Phil Sheridan: Banner, Thorn, Nowak: Gone, but not 'fired'

Posted: June 16, 2012

Walking the plank sounds like a terrible fate. That's why your modern pirate captain - he prefers chief executive officer/parrot wrangler - prefers to tell prisoners they are being "transitioned to the subaquatic holding cell."

No, you weren't just dumped. Your beloved has given you the opportunity to pursue strategic other opportunities and challenges with other potential spouses.

And wouldn't the French Revolution have been less messy if those led to the guillotine had simply signed "voluntary cranial separation agreements" instead of being beheaded?

After a week that saw Joe Banner, Rod Thorn, and Peter Nowak depart from their jobs under the cloak of corporate gobbledygook, here's a simple question:

Whatever happened to fired?

This may sound insensitive, but wasn't it better when a coach or front office guy just plain got canned? It was part of being in sports. You wanted security and a nice package from Human Resources, you went to work in a nice, boring office somewhere. You wanted to make a living coaching or managing in sports, you accepted being fired as part of the deal.

Now it's the other way around. Getting fired is a very real fear, or a fearsome reality, for millions of Americans. Sports, meanwhile, have adopted the euphemisms and phasing-out techniques of the corporate culture that has replaced the traditional ways of doing things.

Firing people was more honest. It was also nothing personal. George Steinbrenner used to fire and rehire Billy Martin monthly as manager of the Yankees. Plenty of successful coaches and managers were fired. So were plenty of unsuccessful ones.

Bill Belichick was fired. Charlie Manuel was fired. Tony La Russa was fired. Darryl Sutter, who just coached the Los Angeles Kings to the Stanley Cup, was fired. Doug Collins has been fired a couple of times.

When Eagles fans chanted "Joe must go," the implication was "Joe Kuharich must be fired by halftime," not "Joe must go gently into a senior consulting position."

When Norman Braman summoned Buddy Ryan up to the fourth floor after the 1990 season, they didn't mutually agree to part ways. Ryan's famous quote wasn't, "This is the first time I've ever been transitioned into a new role for winning."

Fired for Winning. It was so catchy, Ryan even used it as a name for one of his racehorses.

When the Phillies decided to change managers near the end of the 2004 season, they fired Larry Bowa. There's no mutually agreeing to part ways when it comes to Larry Bowa.

A week ago, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie opened a news conference by announcing "an executive succession plan." It was like calling the townspeople to gather around a gallows for a "reverse launch celebration."

A hanging is a hanging. In this case, Banner had lost his job as president of the Eagles. Everyone smiled and talked in code, but that's what happened.

Earlier this week, the Daily News reported that Thorn, the Sixers president, would help the team look for his successor. Two years into a three-year contract, Thorn was merely helping with the transition to a new top personnel man. No one says the word fired, but next thing you know you're sitting on the ice floe with Ed Stefanski.

Finally, the Union announced the removal of Nowak, who made his mark by trading away every Union player you've ever heard of.

No matter how you rank the major-league teams in town, three of the five made radical changes at the top of the organizational flowchart in the span of five days.

But nobody was fired.

These moves offer interesting peeks into the way these teams operate. They really have ceased being old-school sports franchises, with an idiosyncratic owner who makes decisions based on who-knows-what. There is just so much money in play now that the teams have become sterile companies, run as if they were producing widgets instead of trying to win championships.

Which raises the question, of course, of whether winning championships is as high a priority as operating an effective marketing and entertainment company.

As Lurie used Banner's non-firing to laud the corporate culture at the NovaCare Complex, you really got a sense of the groupthink going on there. Of course they are trying to win, but they are extremely pleased with themselves for having an upbeat work environment.

Before the Sixers finally parted ways with former GM Billy King, I remember someone in the power structure talking about what an effective executive King was, how good he was at running meetings. Presumably, keeping a tidy cubicle and cleaning up after you use the office microwave will be huge selling points for Thorn's eventual replacement.

Under Comcast-Spectacor's stewardship, every Flyers and Sixers game was like an animatronic exhibit of Coaches Past. They were all scouts or consultants or broadcasters. They'd all been transitioned, repurposed, or reassigned. But not fired. No, never fired.


Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, psheridan@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @Sheridanscribe. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at www.philly.com/philabuster, and his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridans's's

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