Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

A Hard Act to Follow

For twenty-six years, Sir Alex Ferguson has been the manager of Manchester United, a soccer team which takes part in that rather remarkable league called English Premier League football. And in that time, he has led that team to as many league titles as he has not.

That last sentence is a rather strange one. I am nonetheless rather proud of it, in spite of the fact that it almost plays down Mr. Ferguson’s accomplishment: thirteen Premier League titles in twenty-six seasons. If you’re an American sports fan, you might try to set Ferguson’s record in context by racking your brain, in search of the really successful sports team coaches or managers of your experience. Perhaps you may come up with names like Vince Lombardi, John Wooden, Joe Torre, or Phil Jackson.

In Lombardi’s football head coaching career with the Green Bay Packers, he led that team to five championship titles in ten seasons – a similar “winning percentage” to Ferguson’s, but over less than half the time. John Wooden led the UCLA men’s basketball team to ten NCAA titles in twelve seasons – a still-unmatched “winning percentage”, but again, during a career less than half the length of Ferguson’s time with Manchester United.

As a Red Sox fan, I have looked at Joe Torre’s record as skipper of the New York Yankees in the 1990s and 2000s with envy, but that record is four World Series titles in twelve years – again, he led his team to the championship only a paltry 33 percent of the time.

Phil Jackson might come close: he gets points for winning eleven NBA titles in 20 seasons, as coach of two different teams – but there are those who would give Ferguson more points for being with the same team for so long. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of anyone who has been coach or manager (title-winning or not) of an American sports team for 26 consecutive years – and I can’t imagine it happening any time soon.

As is the case with many charismatic sports team leaders, there are Ferguson anecdotes that would make people smile with admiration and respect, and there are also anecdotes describing his treatment of his players that would make any rational human being think, “that’s probably no way to treat another person.” (Throwing a soccer cleat in anger at David Beckham’s forehead, in the locker room, and drawing blood? Not what I’d want to be remembered for. Tellingly, during the season after that incident, Beckham was not with Manchester United, but Ferguson still was.)

But at the end of the day – at the end of this season, and at the end of this career – Ferguson’s record of achievement will be what is invoked. He took an unheralded Manchester United team and turned it into a thirteen-time Premier League champion and a worldwide name in sports. And at the end of his career, he had been coach of the same professional sports organization (and had survived and thrived in an pressurized environment of towering media and fan-base scrutiny) for longer than most of his players had been alive, let alone participants in the sport of soccer.

The topic which will inevitably arise, if it hasn’t already, among the fans and followers of Manchester United is this: who will be the next Man U manager? And who can … who could … who would want to try to … follow Sir Alex Ferguson?

As a Boston sports fan for the last forty or so years (oh oww), I have had opportunities to ponder this series of questions. Boston has a nice little history of success (coupled with contrasting runs of futility, which of course set the successes into sharper relief); and when a Boston sports figure is visited with great accomplishment, we can’t imagine life without him. When Bobby Orr left the Bruins, it took me effort even to think of the names of any other Bruin defensemen, right away. The first year that the Celtics team roster didn’t include Larry Bird, Kevin McHale or Robert Parish, it felt like the Earth’s rotation had paused. And there probably aren’t too many people who can name the first people who stepped into those people’s roles immediately thereafter. I’ve used this phrase often: “someone will succeed them, but no one will ever replace them.”

It’s always difficult to be “the new guy”. And it’s really tough to be the one who has to follow successful people.

Again, the Bostonian in me pauses to reflect:

Terry Francona achieved legendary status by being the manager who led the Red Sox to not one but two World Series in four seasons, after the storied franchise suffered its equally-storied 86-year championship drought. His title-winning percentage was only 25 percent – hardly Wooden-esque. But when Francona stepped down as Sox manager, I remember being ready to feel badly for whomever came next. That fellow, Bobby Valentine, lasted just one season – which probably had more to do with his management style than with the man he was following, But following Francona – the man who broke The Curse – would have been hard to do in any case.

