No job security in Detroit

Let’s say you accepted a thankless job two years ago that others refused and ended up doing a fantastic job. When you arrived, the company was falling apart. Two years later, it becomes one of the four best in its field, despite severe deficiencies in personnel.

Your first year there you were deemed the best at your job. The second year, your company had success it hadn’t seen in 13 years. You would assume you would have no trouble holding onto that job, and that you might even be entitled to a raise. If your name is Rick Carlisle, and your company is the Detroit Pistons, then you should assume otherwise.

That the Pistons fired their coach over the weekend serves as a reminder that, in the cutthroat world of sports, no job is safe. You can win and still get the heave-ho if there’s someone prettier cutting the grass next-door.

All everyone says is how Carlisle is a classy guy, how up front he’s been about his despicable situation. How he knowingly went to the press conference in which Pistons General Manager Joe Dumars announced his firing, sat right next to Dumars and took questions from reporters.

But this is no mere story of a nice guy who finished last. Carlisle finished first. For two straight years, the Pistons finished with 50-30 records and won two Central Division titles. By the way, the Pistons best player, Ben Wallace, averages 7 points per game. They have no proven scorer, start two guys who weren’t even drafted and get loads of minutes from guys who wouldn’t even make the Spurs’ roster. Yet, Carlisle got this rag-tag group of workmanlike players to the top. In the NBA, that’s kind of like winning a baking contest without butter and flour.

Yet Carlisle, relatively young in comparison to other NBA coaches, will be packing his 2002 Coach of the Year trophy with his other possessions and shuffling on out of town. He will no doubt fall on his feet and land one of the plethora of NBA coaching jobs vacant at the moment, but his confidence and reputation will be in great need of repair.

Larry Brown will likely be named head coach of the Pistons this week, and will likely find large sacks of money in his office when he arrives in Detroit (reportedly $25 million over 5 years). But the Pistons might have doomed a promising future, one that includes the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft, and plenty of room under the salary cap, by entrusting their franchise’s fate in Brown.

Brown is a great coach, probably a Hall of Famer, and maybe one of the five best coaches in the game today. He got a 76ers team with Allen Iverson and not much else to the NBA Finals. And he loves to coach. He’d coach a turtle to win a frog-jumping contest just for the sheer challenge.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Brown has had about a hundred head coaching jobs in the last 30 years. (And he isn’t getting any younger.) He changes head coaching jobs about as often as you or I change cell phones. When he sees a better opportunity, he gives up and moves on to the next job. If he feels that he’s done all he can do in a certain place, he doesn’t strive to do better; he cuts his losses and runs like Iverson on a fast break. It doesn’t make him a bad person. It just makes him a person who would rather quit this year than be fired next year.

That he stayed in Philly for six years may say that as he’s gotten older, Brown may have softened a bit, and maybe he’s looking for a place to watch the sunset. But what happens if his coveted job at North Carolina opens again? Ask the Spurs, Clippers, Pacers and now the Sixers about Brown. Heck, you could even ask the alumni of Kansas and UCLA what they think of Brown. They’ll all tell you that he’ll leave at 6:30 if the paper says the sunset is at 7.