In this state, there are men and women in their 20s who will wake up this morning and spend the first day of their lives with someone other than Jerry Sloan as head coach of the Utah Jazz. Gail Miller, whose late husband bought the team, kept it in Utah and made it prosper, may have said it best at Thursday's press conference when she told Sloan, "You've become an institution."
Not many coaches could shock an entire state by announcing their resignation. But then, not many coaches have kept their jobs for nearly 23 years. Sloan was the longest tenured coach in all major U.S. professional sports. He won 1,127 games and led the team to two trips to the NBA finals. In a state where, with apologies to Real Salt Lake, the Jazz is the only major big-league franchise, Sloan was the face of the team and also a symbol of the ethic of hard work and hustle.
Sloan's enduring quality was his ability to connect with the common fan, the average working stiff, the man or woman who either has to dig deep to buy a ticket or who relies on an office pool to win tickets paid for by an employer. Like those fans, he didn't seem to have much patience with millionaire athletes who wouldn't perform or who gave anything less than a complete effort. He was old-school in a community longing for old-time values. His short and blunt post-game appraisals of his team let people know he didn't care nearly as much about the entertainment value of professional basketball as he did about winning.
If you've been around a long time, you can remember Sloan as a player — the immovable object in the Chicago Bull's back court who never thought twice about holding his ground against a charging Wilt Chamberlain, that era's monster center. He coached much the same way he played, which was a lot similar to the way he works on his farm in Illinois, applying relentless pressure to stubborn tree stumps until they finally give.
The circumstances of his departure are surrounded by questions. Were frictions with players to blame? Were there disagreements with management over his coaching style? These may be ferreted out in days ahead. However, his insistence at the press conference that he had simply run out of energy seems entirely consistent with his character. If Sloan no longer felt he could give the job 100 percent, he wouldn't want to continue.
He left much the way he came. On a cold day in 1988, long-time coach Frank Layden suddenly resigned and left Sloan the job. His first comment when he sat in the chair Layden used for post-game interviews was, "This is a tough seat. It's a lot bigger than I thought."
Big as it was then, he expanded it greatly. As much as Jazz fans hope Tyrone Corbin excels as the new coach, they will never forget the Sloan era.