From the start – from the FA Community Shield match at Wembley back in August — David Moyes seemed overmatched as the manager of Manchester United. It wasn’t an easy thing to put into words. He had obviously been a successful manager at Everton. He was obviously a smart guy, driven, committed to the cause, and certainly likable enough … I recall him saying two or three pretty funny and interesting things in the short time he spoke with the press before and after that game.
But there was something else, something that will come out harsher than intended.
He just seemed kind of ordinary.
It wasn’t exactly his fault. Well, it’s never the successor’s fault. The blunt and cold way Manchester United announced the news of Moyes’ sacking makes clear what his place in the club’s long and celebrated history will be:
“The Club would like to place on record its thanks for the hard work, honestly and integrity he brought to the club.”
Yep. Moyes will be the successor forever. The harsh truth is that, as the man who took over for Sir Alex Ferguson, “successor” was probably all he ever could have expected to be.
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Phil Bengtson was a 55-year-old man from Minnesota who had coached football all his life. His claim to fame, before 1968, was that he had the patience, humility and strength to be Vince Lombardi’s assistant coach for nine years. No other coach managed to work that long for Lombardi. He was “rewarded” with the Packers head coaching job when Lombardi left before the 1968 season.
The successor lasted three years and never made the playoffs.
Gene Bartow was an accomplished 45-year-old college basketball coach who had led Memphis State to the 1973 national championship game. The Tigers lost the championship to UCLA – that was the game Bill Walton scored 44 points, making 21 of his 22 shots – but Bartow impressed enough people that he was chosen as the man to replace the great John Wooden in 1975.
Bartow had some limited success. He coached UCLA to the Final Four in 1976 and to the Sweet 16 the next year. But limited success was not what anyone had in mind after John Wooden won 10 national championships in 12 years. After two years, Bartow left to go start a basketball program at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.
“Gene had the unenviable task when he arrived at UCLA of following the greatest coach in college basketball history, John Wooden, and he did so admirably,” UCLA’s athletic director Dan Guerrero said in a statement when Bartow died in 2012.
His legacy too, alas, was as the successor.
Speaking of unenviable tasks, Tim Floyd replaced Phil Jackson in Chicago after six NBA championships … and without Michael Jordan too. Floyd was considered by many to be the next great thing in coaching. His teams won 49, lost 190 and at last check he was coaching at University of Texas at El Paso, where he has yet to guide the team to the NCAA Tournament.
Ray Perkins, one of legendary Bear Bryant’s favorite players, got to replace the Bear at Alabama. He had four up-and-down years before racing off to coach Tampa Bay in the NFL for more money and fewer headaches. Bill Guthridge was Dean Smith’s trusted longtime assistant coach, and he replaced his mentor and friend in 1987. He lasted three years and did reach two Final Fours. He retired and left the job to Matt Doherty, who almost crashed the program. Terry Simpson, a brilliant junior hockey coach, was given the task of replacing Al Arbour after four Stanley Cups with the New York Islanders. He lasted two and a half seasons before being fired.
When Bill Snyder “retired” at Kansas State – he engineered the greatest turnaround in college football history there and was perhaps the most respected man in the state – he was replaced by a man named Ron Prince. Countless bad things happened the next three years, so bad that Prince was canned and Bill Snyder CAME BACK. And he is still the Kansas State coach almost 10 years after retiring.*
*Something similar happened when Minnesota Vikings’ legend Bud Grant was succeeded by the generally disastrous Les Steckel, a marine who went 3-13 his one and only season as an NFL head coach. Grant came back for one season.
This is not to say it’s impossible to replace a legendary coach. There are some positive examples. Every now and again a Jimmy Johnson will replace Tom Landry or Bill Cowher will replace Chuck Noll. But, in those two specific cases, there was something else at work. Landry and Noll were both legends, obviously, but fading ones. Landry’s last three teams had losing records. Noll’s teams had made the playoffs just once in seven years. In a way, Landry and Cowher were replacing ghosts.
David Moyes was not so fortunate. He was replacing a vibrant, active and very present legend in Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. On the one hand, Ferguson’s success was unprecedented – 13 Premier League titles, five FA Cups, winner of two doubles and the first treble in English football history when his 1999 team won the Premier League, FA Cup and UEFA Champions League.
On the other hand, Ferguson was a larger than life figure, a tough, manipulative, literary and brilliant mastermind worthy of his own “House of Cards” like television series.
And on the third hand … Ferguson’s Manchester United team won the Premier League title in 2013. They were the defending champions, which brings with it another kind of pressure. Ferguson was every bit the force on the day he stepped down that he had been for two decades. David Moyes was not following some fading star, no, he was taking over the biggest team on earth and following the man who had made it so.
Moyes brought some solid credentials. He was successful at Everton and was known as someone who worked with 21st Century analytics. He was widely admired. But, again, right from the start, he just seemed … unspectacular. The man who tries to follow Sir Alex Ferguson, you would think, needs to have his own power, his own charisma, his own magnetism. Moyes just seemed like a nice guy.
Then the worst possible thing happened for Moyes: The team got off to a bad start – the worst start in almost a quarter-century. Manchester United lost at Liverpool and was destroyed at Manchester City. December proved to be the toughest month almost any Manchester United fan could remember. They lost at home to Everton for the first time in two decades. They promptly lost to Newcastle at Old Trafford for the first time in four decades. After a brief spurt of success, the Red Devils lost at home to Tottenham on New Year’s Day … the first New Year’s Day loss at Old Trafford since 1992.
All the while, Moyes tried to keep looking forward. But he was not reassuring. The word “disappointing” became his shield. He seemed to use it after every game. Manchester United lost at Stoke City. They could only manage a draw with Fulham at home. The anger and frustration over the early rough start was replaced by a realization: Manchester United for the first time in more than 20 years was not particularly good and Moyes did not know how to fix the problems.
When the Red Devils were utterly destroyed 3-0 at home by both Liverpool and Manchester City in March, Moyes’ fate was sealed. Fans paid to have an airplane banner reading, “Wrong one – Moyes out” flown over Old Trafford during a late March win over Aston Villa. Sir Alex had asked the fans to “stand by your new manager,” but there was no standing by Moyes after that. The listless 2-0 loss at Everton Sunday – in Moyes’ return to Goodison Park – clinched what everyone already knew: Manchester United for the first time ever would not finish Top 4 in the Premier League and, so, were eliminated from next year’s Champions League. And Moyes was a sacked-man walking.
All that was left was the announcement that Moyes was leaving the club, and the announcement was predictably short and chilly and dismissive. It had been a disaster. In a way, the Moyes tenure did serve one purpose: It reminded everyone just how great Sir Alex Ferguson really was. Unfortunately, that’s often the only thing successors accomplish.