Sirk's Notebook: Coaching Change Edition
I was supposed to go to Obetz on Monday for a prearranged meeting with one of the players. Then I got a text that morning from team ops man Tucker Walther. It was two words long. “Don’t come.” Eleven minutes later, a press release cleared up Tucker’s cryptic command. The Crew had relieved head coach Robert Warzycha of his duties.
Warzycha was in his fifth year as the head man, had recently equaled the club record with 70 regular season wins, and had been with the organization as a player, assistant, or head coach since the inaugural season of 1996. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Warzycha’s 330 games as a player (160) and head coach (170) are the most for any person with any MLS club. My friend Matt Bernhardt also noted that out of the 644 official Crew games in all competitions, only eleven of them did not have Warzycha as a rostered player or coach. That means Robert Warzycha has been a part of 98.3 percent of every meaningful game the Columbus Crew have ever played.
Duncan Oughton was the only player to be a part of all five of the Crew’s domestic titles, but Warzycha matched Oughton’s haul, spread over three different roles. He played for the 2002 U.S. Open Cup champions, was an assistant coach for the 2004 Supporters’ Shield winners and the 2008 team that won both the Shield and MLS Cup. Then he was the head coach of the 2009 Shield-winning team.
“There are very few who have contributed more than Bobby has contributed to the organization, short of Lamar,” said Crew President and General Manager Mark McCullers. “If so, there aren’t many. You can count them on one hand.”
Warzycha was an accomplished player when he arrived in Columbus in June of 1996. He had played internationally for Poland and had also suited up for Everton in the English Premier League. Known for his deadly free kicks and his ruthless tenacity, Warzycha was a prominent figure on those beloved 1990s Columbus teams that were perpetually thwarted by that evil D.C. United dynasty.
Columbus was thought to be just another stop in Warzycha’s professional career. The plan was for he and his wife, Eliza, and their three children, to return to Poland when his playing days were over. Then a personal tragedy formed a permanent bond between the man the city. When his son, Bartosz, then just eight years old, was diagnosed with cancer, the Columbus community raised $60,000 to help offset the family’s medical bills. Grateful for the community’s staggering and unexpected generosity, the Warzycha family put down roots in Central Ohio, eventually becoming U.S. citizens.
Warzycha had dedicated his career to the Columbus Crew ever since. In a combined 18 seasons as a player and coach, Warzycha succeeded on and off the field to the extent that he holds a unique pair of conjoined records— he is the Crew’s all-time leader in assists (61) and coaching wins (70, tied with the late Tom Fitzgerald.)
The firing of Robert Warzycha was inevitable. This was my thought on the day he was named head coach. I was excited for him, but I also knew that the day he accepted that job, it was the beginning of the end. He probably could have held the title of Beloved Assistant Coach For Life had he wanted to, but head coaches are hired to be fired. Sure, some may retire, or resign (under internal or external duress), or take a new job in, like, Seattle or something once their contract expires, but those are the exceptions. Most coaches get fired. From the day he signed that contract, each day forward was another extension of his record-breaking Crew longevity, and yet another step closer to ending it. Whether it took two years, five years, or ten years, it was likely going to end this way. Just as it will for his successor. And his successor’s successor. And so on. No matter who those people are.
With the Crew languishing in 8th place and Warzycha’s contract at the option stage, the Crew decided to let him go once they knew they would not be picking up that option. Assistant coaches Ricardo Iribarren and Scoop Stanisic also met the same fate. According to McCullers, this was designed to help all three coaches look for their next jobs while their current contracts were still being paid out, plus it enabled the Crew to commence their coaching search in earnest.
When discussing the reason for the change, McCullers said, “Eight years ago, I was in this position with Greg Andrulis and I talked about maintaining a championship mentality and championship environment—a championship culture—within our locker room. I feel like we have lost our way a little bit in that regard.”
I later asked him to elaborate on that point.
“Maybe I feel like we’ve lost a little bit of our confidence and a little bit of our swagger,” he said, “It’s this intangible attitude that I sense is lacking a little bit right now. That’s the best way I can describe it. It’s an environment where you feel like you’re going to win. We had that. We stepped on the field and we had a sense that things were going to go our way. We don’t have the sense anymore, and we need to find it again.”
McCullers felt strongly Warzycha faced an uncommon set of challenges upon assuming the head coaching role.
“I think not enough is said about the circumstances in which he took over,” McCullers said. “He took over after the championship season, so there was really no place to go but down. The other discussion point that is largely absent is the impact that expansion had during his tenure. We were decimated more than any other team by the expansion draft, and he had to deal with that throughout the majority of his time as coach. [Note: The Crew lost Brad Evans, Alejandro Moreno, Adam Moffat, Eric Brunner, and Josh Gardner to expansion drafts, and also had to trade Brian Carroll when a gamble to leave him exposed backfired.] I’m not trying to make excuses, because you still have to get the job done, but the circumstances under which he was operating were certainly unique.”
The Crew won the 2009 Supporters’ Shield in Warzycha’s first year, but never won a playoff series during his tenure. Last year, Columbus missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007. This year, the team is all but certain to have its first losing season since 2007.
“Ultimately the head coach maintains accountability for those results and typically that’s the person that gets targeted,” McCullers said, “but I can assure you by no stretch do I lay all the responsibility of the results that we have realized at the feet of Robert Warzycha. We all assume responsibility for our results, starting with myself and every other member of the competition side of our organization, and certainly the players as well.”
Crew Technical Director Brian Bliss was named interim coach, and as one of the main architects of the current team, he was forthright in accepting his share of responsibility for the Crew’s current state of affairs.
“We’re accountable,” Bliss said. “We all have to bear some responsibility on this and it’s very difficult for me because Robert, I played with. I’ve worked with him closely in constructing the roster and selecting a lot of these players, and it’s very difficult to have to part under these circumstances, but when we take these jobs, we know we’re in the line of fire a lot.”
An interim coach is always under pressure to make a good impression, but for Bliss, the stakes are doubled. Since he helped construct the team, does he feel the extra burden to turn the team around?
“Absolutely,” he said. “You’re not going to hit on every guy you bring in. You’re dealing with people. People are human. They aren’t robots. Sometimes it’s a good player, and the guy’s still a good player, but he wasn’t a good fit. So we’ve got to bear that responsibility. We’ve also signed some good ones as well, so there’s a little bit of history there that we do things a certain way, and we try to minimize the ones you don’t hit on. I’ve got that extra motivation on me to make these guys do better than they may have done to this point. So yeah, it’s a little bit tougher (than the usual interim coach situation.)”
USING HIS WORDS
Having known Bliss for several years now, the one thing I can guarantee is that communication will never be an issue. Regardless of whether or not he ultimately succeeds, I can’t imagine there ever being a lack of open dialogue. Bliss is blunt, gregarious, profane, hilarious, and he can take it just as good as he gives it.
“I think you can probably tell by my voice, I’m a little hoarse,” he said at the press conference, shortly after conducting his first practice session. “I like to talk at practice. My style may be a little bit different. I may be a little bit louder, more encouraging maybe. I like to coach from a positive standpoint, and I’m not saying Robert coaches from a negative standpoint. I don’t want to use the word cheerleading, but I’m very supportive of what goes on on the field, but also fair and critical with the players as well. I like to coach from what I call a positive standpoint and use my words for that.”
The yappy Bliss probably uses more words in an hour than Warzycha uses in a day, so the barrage of Bliss babble will surely require an adjustment for the players. Since several of the guys on the team played for Bliss on the Crew’s U20 team, and therefore already know how Bliss can be simultaneously blunt and encouraging, that transition may be a little smoother.
“I think having a familiarity with several of those guys helps,” he said. “They know the rhythm I like to train in and what my words are going to be like and how they’re going to be delivered, so nobody’s surprised. Maybe some of the other guys will ask a Wil Trapp, or a Chad Barson, or a Kyle Hyland, or any of the guys I worked on the 20s, ‘What can we expect?’ That might ease the transition a little bit. It should be a positive.”
Bliss believes that the current team can be competitive, but even he knows that making the playoffs is a long shot.
“As I told the players today, I’m an optimist in terms of what we do, but I’m not a dreamer, and there’s a difference. If you need a dictionary, look it up. I believe this team can achieve. We’ve got some games left. We owe it to ourselves and to each other in the locker room, we owe it to the club, and certainly to the fans. I was clear about that in the locker room today and I truly believe that. We have to get back to that core understanding.”
Bliss wasn’t ready to proclaim a specific remedy to the team’s current malaise, at least until he gets a stronger feel for the team on a daily basis.
