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Fisher, Sloan are champions without rings

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Posted Feb. 16, 2011 @ 12:52 p.m. ET
By Eli Kaberon

Because of what he and his team accomplished earlier this month at Cowboys Stadium, the first sentence of Mike McCarthy's bio will always include the phrase "Super Bowl XLV champion."

Maybe it's unfair, but coaches will always be judged by their ability to win titles. Tony Dungy was run out of Tampa because of his inability to capture a Lombardi Trophy despite turning the once-rotten Buccaneers into championship contenders. Yet, after he won a ring in Indianapolis, his career was validated. Mike Shanahan won a grand total of one playoff game in his final 10 seasons as Broncos head coach, but since that had been preceded by back-to-back Super Bowl titles, the coach was given a $35 million contract last offseason by the Redskins.

Everlasting acclaim — that's the perk for winning a title. McCarthy included, there are only six active NFL head coaches who have won a Super Bowl. They aren't necessarily the six smartest coaches in the sport or the six most likely to go down as all-time greats. But for at least one year during their careers, they were the best the league had to offer, a reason their teams were crowned champions.

Jeff Fisher never won a Super Bowl, and now he is no longer an active head coach. Many years from now, when people look back on his coaching career, the first thing that's likely to be brought up is Fisher's lack of a championship. The coach spent 17 seasons with the same franchise, taking it from Houston to Tennessee, leading it to four division titles, helping build an identity for the Titans organization as a tough, hardworking group that plays the game the right way. As the league's longest-tenured head coach, Fisher had the respect of his peers and was still considered to be one of the NFL's top leaders prior to his departure from the Titans on Jan. 27.

Yet with an empty trophy case, save for an AFC title in 1999, Fisher's legacy is likely to be his inability to win the big one.

In basketball, the same legacy is likely to be bestowed on former Utah Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan. Like Fisher, Sloan was the longest-tenured coach in his sport, having led his organization for an astounding 22½ seasons. Utah was a model of consistency under its coach, making the playoffs in 19 of those seasons despite constant changes to the roster and to the sport's rules, along with the balance of power in the NBA shifting to the Western Conference. Twice, Sloan's Jazz made it to the NBA Finals in the late '90s, but they fell in heartbreaking fashion to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls on both occasions.

On Feb. 10, Sloan surprised the sports world by stepping down from his post after all those seasons and no championships.

The similarities for Fisher and Sloan are more than just their longevity and lack of titles. Both were hard-nosed players who played in Chicago — Fisher for the Bears from 1981-84, Sloan with the Bulls from 1966-76. Neither coach ever wavered from his philosophy despite changes to their personnel — Eddie George averaged 22.3 carries per game for the Titans in 1997, Chris Johnson averaged 22.4 carries per game 12 seasons later; Sloan ran the same flex offense in the '80s and '90s with Hall of Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone that he did this past decade when both players were retired. The parallels of the two coaches were nearly identical in the end, too, as both Fisher and Sloan left their jobs in large part because they couldn't get along with one of their star players.

The fact that neither Fisher nor Sloan ever had Gatorade poured on his head or was immortalized on a banner doesn't alter the impact each had on his respective sport. Both won more than 54 percent of the regular-season games they coached (Sloan was above 60 percent), a tremendous accomplishment given the number of contests they led their teams into. Day after day, week after week, year after year, supporters of the Titans and Jazz could count on their teams being well-coached and competitive, something a lot of fan bases wished they could say about the squads they cheer for.

So while McCarthy's bio will include his well-deserved note of being champion, it's important to remember that one season of glory is not the only way to become a coach worth remembering. Fisher's Titans fell one yard short of a ring in Super Bowl XXXIV. Sloan's Jazz were narrowly defeated twice by the greatest athlete of a generation. Still, each brought success and stability to a franchise that was lacking both traits, before each man stepped down with the same grace and class he had while roaming the sideline.

They might not have won a championship, but both coaches were clearly champions of their professions.

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