Professional sports is a callous world in which sensitivity is rare and exigency is king. But the way Gene Shue and John Riggins were fired this week was raw, even by those low standards. No sad scene is more familiar than the aging star being dragged out the door, unless it's the sight of one dutiful career coach being recycled in favor of another. Still, isn't there a sticking point? Have we forgotten how to blush?
Pro sports executives have an occupational liability. They care so much about their teams, agonize so much over each loss and pay so much attention to details that they sometimes, without bad motives, lose their sense of context. Among NBA owners, Abe Pollin is considered one of the most patient and fair. Among NFL coaches, Joe Gibbs is considered fairly compassionate. Nonetheless, they're not immune to the flaw of missing the forest for the trees.
Maybe that's why the Washington Redskins and Washington Bullets could not see the obvious this week. Riggins deserved another year, Shue another month.
How could the Bullets boot Shue, who coached the franchise for 13 years, so they could hire Kevin Loughery? And do it just 13 games before the playoffs.
How could the Redskins fire Riggins, who led them to their greatest hours since World War II, when he desperately wanted to play another year? And when he was just two rushing touchdowns shy of Jim Brown's all-time career record.
Many will point out that Shue's career percentage is an almost perfect commentary on his coaching ability -- almost 50 percent. He's an average NBA coach. Also, the Bullets were frequently a bore under his laidback leadership. He might have been fired almost any time in the last three years and no sit-ins on the Capital Centre steps would have resulted. Nevertheless, he played for the original Bullets. He coached the team seven seasons in Baltimore and the last six seasons in Washington. If he wasn't a company man, who ever was?
When the Bullets were in danger of being truly awful in the early '80s, Shue helped keep their heads at .500 and maintain the club's shaky base of fan support. In other words, the Bullets owe Shue something.
They certainly owe him more than a firing with 13 games left in the season so they can hire a man with one of the least successful coaching records in professional basketball. If Shue's 20-year coaching percentage is eloquent, then Loughery's 10-year mark of 39 percent speaks pretty loudly, too. You don't fire a good servant in mid-task to hire a man who's already coached in four cities. Somebody should let the Bullets in on a secret; they're probably not going to be world champions this year. What's the rush?
Loughery may have a wonderful tenure as Bullets coach. Who would wish him less? But that won't change the fact that when Shue was fired and the way he was fired were weak. Let the man finish the season. Maybe his injured star, Jeff Ruland, will return. Maybe the team will get hot in the playoffs.
Okay, probably not. But at least the Bullets could have thanked Shue for his long service and let him leave the scene with dignity. A talent search for a successor certainly was in order. Maybe the Bullets would have been shocked and gotten a "yes" from a great college coach. Don't know 'til you ask. It's a safe bet Loughery still would have been available.
At the level of nuance, the Redskins faced an outwardly difficult and touchy situation. Riggins, 36, has a bad back. Riggins probably has lost a step. And, in the last two years, Riggins' off-field behavior -- which has ranged from roguish to boorish -- has embarrassed an organization that likes to douse itself in the perfume of a high moral tone. Also, Riggins' personality is huge -- a liability in the NFL.
But don't nine years of splendid service count for anything? When a man takes you to the Super Bowl twice, don't you flat out owe him one extra season -- even at big pay? If Riggins doesn't get loyalty, then who does?
Don't say that last year was the "extra" season. Riggins gained 1,239 yards in 1984. As recently as six months ago nobody knew whether George Rogers could win the running back job from Riggins. Some folks, who believe turnovers are the key NFL statistic, actually would rather see the ball in Riggins' hands.
Can the Redskins, who've already disposed of so many central characters from their Super Bowl teams, afford to dump their most respected, even revered, player? Are the Redskins going to be so wonderful in 1986 that they have no place for experience, poise, humor and audacious daring under fire? What's wrong with a 235-pound back who averages 3.8 yards a carry (the third-best mark of his Redskin career), scores eight touchdowns and still has the speed to break a 51-yard run?
Isn't a fairly healthy Riggins an insurance policy worth renewing?
Riggins might have been tempted to be a bad actor last season, but in public he praised Rogers and sat out the season's last two games with good grace, though he was healthy. He never even got a bona fide RFK Stadium pomp-and-circumstance farewell. How can the Redskins, in good conscience, fire Riggins when he is two touchdowns shy of Brown's record? Would the Cincinnati Reds have fired Pete Rose last year when he finally had Ty Cobb's hit record in his grasp?
Teams that treat their veterans shabbily pay a lingering price in morale. When a coach asks for "110 percent" in the fourth quarter, those memories sometimes return.
In sports, coaches and owners purvey plenty of cheap talk about "family" and other high-falutin' concepts. The times when those virtues are really tested do not come when you're a point behind with 10 seconds to play. They arrive when a team must decide how to treat a loyal and productive employe when he's no longer an asset but just a human being.
Firings are among the saddest eyesores in sports. Just because they're an inevitable part of the landscape is no excuse for handling them so poorly.