The Road Much Traveled

Fear not, fired coaches. There's a good chance you'll work in this town again
December 22, 2008

YOU CAN go home again, even if sometimes you have no clue whether to turn left or right once you get there. The new—and old—coach of the Carolina Hurricanes, Paul Maurice, is still figuring out some of the roads around Raleigh after two weeks back with the franchise where he had his first NHL coaching job, from 1995 to December 2003. "I'll come to an intersection and mess up," he says. "Then I have to turn around and go back." Just as he has in his career.

When Hurricanes president and general manager Jim Rutherford rehired Maurice on Dec. 3, the choice might have seemed awkward or uninspired to outsiders. But an old pink slip was not going to make him red-faced about recycling Maurice, who in 2002 had taken Carolina on an improbable run to the Stanley Cup final. If Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton could marry, divorce and marry again, why can't two kids like Maurice and Rutherford find each other again in this crazy, mixed-up sports world? Not every divorce, personal or professional, must end in rancor and recrimination. You miserable s.o.b., I'll take the house and the timeshare in Vail. You can have the Zamboni.

Rather than a lack of imagination, Rutherford (and Maurice) showed a praiseworthy level of maturity in their willingness to start over—one that is surprisingly common in the sports world. Whether a coach or manager was canned (Cito Gaston of the Toronto Blue Jays) or retired (Kansas State football coach Bill Snyder), teams often reach back to former bosses out of sepia-tinted nostalgia, hoping they can return to the scene of their primes and replicate old successes. Gaston, who was fired in 1997, was rehired by a different management group midway through last season; he brought with him a more relaxed style than his predecessor, John Gibbons, as well as memories of the World Series he won in Toronto in 1992 and '93. "It's not too often that you get to go back to a city you love living and working in," Gaston says. "I was waiting for them to call me back."

It helps that the second comings often work. After a 35--39 start under Gibbons in 2008, the Blue Jays went 51--37 after Gaston arrived. Cotton Fitzsimmons coached the Phoenix Suns on three occasions between 1970 and '96; in six seasons over his last two stints he made the playoffs five times. The Suns' continual picking of Cotton is a sweet short story compared with the gothic novel that is Phil Jackson's relationship with the Los Angeles Lakers. The Zen Master left after 2003--04 and published a book (The Last Season, no less) a few months later that torched an "uncoachable" Kobe Bryant. Then he succeeded Frank Hamblen as L.A.'s coach a year later. "We're all human beings," Bryant said in October 2005. "Who am I to sit up here and judge somebody? Life is too short to sit around and hold grudges." Less than three years later Phil, Kobe & Co. were back in the NBA Finals.

At the same time, as A.J. Liebling observed about the urge to phone an old girlfriend late at night, some impulses to revisit the past are better not acted upon. Three decades ago George Steinbrenner's serial firing and rehiring of Billy Martin turned the Yankees into a Tastes Great/Less Filling vaudeville act; it would have been an even bigger knee-slapper had their relationship not smacked of a weird codependency. After coaching what he assumed would be his last game at USC in 1982, John Robinson, generally successful with the Los Angeles Rams, returned to the Trojans in '93. At his welcome-home press conference he said lightheartedly, "I'll be here until they drag me out, one way or another." Till death or a 6--5 record do you part. Robinson was dragged out—fired—after the 1997 season.

When Rutherford cast around for someone to replace Peter Laviolette, who had led Carolina to the Stanley Cup in 2006 but whose team had failed to make the playoffs the last two seasons, he quickly settled on the man he had dismissed five seasons ago with a 30-second conversation and a handshake. "Paul coached here for nine years," says Rutherford. "If he weren't a good coach, he wouldn't have lasted that long."

"[Jim] thought the players needed another voice," Maurice says in his rich baritone. "We already had a strong friendship, but we never confused business with friendship. The thing is, our friendship got better when the stress of the coach-G.M. relationship faded."

The Triangle Area has grown since he last coached the Hurricanes, but so has Maurice. After leaving Carolina he coached three seasons in Toronto, the first in the minors and then two with the Maple Leafs. The exposure to hockey's Center of the Universe, even if it ended badly with the Leafs failing to make the playoffs both years, added a patina of sophistication to a coach who is still only 41. He and Rutherford stayed close; they would speak on the phone periodically and dine once or twice a year in Toronto. In 2006, when Rutherford partied with the Cup in his Ontario hometown, Maurice and his wife attended. "Under those circumstances, his being there with me to celebrate something that he wants to win," Rutherford says, "well, that was special."

Maurice is trying not to re-create his Carolina past but improve on it by winning a championship of his own. Some of the area roads might be as new as the faces in the dressing room—only four Hurricanes players remain from 2003—but his office in the RBC Center is the same. So, apparently, is his Carolina tracksuit. "Pretty sure it's the same one," says Maurice, who at week's end was 1-1-3 in his second go-round. "Still wearing the pants. You can say they're broken in."

Sometimes even after a breakup, the pain of the coaching life—like stains on an old warmup—comes out in the wash.

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In this crazy sports world, NOT EVERY DIVORCE MUST END IN RANCOR.

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY FRED HARPER

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)