Some of the uproar about the White Sox’ decision to hire 76-year-old Tony La Russa as their manager has subsided, drowned out by all the rousing talk about a young, exciting team.
But La Russa is going to be front and center in whatever the Sox do in 2021. He’s playing nice with the media so far, injecting some humor into his video conferences. The perception, fair or not, is that he’s humorless, so any attempt at lightheartedness on his part is like watching a glacier finally give in to the warmth of the sun. It feels good, but you do wonder when the angry waves will hit the boat.
This is not what anyone would call the Golden Age of Guidance in Chicago sports. Part of that has to do with newness. La Russa and the Bulls’ Billy Donovan are in their first seasons with their teams, and the Cubs’ David Ross has one pandemic-shortened season under his belt. Part of it has to do with disappointment. Matt Nagy and the Bears have regressed since his first season. And part of it has to do with personality. Blackhawks fans looking for a spark from Jeremy Colliton might want to bring their own book of matches.
None of that means the five coaches/managers won’t turn into Chicago icons someday. But we’re in something of a lull, charisma-wise. There’s no Ditka. No Phil. No Ozzie. No Q. No Maddon. And, come to think of it, we’re in a lull championship-wise, too. Winning is sort of important.
What, exactly, do we have here when it comes to these maximum leaders? And where are they going? Let’s take a look.
Matt Nagy: He could have owned Chicago after his rookie season as a head coach.
The Bears went 12-4 in 2018, he won the NFL Coach of the Year award and he was lots of fun. His offense looked innovative, he ran trick plays and he made quarterback Mitch Trubisky appear to be halfway decent. What was there not to love?
Two years later, a more demanding, impatient owner than George McCaskey would have shown Nagy the door.
How did we get here? Turns out you need a quarterback and an offensive line to make an offense work. More than a couple of receivers help, too. And trick plays are to play-calling what wrapping is to a Christmas present. Nagy has looked lost while trying to fix what was supposed to be a cutting-edge offense. To save his job, he’ll need a quarterback.
It’s too bad. He’s interesting and mostly forthcoming. His players like him. The media like him. Football apparently doesn’t.
Jeremy Colliton: I’m not trying to be insulting, but if this guy dived into a pool, there wouldn’t be a ripple. It’s not all his fault. He followed the very popular and very successful Joel Quenneville, and he took over when the Hawks were very much not what they used to be.
Quenneville rarely said anything of import to the media, but he looked half-crazed on the Hawks’ bench. Colliton rarely says anything of import, and he looks half-thawed on the Hawks’ bench. Perhaps that’s part of the reason he doesn’t have the Q-rating that Q had.
Or it might be the lack of Stanley Cup titles. Yeah, that’s probably it. He’s fighting an uphill battle, but his team is playing well. Maybe, just maybe . . .
David Ross: Ross had Theo Epstein and a better roster last season, when the Cubs made the playoffs in his first year. Now Epstein is gone, and the franchise seems intent on — what’s the phrase? — saving money. Or, to put it another way, the Cubs traded ace Yu Darvish during the offseason, and the Cardinals acquired All-Star third baseman Nolan Arenado.
So whatever kind of manager and leader Ross might be has the chance of being swallowed up by fan disappointment over the direction of the franchise. He did a nice job last season with a veteran roster, but let’s see whether his lack of experience will matter when he has to start managing lesser players.
Billy Donovan: After the disastrous Jim Boylen regime, it was no surprise Donovan was greeted by palms being thrown at his feet.
Unlike Nagy, Colliton and Ross, the Bulls’ coach had success before coming to Chicago, going to the playoffs in five consecutive seasons with the Thunder and winning two national championships at Florida. So it’s all good for Donovan, who has done a nice job with a strange roster of pieces that don’t always seem to fit.
He’s what would be called a firm hand on the tiller, which might not excite the masses, but — and this can’t be overstated — he’s not Boylen.
Tony La Russa: It just feels like there are two ways this can go: very good or very bad.
La Russa has a vault of knowledge, thanks to his five decades in baseball, but can he relate to players who are 50 years younger than he is? Will his nine years away from managing affect his ability to do the job? And what about those pesky reporters for whom he historically has had little patience?
You know what you’re getting with Nagy, Colliton, Ross and Donovan. There’s a distinct feeling that La Russa is trying to reinvent himself/soften his image. He might be wrestling with himself while trying to manage a young team with World Series aspirations. Buckle up, Sox fans. It should be . . . interesting?