Veterans can be they key to any championship season. However, that doesn’t always extend to the bench or the dugout.
In June, Erik Spoelstra coached the Miami Heat to an NBA title at age 41, but he had to go through Oklahoma City’s Scott Brooks, 46, to do it.
In the NFL, three consecutive coaches under the age of 50 -- Mike Tomlin, Sean Payton and Mike McCarthy -- led their teams to Super Bowl victories from 2008-10. Three of the last seven Stanley Cup-winning coaches were younger than 45 years old. So were the World Series-winning managers in 2006 and 2009.
Coaches and managers in their 60s remain formidable opponents. Just ask Tom Coughlin, Charlie Manuel and the recently retired Tony La Russa.
Still, it’s a good time to be a young coach.
Here are our picks for the top professional coaches under the age of 50 in the big four leagues (MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL).
Note: For the sake of clarity and consistency, we are listing all ages as of Sept. 1, 2012.
1. Jim Harbaugh
Team: San Francisco 49ers
Why is Harbaugh atop this list, ahead of three Super Bowl-winning coaches? He’s the king of the turnaround. In his first season with San Francisco, he led the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game and resurrected the career of quarterback Alex Smith. The Niners’ 13-3 record was the franchise’s best mark since 1997 and first winning season in a decade. Before San Francisco, Harbaugh pulled Stanford from greater depths, leading the Cardinal to a 12-1 season and an Orange Bowl victory in his fourth and final season. Harbaugh paid his dues with a 29-6 record in three seasons at University of San Diego of the Pioneer Football League, a non-scholarship conference in the FCS.
2. Sean Payton
Team: New Orleans Saints
The bounty scandal will be an ugly footnote Payton’s career, but New Orleans will welcome him back from his year-long suspension with open arms. Payton led the Saints to their only Super Bowl in franchise history and a 37-11 record in the last three seasons. He’s an offensive mastermind who oversaw the Saints’ record-breaking 2011 season. New Orleans set single-season records for total yards (7,474), net passing yards (5,347) and first downs (416). With four trips to the postseason, Payton joins Jim Mora as the only coaches in franchise history to lead the Saints to multiple playoff appearances.
3. Mike Babcock
Team: Detroit Red Wings
Coaching for the NHL’s top franchise has its advantages, and Babcock hasn’t squandered them. Along with Scotty Bowman and Glen Sather, he’s one of three coaches in NHL history to win 300 games in a six-year span. He also became the first coach to win 50 or more games in each of his first four seasons with a franchise. In 2007-08, Babcock led the Red Wings to the Stanley Cup and returned to the finals a year later. In his debut season as a head coach at age 39, he led Anaheim to the Stanley Cup finals in 2003.
4. Mike McCarthy
Team: Green Bay Packers
Say this for McCarthy’s Green Bay teams -- they don’t take the easy route. Following the 2010 season, the Packers were only the second team to win three road games as a No. 6 seed on the way to a Super Bowl championship, joining the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers. After that, Green Bay went 15-1 despite finishing last in the NFL in defense. Along the way, the Packers won 19 consecutive games without trailing in the fourth quarter, the first time any team accomplished such a feat. Green Bay’s 36 wins over the last three seasons trails only New England’s and New Orleans’ 37 wins each.
5. Joe Girardi
Team: New York Yankees
Even during his playing days, Girardi was pinpointed as a potential manager, and a good one at that. However, his career in the dugout had a rocky start. Although he won National League Manager of the Year honors with the Marlins in 2006, Girardi clashed with ownership and was fired after one season. The Marlins’ internal friction was the Yankees’ gain. New York turned to their former catcher to replace Joe Torre in 2008. Girardi responded with a World Series title in 2009 and three American League East titles in five seasons.
6. