John Mara laughed. Then he sighed. Then he laughed loudly, again. The longtime owner of the New York Giants was considering a simple question — Could you ever fire a coach less than a year after he won a Super Bowl? — and Mara admitted he was a bit dumbfounded.
“Maybe if there was some crazy set of circumstances …” Mara said, trailing off.
He tried it another way: “I mean, it would have to be something really strange with behavior …” Then he stopped himself once more and sighed.
“I guess the short answer is ‘no,'” he said finally. “And it’s just unimaginable to me that that could be the norm somewhere.”
Mara’s thinking is understandable — the last time the Giants fired a head coach in the middle of any season was back in 1976 — and that thinking is also largely accepted among most sports executives in the United States. Yet in international sports generally, and perhaps most visibly in English soccer, the reality is often the complete opposite.
On Monday, Leicester City played an English Premier League match against Liverpool with a temporary manager, Craig Shakespeare, who was filling in because the former coach, Claudio Ranieri, was fired last Thursday — roughly nine months after he led Leicester City to the Premier League title despite beginning that season as 5,000-to-1 underdogs. Leicester won the game 3-1, despite some fans booing the players and a plethora of social media posts labeling them “snakes” for playing well only once Ranieri was gone.
Indeed, Ranieri’s firing sparked a menagerie of emotion in the sports world. Some thought it was calculated, but understandable. Others saw it as the height of disloyalty and nothing less than the unnecessary slaughter of the most romantic and unlikely story in sports history.
Most definitively of all, it was typical. In four of the past five seasons, the title-winning manager in England didn’t finish the following season with his club — one of those four being Sir Alex Ferguson, who retired — and in the five top leagues in Europe, three of the five champions from last year saw their managers leave before or during this season.
It’s markedly different in the United States. During the past 10 years, none of the title-winning coaches in any of the four major sports failed to complete the following season with the same team, and in football, nine of those 10 Super Bowl-winning coaches — everyone except Tom Coughlin, who retired from coaching — are still working in the same place.
Patience (or lack thereof) is more universal, too. According to an analysis by Business Insider last year, the median tenure of all NFL coaches was three seasons, while the median of Premier League coaches was just a season and a half. An ESPN study from 2015 showed that the percentage of coaches replaced since 1996 is more than 30 points higher in the Premier League than in either the NFL or Major League Baseball.
This international phenomenon isn’t limited to soccer. Just days after Ranieri’s firing, Maccabi Rishon Lezion, an Israeli basketball team that won its first title in stunning fashion last year, fired its decorated coach, Arik Shivek, with the team in the middle of the standings.
In an interview Monday, Shivek tried to mix his frustration with perspective.
“What you expect as a coach that won a championship, especially a historic championship, is that people will look at any problem the next year and say, ‘Why could this be different? Let’s solve this problem together,'” Shivek said. “But, you know, they don’t. And that’s the life in Europe.”
So it is. The question, then, is why?
In truth, Shivek wasn’t wholly accurate: It isn’t only European teams that change managers the way American teams change locker room paint colors. It’s most everyone else.
Soccer is the easiest direct comparison, and the numbers are clear: From 2002 to 2014, according to a study of 10 top leagues by the Mexican publication El Economista, managers in Major League Soccer were similar to coaches in the other major American sports in spending more than two-and-a-half seasons with their clubs, the most of the 10 countries studied. Their counterparts in the Brazilian league generally lasted less than half a season, while six Brazilian clubs had more than 30 — yes, 30 — managers apiece in that 12-year period.
There are exceptions both ways, of course: Arsene Wenger has been in charge at Arsenal for more than 20 years. Jurgen Klopp spent seven years at Mainz and seven years at Dortmund in Germany before taking over at Liverpool. Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, parted ways with Jimmy Johnson in 1994 shortly after Johnson won his second straight Super Bowl, and late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner famously fired (and hired and fired and hired) Billy Martin so much that Martin once lost his job the season after he won a World Series and then, a year later, came back to replace Bob Lemon, who had also been let go after winning a World Series.
Still, the larger trends are difficult to ignore.
Shivek theorized that there is a cultural difference such that coaches are seen as more disposable entities outside the United States; he also noted the considerable differences in the league structures. Salary caps or spending restrictions often don’t exist in international soccer, which allows clubs to focus more on buying and selling star players in a manner that makes coaches even more replaceable.
Additionally, most foreign leagues use some form of promotion and relegation, in which the worst teams each season drop to a lower league and the best from the lower divisions jump up, while American teams are locked in at the top of their pyramids. Presumably, this intensifies the panic over a struggling team at risk of relegation, regardless of what happened the year before.
