In Depth

Brian Burke joins list of oddly timed sports firings

Recently sacked Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke isn't the first sports figure to get the pink slip at a curious time. Check out some of the other strangely timed moves.
Going behind the bench for New Jersey may have made the normally impassive Lou Lamoriello happy, while keeping hockey observers guessing. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

There was plenty of evidence to marshal against Brian Burke after over four seasons as president and general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The team hadn't made the playoffs in any of the seasons. His first chosen hire for coach, Ron Wilson, seemingly couldn't get the Leafs to kill off consecutive penalties and clashed badly with the media. Burke was steadfast about a forward corps marked by two lines of skill and two lines of grit, a formula that was arguably looking anachronistic given the recent success of deep teams like Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles.

But most hockey observers still found it odd that Burke was released just days before the beginning of a season that's already been tumultuous without games even being played yet.

Here's a list of some other curiously timed changes involving coaches and managers from modern sports history.

Mike Brown, Los Angeles Lakers, 2012

The Lakers aren't new to this kind of thing. Paul Westhead coached the super-talented Lakers during their 1980 championship run, but was fired 18 months later after a 2-4 start. It was widely reported to be as a result of a fractious relationship with budding star Magic Johnson, though opinions differ on whether that was the truth. Pat Riley took over, with the Lakers reaching the final seven times in eight years and winning four more crowns.

Exactly 30 years later, Los Angeles let Brown go after a 1-3 opening to the season despite a cast that now included Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to go along with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. Rumours of a return to the bench for 11-time champion Phil Jackson abounded, but after a brief stint where capable Bernie Bickerstaff guided the team, Mike D'Antoni got the eventual call.

Result: Could this stellar collection of individuals miss the playoffs? As of this writing, the Lakers are 15-20 under D'Antoni, 11th in the West.

Claude Julien, New Jersey Devils, 2007

Lou Lamoriello has rarely done the popular thing on or off the ice. He canned Robbie Ftorek with eight games to go in the 1999-00 season, capped off by a New Jersey Stanley Cup with Larry Robinson at the helm. Fast forward seven years, and Lamoriello shook up the 47-24-8 Devils (2nd in the East) with three games left in the season, removing Julien. The replacement? Lamoriello himself, who had just 50 or so games of NHL head coaching experience.

Result: The Devils got by the Lightning in the first round of the playoffs but fell to Ottawa in the next session. Brent Sutter was hired in the summer to go behind the bench.

Billy Martin, New York Yankees, 1978

Cantankerous owner George Steinbrenner averaged nearly a managerial change per season over his first 23 years of stewardship, with Martin the skipper on five separate occasions, so it's hard to pick just one instance.

On the surface, replacing Martin in July 1978 with Bob Lemon wouldn't count. Martin had worn everyone out with his battles with slugger Reggie Jackson and his drunken fights with tavern patrons around the U.S. Even the timing of that specific move wasn't totally suspect, as New York trailed in the East. But it was the next specific "move" that was a head scratcher. Days after, the Yankees had legendary announcer Bob Shepard tell the crowd at their Oldtimers Day that in 1980 Lemon would be shifted upstairs to GM, with the new manager to be No. 1 ... Billy Martin.

Result: The Yankes launched their legendary 14½-game comeback on the Red Sox and won the World Series under Lemon, who famously called each individual player by the charming nickname "Meat." Martin actually replaced Lemon earlier than scheduled, during the 1979 campaign, but was fired at the end of that season in favour of Dick Howser.

Joao Saldanha, Brazil national team, 1970

Saldanha led Brazil through its South American qualifiers but was hardly Mr. Popularity, clashing with superstar Pele, and employing a 4-2-4 system much to the chagrin of many. Still, the sacking of Saldanha in favour of the more placid former national team member Mario Zagallo just ahead of the World Cup in Mexico, coupled with a disappointing 1966 showing, meant that the Brazilians were far from the tournament favourites.

Result: Brazil put on an offensive clinic, outscoring foes by a total of 19-7 in six straight wins. They downed the Italians 4-1 to win the World Cup for the third time, and are now viewed by many observers as the best team in soccer history. 

Denis Savard, Chicago Blackhawks, 2008

The Blackhawks were in the doldrums when team legend Savard replaced Trent Yawney as coach in 2006. Savard led the Blackhawks to unspectacular but clear progress in his next 140-odd games at the helm, though the team was still short of a playoff berth.

The Blackhawks decided to cast their lot in 2008-09 with Savard again, so it was strange when they went in a different direction after just three regular-season games. The fact Joel Quenneville had been hired by the organization in the summer as a scout seemed unfair to Savard and certainly gave things a "coach in waiting" feel.

Result: Quenneville's Blackhawks reached the West final that season, winning the Stanley Cup the following spring.

Marty Schottenheimer, San Diego Chargers, 2006

When you coach a team that gets upset in its first playoff game, you're on the firing line. But there were plenty of extenuating circumstances. The Chargers had improved by five games to go 14-2 during the season, the fifth under Schottenheimer. They were "upset" by three-time Super Bowl champion New England. And it was certainly beyond Schottenheimer's control that Marlon McCree decided to return a Tom Brady interception with a lead late in the game instead of just falling to the ground and letting his offence run down the clock. Instead, McCree was stripped of the ball, giving Brady the chance he would need to throw a go-ahead TD.

Result: Not surprisingly, the Chargers couldn't maintain that regular-season standard the next season. But they still finished a healthy 11-5 under Norv Turner and actually went further in the playoffs, winning two playoff games before losing in the AFC title game against the Patriots. Alas, Turner would also finish a lengthy tenure with an offensively talented Chargers bunch without a Super Bowl to his credit.

Eric Tillman, Edmonton Eskimos, 2012

You could easily make a case that general manager Tillman shouldn't have been hired by the Esks in the first place. Yes, he had many accomplishments in a long CFL executive career, but also five previous kicks at the can. How many is enough? More egregiously, he had a sexual assault conviction to his name after an incident with a babysitter.

Tillman didn't help his on-the-job cause by trading to Toronto star quarterback Ricky Ray, second in this era at the position to only Anthony Calvillo.

But the Eskimos decided to fire Tillman not when they were 5-8 and in the midst of a five-game skid. Instead, Tillman was turfed one week before their playoff game. Clearly they didn't want the media-friendly Tillman making the rounds in the days ahead of the contest. Edmonton lost to those same Argos, who would go on to win the championship under the impressive Ray.

Crowdsourcing time. We know about Harold Ballard's shenanigans with Roger Neilson and Michel Therrien being replaced by Dan Bylsma — which would easily be viewed as not curious at all. Any other examples? Let us know in the comments below.