“It’s tough to say exactly what’s missing because I’m not there every day in the locker room,” he said. “We could say, ‘Oh, we need to go back to being America’s Hardest Working Team’, but that’s B.S. You know what? You’re expected to work hard. I don’t care if your team’s name is the Pussycats. Working hard shouldn’t be something specific to the Crew, and I don’t think these guys are loafers,”
What Bliss would like to see, however, is the team’s hard work channeled in a different way.
“For me, it’s about playing a little more up-tempo,” he said. “Yes, we all want to play possession, but there’s a goal at the other end of the field we’ve got to get to. Playing up-tempo, getting to the goal quicker, and hopefully recovering the ball quicker – not necessarily higher, but recovering the ball quicker. Hopefully we can make some ground in those areas in order to get across how we feel this team should play.”
The first opportunity comes Wednesday night against Houston.
THE GOLDEN GOAL
[NOTE: This section a reprint of a March 2010 Notebook segment, which looked at the 10th anniversary of Warzycha’s famous golden goal against San Jose. It was the first golden goal in MLS history. That goal is one of my fondest Warzycha-related memories, so I wanted to re-run the anniversary bit in this Notebook.]
On the final weekend in March, one decade ago, Crew coach Robert Warzycha created the most indelible image of his Crew career. On March 25, 2000, the Polish midfielder buried a 28-yard direct free kick in golden goal overtime to give the Crew a 2-1 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes.
The goal atoned for an earlier miscue, when Warzycha swatted down what would have been the equalizing goal. Although San Jose converted the penalty in the 90th minute to force sudden death overtime, Warzycha somehow escaped a red card. It was a good thing for Crew fans, because in the final seconds of the extra session, the Polish Rifle blasted a bender that whizzed over the Quakes’ wall and dipped into the upper left corner of the net. Pandemonium ensued, and in an iconic image that endures to this day, a jubilant Crew Cat lifted Warzycha off the ground and triumphantly held the free kick hero aloft for all to see.
As Warzycha left the locker room on Saturday, I asked him for his memories of that night.
“Yes, I remember I was supposed to get a red card because I saved a goal with my hand at the very end,” he said. “They scored the penalty to tie the score, but then I won the game with the free kick in overtime. I thought it was a very exciting game for the people that were here because it was the first time there was a golden goal. There was like ten seconds to go, so it was great. I still remember that goal ten years later.”
Warzycha has had a long and varied Crew career. This goal was not the biggest play he made while wearing number 19—that would be his goal line clearance of an Alejandro Moreno shot in the dying moments of the 2002 U.S. Open Cup final, preserving the Crew’s 1-0 triumph and the first hardware in club history. Warzycha has also won an MLS Cup and two Supporters’ Shields as a top assistant, and another Supporters’ Shield as the Crew’s head coach. Still, the free kick goal against San Jose endures as his defining image. From the moment the renowned free kick specialist stood over the ball, it was the perfect melding of expectation, do-or-die drama, and execution, all capped by a classic visual.
“I think that moment stands out because I made everybody in the stadium happy,” he said. “Plus, Crew Cat carried me around, and then I saw the pictures of me and Crew Cat afterwards. We can talk about the important moments, like when I saved the goal at the end of the Open Cup, but I think that free kick was the most exciting for the fans to remember.”
I couldn’t help but ask if Crew Cat has carried him around or at least given him any piggyback rides since that night. The ever-serious Warzycha cracked a smile.
“I will need to talk to the Crew Cat,” he chuckled, “because after the game today, maybe he could have carried me around for the ten years anniversary. It is too late now. Now we will have to wait for the 20 years anniversary.”
Here’s hoping Warzycha gets that 20-year anniversary Crew Cat carry. Based on McCullers’ words, it could be a possibility. He still very much wants Warzycha to be a part of the Crew.
“I believe that in the future, we are going to find a way to connect him,” McCullers said. “I’m not saying it will necessarily be a role with the club, but it’s just not the Crew without Robert around. We’re still thinking of ways to do that. I told him yesterday, ‘I want you to be comfortable being here. I want you to be here.’ It may take a little while for that to happen, but he is still part of the Crew family.”
Questions? Comments? Have a favorite Robert Warzycha memory? Feel free to write at firstname.lastname@example.org or via twitter @stevesirk