A week has passed since the Bulls fired Tom Thibodeau and replaced him with Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg. Much has been made of the relationship between Thibodeau and the Bulls front office, specifically John Paxson and Gar Forman. A relationship that has been strained for a long time and one that was public knowledge well before the 2014-15 season even began.
It takes two sides to make a relationship work and it takes two sides to make a relationship fail. On that account both parties deserve some culpability. However, after dismissing Thibodeau the Bulls took the unusual step of releasing a statement that was highly critical of their former coach and painted him as someone who is extremely tough to get along with in the work environment.
Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf has long had a reputation for being great to work for and someone who is extremely loyal to his employees. For him to be as critical as he was in the Bulls press release opened eyes around the NBA and especially here in Chicago. So why did the Bulls take what some feel was an unnecessary shot as they were kicking their highly successful coach to the curb?
After Jeff Van Gundy ripped the Bulls organization during a nationally televised game on Jan. 23 and called into question the lack of support for previous Bulls coaches, the front office was livid. In fact, Reinsdorf felt Thibodeau was exceptionally disloyal because it was one of his closest friends (Van Gundy) doing the ripping and Reinsdorf spoke to Thibodeau about the on air incident demanding that it not happen again.
However, the sniping continued on multiple fronts and for Reinsdorf that was the end. He could put up with the intense coaching, some front office friction, and the lack of support from Thibodeau in some areas of the Bulls organization who felt that the coach was difficult to work with. However, the relationship between Reinsdorf and Thibodeau was now beyond repair. The two men had been reasonably close and Reinsdorf had taken the coach under his wing. Loyalty is the one quality that the owner demands and when he feels it is gone he is done with the relationship. The statement from Reinsdorf that the Bulls released on May 28 spoke volumes about their position on the strained relationship. This part of the press release was especially telling: “While the head of each department of the organization must be free to make final decisions regarding his department, there must be free and open interdepartmental discussion and consideration of everyone's ideas and opinions. These internal discussions must not be considered an invasion of turf, and must remain private.”
The Thibodeau situation was much like Horace Grant who found himself on the outside after meeting with the owner to negotiate a new contract in the early 90’s. After being cautioned by Reinsdorf to make sure Grant wanted to do a new deal without his agent’s approval and agreeing to terms, Grant went back on his word. That ended things with the Bulls and eventually he found his way to Orlando.
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Thibodeau’s perceived disloyalty broke Reinsdorf’s cardinal rule. That combined with the difficult working environment that many inside the organization complained about and the Bulls failure to advance past a beatable Cleveland Cavaliers team made the decision to change coaches a very easy one for Paxson and Forman. The statement that was highly critical of Thibodeau was the owner finally saying he had had enough.
Thibodeau is an outstanding coach and he will work again in the NBA. He compiled a resume of success that no one can argue with. He is one of the winningest coaches in NBA regular season history, he is a tremendous student of the game and he has a tireless work ethic. However, his ability to coach his team was never a point of contention with his bosses. It was the lack of a harmonious relationship with his superiors and the one mistake that Reinsdorf could not overlook, a perceived lack of loyalty to his ultimate boss and to the organization that did him in. Say what you want about the Bulls not taking the high road when they announced his firing but after taking repeated punches from the coach’s supporters the owner finally punched back and his was a knockout blow.