Being a coach is arguably the most thankless job in all of sports, largely because every individual who holds the gig knows one harsh reality: They will eventually get fired. Tom Landry is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and is NFL royalty, and he couldn’t avoid the dreaded ax. The Arizona Diamondbacks sent A.J. Hinch packing years before he guided the Houston Astros to the franchise’s first World Series championship. Rafa Benitez has won domestic and European soccer titles as a manager, but he’ll never have one job for life. That’s the nature of the industry. The next best thing is, on paper and in theory, always better.
Of course, not all sports dismissals are equal, and many firings that occurred over the past several decades were either surprising decisions or calls later regretted by executives. Even the New England Patriots’ Bill Belichick, believed by many to the greatest pro football mind of his generation, was shown the door by a previous employer. It doesn’t matter your accolades or accomplishments — there’s always a chance you might get your pink slip. From the NBA to the NFL, these are the most surprising coach firings of all time.
Tom Coughlin’s firing upset the fanbase
Tom Coughlin achieved enough success during his tenure as head coach at Boston College that the Jacksonville Jaguars hired him ahead of the 1995 regular season. It took Coughlin all of two years to lead the Jaguars to the franchise’s first postseason berth, and Jacksonville made four consecutive playoff appearances and played in the 2000 AFC Championship, a game won by the Tennessee Titans. Things went downhill from there for Coach Coughlin and the Jaguars, though, as the team suffered through three straight losing seasons before Wayne Weaver, the franchise’s owner at the time, fired Coughlin.
But as Pro Football Talk reported, Weaver admitted in 2011 he regretted the decision to relieve Coughlin of his coaching duties. As of fall 2019, Coughlin still holds the franchise record for winning percentage among coaches (.531), and the Jaguars eventually brought him back in an executive role after the New York Giants forced him out. Coughlin won a pair of Super Bowl rings with Big Blue, but a playoff drought that lasted from 2012 through 2015 was enough for Giants ownership to go in a different direction. That decision wasn’t well-received by many in the fanbase who believed the two-time champion head coach deserved to orchestrate and plan his own exit.
Bruce Boudreau was canned from the Capitals
Bruce Boudreau made history in the fall of 2011 when, according to The Washington Post, he became the fastest coach to tally 200 career NHL victories, a feat he accomplished with the Washington Capitals. Despite that fact, something clearly was troubling the Caps following Halloween. Washington started the campaign 9-2 before dropping to 12-9-1, and a 5-1 defeat to the Buffalo Sabres on November 26, coupled with a surprising scoring cold streak from Alex Ovechkin, sealed Boudreau’s fate. The man who won the Jack Adams Award, given to the league’s best coach, in 2008 was suddenly left searching for work.
As expected, a Capitals team filled with talent eventually righted the ship and qualified for the playoffs as the conference’s seven seed. Washington then jumped out to a 3-2 series advantage over the Boston Bruins before finishing the B’s off in Game 7. In the next round, the Capitals took the New York Rangers to seven games, as well, but the Blueshirts won the deciding contest at Madison Square Garden. Six years later, Washington finally hoisted the Stanley Cup in the spring of 2018 under Barry Trotz’s charge. Less than a month after the title celebration, Trotz left the Capitals and signed with the New York Islanders.
Mike Brown deserved better from the Cavs
Blaming Mike Brown for failing to usher the Cleveland Cavaliers to the franchise’s first-ever title during LeBron James’ initial run with the organization is similar to blaming Jurgen Klinsmann for never winning the World Cup as manager of the United States Men’s National Team. In both instances, the guy in charge did the best he could. Unlike all that went down after James returned to the Cavs in the summer of 2014, the franchise repeatedly failed to surround him with championship-caliber talent. This isn’t to say Brown would’ve evolved into the next Phil Jackson had he kept his job past the spring of 2010. His firing was surprising and harsh, though, because it wasn’t directly related to past performances.
Two things we know years after the fact are the Cavs dismissed Brown following back-to-back 60-win seasons in May 2010 to try to persuade James to re-sign, and the young King was never staying in Cleveland at that point of his career. In a letter James penned for Sports Illustrated with the help of Lee Jenkins, he explained he knew he wanted to leave Northeast Ohio and take his talents to South Beach and the Miami Heat. "Miami, for me, has been almost like college for other kids," he explained in 2014. Brown, unluckily for him, wasn’t even part of the equation.
Mike Hargrove is still a Cleveland fan favorite
We return to Cleveland and shift our focus to the club that plays home games at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario. In the first half of the 1990s, the Cleveland Indians evolved from laughingstocks mocked on late-night programs to contenders under manager Mike Hargrove, who guided the Tribe to World Series appearances in 1995 and 1997 and to division crowns each year from 1995 through 1999. Cleveland won 97 regular-season games the last year of that run, and the Indians seemed headed to another American League Championship Series after notching a pair of victories over the Boston Red Sox in the opening round of the ’99 postseason. Boston rallied back and won three straight to bounce Cleveland from the playoffs, though, and the Indians relieved "Grover" of his managerial duties after that disappointment.
