Super Bowl 50 – Who is Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera?

The Super Bowl is one of the biggest sporting events in the world. It’s certainly the biggest sporting event in the United States. This year, the game is between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers and will be held at 6:30 on Sunday, February 7 and televised on CBS. Watching any football game is more fun if you understand who the key characters are and what compelling plots and sub-plots there are. It also helps to know some of the basic rules of how football works. Dear Sports Fan is here to help you with both! For learning the basics of football, start with Football 101 and work up to Football 201. To learn about the characters and plot, read on and stay tuned for more posts throughout the week.

Head coach of an NFL football team is an enormously important and high profile job populated mostly by even more enormously self-important men who never miss an opportunity to raise their profile. As such, it’s actually surprising how little press the two Super Bowl coaches this year are receiving. Both Carolina head coach Ron Rivera and Denver head coach Gary Kubiak are the exceptions that prove the rule. Despite their teams making the Super Bowl, neither one is the center of attention. The plot of this game does not revolve around either of them. They aren’t groundbreaking “geniuses.” Nor is this a redemptive journey for either of them. That doesn’t mean that either of them is uninteresting or has a boring back story though, so without further ado, let’s explore who they are and how they got here.

What’s Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera’s story?

This is not coach Ron Rivera’s first trip to the Super Bowl. He played linebacker on the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears team, often brought up as having had one the best defenses of all time. Rivera played linebacker for the Bears for nine years before retiring and moving first into the booth as a TV football analyst and then into the coaching fraternity. Until he was hired in 2011 as head coach of the Carolina Panthers, he had always been a defensive coach — either coaching the linebackers on the team or the entire defense.

The best way to illustrate Ron Rivera’s story as a coach in the NFL is to examine his nickname — Riverboat Ron. Riverboat Ron refers to the gambling done on riverboat.

quick historical diversion: This gambling has had two waves — during the 19th century, when riverboats were a primary form of transportation, professional gamblers used them as an easy way to find bored rich people with nothing to do, swiftly separate them from some of their money, and just as swiftly exit their presence. Once steamboats were superseded by other modes of travel, this habit died down. It was resurrected in the late 1980s when a clever Iowan figured out that a casino, located in a traveling riverboat, would not be under the same gambling prohibitions that a static, land-based casino would be. This trick turned into a trend, and so the second great era of riverboat gambling started. Now-a-days, many of the riverboat casinos are either “boats in moats” that never travel anywhere or even simply buildings built on stilts over water. end diversion — 

Rivera got his nickname during the 2013 season. He started the year on shaky ground, having gone an uninspiring 13-19 in his first two seasons. He was particularly under fire among fans and in the media for being overly conservative. His decisions to do things that were widely perceived as safe but misguided, mostly preferring to punt or kick field goals on fourth down instead of “going for it” were blamed for his team’s poor record in close games. This pattern continued for the first two games of the 2013 season. In the third game, it reversed. In the third game, Rivera made the “aggressive” choice and it helped his team win the next game. He cemented this change of tactics by making a similar choice in each of the next five games. That was enough of a sample to seem like he had changed, not just his tactics, but his personality as well. Riverboat Ron had earned his nickname.

According to Wikipedia, Rivera is not the biggest fan of his nickname. He prefers to think of what he does as “calculated risk taking” not gambling. Many football fans would disagree even with that. Just before the time Rivera made his “transformation,” football thought went through its own transition in how it thought about those decisions. Statisticians who descended toward football from other sports, like baseball which had an earlier statistical revolution, made it clear that almost all coaches had been doing their teams a disservice by being far too conservative. This gave rise to clever gags like the New York Times Fourth Down Bot which analyzes fourth down situations and comes up with the statistically correct answer. Seen through the eyes of macro football history, Rivera did not transform from a conservative to a radical coach, he simply adjusted to the new conservatism.

Whatever he has done as a coach has been greatly assisted by the remarkably talented players he has on offense and even more so on defense. These days, Rivera is looked at as a very good leader who delegates well to clever assistant coaches and creates a wonderful environment for his many talented and quirky players to thrive.

Who are the 2015 Women's World Cup coaches in Group F?

The other day on Facebook my friend and Dear Dear Sports Fan Fan, Natty, asked me about the backgrounds of coaches in this year’s Women’s World Cup. I had no idea! So, I decided to do some research. Over the next few days, as the teams all play their second games in the Group Stage, we’ll be profiling their coaches. We’ve covered Group AGroup BGroup C,, Group D, and Group E so far, here’s Group F.