There are those of us who wonder what life will be like when the coach and quarterback of the New England Patriots aren’t Bill Belichick and Tom Brady – and their title-winning percentage, huge for the once-hapless franchise, is only 23 percent: three titles in 13 years.

I frankly can’t even remember who coached the Bruins just before Claude Julien brought his professional hockey approach to Boston just a couple of years ago and helped bring the Stanley Cup back to the Hub.

And when Arthur Fiedler passed away, after having been conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra for nearly fifty years, he was succeeded by composer and conductor John Williams. Williams, on the strength of his musical experience, not the least of which included his Star Wars, Superman, E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind movie-score successes, might have been among the very few names who could have carried off such a transition. Even so, he had his hands full convincing a number of the Pops musicians in his early time in Boston. And when Williams decided to depart the Pops, the startlingly young and (to New Englanders) relatively unknown Keith Lockhart was handed probably the most difficult task in Boston music history: take up the Pops mantle and follow the combined legacy of Williams and Fiedler.

On the smaller scale of my own professional life, I’ve observed or experienced the “hard to follow the legend” effect a few times.

The gentleman who was the choir director at the church where I grew up passed away after having held that position for twenty years. At the time, the average length of time spent in any one church-musician job was estimated to be not quite one-sixth that long. The young woman who was chosen as his successor was very different from him: she was probably forty years younger, she was a she (which constituted a new and challenging experience for some of the choir members), and she happened to be a classically-trained singer (our late choir director’s primary instrument was percussion). She was only at our church for a couple of years before moving back to the Midwest; but while her predecessor’s framed picture is still on the wall in our little chapel, she is remembered with great fondness (and more than a few mischievous giggles) by folks who sang with her then and are still around now.

I have chronicled, in this space, the process of transition that took place after the sudden passing of my college band director, who had held that position with nearly unprecedented success and national influence for thirty-three years. In one of those posts, I described my own experience as the guy whose job it was to follow another local college band director who had held that position with distinction for twenty-five years. Happily for me, he made it easier than it might otherwise have been; but there were still early moments of struggle (not by him!) – easily understood; no apology necessary.

At the beginning of this calendar year, I went to work in just the third new school district of my teaching career. In a rare occurrence for this profession, it was the first time I’d actually followed any “former music teacher” in that position. My first position was small, newly-created, and short-lived (it was eliminated after a year). The mandate from the principal at the second school I ever taught at was, “build a program” – there hadn’t been a full-time music teacher there for at least the previous couple of years. Four months ago, I stepped into a position in which I was following a gentleman who was a very popular and accomplished teacher. I’ve heard lots and lots of glowing reviews about him. The high school singers he’d left in place were quite a skilled bunch, which has been great for technical music-making (my first concert with them was this past week – there was some fine singin’ that night) … and at the same time they obviously missed him. A lot. And I’ve tried – using an anecdote from my own recent experience – to let them know that I understood at least a little bit about where their heads were.

The job of “the new guy” – no matter what the occupation, no matter what the position – is not (nor should it be) to make everyone forget his or her predecessor. And it’s not (nor should it be) to be just like that person, no matter how much the fans, or the media, or the ensemble, or the alumni, wish that could be the case. If the “new guy” does his or her job well, s/he will honor the accomplishments and influence of his or her predecessor where that is appropriate and helpful; and s/he will build on past successes. My college band director said, during a college class that taught music education majors what it took to direct school bands, “It takes ten years to build up a program; and only one year to tear it down.”

Whoever the person is who will be the manager of the Manchester United football club will have my sympathy, and my empathy. He will be endlessly compared to Sir Alex Ferguson, fairly or not. With luck, he will understand that everything he can do to try to be a successful manager may not be enough for some fans, or media, or players. And, it can be hoped, even if he isn’t the next Sir Alex, he can find some success – or at least he’ll not be so dispirited by the experience that he’ll be discouraged from ever trying to find success anywhere else, afterward.


May 11, 2013 - Posted by | band, baseball, celebrity, choir, education, entertainment, Famous Persons, football, GNP, marching band, media, music, sports, Starred Thoughts, SUMC, teachers, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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