Why Khan Hired Felix and Why He’s Still our Manager

[RA – This fine piece is by Timmy, incidentally]
khanfelixbuck

John Arne Riise mentioned the other day how, after that horrible defeat at Derby, Magath called a late night meeting and announced practice first thing in the morning. Usually days after matches are for recovery. Que the horror.

The practice allegedly consisted of “tactics training” and lots of running.

When I played varsity sports in high school, heavy defeats were often followed by impromptu practices that contained lots of running. Same for those I helped managed in both high school and college. It didn’t matter if the coach horribly prepared us for the game, or if it was just a ‘bad day at the office’. Our actions on the game field had repercussions on the practice field.

I have no record (and done little research) that Khan played sports in his teen years. I can say that he has a lot of business acumen, and probably learned a bit about coaching methodologies I mentioned above while pursuing an NFL team before eventually owning the Jacksonville Jaguars.

And the fact he owns an NFL team, and not say an MLB team (more on that later), in relation to Magath is key.

American Football coaches, by and large, are insane (http://deadspin.com/5958802/coaches-are-freaks). Outside of baseball, no sport has sees much over coaching by managers. They routinely pull 100-hour work weeks. Everything is planned out. Game film is pored over again and again. It’s so intense that last season, one NFL coach had a heart attack while leisurely playing golf. Another had a stroke in the middle of a game.

The response from his colleagues were a shrug.

(Just read this from the now-fired Jim Schwartz: “That’s probably the same way you would talk in the locker room about a player that saw another player get an ACL or have another injury — if you let that affect the way you work, you’re in the wrong boat … Coaches don’t work 100 hours a week because they’re doing it because that’s healthy. They do it because the job requires it. It just is what it is.” Let that seep in.)

Compare that to the methods allegedly reported when Jol was in charge. If the rumors were true, the man rarely showed up to practice. The team was clearly out of shape and horribly ill prepared to do, well, anything. The defense, the bedrock of coaching, was on track to set historic lows.

Khan arrives and sees the mess. No, he’s not a football man; but he knows (or, thinks he does) enough about how teams are supposed to function that the current setup is a recipe for disaster.

But, he’s new. He doesn’t want to pull a Tony Fernandes and make an ass of himself in the first few months on the job. Nor does have the ego (or naiveté) to throw money at the problems like Abromovich or Sheikh Mansour did when they first arrived.

So he waits. Things don’t improve. He has Ali Mac hire esteemed assistant Rene Muelensteen to whip the team into some semblance of shape. Things continue to go sour. Jol gets fired, Rene takes over.

Things change slightly, but not enough. Rene’s reign was too short to make any sort of inferences, but I sense he found him to be too “salesman-y” (anyone who watched his videos on the team’s website will know what I mean; i.e., only speaking in cliches and platitudes) but mostly the results continue to remain poor.

Eventually Khan has enough. He played the modern English/European game to no avail, so now it’s the Puritanical American game. Cajoling is replaced by commanding. Obliging replaced with ordering.

He hires Felix Magath, a man hated in the game for his “methods”. He’s cold. He yells. He demands peak physical fitness. He’s ruthless. In Felix, Khan must have seen a familiar face. And what Felix has been implementing isn’t new to any American athlete or anyone involved heavily in sports. Khan sees him as someone who can whip this horrible, and horribly prepared, team into cohesion before it’s too late.

Well, it was too late. Although we may think otherwise, and have hindsight to prove (somewhat), Khan was a bit off in his belief. But, he still believes in Felix. The work is not done, the time to relax the control has not arrived. So he currently remains manager.

Sure, there’s been ultimatums given but that is to be expected in this hyper-competitive environment.

I mentioned baseball earlier as a comparison to the NFL. Although I can’t speak to say NHL or NBA coaches, baseball managers are a different breed. They have to be considering the long, daily season. Yes, some are “players mangers” and others are “disciplinarians” but it’s all quite relative.

Except for Buck Showalter, current manager of the Baltimore Orioles. And it’s with Buck that I think Felix Magath can learn from, and hopefully follow.

Buck is described as a control freak by many fans. Others would call him an asshole. According to Pat Jordan in a Sports on Earth (RIP) article, “Showalter hates to be called a control freak. He hates it because he doesn’t consider himself a control freak, but mostly, he hates it because he can’t control people calling him a control freak. To assuage his hurt feelings, I offered to call him one of the many other names people associate with him: passive-aggressive, taciturn, sarcastic, caustic, suspicious, paranoid, Machiavellian. He did not laugh.”

(Before I proceed, we could probably apply any of those adjectives to Magath. I highly recommend reading this piece and think about Magath.)

But Buck wins.

…Sort of.