Colombia – Fabián Taborda

The 36 year-old Fabián Taborda is billed as a “former PE teacher” but that probably does him a bit of a disservice. There aren’t many gym teachers who have coached their country’s Under-17 women’s national team to a U-17 World Cup or, when promoted to coach the senior level team, could implement a defensive strategy to stop the Brazilian attack and qualify for the World Cup with an unbeaten record.

England – Mark Sampson

The 32 year-old Mark Sampson has had a meteoric and non-traditional rise through the ranks of coaching to become head coach of the English national soccer team. The Wales native jokes that although he figured out he wouldn’t have a future in soccer as a player, his father says he could have told him at age six. Instead, he focused on becoming a coach, even as he was still playing as a semi-pro himself. He found a back-office job with the English Premier League team, Swansea City. Instead of continuing to work his way up within that organization, he took a job as head coach of Bristol Academy, a rare women’s professional soccer team that’s unaffiliated to any of the Premier League teams. Despite the financial disadvantage of this setup, Sampson and his team were so successful, that when the senior national team job came open, Sampson was given a shot.

France – Philippe Bergeroo

Philippe Bergeroo has been to World Cups before: as a backup goalie on France’s 1986 World Cup team and as a goalie coach for the 1998 France men’s team that won the World Cup. As a head coach, he’s been successful on the international level but a disaster as a professional coach. In two stints with top-level French men’s club teams, he’s flamed out and been fired twice. Not that being fired is a disgrace, it’s by far the most common outcome for all coaches, but these were both in-season firings after extended slumps. On the international level, he once led the Under-17 French men’s national team to a European championship. He had never coached women before 2013 when he was approached by the French soccer federation to take the job. He inherited a good team and has made them better. Bergeroo isn’t just focused on raising the fitness level of his team, he’s also thinking about the 2019 World Cup which will be in France and the impact that will have on all levels of women’s soccer in the country. Meanwhile, this French team went undefeated in World Cup qualification and are expected to compete for the championship.

Mexico – Leonardo Cuéllar

Like his French counter-part, Leonardo Cuéllar has World Cup experience as a player. Unlike Bergeroo, Cuéllar actually saw the field, starting all three games in the 1978 World Cup for Mexico. Cuéllar played much of his club soccer in the United States, playing in the NASL in both its outdoor and indoor phases. He was still living and coaching in the United States in 1998 when the Mexican soccer federation sold him on the idea of becoming head coach of the women’s program. During his long tenure as coach, Mexican women’s soccer has grown and improved massively. Long a punching bag for the United States team, Mexico finally broke through and won a game in 2010. Cuéllar has helped women’s soccer grow as a serious sport in Mexico and his team trains in the same facilities as the men’s national team. Although he’s coached in the 1999 and 2011 World Cups, the 61 year-old Cuéllar and Mexico are still looking for their first ever World Cup win.

Who are the 2015 Women's World Cup coaches in Group E?

The other day on Facebook my friend and Dear Dear Sports Fan Fan, Natty, asked me about the backgrounds of coaches in this year’s Women’s World Cup. I had no idea! So, I decided to do some research. Over the next few days, as the teams all play their second games in the Group Stage, we’ll be profiling their coaches. We’ve covered Group AGroup BGroup C, and Group D so far, here’s Group E.

Brazil – Vadão

Vadão, full name, Oswaldo Fumeiro Alvarez, is a journeyman soccer coach who spent 22 years coaching men’s teams before taking over the women’s national team last year. In those 22 years, he’s has 28 different coaching stops! His longest tenure with a single team is the three years he spent at his very first job from 1992-1994 at Mogi Mirim. That’s an astounding number of rapid-fire coaching assignments. It’s hard to believe he’s still with the team, given that it’s been more than a year since he took the job! Maybe the 58 year old has finally settled down a bit or maybe it’s the allure of coaching the Brazilian women through the World Cup and to the 2016 Olympics hosted in Brazil. Since Vadão took over, he’s established a semi-permanent training camp for the team because he felt the domestic league was not competitive enough for them to improve in.

Costa Rica -Amelia Valverde

Not much is known about Amelia Valverde. This makes a certain amount of sense considering the 28 year-old took over as head coach less than six months ago when then head coach, Garabet Avedissian, stepped down to become the director of football for the Puerto Rican men’s and women’s program. Six months is a minuscule amount of time to have in the role of head coach before taking a team to its first ever World Cup. Luckily, the 28 year-old Valverde has been a part of the Costa Rican national program since 2011 in various assistant coaching roles.

