The name Ted Stepien probably won't ring a bell for most hockey fans, but the former owner of the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers came to mind this afternoon when news broke that Barry Melrose had been fired as coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning after just 16 games behind the bench.
Over the course of three seasons, from 1980-83, the cash-rich but idea-poor Stepien set the standard for sports mismanagement. Fancying himself a progressive thinker, he fiddled with the Cavs until they were reduced to ashes. Stepien overestimated his ability to judge talent, leading to a series of brutal trades. His willingness to jettison draft picks eventually forced the league to institute a rule preventing the trading of consecutive first- rounders. His legacy was a team that set an NBA-record 24-game losing streak, that averaged less than 4,000 fans a night and that, amazingly, went through four coaches in a single season.
When he eventually sold the Cavs to the Gund brothers -- who at times owned the NHL's Seals, North Stars and Sharks -- the NBA had to toss in some compensatory first-rounders just to create some impression of value.
The situation in Tampa Bay under the guidance of co-owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie isn't quite yet so comical (or depressing, depending on your affiliation). But don't you get the sense we're on the brink of a similar train wreck?
Granted, their reign hasn't been a total folly. The decision of hockey's two-headed Stepien to dismiss John Tortorella this summer couldn't be argued. He'd won a Cup with the team, but his abrasive style had worn down the room. It was time for a change.
But hiring their buddy Melrose?
It's still hard to believe anyone thought this was a good idea in the first place. After 15 solid years spent in broadcasting, Melrose's failure was easy to predict. In fact, I called him out as the likely first coaching casualty earlier this season. Still, I thought they'd at least give him until Christmas to find his sea legs.
But let's be honest. If you're out of the game for 15 years, as was Melrose, you're coming in at a distinct disadvantage. Doesn't matter if we're talking accounting or beer-making or automotive repair or hockey. The times change, and without being actively involved, it's tough to catch up. Especially in just 15 games.
Of course, Melrose may never have had a chance. After all, he was hardly put in charge of a team, was he? More like a collection of parts imported willy-nilly by the free-spending duo, apparently inspired by the construction of Mr. Burns' softball team. And these weren't just any parts, either. They were expired parts, like Mark Recchi and Gary Roberts and Olaf Kolzig. Overpaid parts like Ryan Malone. And overhyped parts like Steven Stamkos.
You have to feel bad for that kid. Maybe he had outgrown the OHL, but the decision to make him a centerpiece of their offense, and marketing campaign, was made by the proto-Stepiens before Stamkos had even attended his first NHL training camp. They painted themselves, and Melrose, into a corner.
And then there were rumors of trouble from the start, stories of Barrie coming into the room to diagram plays, and rumblings that there were players who never took Melrose seriously, who saw him as "just a TV guy."
There probably are some out there who'll want to give Koules and Barrie and new GM Brian Lawton -- another recent hire -- credit for recognizing their mistake and trying to address it promptly. Sometimes cutting your losses is the best option. But here's hoping that in recognizing that Melrose was in over his head, they took a moment to look in the mirror themselves. If they're serious about being in this game, these dilettantes might see the value in some experienced leadership to save them from their next bright idea.
Might already be too late for that. The decision to name Rick Tocchet as interim head coach must have been made out of financial convenience. With Melrose and Tortorella still on the books, it's hard to imagine they'd want to add an outside salary. But with the taint of Tocchet's gambling scandal still lingering, this comes off as yet another ill-advised move.
Who knows though, right? The Lightning brass might just have stumbled on their own version of Bruce Boudreau....well, minus the years of head coaching experience.
Either way, good luck to Tocchet. But my advice to him: rent, don't buy.