RIP, Scotty Robertson

Daly’s predecessor as Pistons coach dies at 81

Scotty Robertson
Scotty Robertson
Richard Sheinwald, AP
Among the things that separate winning coaches from losing ones: timing.

Jack McCloskey made a run at Chuck Daly to be his head coach after the disastrous 16-win season of 1979-80, the one that began with Dick Vitale as Pistons coach and with McCloskey as an Indiana assistant. McCloskey arrived in December, surveyed the smoking remains of the Vitale era and attempted to salvage what little remained worth keeping.

Daly, who shared University of Pennsylvania roots with McCloskey, wanted more than Trader Jack – who doled out Bill Davidson’s money most judiciously in the early days – was willing to spend.

So he picked Scotty Robertson to be his first coach. Scotty Robertson, 81, died this week. He never got another shot at being an NBA head coach once the Pistons fired him two days after the 1982-83 season ended. He finished with a career record of 109-178.

He didn’t exactly go quietly when McCloskey canned him, either. He told reporters that he disagreed with the decision and predicted the next coach was going to reap the rewards for the groundwork he’d laid.

Who knows what might have happened if McCloskey had been a little more generous with his offer to Daly originally? Maybe Isiah Thomas and his teammates would have run out of patience with Daly after the Isiah’s second season, Robertson’s third – and, given that McCloskey was won over by Robertson once, maybe he would have been the pick when McCloskey went looking for a coach in the spring of 1983.

Timing. If George Steinbrenner leaves any legacy beyond restoring the Yankees to glory, it’s that. Steinbrenner’s propensity for firing managers made him a “Saturday Night Live” host and earned his character a recurring role on “Seinfeld,” but underneath all the mocking and laughter Steinbrenner inspired a larger point slowly emerged: The right manager for today’s team might not be the right manager for tomorrow’s.

It doesn’t mean that he’s any less qualified or insightful, only that his effectiveness has diminished. It’s not necessarily the manager or the coach that’s lousy – it’s the relationship between him and his team that’s flawed. And relationships – as anyone who’s ever been involved in a personal relationship of any length can attest – constantly evolve.

That makes tenures like Jerry Sloan’s particularly remarkable. But even Sloan’s run with Utah comes with an asterisk. The first requirement is enough talent to have a chance to put winning seasons together. Even great coaches doing their best work aren’t going to last long if a lack of talent undermines the possibility of success. Failure eventually poisons even a great coach’s credibility – with fans and with players. If New England hadn’t for some unknown reason given Bill Belichick a second chance after his disastrous stint with Cleveland, putting him on football’s Mount Rushmore now next to Lombardi and Halas and Shula would be laughable.

Sloan, of course, had that necessary first ingredient in Utah. The second need is the unwavering support of your best player or players. Sloan had that, too; John Stockton and Karl Malone always had his back. We now know Deron Williams butted heads with Sloan, and Sloan – who’d never turned his back to a challenge in his life – walked away in mid-season.

Flip Saunders lasted a decade in Minnesota for one very simple reason: Kevin Garnett believed in him. And Garnett, a perennial All-Star and MVP candidate, was perfectly comfortable being the bad cop in the locker room. Malingerers or those who had an issue with their coach … well, if Saunders was OK with Garnett, how could a player of half his stature push an agenda?

It’s easy now to endorse McCloskey’s firing of Scotty Robertson and hiring of Daly to replace him. McCloskey was clear at the time that the team’s inability to improve defensively under Robertson provoked the move, though it was also no secret that the team – Isiah, most notably – had come to bristle at Robertson’s style.

In the postscripts, it’s been said that Robertson was inflexible and that particularly grated on Isiah. But that’s probably an incomplete picture. Isiah played under Bobby Knight, and no coach in basketball history has been less flexible than Knight. It’s fair to speculate that at the root of Isiah’s dissatisfaction with Robertson was profound doubt of his ability to lead the Pistons past mediocrity. Robertson had taken the Pistons from 21 wins to 39 – the 21 came with Isiah a college sophomore, the 39 with him a Pistons rookie – to 37 when McCloskey pulled the plug.

There was no guarantee, of course, that Daly and Thomas would see eye to eye. Thomas was one of the most headstrong athletes Detroit sports or the NBA has ever known. I think his time with Knight probably was useful to the Pistons – and, no doubt, to Isiah himself – in teaching Isiah the need, even when it went against his best instincts, to go along with the coach’s wishes.

That only went so far, as the fraying of his relationship with Robertson proved. But it went far enough to give Daly a chance to win him over. One more thing about the Isiah-Daly relationship: Having been at least obliquely criticized for prompting Robertson’s ouster – as his close friend Magic Johnson had before that been for getting Paul Westhead fired in Los Angeles, which led to a spate of stories about the entitlement of the NBA’s new wave of superstars – Isiah was smart enough to know he had to give his second coach every chance to make it work.

So, again, if Scotty Robertson had followed Daly instead of preceding him, who knows how history would regard either coach today?

Robertson spent another lifetime in basketball after leaving the Pistons, most notably enjoying a long run as an assistant coach with Phoenix, where he remains beloved. He had friends across the league and, no doubt, there will be many toasts made and Scotty Robertson stories swapped in the days and weeks ahead.

The cold, hard reality of the record books, however, will forever show he was a 109-178 coach. Whatever else he might have lacked to ascend to basketball’s Hall of Fame, as his successor did, timing was not his ally.