The most controversial coaches in professional sports tend to be found more in football and soccer than in basketball or baseball. One of the most controversial coaches of all time wasn’t a professional sports coach at all: NCAA college basketball coach Bobby Knight, as famous for his national championships as he was for throwing chairs, swearing and tantruming during games. Many of the most controversial coaches are beloved and revered for their winning ways, and the controversy arises from the attention paid to their every statement and move. Life at the top in pro sports isn’t for everyone and the five most controversial coaches all spent a long time working at the top of their chosen profession.
Sir Alex Ferguson
After almost three decades at the helm of one of soccer’s legendary teams, Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013. No one disputes Ferguson’s winning ways or ability to build and maintain a championship soccer legacy. But Ferguson’s “iron will” is equally legendary, and his love of conflict produced endless controversies and fodder for UK tabloid reporters. The most famous incident occurred when Ferguson kicked a boot during an angry incident and hit star player David Beckham above the eye, an injury which required stitches.
When he was coaching the Chicago Bears, Mike Ditka was popular and successful, if a little rough around the edges. His brief tour coaching with the New Orleans Saints was less successful, with a 12-20 record over two years, and a spectacularly bad decision to give up the team’s draft to pick one player, Ricky Williams, who didn’t fulfill his promise.
Sean Payton, the New Orleans Saints’ most recent coach, has a great won-loss record but was suspended for the entire 2012 season based on “Bountygate.” Payton spearheaded a bounty payment system for players where players received extra pay for hits on opposing players during games. The rougher the hit, the higher the pay. Football is a rough physical game but deliberately paying players to cause injuries is highly controversial.
New England Patriot master coach Bill Belichick’s winning record is no controversy, but his willingness to do anything to win is. The most famous Belichick scandal is “Deflategate,” over whether or not star quarterback Tom Brady was using a slightly deflated football for an unfair advantage. A more serious scandal occurred in 2007, when the Patriots were caught secretly videotaping play-call signals of the New York Jets and it was learned the practice had gone on for over five years. The Patriots gave up a first round draft pick, and Belichick was personally fined $500,000 for the “Spygate” incidents.
With legends like baseball’s “Leo the Lip” Durocher, who yelled at umpires nearly every game, the New York Yankees’ Billy Martin could be overlooked. Unlike Durocher, however, Billy Martin is the only baseball manager whose arm was ever broken in a fight with his own player. His legendary fights with equally controversial team owner George Steinbrenner provided hours of inspiration for fan arguments. Martin cemented his reputation for on-camera combat by fighting with Hall of Fame star Reggie Jackson on national television.
The most memorable controversial coaches in professional sports are the winners whose comments, tempers or snap decisions land them in hot water. Sometimes these decisions have cost the coaches and their teams hundreds of thousand of dollars in fines. Even with controversy, the excellent techniques of managers like Sir Alex Ferguson are studied for business success beyond the athletic arena.