This is a strange moment in Philadelphia sports. For the first time, all four of our major teams are led by rookie managers or coaches—the Eagles (Chip Kelly), Phillies (Ryne Sandberg), Flyers (Craig Berube) and Sixers (starts with a B … I think). Of course, this also means four guys got canned.
With such historic bloodshed and so many questions about the new men in charge, it’s a good time to look back at the best coaches and skippers in this city’s history. What, exactly, do I mean by “best”? One way to define it would be by championships won, but that would not only be relentlessly boring; the resulting list would also be—in this land of crushed sports dreams—ridiculously short.
Instead, for the purposes of these rankings, I’m defining “best” by Philly-ness—some essential Pattison Avenue quality about each of the men honored here, in ascending order of their bona fides. You’ll see that Andy Reid didn’t make the cut; despite his success with wins and losses, we see nothing of ourselves in Big Red (aside from, perhaps, his waistline). And in this town, your record alone doesn’t earn you a statue. Instead, this list pays tribute to the assholes, the also-rans and the epic losers (along with a winner or two) who, for better and often for worse, made us who we are as sports fans.
10. Dick Vermeil
Winning %: .535
Phillyess Quotient: 45
It may be surprising to find Vermeil on this list at all, especially for those of a certain generation who only think of him as the guy on the Blue Cross billboards or the dude Greg Kinnear played in Invincible. He also cries too often in public. But Vermeil is the best example of what so many coaches and athletes have done—honed their skills here, then won a championship somewhere else. (See: Schilling, Curt; White, Reggie; Jones, Smarty.) He led the Birds to their first Super Bowl, lost, then won the damn thing in another city with a quarterback who’d literally been bagging groceries a few years earlier. As was not the case with former Phillies manager Terry Francona—one more exemplar who saved his championships for another town—we liked Vermeil. But again … the weeping. This position feels right.
09. Harry Wright
Quakers, 1884-’89; Phillies, 1890-’93
Winning %: .529
Phillyess Quotient: 45.5
Wright’s name isn’t exactly one that rolls off the tongues of most Phillies fans—or anyone who can’t recall the Cleveland administration firsthand. He was an Englishman, favored three-piece suits, and spoke in a distinguished manner. None of this is very Philadelphian, so he can’t rank too highly. But when he first arrived here, the local baseball squad was coming off a 17-81 season. Needing any edge he could find, Wright decided to get a jump on the competition and take his boys on a “Southern trip” six weeks before the season began. That’s not a British euphemism for cat-housing—Wright became the Father of Spring Training (so all of you folks with Clearwater tans in April have a pasty foreigner to thank). Wright was also the first in what would be a very long line of managers and coaches in this town who wrestled with cheap, micromanaging owners, and he was fired to much protest from the fans. When you curse the front office for being inept or stingy, Wright curses (politely, with an accent) along with you.
08. Danny Ozark
Winning %: .538
Phillyess Quotient: 46
Only a handful of games in the history of Philadelphia sports have earned nicknames. Some of them have little to do with the final score, like “The Body Bag Game”; most are losses that tortured fans then and still haunt them now. “Black Friday” is one of those—and a rare instance where the manager played a direct role in the outcome. The short version: With a 5-3 lead in game three of the National League Championship Series against the Dodgers in 1977, Phillies manager Ozark decided not to make his usual ninth-inning move—pulling Greg Luzinski for a defensive sub. Guess who misplayed a ball in left field? Los Angeles rallied to a 6-5 win and eventually took the series. As Ozark explained of his head-scratching tactic: “[Luzinski] was the third batter up in the ninth. I wanted him in the lineup in case the game was tied.”
In other words, Ozark was managing to avoid a loss, despite having a commanding lead with only three outs to go. His philosophy was one that too many Philadelphia teams have adopted over the years: Assume the worst, hope for the best. Every time our teams hold a late-game lead and you know they’ll find some way to blow it, that shiver you feel is the ghost of Ozark whispering in your ear: “Leave the Bull in.”
07. Mike Keenan
Winning %: .638
Phillyess Quotient: 46.5
There’s a reason Keenan is nicknamed “Iron Mike,” and it has nothing to do with any appreciation he may have for Mike Tyson. He’s a bastard. Keenan was the opposite of the “player’s coach,” the guy who gets chummy with his athletes and keeps the room loose. Instead, he ran practices like games and games like North Korean calisthenics sessions. He took regular-season losses about as well as a mobster takes guys who don’t repay loans in a timely manner. His nicknames for his players included “Chickenshit” and “Motherfucker.” In other words, Keenan was the perfect coach for the Flyers, a team built on toughness, villainy, and general not-giving-a-damn about decorum and good taste. He was the first Broad Street Bully behind the bench. Keenan also got results: two Stanley Cup finals, including the epic seven-game series in 1987. No coach since—in any of the four sports—has so fully embodied his team’s ethos. Or worn a mustache that demanded such respect.
06. Greasy Neale
Winning %: .568
Phillyess Quotient: 46.5
His coaching credentials are unrivaled in Eagles history: a worst-to-first turnaround, two of the franchise’s three championships, and a bust in Canton. But the nickname alone earns him a place here. Some sports historians mistakenly thought it was a reference to Neale’s slippery talent as a young running back, or his base-stealing prowess as a pro baseball player. In fact, it was neither. Growing up in West Virginia, Neale knew a grungy kid he called “Dirty Neck.” The ragamuffin fired back with “Greasy,” because Neale worked as a grease boy at a metal factory, and it stuck. Neale might as well have grown up in Bridesburg or Kensington.
Perhaps most endearing about Neale is his role as a pioneer in dealing with impossibly inflated expectations. A year after his second title, the Eagles suffered a rash of injuries and finished 6-6. The front office fired its future Hall of Fame coach. While he was on vacation. By telegram. Neale, soured by his dismissal, left football for good. There’s something sadly fitting about a man whose career was both defined and destroyed by coaching in Philadelphia.
05. Fred Shero
Winning %: .642
Phillyess Quotient: 47.5
Two Stanley Cups is enough to counteract Shero’s weird, untouchable personality and lend him a high ranking. But almost as valuable as the Flyers’ two championships is their victory over the Soviet Red Army team in 1976. The Commies were making mincemeat of the NHL teams they faced on their North American tour, and their last stop was the Spectrum. Philadelphia became their Waterloo. In the ’70s, the Flyers were the Darth Vaders of hockey, but when the Soviets came to town, even Canadians were rooting for the orange and black. For one day, the world not only watched but cheered for Philadelphia and Shero’s band of hooligans. No other team from this city has inspired such global goodwill. As a winner and a most unlikely civic ambassador, Shero deserves props. He also gives us claim to two of the all-time greats in sports: his nickname (“The Fog”) and his inspirational quote (“Win today and walk together forever”).
04. Billy Cunningham
Winning %: .698
Phillyess Quotient: 48
The Kangaroo Kid is one of those rare feel-good stories from start to finish (which, in a town that’s been shaped more by sports misery than joy, actually hurts his standing on this list). Drafted by the Sixers, Cunningham spent nearly his entire pro career here, became an All-Star, then returned as a coach and won the franchise’s second (and last) championship. That’s a feat no other marquee Philadelphia athlete has accomplished. (Gauntlet thrown, Coach Iverson.) Most coaches—especially here—talk about the passion of the fans and how there’s no place they’d rather be. Cunningham is one of the few who have backed that up: With the exception of two seasons in the ABA, he never played or coached anywhere else. Even more rare, Cunningham retired gracefully, on his own terms. One of our all-time class acts, and a reminder that you don’t have to be a raging jerkoff to win.
03. Gene Mauch
Winning %: .485
Phillyess Quotient: 48.5
The poster boy for coming up just short in the most torturous of ways, Mauch holds ignominious distinction as the winningest manager to never capture a league pennant. He almost singlehandedly gave an entire city PTSD—post-traumatic sports disorder—that for many lingers to this day. In 1964, cruising into September with a seemingly ironclad lead, the Phillies were such a lock to win the National League that World Series tickets had already been printed—perhaps the first self-inflicted Philadelphia jinx. Mauch’s first-place Phils would lose 10 of their last 12 games and hand the pennant to St. Louis. To his credit, Mauch is remembered as an early proponent of “small ball” and the double switch. But that’s not why we honor him. Mauch’s contribution to Philadelphia is the sense, buried deep in our fan DNA and passed on through generations, that we will always, no matter what, find a way to blow it.
02. Charlie Manuel
Winning %: .551
Phillyess Quotient: 49
This isn’t a sympathy award. The Phillies have two World Series championships, and Manuel won one of them. He’s the rare non-player in Philly sports history to achieve one-name status, like a doughy, gray-haired Beyoncé; if someone says “Charlie,” you know who they’re talking about. We were also total assholes to him when he came to town. Stop with the “not me” garbage—you mocked his West Virginia twang or bitched about why the Phils should have hired Jim Leyland.
Yet Charlie never complained, never stormed out of a press conference with middle fingers blazing, never pulled a Lee Elia and told us to kiss his bleeping tuchas. When the guy got canned—on the day he was to be honored for his 1,000th win—he told fans to keep rooting for the Phillies, the way he would. If you were Charlie, you’d spend the next month sucking down free booze and eating prime rib in every local restaurant that wouldn’t let you touch a tab. What did Charlie do? Wished he was still in the dugout, managing a team that couldn’t find .500 if you gave it a map. All that, and he nearly strangled Howard Eskin in the clubhouse once. He loved us when we didn’t deserve it, loved the team when it didn’t deserve it, and brought us a parade. He’s not a reflection of ourselves—he’s better than us, and we’re better off for his time in town.
01. Buddy Ryan
Winning %: .551
Phillyess Quotient: 412
There’s a reason Dick Vermeil and Buddy Ryan are on opposite ends of this list. By almost all measures of football, Vermeil was the superior coach. Buddy only made it to three playoff games and lost every stinking one. But when’s the last time you waxed nostalgic about the Vermeil-era Birds? In a league where offense is king, we are, fittingly, a throwback city—touchdowns win games, but defenses win our hearts. And no Eagles team had a nastier D than the Gang Green hit squad Buddy built. He led the men whose names alone inspire concussion-like symptoms: Reggie, Jerome, Andre, Seth, Clyde. Those teams had swag back when the word still had two syllables. Buddy talked shit. He put a price on the head of a kicker—against the Cowboys, in Dallas, on Thanksgiving. Until the Eagles win a Super Bowl, the Bounty Bowls and the Body Bag massacre are our defining moments.
Like us, Buddy had major flaws (including, as we’d later learn, his blowhard sons Rex and Rob) and was often a jerk to his players (albeit a quotable one; on his running back Earnest Jackson: “Trade him for a six-pack. It doesn’t even have to be cold”). But let’s face it—the way we lose has defined our sports more than the way we win. No losing team brought us greater happiness than Buddy’s Birds. He’s the concrete turf at the Vet, the 700 Level, the goal-line stand on fourth down, and the opposing quarterback who’s worried about being decapitated long before the first snap. Buddy as a coach, on paper? Mediocre at best. Buddy as an enduring symbol of Eagles football and the Philadelphia sports fan? Everything.