By Tom Taylor
Will they never learn?
Sunday saw the retirement of perhaps the greatest-ever soccer manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. It is impossible not to respect the phenomenal achievements that the departing boss of Manchester United had in his 26 years in charge, whether or not you hate him for that success.
He bullied referees and players around and arrogantly refused to ever see blame in his actions, or in those of his team. He also took Manchester United to 13 English Premier League titles, two Champions League trophies and five F.A. Cups, plus a sprinkling of other trophies. In the process, he turned United from a mid-level club into one of the handful that can claim to be the biggest and best in the entire world. Few fans in their right mind would not wish he had been in charge of their favorite team instead.
On the same weekend that he finally stood down, across the other side of Manchester, rival Manchester City was on the brink of waving goodbye to its own manager in far less friendly circumstances. Following an uninspiring performance in Saturday’s F.A. Cup Final loss to Wigan, a game in which City was the clear favorite to win, Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini was fired Monday.
In Mancini’s short four-year spell at Manchester City, his team picked up one English Premier League title and one F.A. Cup. It also qualified for the Champions League for the first time in club history in 2011 and has repeated that feat in the following two seasons. However, performances in the top European competition have left a lot to be desired, and an overall winning percentage of 59.2—for comparison, Ferguson’s was 59.7—will not save him.
Turn the clock back 20-odd years though, and Ferguson had a far worse record. Joining the club halfway through the 1986-87 season, he could only rescue 11th place in his first year. A second-placed finish the next year hinted at future success, but that was followed by 11th and 13th in his third and fourth seasons, respectively. Only an F.A. Cup trophy in 1990 saved his job, and the rest, as they say, is history.
In today’s world, Ferguson would not have survived. The average life of a Premiership manager is painfully short. Just five of the current 20 have been in their posts longer than Mancini while 11 were appointed within the last 12 months. The expectations of immediate and lasting success have gotten out of hand; the threat of the axe perhaps even makes that very success impossible, as managers are never given the breathing space or time to mold the club in their image.
Viewed through this same lens, the Stanford women’s water polo team has had a poor season and perhaps head coach John Tanner should be worried. On Sunday, it came up short for the third time this season against USC, losing the NCAA Final in quadruple overtime.
This shouldn’t have happened, of course. The national champion over the previous two years, Stanford was joined by three gold-medal winning Olympians this season, including freshman Maggie Steffens, who was named the Most Valuable Player of the women’s water polo tournament at the 2012 London Olympics. The Cardinal was justifiably the preseason favorite, expected to cruise to a third-straight national title in an undefeated fashion.
But it didn’t. Not because the players failed, not because Tanner failed the players, but because there are simply no guarantees in sports. The best personnel that money can buy—or recruiting can secure—will never guarantee success.
Stanford has a lot in common with some of the world’s biggest soccer clubs. It has far more money than it could ever need, and few would turn down the opportunity to play or coach at Stanford. But the Cardinal’s approach to success is the complete opposite; this university could teach all the soccer clubs a lot.
Faced with men’s basketball head coach Johnny Dawkins’ struggle to live up to the expectations set by Cardinal athletics in general, Stanford’s approach is to stand by him. Though he may need a place in the 2014 NCAA Tournament to save his job, few other colleges might have even given him that chance at salvation.
As a fan, Stanford’s refusal to give up on Dawkins can seem frustrating. Less than 10 years ago this university was a men’s basketball power, a far cry from this past season’s failure—in the NIT.
But the alternative—drifting mindlessly from new signing to new signing in the desperate hope of a miracle—could be far, far worse. Lasting success is never guaranteed, but it can also only come from putting faith in a coach, even in the darkest days of his career.
The Stanford Daily is still waiting for its decade of patience with Tom Taylor to pay off. To tell Tom it’s a lost cause, email him at tom.taylor ‘at’ stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @DailyTomTaylor.