Jaap Stam's excellence as a player won't make him a great coach at FC Cincinnati, but it won't hurt

Sporting News

The video introducing new head coach Jaap Stam to fans of FC Cincinnati in particular and Major League Soccer in general in particular serves primarily as a lesson in what a magnificent player he was two decades ago. He was a mountain of a defender, and yet a mountain who could move. You did not go through him. You did not go around him.

Mostly, when you played Stam, you lost. At Manchester United, he appeared 50 times in central defense for the club’s legendary “treble” winners in 1998-99 and won three Premier League titles. He reached another Champions League final with AC Milan in 2005 and won the Eredivisie in the Netherlands with PSV Eindhoven. He twice was named the top defender in the UEFA Champions League.

In North America, we have been conditioned to believe being an all-time great player means little relative to one’s ability to successfully run an athletic team. Bill Belichick never played in the NFL. The Raptors’ Nick Nurse played one season of professional basketball — in England. Only three of the past 30 coaches to win the NCAA Tournament played in the NBA; neither Tony Bennett, Kevin Ollie nor Billy Donovan ever averaged more than 6.5 points per game.

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In more than a half-century of Super Bowls, the one Pro Football Hall of Fame player to coach his team to a title was Mike Ditka. Only two men who played in the game have coached in it during the past 10 years, and one of them, Gary Kubiak, appeared because his Denver Broncos were getting blown out and he gave starting QB John Elway a rest.

Of the players named by Sports Illustrated as the top 10 in NBA history, only Bill Russell won a championship as a coach, and that was when he was his own best player. When he tried coaching in a suit, he had a sub-.500 record. Magic Johnson lasted only 16 games, Wilt Chamberlain just a single season. It has been the same in baseball; Rogers Hornsby won a World Series when he was a player-manager hitting over .400 and winning a Triple Crown, but he was under .500 for his career. Ty Cobb never managed a team that finished higher than second. Ted Williams had a losing record.

Soccer around the world is different. Real Madrid’s Zinedine Zidane, revered as one of the greatest players in the game’s history, won three consecutive Champions League titles as Real Madrid manager from 2016 to 2018 and has the club in a furious title race — albeit presently suspended — against FC Barcelona this season.

Zidane is one of several coaches who have won the UEFA Champions League as both player and coach. There have been three this decade, including Carlo Ancelotti and Pep Guardiola. And most others to win the Champions League since 2010 also were high-level players: Jupp Heynckes is No. 3 all time in Bundesliga goals and was part of West Germany squads that won the 1972 European Championship and 1974 World Cup. Luis Enrique earned 62 caps for Spain and played in three World Cups. Roberto Di Matteo played 34 times for Italy, including at the 1998 World Cup.

Among the 10 players who joined Zidane on World Soccer magazine’s Greatest XI — the list of the sport’s all-time best compiled in a vote of 73 experts in 2013 — three others were extremely successful coaches. Franz Beckenbauer coached Germany to the 1990 World Cup title. Alfredo di Stefano won two league championships in Argentina and one in Spain. And Johann Cruyff coached FC Barcelona to four consecutive La Liga titles and the 1992 European Cup, the forerunner of the Champions League.

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When Zidane was asked by Sporting News in 2017 why he would want to be a coach after investing so much of his life in the game as a player, he responded at first with a single Spanish word: pasion. And then he continued.

“I think what I’ve always liked is being on the football field, as a player and now as a coach. Nothing else,” he said. “The day I see that I’m not the most happy, I’ll change my life. But right now, I like what I’m doing and where I am because, in some ways, I’m at the best club in the world and I’m also writing my story with this club, where I was a player and now am a manager.”

In other American sports, it has become an axiom that the elite player can struggle to communicate with those less gifted.

And yet it is precisely that ability that has made Zidane such a smashing success.

“I think a lot of it comes down to communication,” Brian Dunseth, host of Sirius/XM’s “Counter Attack,” told SN in 2017. “What separates the best managers is the ability to communicate — the ability to recognize situations that are happening and fix them immediately. They create scenarios for players in training sessions that they are then able to run on instinct during games. You have to plan for every possible scenario in those 90 minutes because of the lack of timeouts.”

Being a great soccer player is no guarantee of success as a coach, of course. Stam has not yet demonstrated consistent excellence in this profession. He has done some good work and has also struggled at times.

At Reading in England, competing in the Championship, he led the club to the promotion playoffs in 2016-17, but the following year was a massive disappointment. He coached at PEC Zwolle and Feyenoord in the Netherlands, resigning last October after 18 games.

FC Cincinnati was the weakest team in MLS last season. That was no major surprise. It was the club’s first year in the league. FCC was a tremendous box-office success — ranking third in the league behind Seattle and Atlanta, with an average crowd of 27,336 — but its soccer operation was not as advanced. Gerard Nijkamp was not hired as general manager until nearly three months into the season.

So Stam has plenty of room to improve FCC.

He called himself the team’s new “head coach” rather than manager, so he already is in step with the lexicon of American sports.

“I’m very delighted to be part of the big family,” Stam said in his video. “I know it’s a very big project. Everybody’s excited to do very well and to get the max out of what we’re doing.

“We’d like to set records, like to win games and hopefully win trophies, as well. … Hopefully, together with all the fans as well, we can make it a nice story, a big story.”

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