The rap on Buck is (or was) his an uncanny ability of taking underperforming or new teams (New York Yankees in early 90s, when they sucked; Arizona Diamonbacks in late 90s; Texas Rangers in early aughts) and turning them into a contender. But before they could clear that hurdle and become great teams, Buck got fired (each would go on to win a World Series, or many in the Yankees case, or at least appear in them shortly thereafter).

Usually it was a mutual departure.

Essentially, teams got tired of his attention to detail (the man reportedly picked out the Diamondbacks color palette upon his hiring) and players grew weary of his methods and tuned him out.

So it was no surprise to see him hired by the Baltimore Orioles in late 2010, a team that was suffering their 15th (was it more?) straight losing season.

It took a little while to turn the teams fortunes around, but the O’s magically made the playoffs in 2012. They’re currently on par (KNOCK ON WOOD) to win their first division title (not a pennant, just a freaking division title!) in nearly 20 years.

Four years into his current job, Buck has already lasted longer than he did at any of his prior MLB managerial positions. Part of it is probably the team has sucked for so long that everyone will take the warts with the wins. But a bigger part of that is he (reportedly) mellowed out a bit before his Orioles gig. He (again, reportedly as it’s late and I don’t feel like searching for articles to back this up; just going on what I hear) pays close attention to the appropriate things instead of all the things.

Which is what I think plays into the ‘Felix as manager story’ I’m attempting to spin here. As Rich said Felix is still experimenting, the team is still evolving.

I don’t know if it’ll work and whether Felix can survive. I hope he himself can evolve himself and lighten up; and this team and season provides that perfect opportunity. Like Buck who after third time of of being fired only for his team make the World Series just a few years later; perhaps finally being relegated and managing a bunch of 18 year olds in AAA will be that humbling experience.

Results to date haven’t been helpful, but it’s really up to him. I don’t see Khan changing just yet; we need to see Felix do so.

17 thoughts on “Why Khan Hired Felix and Why He’s Still our Manager

  1. Outstanding article. It doesn’t change the fact that I believe Felix is horrible for our club (I said the same the day he was hired). I will get tarred and feathered if I mention my replacement choice, so I won’t go there. But I did enjoy reading your perspective.

  2. Well said. Except one small point: you propose Buck mellowed out after being fired from teams that went on to win, which I can believe. But Felix was fired after winning with his teams. What reason would he have to mellow out? He’s won titles with bigger clubs, why change? I think he just needed a few years off so teams would forget his tactics and turn to him in a pinch.

    1. Age alone might be one reason.

      Another might be a desire to keep his job. I’m betting that he’s reading the message boards because, as a control freak, he feels that he has to know what supporters are saying . He won’t be pleased with what he sees but will recognise that to survive he needs supporters on board.

      He may also be pragmatic enough to want to do what works and can take on board the evolving times and English mentalities.

      1. Or maybe his last contract ran out and he needs the money so he’ll behave. Or age. I’m old enough to say that with authority now.

  3. Interesting and scary article all at once. It’s not the Fulham way, and neither was Jol’s reign. Oh for ‘a Roy – type’ back at the helm, where common sense and some sort of decency can prevail……

  4. Wow, that was an epic article about Showalter. I remember one of the stories that he told after taking over the Orioles. There was a photo in the manager’s office which showed the Orioles in the field with the other team having the base loaded and a full count on the batter. Buck couldn’t believe that anyone would have hung such an anxiety inducing photo as that in the manager’s office so he had them take it down.

    Regarding Magath, I think that you may be right about how Kahn views things, but I still don’t think that he’s the right man for the job. While he’s clearly had some successes in his managerial career, I just don’t think that his maniacal approach works well in football any more. Most players today have been exposed to so many more ideas on what works and doesn’t work in football that they won’t buy into Magath’s methods. And I do believe that for Magath to be successful, he needs absolutely 100% buy in from his players to his rigid footballing philosophy or else it won’t work.

    1. ” … the field with the other team having the base loaded and a full count on the batter.” For us non Americans or NFL fans, what the Dickens does this mean?

      1. It’s essentially the worst spot for a pitcher to be in. He has to throw the batter a strike or he would risk walking the batter. Since the bases are loaded, a walk would force in a run as the players on each base would be entitled to move up to the next base (i.e. – runner on 3rd base goes to home plate, the one on 2nd goes to 3rd and the one on 1st moves to 2nd to make room for the batter on 1st base). Since the batter knows that the pitcher needs to throw a strike (or at least a pitch that the batter thinks could be a strike), he can look for a good pitch to hit. This is why most hitters hit for a higher average with the bases loaded than under any other scenario.

        Said more simply, the pitcher (and the team in the field) is “between a rock and a hard place”. It’s a very stressful situation (in sporting terms, of course).

        Hope this helps, Kevin.

      2. I think the closest soccer equivalent would be a picture of another team taking a penalty kick against you. The closest another team can come to scoring without having done it yet.

  5. A very important thing to bear in mind when considering Riise’s comments is that the man has a chrome plated car.

    Chrome. Plated. Car.

    It renders his opinions instantly worthless.

  6. Finally, a well informed unbiased article about Felix. Very enjoyable.

    As for Felix, I think he really needs more time. The huge overhall was needed, without a doubt. I’m less bothered about him pushing the players so hard, most people in real jobs hate their boss, there’s no reason why footballers should be exempt from this. He’s experimenting to see what his best squad is, there’s no reason he should know his best squad yet. Just because he’s made a couple of mistakes doesn’t mean he should be fired.

  7. Perhaps. A couple of things though. Jol, himself, stated he requested Meulensteen be added to his staff at the start of the season. After his foray in the Middle East came to a short and abrupt halt, he then joined Fulham. FFC attributed the selection and hiring of Magath to Mackintosh. It was said (by the club) that Magath was someone that Mac had been keeping tabs on for a while prior to reaching out to him about the job.

    That said, it could explain why Khan trusts Magath and is willing to give him time to get it sorted. It’s pretty speculative, but then most of the behind the scenes aspects in English Football are.

    You had me nervous Tim. I thought you were going to compare Showalter to Magath directly, which I would have taken issue with. From his comments, age and experiences though, I don’t foresee him taking any lessons from Buck. Good piece.

    1. It’s probably as direct as one could conceivably apply.

      Buck made his mark Orioles immediately when he arrived in the second half of 2010; but he and the team had a rather poor 2011 season. Well, except for that final day where they came from behind in the 9th to eliminate the Red Sox from the playoffs. Oh man, lets all go watch the highlights:

      http://m.mlb.com/bal/video/?topic_id=26338934&c_id=bal&content_id=19787617

      (Fun fact: was at this game but left when the long rain delay began. Figured I wasn’t missing much by leaving when I did. It’s probably one the biggest mistakes of my life–people still talk about that game.)

  8. “[T]he fact [Khan] owns an NFL team, and not say an MLB team (more on that later), in relation to Magath is key.”

    I’ve looked at Khan’s ownership of an NFL team as relevant in a different way. In the NFL (Timmy, I know you know this, but the UK folks might not), it’s basically impossible to turn a team around quickly. There’s very little player movement directly between teams, and by the time players reach free agency they will often be past their best, due to the physicality of the league taking a toll on the players. On top of that, the salary-capped structure of the league (and large size of the rosters) makes it impractical, if not impossible, for teams to fill out a significant portion of their rosters through free agency. As a result, teams that become successful and sustain that success do so by developing young players (in the NFL, this is through the college draft, loosely analogous to Fulham’s youth system), who are able to make a significant contribution at a lower salary than players obtained through free agency. This can’t be done in a short period of time (again, in part due to the large size of the rosters) but is, at minimum, a process that takes a few years. This is what Khan is trying to accomplish in Jacksonville (and also why it’s too soon for people who want to criticize him to say “he’s not a good owner and the fact that the Jaguars are bad is proof”), and I think he recognizes that the same kind of turnaround was required here (others may disagree, but I think the lack of investment for the past couple of years was starting to show big time during Jol’s tenure) and that the first few matches of the season, after massive squad overhaul, are way too soon to assess whether the turnaround is actually happening.

  9. There undoubtedly are coaches like this in sport and they can produce winning teams, although probably not in the long term with the same group of players. That doesn’t make it a good thing, any more than people in other walks of life who bully or bullshit their way to success.

    My affection for Fulham is based not on trophies won but the character of the club. It would not have happened had not my father (a native of the borough) been a fan, but as a boy growing up in the West Country in the 1950s and ’60s there was a romance about Fulham which was probably exaggerated (to me) by its remoteness.

    Even if Magath manages a spectacular upturn in our results and we end up promoted I still can’t take to the man. I find myself wanting us to fail to speed his departure. It makes the Roy Hodgson years seem even more special. Now he was no soft touch but he knew how to treat people, respected the club and the game, and would I’m sure receive much better testimonials from his former players than Herr Magath.

  10. Regardless of chrome plated cars, NFL, AFL, NRL coaches, the man is a bully and undoubtedly is a control freak. He surrounds himself with a bunch of youngsters who are making their way in life let alone football. Who are so desperate to “make it” in the game they wouldn’t dream of talking back to “the Boss” in fear of losing their place in his squad. There is an ever increasing list of of senior players who, having played at the top level, wouldn’t put up with his nonsense and were sent to the naughty corner and left their clubs.
    I agree with Nick. Regardless of what he achieves at Fulham he just doesn’t represent what I love about the club. He is an odious individual.

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