To this day, fans of the Indians who remember Hargrove’s ouster lament his departure and the fact the club never won a title under his guidance. In fact, the former manager became a mainstay at team events once his days as a Big League manager concluded. And as MLB.com reported, Hargrove received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2017 Greater Cleveland Sports Awards banquet.
Jose Mourinho was once really the "Special One"
Soccer fans of a certain age may find it difficult to believe a time once existed when Jose Mourinho getting fired managed to surprise observers and supporters. In June 2004, the man who famously labeled himself "The Special One" left Porto for Premier League outfit Chelsea, where he won the domestic title, the League Cup and helped the Blues qualify for the semifinal round of the Champions League. According to the EPL website, that Chelsea side toppled numerous records, and the club went on to retain their crown the subsequent campaign and finish second in the league for the 2006-07 season. By the summer of 2007, however, Mourinho and Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich were at odds, and the manager left the club "by mutual consent" that September.
Over time, Mourinho’s roller-coaster runs with teams became old hat. Both The Mirror and BBC Sport have touched upon the alleged "stages" of Mourinho’s gigs. Nobody can question or deny his successes. He’s a legend of the sport who wins titles wherever he goes. But as Chelsea (twice), Real Madrid, and Manchester United all learned, appointing Mourinho as manager rarely ends well for either club or boss. Whether or not the juice is worth the squeeze is debatable.
John Fox missed out on winning it all with Denver
The worst "crime" John Fox committed as head coach of the Denver Broncos was never winning a Super Bowl. Fox replaced Kyle Orton with Tim Tebow at quarterback during the 2011 season, and the Broncos qualified for the playoffs and beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card round before getting trounced by the New England Patriots the following weekend. Denver signed Peyton Manning during the 2012 offseason, and Fox’s Broncos returned to the playoffs the next two years, and faced the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII. Seattle crushed Denver 43-8 that fateful night, and the Broncos then lost to the Indianapolis Colts, Manning’s former team, in the Divisional Round of the 2015 playoffs. Per ESPN, doubts held by general manager John Elway regarding Fox’s skills as an in-game motivator resulted in the franchise making a change that winter.
The Broncos replaced Fox with Gary Kubiak, who piloted the team to a Super Bowl victory over the Carolina Panthers his first season in charge. Fox’s postseason letdowns aside, he left Denver holding the franchise’s record in winning percent (71.9 percent). After spending three losing seasons with the Chicago Bears, an organization that fired him in January 2018, Fox joined ESPN as an on-air analyst.
David Blatt could’ve won a championship with LeBron James
In January 2016, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst explained why he believed LeBron James shouldn’t be labeled a "coach killer." Windhorst delivered a valid argument, but David Blatt probably would disagree. Less than a month before James announced his intentions to return home, the Cleveland Cavaliers appointed the 2013-14 EuroLeague Coach of the Year their head coach, and Blatt’s Cavs won 53 regular-season games and then took the Golden State Warriors to six games in the 2015 NBA Finals despite losing Kevin Love to injury earlier in the playoffs and Kyrie Irving suffering a fractured kneecap late in Game 1 of the Finals. Cleveland went on to win 30 of their first 41 contests the next season, but the Cavs nevertheless fired Blatt in January 2016.
As the Associated Press reported, then-Cleveland general manager David Griffin sent Blatt a championship ring after the Cavs defeated the 72-win Warriors in the 2016 Finals. Tyronn Lue, the man who replaced Blatt, suggested the gift. Those of us on the outside looking in probably won’t ever know exactly what happened between James and Blatt, but even Windhorst had to admit the King was, at the very least, partially responsible for the coach’s firing. Regardless of Lue’s contributions to the Cavs rallying from a 3-1 deficit in the ’16 Finals, it’s a shame Blatt never coached a fully-healthy Cleveland lineup versus the Association’s dynasty of the second half of the 2010s.
Claude Julien eventually earned his revenge
One wonders if NHL coach Claude Julien subscribes to the notion he who laughs last laughs best. In June 2006, the New Jersey Devils hired Julien as head coach after he accumulated a winning record with the Montreal Canadiens, and the Devils seemingly were headed in the right direction and atop the Atlantic Division with a 47-24-8 record in early April when general manager Lou Lamoriello stunned the hockey community and announced he was replacing Julien. "I don’t think we’re at a point of being ready both mentally and [physically] to play the way that is necessary going into the playoffs," Lamoriello told reporters, per ESPN, after his decision.
Lamoriello was correct about the Devils not being good enough to win the Stanley Cup, as New Jersey lost to the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference Semifinal. Julien, meanwhile, landed on his feet with the Boston Bruins following the end of the season. He lifted the Cup with the Bruins in June 2011, and also directed Boston back to the Final in 2013. On the other hand, New Jersey made only one Stanley Cup Final appearance from 2007 through the end of the 2010s. The Devils lost to the Los Angeles Kings in six games in 2012.