Korea – Yoon Deok-Yeo

Although we’ve had several female head coaches with World Cup experience as players so far, Yoon Deok-Yeo is the first male coach we’ve profiled with playing experience in the World Cup. Yoon was a defender on the South Korean national team that went to the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Korea lost every game that year and Yoon got himself thrown out of their last game with a red card in the 70th minute. As a coach, the 54 year-old is said to be a “hugely popular father figure” for his inexperienced team.

Spain – Ignacio Quereda

At first glance, the story of Ignacio Quereda seems like a heart-warming one. The 64 year-old Guereda has been the head coach of the Spanish women’s national team, without pause, since 1988. Finally, in 2015, 27 years after he began, he finally gets a chance to lead the team he’s devoted much of his life to coaching to the World Cup. Then it occurs to you that a men’s coach who had failed at qualifying for the World Cup in each of its first six editions might not have the same job-security that Quereda enjoys. Then you look a little deeper and you find out that 2011, Spain’s leading scorer and several of her teammates left the team and refused to play as long as Quereda was the coach. Maybe this isn’t a story about loyalty and persistence at all. Maybe its a story about how some national federations neglect and disrespect their women’s programs.

Who are the 2015 Women's World Cup coaches in Group D?

The other day on Facebook my friend and Dear Dear Sports Fan Fan, Natty, asked me about the backgrounds of coaches in this year’s Women’s World Cup. I had no idea! So, I decided to do some research. Over the next few days, as the teams all play their second games in the Group Stage, we’ll be profiling their coaches. We’ve covered Group AGroup B, and Group C so far, here’s Group D.

Australia – Alen Stajcic

The 41 year-old Alen Stajcic already had 12 years of experience coaching women’s professional soccer when he was offered the job of coaching Australia’s national team in 2014. The child of Yugoslavian immigrants, Stajcic grew up watching soccer with his father and playing on youth teams. He made it to the semi-pro level before having his playing career ended by a knee injury. In addition to growing women’s soccer, Stajcic believes that he and men’s national team coach Ange Postecoglou are responsible for expanding and improving soccer as a whole in Australia. Unlike most coaches, who believe that players thrive on consistency and knowing their roles, Stajcic doesn’t mind more than a bit of uncertainty. In the past 26 matches, he’s used 26 different starting lineups. I’m usually a fan of unorthodox behavior, but that seems too weird even for me.

Nigeria – Edwin Okon

The Nigerian Football Federation seems to be a complete mess. In 2012, they gave control of the women’s team to long-time Nigerian player and coach, Kadiri Ikhana. Later that year, he resigned in some combination of disgrace and exasperation. The job of coaching the women’s team was given to Edwin Okon on an explicitly temporary basis while they looked for a “substantive coach.” Three years later, he’s still coaching the team but it’s unclear whether that’s because he turned out to be “substantive” or whether the federation simply forgot to do anything about it. Okon is either running a wonderfully long con-game against the world or he’s a little bit off his rocker. It’s one thing to repeatedly claim that God is on your side but it’s another thing to claim (and have the claim backed up by your players) that you “know nothing” about your upcoming World Cup opponents. Seriously — read Jeff Kassouf’s article in Equalizer Soccer entitled, “Nigeria Insist They Know Nothing About Sweden.”

Sweden – Pia Sundhage

Pia Sundhage has been involved with women’s soccer on an international scale since 1975 when she made her international debut, playing for her native Swedish national team as a 15 year-old. She had a 21 year career as a professional and international player and even began coaching before she was done playing. She spent three years in the early 1990s as a player/manager for the Swedish club team Hammarby. Once her playing career was finally over, she took a series of assistant coaching jobs in women’s soccer that eventually led her to the United States and the (then) brand new Women’s United Soccer Association. She got her break (pun warning) when she was offered the job as head coach of the Boston Breakers where she won the league title in 2003. After the league folded, she went back to Sweden but took a few of her favorite players with her, including then U.S. National team captain Kristine Lilly. That eventually led to her being asked to coach the U.S. women’s national team, a job which she held from 2008 to 2012. As the U.S. coach, Sundhage opened up the field for her players, giving them freedom and flexibility to experiment with. Many of the current U.S. players still credit her with the development of their games. She left the U.S. team in 2012 to return to Sweden and coach their national team. Sundhage is a mercurial figure, almost a soccer savant, but a friendly one. If you want to learn more about her, read Sam Borden’s excellent profile of her in the New York Times.

United States – Jill Ellis

Coaching is in Jill Ellis‘ blood. Her father, John, was a soccer ambassador for the British government and later head coach of the women’s national team for Trinidad & Tobago. Ellis, who was born in England and moved to the United States with her family at age 15, was a great striker for her college team, William & Mary, but never played professionally or internationally. Instead, she followed her father’s footsteps into coaching. The year after graduating from college, she began to travel from college assistant coaching job to college assistant coaching job until she got a shot as head coach of a brand new soccer program at University of Illinois in 1997. Only two years later, she moved again, this time to UCLA. Ellis quickly transformed UCLA into a soccer power-house, making the Final Four eight of twelve years she coached there. During her time at UCLA, she also worked with the U.S. national team, as an assistant coach of the senior team and head coach of the under-20 and under-21 teams. She left UCLA in 2010 and has worked solely with team USA since then, as an assistant under Pia Sundhage and during the brief tenure of Tom Sermanni. In May of last year, after firing Sermanni, the U.S. soccer powers that be finally turned to Ellis on a full-time basis (she had served as interim head coach twice) and offered her the job of head coach.

Ellis is a true hire from within and as is the case with many internal promotions, she receives criticism for not being a big enough figure. It’s only human nature, I suppose, to find it easier to buy into a dramatic outside hire than a simple promotion, and Ellis’ quiet disposition doesn’t do her any favors. She has a reputation for not being able to win on the biggest stage. Despite going to eight Final Fours at UCLA, she never won a National Championship, nor was she able to lead either of the junior U.S. teams to junior World Cup championships. Her tactics have also come into question, whether it’s her choice to bring a relatively older team to the World Cup or her decision to play Carli Lloyd out wide, or her choice to go with four offensive minded midfielders. It’s all part of the job for the head coach of the U.S. team but Ellis seems to get it worse than other managers have. She’s got as much at stake during this World Cup as anyone. Win, and it’s all good. Lose, and a big portion of the blame will be heaped on her.

For more information about Ellis, who is a fascinating character, read Steven Goff’s article in the Washington Post and Graham Hays’ defense of her in ESPNW.

Who are the 2015 Women's World Cup coaches in Group C?

The other day on Facebook my friend and Dear Dear Sports Fan Fan, Natty, asked me about the backgrounds of coaches in this year’s Women’s World Cup. I had no idea! So, I decided to do some research. Over the next few days, as the teams all play their second games in the Group Stage, we’ll be profiling their coaches. We’ve covered Group A and Group B so far, here’s Group C.

Cameroon – Enow Ngachu

Enow Ngachu is a 40 year-old former soccer player (at what level, I’m not sure, but I’m pretty sure that if he had played on the national team or a major club, there would be more of an internet record of him) and gym teacher. He has coached the Cameroonian team since 2004 which makes him the third longest tenured coach in the World Cup. He led Cameroon to its first Olympics in 2012 and now to their first World Cup. One thing is for sure about Ngachu — he knows how to play the media game. In the lead up to their game against Japan, he told reporters that his players idolized the Japanese team growing up and that all the pressure is on Japan. Two classic coaching media moves.

Ecuador – Vanessa Aruaz

At 26, Vanessa Aruaz is not only the youngest coach at the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada, she’s the youngest person to ever coach a World Cup team, men’s or women’s. By the age of ten, Arauz knew she wanted to be a coach. By 22, she was graduating from the Ecuadorian Higher Institute of Technical Football with the second highest G.P.A in her otherwise all male class. Three years later, after coaching the Under-17 and Under-20 women’s national teams, she was given control of the senior level national team, just in time to qualify for the World Cup. For more on Aruaz, read Kade Krichko’s profile of her in Vice Sports.

Japan – Norio Sasaki

Norio Sasaki isn’t afraid to put himself in the spotlight by making and talking about controversial decisions. In the 2012 Olympics, he instructed his team not to score against South Africa so they could play their next game in the same location instead of having to travel. In the lead up to this World Cup, he took the most famous and well-regarded Japanese player in women’s soccer history, Homare Sawa, out of the lineup, making people think her international career was done, and then put her back in. The 57 year-old coach, who likes to compare himself to Steven Spielberg, has coached the Japanese team since 2008 and led them to a 2011 World Cup victory in the aftermath of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. Later that year, he was awarded the 2011 Women’s Best Coach award by FIFA.

