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This isn’t complicated. We are reminded of this again as we watch the Knicks play basketball this season, playing it at a level with which most of these same players were quite unfamiliar a year ago. We will soon be reminded, again, when the Islanders take the ice in a few weeks. We got a glimpse of it across 16 games with the Giants this year.
The Jets are in the market for a coach again, and you could make a reasonable argument that in 61 years of existence and no fewer than 18 different coaching searches they have gotten it right exactly twice: in 1963 with Weeb Ewbank, and in 1996, with Bill Parcells. If you are feeling generous, add Rex Ryan and make it a 17 percent success rate.
If you’d like, you can contrast this with the Steelers in the Jets’ own sport, who in the 52 years since Jan. 27, 1969, have hired three coaches — Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin — and gone 3-for-3. You could also just keep it local and argue that, since 1960, the Giants have had 13 coaching searches and gotten it right nearly half the time — Allie Sherman, Ray Perkins, Bill Parcells, Dan Reeves, Jim Fassel, Tom Coughlin — with a real chance to make it 54 percent if Joe Judge continues on his present path.
Not surprisingly, the Super Bowl tally here reads: Steelers 6, Giants 4, Jets 1.
But, really, all we need to do is watch what Tom Thibodeau has done for the Knicks this year. All we need to do is see what Barry Trotz has done with the Islanders the past two years. These are extreme examples and yet the simplest of all: both teams had hired terrible coach after terrible coach, stacking them like cordwood in the basements of Madison Square Garden and Nassau Coliseum.
And then: voila.
They actually hired someone who knows what he’s doing.
“We trust him,” forward Julius Randle — perhaps Thibodeau’s most notable convert — said earlier this season. “He has a real plan for us, he makes sure we’re prepared and he puts us in the best possible position to win every game we play. We trust him and he trusts us.”
Said winger Cal Clutterbuck this past summer, speaking of Trotz while he guided the Isles to a most unexpected appearance in the conference finals: “All you ask of a coach is that he works as hard as you do, that he puts in the same time and cares as deeply and that’s one thing you never have to worry about with him. He brings that to work every day.”
Words are nice. Actions speak louder. It is easy to get rambunctious about the Knicks’ 4-3 start because of all the dreadful basketball that preceded it for 20 years, save for a brief window under Mike Woodson’s watch (and, no surprise, Woodson is a part of Thibodeau’s staff). But forget where the season is headed — and it’s still almost certain to finish shy of the playoffs. Look at the team right now. See how it plays. Look at the difference.
It’s the same with the Islanders, who with rare spasms of prosperity drifted for 35 years after Al Arbour retired the first time. Trotz came in and immediately lost his best player, John Tavares, who defected to the Maple Leafs in free agency. And yet the Islanders actually won a playoff series in 2019 for the first time in 26 years, then won three more last season.
Both teams have been infused with fresh new leadership — Leon Rose with the Knicks, Lou Lamoriello on the Island — and so far, for both, their biggest decision has been identifying and hiring the right man to be their coach. Thibodeau has won nearly 59 percent of his games in eight-plus seasons, and if not for a brutal Derrick Rose injury might already own a championship ring. Trotz has won nearly 57 percent of the 1,196 games he’s coached in the NHL and did win a Cup, with the ’18 Caps.
But it doesn’t have to be about sifting through fancy résumés and dossiers. That’s why a coach like Judge is so intriguing. He started 1-7 and ended 6-10 for his first season, but the way he brought and kept the Giants together in a turbulent season was obvious, and, as important: the contrast with the sheer bumbling of his immediate predecessors, Ben McAdoo and Pat Shurmur, was striking.
He was hard on players, and yet those players performed for him, and vocally bought in. And it was the Giants, after all, who endured Bill Parcells’ maiden 3-12-1 voyage before reaping the benefits of his blossoming. They can bear witness to a coach who sometimes needs time for his record to catch up to his promise.
So it is the Jets’ time again, their turn again. Christopher Johnson spoke hopefully Monday of hiring someone who can make opponents as soon as next year “not want to play us.” There is one way to make that a possibility. Identify the right guy. Hire him. Give him the steering wheel. Coaching matters. It always has. It still does. Maybe now more than ever.