Monday, December 11, 2006
Morrow hire was a gutsy move by Hitchcock
Somewhere along the Vegas strip at this very moment, someone is fidgeting on a blackjack table, about to swallow hard and take that tough hit on "16."
FC Dallas general manager Michael Hitchcock should know exactly how that high roller feels. After Monday's announcement that former FCD assistant Steve Morrow will become the club's fourth head coach, Hitchcock is undertaking the general managers' version of hitting on 16. That is, he had a pretty decent hand already, but he's wagering a big sum that he can create a better one. Morrow was the top assistant under recently dismissed Colin Clarke. Hitchcock, seeing a good assemblage of talent but assessing that it had reached a plateau, fired a coach who had 29 wins over the last two seasons. That total matched Houston and New England, just two victories behind D.C. United over the same period. So there are two people whose MLS fortunes might hinge on this decision: Morrow and Hitchcock. Morrow, obviously, will be watched closely in his first managerial test. He's the 11th former MLS player to move into a league coach's role, and he'll lean heavily on his education at Arsenal to fill in the potholes at Pizza Hut Park. "I don't want to dwell on the past very much," Morrow said. "Colin and I are very, very different coaches. I don't want to be seen as criticizing Colin in any way. I want to be judged on my own right as a coach. "Over the coming months, my qualities as a coach and my style will become very, very apparent." But Hitchcock, too, will be judged off this choice, especially because he rolled the dice and selected a holdover from a deposed coach's staff. Hitchcock was hired at FC Dallas mainly to sell tickets, but he also had the ultimate say in this decision and has become heavily involved in the player-personnel end. Clark Hunt, Lamar's son, apparently will not be a meddler in the way he runs his organizations. He'll hire the GMs and let them have at it, providing input, of course, but ultimately permitting the latitude to live or die with these weighty choices. (Although Lamar Hunt retains a say in FC Dallas matters, it's Clark Hunt who is increasingly in charge of Hunt Sports Group matters. Clark, not Lamar, is on the MLS competition committee, for instance.) Reaching back into a dismissed coach's staff is a rarity for general managers, who usually seek new ideas and directions when they swap managers. Particularly so in this case, since FC Dallas' weaker point last year was defense, which is Morrow's specialty. "If it doesn't work out, I should be held accountable," Hitchcock said. "And if it does work out," he said with a big grin, holding his finger and thumb about an inch apart, "I want just a little bit of the credit." Basically, Hitchcock said, he knows he'll be judged on whether FC Dallas wins or loses. To that extent, he didn't let himself worry about perceptions, politics and history. He simply wanted to hire the best fit, he said. So he took 12 semifinalists and narrowed the list to four. From there, he and the Hunt Sports Group leaders conducted final interviews and tossed around opinions. Still, the final choice was Hitchcock's. Morrow, 36, promises to repay Hitchcock's faith. The former Northern Ireland international has already stamped his imprint on the club, having been heavily involved with important personnel decisions over the last month. Hitchcock and Morrow traded Ronnie O'Brien. And two other starters, defender Bobby Rhine and holding midfielder Simo Valakari, have yet to be offered contracts for 2007. They'll meet with Morrow this week to gain a better foothold on their situations. In hiring a man from the previous regime, Hitchcock is gambling that the team has sufficient talent already and simply requires some tweaking here and there. So how different is Morrow from Clarke? Morrow was reluctant to even divulge general philosophical deviations from Clarke. Clarke, after all, gave Morrow the chance to become an assistant after he retired from FC Dallas in 2003. So Morrow is being extra sensitive here. "I have a clear view of where I want to take this team," Morrow said. "I believe we have an extremely talented group of players. With a few adjustments and additions to be made, we're on the brink of achieving great things." Assistant coaches can certainly be loyal to their bosses yet have their own thoughts. So it was, apparently, when Morrow sat at Clarke's right hand. That's nothing unusual. Maybe one manager values a one-dimensional holding midfielder more than another manager. Perhaps one of them assigns more value to attacking ability in the outside fullbacks, whereas another wants defenders who specialize in, well, defending. Morrow hinted that he'd be after the latter, which might not be good news for Rhine, a converted forward. Or maybe one manager is more keen on young talent, whereas another wants to nurse the toddlers along more slowly. The point is, Morrow isn't necessarily Clarke on matters all over the park. So in that way, Hitchcock simply picked the coach who had the best answers in interviews and seemed to fit the situation best. But Hitchcock's gamble will ultimately play out in the court of public opinion. The problem with selecting from a deposed manager's staff is that it limits fan and media patience during times of trouble. The public will provide less benefit of the doubt if things start going sideways. They might hope that Morrow can succeed, but they might also be quick to say, "Well, what did you expect?" if some of the same problems arise. That will be especially true in Morrow's case, for he was definitely Clarke's most trusted assistant. Morrow ran most of the training sessions. And it was Morrow, not the other two assistants, who generally huddled with Clarke on the sidelines to debate potential substitutions on match day.
Three of Hitchcock's finalists would have been something of a gamble. SMU's Schellas Hyndman has been a career college coach. Jeff Agoos has never been a professional coach. D.C. United assistant Tom Soehn would have been the safer choice. Then again, Soehn doesn't know the team as Morrow does. And since this is hardly a reclamation project, since the team doesn't appear to be far off its ultimate target, Hitchcock is gambling that a seldom-seen maneuver (plucking from the deposed man's staff) will pay off. "Steve and Colin were a terrific tandem and they complemented each other very well," Hitchcock said. "But Steve is a different type of coach, and is going to lead this team differently." Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.