Switzerland – Martina Voss-Tecklenburg

Although this is Switzerland’s first women’s World Cup, coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg is no stranger to the biggest stage. As a player for her native Germany, Voss-Tecklenburg played in the first three World Cups: 1991, 1995, and 1999. After retiring as one of the three best Germany players of all time, she went right to work as a coach of women’s professional teams, winning two national cups and one European cup with Duisberg. A sense of her place in history and well deserved confidence oozes out of Voss-Tecklenburg in every interview. She spoke about the progress of the women’s game to, and shared her plan to make the Quarter-Finals with So far, the Swiss team has looked every bit as good as their coach expects them to be. In their first game of the tournament, defending champions Japan needed a very late and questionable penalty kick to beat them 1-0.

Who are the 2015 Women's World Cup coaches in Group B?

The other day on Facebook my friend and Dear Dear Sports Fan Fan, Natty, asked me about the backgrounds of coaches in this year’s Women’s World Cup. I had no idea! So, I decided to do some research. Over the next few days, as the teams all play their second games in the Group Stage, we’ll be profiling their coaches. We’ve covered Group A so far, here’s Group B.

Germany – Silvia Neid

Silvia Neid is a living legend of German soccer. She is considered to be among the best German players ever (she appeared in 111 games for their national team and scored 48 goals) and is by far their winningest coach. After her playing career ended in 1996, she became an assistant coach. In 2005, she took over as the head coach, and has not looked back. She was at the helm (do teams have helms?) when the German team won the 2007 World Cup and also for a less successful run in 2011. All good things come to an end and the 51 year-old Neid has announced that she will be retiring in 2016.

Ivory Coast – Clémentine Touré

Clémentine Touré gave up a chance to coach in the 2007 World Cup when she resigned from a position on the Equatorial Guinea staff to take the position as head coach of her native Ivory Coast team. She was an accomplished professional, playing on club teams in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, as well as 22 times for her national team. As you can see for yourself in this CCTV video about her, Touré, who came from a family of coaches is confident in and proud of her position as a female coach.

Norway – Even Pellerud

Did I already use the phrase “living legend” in this post? Perhaps I should have saved it for Even Pellerud who is entering his fifth World Cup as a coach (there have only ever been six!) Pellerud was a solid but uninspiring as a player. He played for a few teams in the Norwegian professional league but never for his country’s national team. He has had much more success as a coach. He led Norway to medals during the first two women’s World Cups, silver in 1991 and gold in 1995. After that, he tried his hand at coaching men at club teams in Norway and Denmark but didn’t have much success. In 1999 he took over as head coach for the Canadian women’s national soccer team and led them to the 2003 and 2007 World Cups. Now, at 61, he’s back with team Norway, although it seems like eventually, he’d like to get back together with his adopted country of Canada, where his family still lives and he still has deep ties.

Thailand -Nuengruethai Sathongwien

Nuengruethai Sathongwien is the first female coach of the Thai women’s national soccer team and she took over just weeks before the 2014 Asian Cup which doubled as the qualification tournament for the World Cup. Believe it or not, that’s just about all I could find out about Sathongwien. As amazing as it sounds, the internet seems just not to know very much about her. She has no Wikipedia page, no twitter handle, no website. As much progress as the women’s game has made things like this are a reminder of how far we still have to go. It’s inconceivable that a World Cup qualifying men’s coach would be even one tenth as unknown as Sathongwien. It’s possible that she is overshadowed by the team’s manager, Nualphan Lamsam, a charismatic insurance company CEO and “well-known socialite” who has no previous experience with soccer.

Who are the 2015 Women's World Cup coaches in Group A?

The other day on Facebook my friend and Dear Dear Sports Fan Fan, Natty, asked me about the backgrounds of coaches in this year’s Women’s World Cup. I had no idea! So, I decided to do some research. Over the next few days, as the teams all play their second games in the Group Stage, we’ll be profiling their coaches.

