Painful move for Ron and George

by Dan Daly
The Washington Times
11 May 2002

It was hard to tell who was being fired yesterday, Ron Wilson or George McPhee. The Caps' general manager looked like one of the cast of "Six Feet Under" as he answered questions about Wilson's dismissal as coach. And understandably so. He and "Wils" weren't just colleagues, they were friends and their collaboration had given the franchise its greatest moment: the trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998.

So it was with a certain world-weariness that he said: "I don't want to be a [general] manager of an organization that's running through people all the time. I think it's demeaning to the profession and not good for the club." He also declined to discuss the reasons for Wilson's firing, explaining, "When you do that it comes out as a negative, and I don't want to do that to Ron. If there isn't some humanity [in how a team handles such situations], you shouldn't be in the business. But sometimes the right thing isn't the easiest thing."

In a way, yesterday was McPhee's first day as GM, because it was the first time he had to do something truly unpleasant, something that qualifies as Dirty Work. Trading Dale Hunter? That was a favor to Dale, who had already announced his retirement. Dealing Adam Oates? Oates was a free agent at the end of the season, anyway.

Letting Wilson go, though, that was something else entirely. First of all because he had been McPhee's hire, and second because Ron didn't really fail here, as his 33-games-over .500 record and two division titles attest. He just didn't succeed quite enough, didn't build on the '98 playoff run. The hope was that the Caps would become regular contenders after that, but the blasted Pittsburgh Penguins kept getting in the way.

What happened to Wilson isn't all that different from what happened to Norv Turner. If a club doesn't keep making visible progress, the players start doubting the coach's message, stop "buying in," as they say in the business. Turner took the Redskins from three wins to six to a 7-1 record halfway through the '96 season; but then the team collapsed, missed the playoffs, and Norv, I'm convinced, never recovered. There was a breach of faith, a feeling on the squad rightly or wrongly that "this man is never going to take us where we want to go."

Wilson's Waterloo was probably the second straight playoff loss to the Penguins last year. Then when the Caps added Jaromir Jagr without giving up anyone on their NHL roster and proceeded to play indifferently for much of the season well, that seemed to clinch it. Yes, they finished strongly after Oates was packed off to Philadelphia, but to me, that almost worked against Wilson. Why? Because if they were capable of playing that well without the league's assist leader, why couldn't they play at least that well with him?

On a personal level, I hate to see Wilson go. He was a sportswriter's dream funny, and always good for a quote. And like McPhee, I think he's "a very good coach" who undoubtedly will do well elsewhere. Let's not make Wilson the scapegoat for everything that went wrong with the Caps this season. There's plenty of blame to go around. As Ted Leonsis nobly put it, when you fire the coach, it means the entire organization has failed on some level.

It might have been a miscalculation, for instance, to hang onto Oates after stripping him of his captaincy. He made it clear he preferred to be traded if the team wasn't going to give him a new contract, and you have to wonder how that affected the atmosphere in the locker room. The Caps seemed spiritless for much of the season; could this have been why? Granted, McPhee got a lot more for Oatsy by dealing him at the deadline, but at what cost?

Injuries also helped do Wilson in. You can't lose Calle Johansson, Steve Konowalchuk and Jeff Halpern for large chunks of time and not feel it. Still, it's difficult to fault McPhee's course of action. He and Leonsis are intent on constructing a club in the European style thus the acquisition of Jagr and Wilson, a Canadian, may not be the perfect coach for that.

"Some coaches," McPhee agreed, "have a certain style that fits the players you have better than other coaches."

We all remember the votes of confidence Wilson got from the owner and general manager at the end of the season, but who places much stock in those? (Certainly not Wilson, I'm sure.) McPhee fully intended to look at the situation more analytically in the weeks that followed as any good GM would. Besides, if there's one thing we've learned about George during his five years in Washington, it's that he moves very deliberately.

This is not a man of impulse, it's a man who makes reasoned decisions. And the one he made yesterday clearly pained him. Not just because he was firing a friend, a coach he had worked hand-in-glove with, but because of what it also meant: that the next to go would probably be him.


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