed before he even stepped on the ice. However, this is where his coaching career started. You could say this was a ‘when one door closes, another one opens’ type scenario. A trio of smart NHL minds (David Poile, Jack Button and Bryan Murray) told Trotz that he was invited to camp because they saw his potential as a coach one day.
In fairytale-like fashion, 16 years later Trotz hoisted the Stanley Cup as coach of the Washington Capitals – bringing the franchise their first championship.
When you hear the name Chuck Noll – which city comes to mind: Pittsburgh or Cleveland? I’d hope you say Pittsburgh. But did you know, the man who is practically folklore among Steelers fans actually spent his entire playing career as a member of the Browns? A linebacker and guard, Noll played in 77 games over 7 seasons. During this time, Noll was so underpaid that he had to work as a substitute teacher and sell insurance on the side. As a player, he was known as a “messenger guard” whose job it was to relay the play from the coach to the quarterback. The story goes that Noll was so good at it, he eventually could call all the plays without even going to his coach (the above mentioned Paul Brown). As you can guess, he transitioned well into coaching.
Before Noll became their coach, the Steelers had never won a playoff game. He guided them to 4 Super Bowl titles and added another 2 as an executive of the team.
As the above highlights, you don’t have to be great at a sport to become a legendary coach. You just have to have a great story.