Canada – John Herdman

A 39 year-old English native,  John Herdman had no playing career to speak of. He formerly coached the New Zealand women’s national team from 2006 to 2011 before being brought on as head coach of the Canadian team. Cathal Kelly in The Globe and Mail described Herdman as his team’s “emotional bellwether, hype man and head of psy-ops. He’s a warm, chatty fellow. He’s also a little odd, in an endearing way.” He is the only coach in Group A with World Cup experience as a head coach having led the New Zealand team in the 2007 and 2011 World Cups.

China – Hao Wei

Hao Wei was a fringe player on the professional and international level for his native China. Following his playing career, he took his first coaching job as an assistant with the Chinese club team he had been playing for. From there, he moved to an assistant’s role on the Chinese national women’s team and was promoted to head coach in 2012. The 38 year-old is the team’s fifth head coach since 2007.

Netherlands – Roger Reijners

At 51, Roger Reijners has had a longer coaching career than the rest of his competition in Group A. After a solid professional career in the Dutch Eredivisie, Reijners went directly into coaching and ended up coaching both his former teams before becoming head coach of the women’s national team. Is a fast talker.

New Zealand – Tony Readings

Tony Readings came to New Zealand from his native England as a solid professional player who wasn’t quite good enough to find a permanent spot in higher level English leagues. As a coach for the New Zealand women’s program, he coached the Under-20 side and was assistant to now head coach of Canada, John Herdman, at the senior level before becoming head coach himself. Now 39, he’s coaching in his first World Cup.

Cue Cards 6-24-13

stk321064rknCue Cards is a series designed to assist with the common small talk about high-profile recent sporting events that is so omnipresent in the workplace, the bar, and other social settings.

Sport: Hockey
Teams: Chicago Blackhawks vs. Boston Bruins
When: Saturday night, 6-22-13
Context: Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals. The series was tied 2-2.
Result: Blackhawks win 3-1
Sports Fans will be Talking About:

  • The cup will be in the house. For the first time, the Stanley Cup will be in the building because if Chicago wins, the series is over. There aren’t many more exciting things in sports than knowing the team you root for can win the championship tonight.
  • Important injuries. Two of the top players in the series, Jonathan Toews of the Blackhawks and Patrice Bergeron of the Bruins were unable to finish last game. In the grand tradition of hockey (the logic is that if you say what is ailing you, your opponent will target that body part in the next game) neither team is talking about what is wrong with their star player. Rumor has it that Toews has a concussion and Bergeron… something with his spleen.
  • Fallen Giant? Zdeno Chara, Boston’s 6’9″ captain, and one of the best defensive players in the league has been on the ice for eight of the last nine goals scored against the Bruins. If Chicago has really figured out how to beat him, they will probably win. 

What’s Next: Game 6 is Saturday night at 8 p.m.

Sport: Basketball
Teams: Boston Celtics and Los Angeles
When: Sunday, 6-23-13
Context: A trade!
Result: The Boston Celtics trade Coach Doc Rivers to the Los Angeles Clippers for a 2015 first round draft pick
Sports Fans will be Talking About:

  • More change coming for the Celtics? The Celtics have had the same coach and pretty much the same star players since 2007. Last year Ray Allen left for the Miami Heat and now Doc Rivers has left for the Clippers. What will happen to aging (or aged) stars Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
  • Can you really trade a coach? No, not really — but a team can receive compensation for allowing their coach to sign with another team while under contract. Though people will call this a trade officially it’s not.
  • Most trade conversations follow the pattern of people taking the position “Team A” got the better deal or “Team B” got the better deal. Taking either of those positions (or both if you want to really have fun) will create a good conversation. You can also take the honorable “it’s too soon to tell” position and do quite well. As this trade involves no tangible basketball players, most of these conversations will be about the relative value of a coach and a pick that could potentially fall at the end of the first round, 25-30 picks into the draft.


What is "Having the Last Change" in Hockey?

Dear Sports Fan,

What does “having the last change” in hockey mean? Please tell me it has something to do with uniform color…


Dear Bob,

Hockey is one of a few sports that actually bakes into the rule book a couple of small advantages for the home team. Having the last change is one of those advantages and it means that the home team has more control over who on their team plays against particular players on the other team. Here’s how and when this happens and also a little bit of how a team might use this to its advantage.

