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Thursday, January 10, 2013

What we can learn about the firing of Brian Burke

 Bobby's got an uncle
He talks a mean streak
Makes more in an hour
Than Bobby in a week

He tells the boy
Don't waste your time
Be useless like your father
Nickel and dime

There's a million
Bobby's across this land
Everybody's got
Real big plans

When Brian Burke got fired on Tuesday morning as General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs I think we were all shocked.
We were not shocked that he got fired. All General Managers and Coaches/Managers in sports get fired. It is the nature of the business. There are very few that spend a lifetime with a team and then retire before they are sent packing. 
We were not shocked that he got fired as the GM of The Leafs. He was there more than 4 years and did not make the playoffs. A few times, they weren't even really close. He was going to get fired eventually for that.
We were not shocked that he got fired, but we were all shocked that
he got fired when he did and the way he did. But we should not have been. The corporate world is a cruel place. This is just another example of that.
When Brian Burke came to the Leafs it was a big deal. Huge deal. The fan base acted as if they had just traded for the messiah, and only had to give up a minor leaguer to get him. It was even postured that if the Leafs were really serious about winning, they would have to get him. And they did. Management was very persistent in their courtship with him, and gave him a very long contract for his troubles. And so began the Brian Burke era.
And what an era it was expected to be. For a team that is now more than 45 years since the last Stanley Cup Finals appearance, and 7 since even making the playoffs, he was expected to be the savior. The one who had done it before with other sad sack teams.
 Brian Burke was the one who engineered the coup that cemented the franchise. A brilliant draft day deal to get the Sedin twins and further put the building blocks of success for years to come.

After a few years, after Burke was gone, the Canucks made it to the Stanley Cup Finals. In many ways, Brian Burke made that happen.
His next stop was the Anaheim Ducks. He took a very bad team and took them all the way to the finals in only his second season with the club. In both places,  both the Canucks and Ducks decided not to renew his contract. That is telling. Why would they do such a thing? More about that shortly.
The other day I was reading about a player named Marvin Barnes. Almost nobody knows who Marvin Barnes is these days. I certainly didn't. Many who knew who he was back in the early 70's don't remember him now. When he came out of college, he was one of the best prospects for an NBA career. He was a very high draft pick (2nd overall in 1974), but decided to go for they big money and play in the ABA, which was an upstart and very inferior league to the NBA. 
Marvin Barnes also had lots of problems. He was nicknamed  "Bad News"

 His nickname, "Bad News", came from his frequent off-court problems. These began when he was a senior at Central High School. He was part of a gang that attempted to rob a bank. He was quickly identified as he was wearing his state championship jacket with his name embroidered on the back. His case was handled by the juvenile justice system. In 1972 while playing center for Providence College he attacked a teammate with a tire iron. The college took no action against him. He later plead guilty to assault, paid the victim $10,000 and was placed on probation. He violated probation in October 1976 when an unloaded gun was found in his bag at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport. For this he served 152 days in Rhode Island state prison.Upon release he returned to the Detroit Pistons. He has been arrested for burglary, drug possession, and trespassing Because of his drug use, his NBA career was cut short and he wound up homeless in San Diego, California in the early 80s.

-From Wikipedia

 Why was Marvin Barnes tolerated all those years. I will let him say it in his own words. They aren't words we haven't heard before and we all know this to be true. 

  "I'd be late for practices, miss team flights and did what I pleased.  Because of the numbers I put up management never really got too upset.  If they didn't care what I do, I don't care what I do."

 Now, Marvin Barnes is partly correct. He got away with what he did because he could produce. It wasn't that the team didn't care. They cared. But they cared more about winning and what he could do for them. If he was acting like that and was not the star of the team, they would have gotten rid of him. As long as you produce you can get away with all sorts of things. When you stop producing, you get cut. Fired. They don't care either way about you or what you do. They care about results. When you get results, that is what they care about most. When you don't, they don't need you anymore so they don't care either way.

As mentioned earlier, Brian Burke came in as the savior. The team knew of his reputation. He was loud, rambunctious and spoke his mind. He would challenge the media and not play the game many do. That was part of his package. As long as he was winning, nobody cared. In Vancouver and Anahiem, they got tired of that. They had already gotten what they wanted from him, so it was easy to get rid of him.
As time went on, it was clear that Burke was not getting results.  He made two very bad trades, one for Phil Kessel and another for Kris Versteeg. Both of those Burke claimed were going to immensely help the team become a winner. Neither has, and in fact he dumped Versteeg in less than one season. Finally, he gave out a contract extension to Ron Wilson, the coach when he did not have to, and only 3 months later had to fire him because things had broken down so badly. The bottom line was that his mistakes were adding up and his surly attitude would not be tolerated. 
In 2011, the Maple Leafs ownership changed. But Brian Burke had no intention of changing. He never has and he never will. It is for this reason that he will get another GM job in no time. With a team that needs propping up, that owner will take the chance on Burke and hope that his talent will outweigh his attitude. The new ownership of the Leafs did not want to do that anywhere. They are a huge corporate entity, and unless you produce extremely good results, you are going to get fired for the waves you cause.
Being the General Manager of a professional sports team is a very prestigious position. But in reality, you are just another rung on the food chain. There are many below you and many above you. Even when you appear to be the top dog, the reality is, in just about any situation, that there is someone above you who can decide at any time that you need and will be replaced.

"They didn’t dislike what Brian Burke was doing with the Toronto Maple Leafs. They just don’t like Brian Burke.
For “they’’ insert this name: George Cope.
Doesn’t ring a bell? That’s funny, actually.
Cope is president and CEO of BCE and Bell Canada, which jointly with Rogers now owns 75 per cent of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. The corporate consortium — Megabuckszilla — took custodianship of Canada’s most illustrious sports property from the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Fund last summer.
Cope wanted Burke out, sources have told the Star. Cope got his way. Didn’t like the cut of Burke’s jib, his personality, the perennially loosened tie, the combustible temper, the maverick independence, the swagger or the mouth that so often roared. The “branding’’ wasn’t right.
Thus, early Tuesday morning, Burke had his ticket punched as Leaf president and general manager. The mightiest of local sports executives has fallen – been felled — with one powerful swing of the axe, barely four years, non-playoff years, into his tenure."

-Rosie Dimanno

Brian Burke is just another in a long line of what happens to everyone. You will get used and abused and compensated well. Until they deem you of no use anymore,  and then you will get dumped. Fired. And if that firing has no class, and appears harsh, then too bad. That is just how the world works. Once you have no value, they have no class. 
That is what I will take from the Brian Burke firing, although that is hardly a new lesson I have learned. I could have written this blog just about once a week about countless others this has happened to.
It is the way of the world.   

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