BOSTON — It's raining dollar bills in the National Basketball Association and the guys getting drenched this time are the coaches, not the mega-salary players.
The dismal Philadelphia 76ers began what has become the most remarkable week of coaching changes in professional basketball history by making Larry Brown the richest coach in sports, briefly. The very next day, his $25 million, five-year contract was outdone by the even more desperate Boston Celtics, who inked Rick Pitino to a 10-year package worth an estimated $70 million. And now the Indiana Pacers have made former Celtic Larry Bird a coaching offer - reportedly valued at $4.5 million a year with a piece of ownership.
While Bird has yet to sign on with the Pacers (or accept a new front-office job with the Celtics), his courtship and the signings of Pitino and Brown are significant in two respects:
*They are beacons in the dawning era of platinum pro coaches.
*They demonstrate the financial lengths to which teams will go to make sure the coach has clear responsibility and authority for producing a winner.
Star players often enjoy more staying power than coaches, who are vulnerable to the slings and arrows of higher-paid, discontented athletes. (Penny Hardaway reportedly influenced the decision to fire Orlando coach Brian Hill this year.)
But increasingly, coaches are becoming hot commodities in their own right, commanding sensational contracts for the image and respect they can bring to a hungry team. Modern coaches have refined the ability to project an aura of supreme self-confidence that sells, sometimes literally.
Writing books is a popular image-building pastime among the self-salesmen. New York Jets football coach Bill Parcells came out with "Finding a Way to Win," New Jersey Nets basketball coach John Calipari shared his story in "Refuse to Lose," and Pitino has been promoting his latest book, "Success Is a Choice."
Then there's Pat Riley of the NBA's Miami Heat, who may be the epitome of a coach with cachet. A popular motivational speaker with a GQ profile, he has coached in New York and Los Angeles, and has parlayed four championships with the Los Angeles Lakers into a strong bargaining position. The Heat pay him $3 million a year and have made him a minority owner - a clause guaranteed to get a player's attention.
To be successful in a league where the average player salary is $2.2 million requires leverage, and a coach may need to make as much if not more than many of his players.
Phil Jackson, the coach of the Chicago Bulls, speaks of the importance of salary in Terry Pluto's book, "Falling from Grace: Can Pro Basketball Be Saved?"
"Players are very aware of the circumstances under which a coach is hired," he says. "Some player will look at a low-paid coach and say, 'He's making less than the lowest-paid player on our team. What kind of credibility does he have?' On a team, it gets to be a world measured by the dollar."
Some coaches, such as Riley, assume the responsibilities of the coach and chief executive, giving them added stature in the eyes of the players. Pitino, too, has a dual title: head coach and president.
Phil Taylor, who covers the NBA for Sports Illustrated, says it's "next to impossible to get the respect of the players unless the coach has full authority."
This, he feels, has sometimes kept quality college coaches from leaving secure positions. But now that NBA teams seem ready to raise the status of known winners, and give them a superstar's salary to boot, he expects some of the big-name college coaches to accept pro posts.
Perhaps the next NBA coach to enter the salary stratosphere will be Chicago's Jackson. Given his achievements (four NBA titles), one can only imagine what Jackson might be offered - especially by the Bulls, who may need him in order to keep Michael Jordan from retiring.
Teams like Chicago and New York are affluent enough to support high-class coaching tastes, and unlike player salaries, there is no cap on what coaches are paid. The sky, for now, is the limit.