Hockey is a completely exhausting game (this is one reason why it’s so exciting, as covered in our earlier post on why people like hockey) and the players can only play for about 45 seconds at a time. Hockey teams are therefore made up of about three to four times the number of players as can be on the ice at any time. Unlike football, there isn’t a break between plays, so when players have hit the end of their 45 second shift they skate to their bench and return to it to catch their breath while another player on their team launches themselves onto the ice to replace them. This process looks incredibly chaotic but is normally pretty controlled (and when it’s not, the team that has messed up their substitution often puts themselves at risk for having a goal scored on them). Periodically there will be a break in the play, usually because either the puck has been shot out of the rink, a goalie covers up the puck, a goal is scored, or a penalty is called. When this happens, both coaches have the opportunity to reflect for a second or two and then choose which players they want on the ice.

Coaches will do anything do gain an advantage, and as we will explain later, you can definitely get an advantage through clever player substitutions. As you would imagine, with no rule in place to legislate such things, both coaches would try to see who the other coach is going to put on the ice and then decide who they choose for their team. As exciting as this would be to watch, the NHL decided to control things with a rule that states:

82.1 Line Change – Following the stoppage of play, the visiting team shall promptly place a line-up on the ice ready for play and no substitution shall be made from that time until play has been resumed. The home team may then make any desired substitution, except in cases following an icing, which does not result in the delay of the game.

The home team will use this rule to their advantage by watching to see when the visiting team puts their best offensive players on the ice and then countering with either their best pair of defensive defense-men or their best unit of defensive “checking” forwards. Conversely some home teams will wait to see when their opponents put their best defensive players on the ice and then scuttle their offensive stars back onto the bench to patiently wait for the visiting team’s players to get tired. Of course a lot of the time a visiting coach will have a pretty good idea who the home coach wants to get on the ice. A lot of it is situational — for instance, if a team is down by a few goals and the puck is going to be dropped near their opponent’s goal, they are definitely going to want some of their better offensive players on the ice. So a visiting coach is pretty safe in putting his best defensive players on the ice — I mean what is the home team going to do? If a match-up is really important to a coach he may be willing to instruct his players to play just until their team gets the puck and then to quickly skate off to be replaced. THEN the other coach might tell his players to do the same. It all has the effect of turning a graceful hockey game into something that looks like this.

If this all sounds a little cowardly or over-complicated to you, you might be right. Home teams in the NHL do win more than away teams (55.7% of the time) but that’s actually not that much compared to the advantage of home teams in other sports like the NBA (60.5%) or even the NFL (57.3%) and neither of those sports have any rules that make life easier for the home team. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe some of the advantages that a home team gets are counter-acted by the simplicity of being the away team and knowing that they cannot dictate who plays against who. There are so many factors that go into the advantage a home team has (emotion, routine, intimidated refs, etc.) that it would be pretty hard to isolate this one… but I’m sure there’s a statistician out there working on it!

Ezra Fischer

The Pirate Coach

Before Mike Leach was summarily dismissed from his job as coach of the Texas Tech football team for forcing a concussed player to hang out in a closet he was one of the lucky few avant-garde outliers profiled by Michael Lewis in the New York Times. Lewis, author of Liar’s Poker and Moneyball writes about people who redefine[1] a profession by looking at it in an unconventional way. While he’s doing it, Lewis explains stuff about sports, the economy, fatherhood, etc. better than anyone I’ve ever read. Leach certainly fits the bill of the unconventional “genius”:

It was then that I looked over and noticed Bennie Wylie standing uneasily next to Mike Leach. Wylie is Texas Tech’s strength and conditioning coach. Leach hired him three years ago from the Dallas Cowboys to prepare football players to run more than they had ever run on a football field. Just after he moved to Lubbock, Wylie learned that this job might be less a job than a calling. The thought struck him when he was driving and spotted, in the distance, a sloppily dressed middle-aged man in-line skating down the center of the road. The guy was rocking back and forth in the middle of what in Lubbock passes for a busy street; cars were whizzing past at 30 m.p.h. in both directions. There was no skating lane; truth to tell, there wasn’t a lot of in-line skating going on in Lubbock. As Wylie drew closer, he thought to himself, That lunatic looks a little like Coach. As he pulled alongside the lunatic, he realized, It is Coach. Later, Leach explained that he had decided to take up in-line skating, and he’d calculated that the middle of that particular road was Lubbock’s flattest, smoothest surface and so the obvious place to start. “To Mike, everything he does makes sense,” Wylie says. “It just takes a while to see how it all fits together. But if you were a fly on his shoulder for six months, you’d laugh your eyeballs out.”

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Or who should redefine it but despite their wild success become Cassandra-esque outcasts. Leach is on his way to this fate.