Harry Redknapp took Tottenham to their first Champions League appearance
As The Metro reported in February 2017, former player and manager Paul Merson once claimed Harry Redknapp was "better tactically" than iconic Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger. We’re not so sure about that one, but Redknapp’s achievements as Tottenham Hotspur manager shouldn’t be forgotten just because Spurs went further with Mauricio Pochettino in charge. Under Redknapp, Tottenham finished fourth in the Premier League table for the 2009-10 campaign to secure the club’s maiden Champions League voyage, and Spurs defeated AC Milan in the competition’s Round of 16 in 2011. Tottenham were headed back to the Champions League thanks to again finishing fourth in the EPL, this time at the conclusion of the 2011-12 season, but Chelsea stole England’s final spot in the competition by defeating Bayern Munich in the 2012 Champions League Final.
That misfortune, alone, didn’t result in Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy sacking Levy in June 2012. As The Telegraph explained, Spurs dropped numerous results from January through May of Redknapp’s last season in charge, and Redknapp’s public courting of the England Men’s National Team job over that time coupled with Spurs missing out on the Champions League all resulted in Levy’s decision to cut ties with a manager who remained popular among many Tottenham supporters through his final hours with the club.
Terry Francona has silenced critics with the Indians
One would’ve thought the Boston Red Sox would hand manager Terry Francona a lifetime contract after he shepherded the franchise to a World Series victory in the fall of 2004, the club’s first since 1918. If that wasn’t enough, Francona’s Red Sox won a second championship in 2007, and Boston had the looks of a dynasty in the making. How, then, could the club elect to not exercise the last years of his contract at the end of the 2011 campaign? As Dan Shaughnessy of Boston.com wrote that October, Francona’s clubhouse more so resembled a college fraternity than one belonging to a professional team in the final days of his tenure, as starting pitchers allegedly consumed beers and fried chicken on days they didn’t play.
Whatever did or did not happen within that organization, Francona silenced doubters as manager of the Cleveland Indians. He won American League Manager of the Year in 2013, his first season with the Tribe, and in 2016, and that same year his Indians won the pennant and held a 3-1 lead over the Chicago Cubs in that year’s Fall Classic before The Northsiders rallied back for the club’s first World Series victory since 1908. Under Francona, the Indians returned to the postseason in 2017 and 2018, but failed to reach the American League Championship Series on both occasions.
Dwane Casey was fired after winning an award
In May 2018, the National Basketball Coaches Association announced Dwane Casey as its winner of Coach of the Year after his Toronto Raptors won a franchise-record 59 regular-season contests during the 2017-18 campaign. That June, Casey took home NBA Coach of the Year honors. In between those two occasions, the Raptors fired Casey.
Casey can blame one man for the termination of his relationship with the Raptors: LeBron James. His Raptors couldn’t overcome James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA Playoffs, and Toronto suffered the same fate in 2017 and 2018. What’s strange about the Raptors firing Casey is it had been heavily rumored even before the 2018 NBA Finals James planned on leaving the Cavs for the Los Angeles Lakers, which he did. Even worse for Casey, the Raptors acquired Kawhi Leonard later that summer.
No disrespect to Nick Nurse, who supplanted Casey and won the NBA championship that eluded the team’s previous coach, but Toronto did Casey wrong. It’d be great to see a scenario where Casey manages the Raptors roster from April 2019 and views a path to the NBA Finals that doesn’t include LeBron James as a roadblock. It’s too bad he’ll never receive that opportunity.
Marty Schottenheimer never won the big one
All things being equal, Marty Schottenheimer may be the NFL patron saint of "good enough to get you there, but can’t win the big one." Schottenheimer’s Cleveland Browns lost heartbreaking AFC Championships games to the Denver Broncos, contests remembered as "The Drive" and "The Fumble," in the 1980s, and his Kansas City Chiefs teams made seven playoff appearances from 1990 through 1997.
The San Diego Chargers hired Schottenheimer in January 2002, and he won NFL Coach of the Year for the 2004 campaign after his club went 12-4 but lost to the New York Jets in the postseason. San Diego returned to the postseason after tallying a 14-2 record in 2006. This time, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots sent San Diego home earlier than hoped. The Chargers fired Schottenheimer in February 2007, and ESPN reported team president Dean Spanos made the move, in part, because of Schottenheimer’s rocky relationship with general manager AJ Smith and because Schottenheimer attempted to hire his brother, Kurt, as the team’s defensive coordinator.
Bill Belichick is now football royalty
Three years after Bill Belichick accepted the job as Cleveland Browns head coach, the Dawg Pound was howling. Belichick’s 1994 Browns went 11-5 and, ironically, defeated the New England Patriots in the playoffs. As ESPN radio personality Greg Brinda said during an NFL Network presentation of "A Football Life," multiple publications predicted the ’95 Browns would make it to the Super Bowl. Cleveland began that season 3-1 when owner Art Modell informed Belichick and other coaches the Browns would relocate to Baltimore the next year. That bombshell ultimately sunk a promising team and season, and the Browns lost 10 of their remaining 12 games.
Modell, operating as the owner of the Baltimore franchise, fired Belichick in February 1996. Needless to say, Bill managed to do alright for himself, winning six Super Bowl titles with the New England Patriots from 2002 through 2019. The biggest victims of the entire mess are the diehard Cleveland fans who can only dream of what Belichick could’ve accomplished on the shoreline of Lake Erie had Modell not ripped their hearts out in the mid-90s.