But both of those ideas stem from the same place: the involvement of ownership. Consider that Gregg Popovich named himself coach of the San Antonio Spurs early in the 1996 season (he had previously been the general manager) but went 17-47 that first year. Had he been coaching soccer at, say, Italy’s Palermo (40 managerial changes since 2002), he might have been fired. Instead, he was retained, the team drafted Tim Duncan, and 20 years and five championships later, Popovich is often cited as a symbol of the value of continuity.
“It’s better than conflict and chaos, right?” Popovich said this past weekend. “I think owners who let people do their jobs end up being more successful in our business. And obviously, if someone has made a lot of bucks doing something else, the pitfall is always to think that you can do that no matter what business you might be in. Some organizations get into trouble because of that.”
He added: “Instant gratification seems to be the factor that runs things the most, as far as whether you can have continuity or not.”
At the highest levels of international soccer, the influx of wealthy investors (think sheikhs or oligarchs) seems clearly linked to a greater presence of the “instant gratification” Popovich referenced.
As just one example, Roman Abramovich, a billionaire from Russia, bought Chelsea in 2003. Since then, the club has won 13 major trophies and Abramovich has changed full-time managers 10 times. Ranieri (coincidentally, the first manager let go by Abramovich) was fired this time by Leicester City’s chief executive, a Thai billionaire businessman who bought the club in 2010.
Yet the presence of such owners merely exaggerates a predilection that already existed. Bob Bradley became the first American coach to manage in the Premier League when he was hired by Swansea City in January, but he was fired after just 11 games when Swansea’s leaders — two Americans are majority owners, but the club is run by a Welsh chairman — released him amid growing criticism from the club’s vocal fans.
Asked Sunday about the Ranieri situation, Bradley was blunt. “You have ownership that understands the importance of stability, and you have owners that react more. They react to every game. They react to the supporters. And as a result, you have decisions that change constantly, and there never seems to be any clear vision for how things go.”
In Ranieri’s case, Leicester City’s owner made his decision based largely on a feeling that Ranieri no longer had the full support of his players. (He reportedly spoke to several players to gain confirmation.) This notion of “losing the locker room” is common in sports and is often used as a catch-all explanation for firing a coach. But Brian Billick, who spent all nine of his seasons as a head coach with the Baltimore Ravens, called that entire premise “bull.”
“I think a locker room loses itself,” he said. “Especially if there was such success a season before. When things finally get tough, ‘It’s the coach’s fault’ is just the lowest-hanging fruit.”
Brian Cashman, the longtime general manager of the New York Yankees, said his belief has been that team executives should look for ways to help a manager avoid losing the locker room, including encouraging him to be “progressive” and open to altering his style or demeanor.
“You have to evolve and change,” Cashman said. “If you can’t let the coach or manager grow in his job, how can you expect the team to grow as a whole?”
The secret, of course, is this: Changing coaches almost never works.
Study after study after study has shown that there is no reliable uptick in points gained by a struggling soccer team after it fires its manager, and the notion that players are galvanized by such a move is a popular adage without merit. There are, surely, examples of the reverse — Tyronn Lue replacing David Blatt and leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to an NBA title is an obvious one — but from a functional standpoint, “Fire the coach” is usually asking for a Band-Aid that doesn’t stick.
That is a big part of the reason that Mara, the Giants owner, was so perplexed by the hypothetical question about firing a Super Bowl-winning coach. In his mind, the best part of believing in a coach is that it allows a team’s executives to focus on the hundreds of other things that might be less visible but are in some ways just as important to the team’s overall success: talent development, scouting, tactical analysis, team facilities and analytics, to name just a few.
“One of the oldest sayings in sports is, ‘Once you start listening to the fans, it’s not going to be long ’til you’re sitting with them,'” Mara said. “The fans always want to talk about the coach if things aren’t going well, but as owners, you have to be more aware of all the other things that matter. And if a coach has had success and you believe in him, he’s not just going to all of a sudden forget how to do it.”
Perhaps that is why Leicester City’s decision about Ranieri struck some so hard. Leicester isn’t a global behemoth such as Barcelona or Bayern Munich; it is a team from a smaller town with a primarily local fan base that should, presumably, always operate with an eye toward long-term sustainability.
Clearly, the club does not want to be relegated; the cost of dropping to the second division has been estimated at more than dollar;100 million in lost revenue. But several executives said that focusing only on that possibility could be, from a business perspective, myopic.
“If you were talking about the Giants being dropped to a minor league after a bad year, maybe it would change things,” Mara said. “But as I think about it, I’m not even sure it would. How does it really help?”
“If you keep making changes every time things go south, you’re not necessarily making things better, are you?” he said. “You’re just always starting over.”
Michael C. Wright contributed reporting.
Sam Borden is a Global Sports Correspondent for ESPN, also covering soccer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamBorden.