The Pohory-list: Top 10 coaches in city history (Part II)

Throughout Washington sports history, fans can point to the figures on the playing field that achieved great things, either individually or collectively. These players are represented by the jerseys we wear, the posters in our rooms and trading cards in our collections.

Behind those great players and teams were coaches. The relationship between a coach and his players can make or break a team. It’s a career with the worst job security in the world, so the ones who stick around long enough to achieve greatness are special.

While there have been plenty of poor coaching fits for the Washington teams over the years, there are a select few who have earned their place among the best in city history. Yesterday, I listed 10-6. Today I present the Top Five.

5. Dick Motta (Bullets; 1976-80)

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Notable accolades with team:

  • 1978-79 Atlantic Division champion
  • 1978 NBA champion
  • 1979 NBA Finals (Eastern Conference champion)

Motta took over the reins right after K.C. Jones was fired, and stuck around for just four seasons before taking the head coaching job with the upstart Dallas Mavericks in 1980. He still managed to accomplish a lot in those four years in Washington, winning the Eastern Conference championship in back-to-back seasons and winning the only NBA title in franchise history.

His .564 win percentage in Washington is second in franchise history behind Jones, and his 27 postseason wins rank first. The Bullets made the playoffs in each of his four seasons as coach, finishing below .500 just once in 1979-80, his final season with the team.

The 1971 Coach of the Year had a great impact on the future of the league as well. He has a list of great coaches and executives in his coaching tree, including Jerry Sloan and Danny Ainge. Former Bullets coach Bernie Bickerstaff (1997-99) and current Wizards coach Scott Brooks also stem from Motta’s tree.

Motta is one of the few coaches on this list who was not fired/retired. Instead, he resigned one day prior to the fourth anniversary of his hiring. The team failed to make the playoffs the following season for the first time since 1968. Had he stuck around, perhaps he would have accomplished more.

4. George Allen (Redskins; 1971-77)

Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated, Pro Football Hall of Fame

Notable accolades with team:

  • 1971 NFL Coach of the Year
  • 1972 NFC East champion
  • 1972 NFC Champion
  • Redskins Ring of Honor
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame

Allen succeeded Vince Lombardi as the full-time Redskins coach after the latter’s death in 1970 (Bill Austin served as head coach in an interim role for the 1970 season). Following much success, and a contentious exit, with the Los Angeles Rams, Allen came to Washington after receiving full control over football operations.

Allen brought in several of his players from LA through trade or otherwise, and immediately built the Redskins into a contender after decades of losing. After going 6-8 in 1970, the Redskins went 9-4-1 the following season (Allen’s first) to make the postseason for the first time since 1945. Allen earned Coach of the Year honors for the turnaround.

The following season, the team went 11-3, setting a franchise record for most wins in a season, and reached their first Super Bowl. The team would fall to the undefeated Miami Dolphins, but the win over the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship game reinvigorated the Redskins-Cowboys rivalry.

Allen’s teams won at least nine games in every season he coached except for one (8-6 in 1975), and while they never reached another Super Bowl, Allen changed the trajectory of the franchise, leading to greater success in the 1980s and early ’90s.

Of course, his son, Bruce, became a Redskins executive in 2010, and made the opposite kind of impact, but that can’t be held against his father. George’s .691 win percentage is third in franchise history (second if you discount Dudley DeGroot, who coached 20 games in Washington with a .737 win percentage from 1944-45).

3. Barry Trotz (Capitals; 2014-18)

Photo Credit: NHL

Notable accolades with team:

  • 2016 Jack Adams Award
  • 2x Presidents’ Trophy winner
  • 3x Metropolitan Division champion
  • 2018 Stanley Cup Champion
  • Most wins in single season (56-18-8 in 2015-16)

Trotz came to the Capitals after 15 seasons as the Nashville Predators’ head coach, but he had been a scout and minor league coach in the Capitals’ organization in the late 1980s and early ’90s. After years building the expansion Predators into a competitive team, a poor 2013-14 season meant the end of the line for Trotz in Nashville, and with the Caps firing Adam Oates after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007, it was a perfect match.

Immediately, Trotz’s coaching experience and pedigree combined with a deep Capitals roster meant Washington was the best team in the league for a large stretch, culminating in back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies in his second and third season in charge.

But you don’t play for Presidents’ Trophies, and after flaming out in the playoffs like in years past, frustration grew among the fanbase, and with reports in 2017-18 claiming Trotz had lost the locker room, people were calling for his head. It appeared the championship window had closed.

Instead, Trotz led the team through the 2018 playoffs to deliver the first Stanley Cup championship in franchise history. Disputes surrounding his contract renewal caused him to leave the team right after winning the Cup, and he now coaches the New York Islanders, who the Capitals may end up facing in the 24-team Stanley Cup playoffs this summer depending on how things shake out.

Despite coaching here for just four seasons, the greatness Trotz’s teams achieved in the regular season, and his success in 2018 that ended a city-wide championship drought, puts him high on the list.

2. Ray Flaherty (Redskins; 1936-42)

Photo Credit: Golden Rankings

Notable accolades with team:

  • 3x NFL East champion (4x if you count 1936 in Boston)
  • 2x NFL Champion
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame

Flaherty was a three-time All-Pro for the New York Giants in the late 1920s and early ’30s as an end, taking a one-year hiatus to coach his alma mater, Gonzaga, in football and basketball. He also spent a season playing minor league baseball. He became the first professional athlete to have his number retired (No. 1 for the Giants).

He immediately became the head coach for the Redskins in 1936, their final season in Boston. The team won the East division, but fell to the Green Bay Packers in the championship. The team moved to Washington the following year, drafted Sammy Baugh in the first round, and proceeded to revolutionize the passing game.

With Flaherty at the helm and Baugh leading the offense, the Skins won their first NFL Championship in 1937. Flaherty was the first to implement the screen pass in a game, and is credited with introducing the “two-platoon system” for rushing and passing (making them two different units of players).

He coached the team in the most lopsided defeat in NFL history: the 73-0 loss to the Chicago Bears in the 1940 NFL Championship, but went on to win the team’s second championship in 1942, his final season in charge. He served as a Naval officer in World War II, then moved on to coach the New York Yankees in the All-American Football Conference in 1946.

His .720 win percentage in Washington is the highest in franchise history (though as mentioned, DeGroot has a .737 win percentage in 20 games), and his two championships are the only non-Super Bowl championships in franchise history. Flaherty changed the game in Washington and across the league, and his success and dominance is hard for anyone to beat.

1. Joe Gibbs (Redskins; 1981-92; 2004-07)

Photo Credit: Barbara Kinney/USA TODAY

Notable accolades with team:

  • 5x NFC East champion
  • 1983 NFC Champion
  • 3x Super Bowl champion
  • 2x AP Coach of the Year
  • Redskins Ring of Honor
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame
  • NFL 100 Team

Gibbs is the clear choice here: three championships, multiple Coach of the Year awards and more seasons in Washington than any other coach in any sport. With 248 games under Gibbs’s belt, he holds the franchise record for most games coached by a wide margin; Norv Turner is second with 109.

Gibbs inherited a team that went 6-10 in 1980, struggled to reach 8-8 in his first year, then won the first Super Bowl in franchise history with a team that went 8-1 in a strike-shortened season.

The Redskins would go on to win at least 10 games in eight of the next ten seasons he was in charge, winning two more Super Bowls and losing one. He shockingly retired following the 1992 season at just 52 years old, citing desires to spend more time with family and health concerns. He spent the next 11 years overseeing his NASCAR team, Joe Gibbs Racing, before eventually being convinced out of football coaching retirement in 2004.

His second stint was much less successful, but he managed to bring the team to the playoffs twice in four seasons. His .674 winning percentage with the Redskins lowered to .621 after his second stint, but that still ranks third behind Flaherty and Allen among coaches who were with the team for more than 20 games.

When it comes to playoff performance in franchise history, however, it’s pretty much all Gibbs. Eight Redskins coaches have been to the playoffs, and Gibbs appeared in 24 games; the rest appeared in 18 combined, and Allen himself makes up seven of those 18. Gibbs also has 17 of the 23 playoff victories in franchise history. Pretty much all Super Bowl era success can be credited to Gibbs.

He was one of 10 coaches named to the NFL 100 All-Time team, and is the only coach to win three Super Bowls with three different starting quarterbacks and running backs. He was inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1996, marking his place as one of the greatest NFL coaches of all time. He may not be the very best in football history, but in Washington, there’s no disputing he’s at the top.

Key snubs from Top 10:

Ron Wilson (Capitals; 1997-2002)

Wilson led the Caps to the Stanley Cup Finals in his first season, and led the team to three 40-plus-win seasons, but the two postseason appearances after the Finals run ended in the first round. The consistency wasn’t there, but the 1998 Finals run alone warrants at least some consideration.

Gene Shue (Bullets; 1966-1973, 1980-86)

From a franchise standpoint, Shue has a case for best coach in Bullets history, however, of his 13 seasons with the team, just six were in Washington in his second stint from 1980-86.

His first stint with the team was much more successful, but that came when the Bullets were still in Baltimore. He inherited a 4-21 team during the 1966-67 season, went 16-40 over the rest of the year, and just two seasons later, led the team to a 57-25 record. In his six full seasons in Baltimore from 1967-1973, he coached three 50-win teams, made the playoffs in each of the latter five seasons, and reached the NBA Finals in 1971.

His Washington career was less glamorous. Despite making the playoffs three times in five full seasons, the team made it past the first round just once, and never won more than 43 games. He was replaced during his sixth year by Kevin Loughery after going 32-37 in 1985-86. The team finished 39-43, still made the playoffs, then lost in the first round again.

Looking at the whole of his career, Shue put up a very impressive coaching resume with the Bullets, but the Washington part alone doesn’t quite stack up to the ones higher up on the list.

Dave Martinez (Nationals; 2018-present)

Any coach/manager that wins a championship deserves at least some consideration, but in the scope of Washington history, Martinez still has more to prove. Prior to the playoff run, especially when the team was bottoming out early in the 2019 season, nearly everyone wanted him out.

The players like him; they bought in, dug in their heels and fought all the way to the mountaintop. Ownership hasn’t stuck with the same manager for more than two seasons in recent years, but 2020 will be Martinez’s third in DC. If he can stick around, keep the team in playoff contention, and win another championship (or at least get close a few more times), that should be enough to shoot him far up the list.

It’s a possibility, but still way early to tell.

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