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Sports

Firing the coach to ignite the team

The reason can be as vague as a sense that a team isn’t motivated, or as obvious as a superstar’s rebellion.

The decision to change a coach or manager during the season might be made early — the Detroit Tigers were 0-6 when they fired Phil Garner and replaced him with Luis Pujols in 2002 — or late, as when the New York Rangers dismissed Michel Bergeron with two games left in the 1988-89 season.

The switch made no difference in either case: The Tigers were 55-100 the rest of the way and the Rangers lost those two games and were swept out of the playoffs, leading to the dismissal of General Manager Phil Esposito.

Changing coaches or managers in season is a common tactic to jolt teams in Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL, but those moves only occasionally have dramatic impact. Firing an NFL coach in midstream is not as common — probably because of the relatively short schedule — and usually means the team has conceded the season.

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The Ducks and Kings are among seven NHL teams that have fired their coaches this season and are among the few that have shown noteworthy improvement. The biggest gainers are the St. Louis Blues, who were 6-7-0 when Davis Payne was replaced by Ken Hitchcock but are 32-14-7 and challenging for the West lead.

Two coaching changes made during this lockout-shortened NBA season haven’t helped much, and neither did their explanations, drawn from the general managers’ book of cliches.

The Sacramento Kings (9-16 through Wednesday) were 2-5 when they replaced Paul Westphal with assistant Keith Smart.

“You start to keep seeing the same things over and over again,” Kings president of basketball operations Geoff Petrie said, “You can’t sit around and meditate forever about how you’re going to approach them or try and change them.”

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The Washington Wizards (5-21) were 2-15 when they fired Flip Saunders in favor of Randy Wittman.

“We felt the team had become unresponsive and we will look to Randy to provide a different voice and a change in philosophy moving forward,” Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said in a statement.

Translations? Desperation.

Here’s a look at some memorable in-season changes over the years:

Can’t tell managers without a scorecard

According to MLB.com, teams made 38 in-season managerial changes between 2000 and mid-2011 and only four of those new managers led their teams to the playoffs. None of the four changes last season — by the Oakland Athletics, Washington Nationals, Florida Marlins or Chicago White Sox — produced a playoff team.

MLB.com also found only 16 teams had reached postseason play after changing managers during the season and only two of those teams won the World Series. The 1978 New York Yankees were the first, after Billy Martin was fired and replaced by Bob Lemon, and the Florida Marlins duplicated that in 2003.

The Marlins’ unlikely reversal was led by Jack McKeon, who took over after Jeff Torborg was fired. Torborg’s handling of the pitching staff was questioned after four starters developed injuries and the Marlins were 16-22. “This is a better team than we’ve played,” then-General Manager Larry Beinfest said. “The fans here in South Florida deserve to have hope this summer. There is enough time left to turn it around and get back in it.”

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Every general manager says that. In this case, he was right.

Under McKeon the Marlins finished 91-71 and won the NL wild-card berth. He was voted the NL manager of the year at age 72.

“They had the courage to go out and hire an old goat like me,” he said after winning the award.

The 2009 Colorado Rockies were the last team to make the playoffs after changing managers in season. They were 18-28 on May 29 when they fired Clint Hurdle — who had led them to their first-ever World Series berth in 2007 — and replaced him with bench coach Jim Tracy, the former Dodgers manager.

“It came down from knowing it was the right thing to do for the organization and the right thing to do for Clint,” General Manager Dan O’Dowd told the Denver Post after his team fell 24 games below .500 over two seasons.

Hurdle accepted responsibility for the poor results and added, “Hopefully, this will give them an opportunity to move forward in a much more consistent fashion.”

It did. Tracy compiled a 74-42 record and became the first manager to lead a team to at least 20 games over .500 after being at least 10 games under .500. The Rockies got the wild-card berth but lost the division series to the Philadelphia Phillies.

Taking a chance

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The Pittsburgh Penguins reached the Stanley Cup finals in 2008 but stumbled through a series of injuries the following season. They were out of a playoff position after 57 games, prompting General Manager Ray Shero to fire Michel Therrien and appoint Dan Bylsma, a low-profile former player with little minor league coaching experience. Bylsma’s Penguins went 18-3-4, rose from 10th in the Eastern Conference to fourth and won the Cup.

“Dan was a gut feeling. If I was so sure I never would have given him the interim tag for 25 games and the first round of the playoffs,” said Shero, who gave Bylsma a long-term contract after that opening-round victory over Philadelphia.

“We changed coaches because of a number of things. Injuries played a part. … But it was more the ‘feel’ that players were not motivated. Not playing for the coach is accurate, but not even playing despite him was a factor too.”

Coaching the Montreal Canadiens was among the toughest jobs in sports, so accustomed were their fans to claiming the Cup every spring. Claude Ruel, hired to succeed the legendary Toe Blake in 1968, felt the pressure after the Canadiens missed the playoffs in 1970 for the first time in 22 years and resigned early in the 1970-71 season with a record of 11-8-4.

Ruel was replaced by Al MacNeil, who wasn’t fluent in French and ran afoul of icon Henri Richard. MacNeil is remembered for deciding to open the playoffs with a tall, hulking goaltender named Ken Dryden, who was voted the postseason most valuable player as the Canadiens defeated Chicago in a seven-game finals.

Afterward, MacNeil took on personnel duties and was replaced by Scotty Bowman, who became the most successful coach in NHL history.

The current Canadiens haven’t benefited from firing Jacques Martin on Dec. 17, when they were 13-12-7 and two points out of a playoff spot. They’re 9-12-2 since and have dropped eight points out of eighth in the Eastern Conference.

It’s too early to fully judge the Kings’ and Ducks’ coaching changes, but each team has made strides.

Projected to be a contender in the West after spending nearly to the salary cap limit, the Kings were 13-12-4 when General Manager Dean Lombardi fired Terry Murray and hired Darryl Sutter.

“The challenge for a coach as well as players when you have expectations, it’s driven more to results,” Lombardi said. After going 2-2 under interim coach John Stevens, the Kings are 11-5-6 under Sutter, seventh in the West, but still scraping for goals.

The Ducks are 14-11-4 since General Manager Bob Murray said, “We felt a new voice was needed” and replaced Randy Carlyle with Bruce Boudreau. A recent 11-2-2 surge has put them on the fringe of playoff contention as they begin a crucial eight-game trip.

Almost never on a Sunday

After firing Coach Tony Sparano with three games left in the just-completed season, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross knew what he wanted in a replacement.

“I’d like to find a young Don Shula if that’s possible,” Ross told the Miami Herald.

Good luck with that.

The dismissal of Sparano was surprising because he had won four of six games after an 0-7 start, and because it occurred late in the season. The Dolphins were 2-1 under interim coach Todd Bowles.

According to a 2010 story at businessinsider.com, no NFL team in the previous 20 years had made an in-season coaching change and reached the playoffs. Only one team, the 2000 Lions, made an in-season change and finished with a winning record, 9-7.

That pattern held last season. In addition to Sparano, Kansas City went 5-8 under Todd Haley and finished 7-9 under Romeo Crennel, and Jacksonville was 3-8 under Jack Del Rio and finished 5-11 under Mel Tucker.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

twitter.com/helenenothelen

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