By: Kurt Snyder
Mike Ilitch has built a huge empire built with cheese and pepperoni. He’s been blessed with the ability to be able to own 2 professional sports franchises in Detroit. It took a long time for him to win with the Wings, but when he did, the Cups overflowed as Lord Stanley made 4 trips to Detroit.
The Wings have been blessed with a pretty long line of quality head coaches once they started to get a taste of winning; guys like Scotty Bowman and Mike Babcock, who were responsible for leading those teams to the 4 championships. High priced players performed for the best coaches in the game, with Scotty Bowman maybe being the best coach ever.
It became expected in Detroit. Great teams would be led by great coaches and great managers. And once Ilitch decided to invest heavily in his baseball team, big time players began to walk in the door, bringing with them evidence of a fair amount of commitment to a franchise that was fresh off the dreadful season of 2003.
Dave Dombrowski gets lots of credit for bringing Jim Leyland to Detroit who wasted little time in leading the Tigers to the Series in 2006. Now many don’t feel like I do about Leyland, but despite his failure to win championships in Detroit, he was considered by his peers to be one of the best managers in the game.
There has been a lot of pressure to win under Mike Ilitch. Dombrowski had the burden of working under the “win now” edict handed down to him annually by Mr. I. The more the Tigers came up short, the more money he would spend on the next big star. Minor league talent was sacrificed for stars from other cities, always thought to be that key piece that would take this team over the top.
And he had Leyland. And in Leyland, they felt they had the right guy; a hardnosed experienced leader, who had been there, who had fought the battles, and won.
Of course they felt that way. Why on earth would you invest such big money on a roster if you didn’t have someone familiar with the process; an experienced pedigree.
Fast forward to Brad Ausmus; a hire that Dave Dombrowski felt was a slam dunk. Why didn’t we sniff this one out? When you look at Mike Ilitch’s history, was the hiring of Ausmus consistent with how he chose managers and head coaches for teams primed to win titles?
I think most average fans were on board with the hire. We had all trusted Dave Dombrowski. And we certainly trusted Mike Ilitch to always come through with the big, exciting and impressive move for the Tigers. But this one was different and again, most were ok with it. With Jim Leyland stepping aside, it did seem like a good time for a new direction, a younger perspective with a more modern approach to managing.
But the huge payroll didn’t go away. There was still that risk that you were handing the car keys to a kid not yet grown enough to reach the steering wheel, much less drive a very expensive car. That would be fine for a team rebuilding. But the Tigers haven’t been in rebuild mode for a long time. So the hiring of Brad Ausmus or anyone like him, for that reason alone, hasn’t made sense and shouldn’t have made sense at the time.
But it’s not Brad’s fault he hasn’t had more success in Detroit. The man interviewed for a major league managerial job and he got it. But the Tigers were not in the market for a wet- behind-the-ears manager, and it’s very puzzling that Ilitch would be even remotely warm to the idea, given the financial commitment he had to protect.
We have seen recently that Chris Ilitch has been given more control within the family empire. It’s only natural. Mike needs help, as we all will if we are lucky enough to live into our 80’s. But we are talking about help with getting through a typical day, not help with running a professional sports franchise with one of the highest payrolls in the league.
So I really wonder how much Mike was in tune with what Dombrowski was proposing for his team over 2 years ago. It wasn’t a decision consistent with how both the Red Wings and Tigers have made hires in the past. Championship hopeful teams in Detroit, not once, have been handed over to inexperienced head coaches and managers …until now.
Brad Ausmus just happened to be in the right place at the right time in order to benefit. He is gaining valuable managerial experience; sacrificing winning on Mike Ilitch’s dime.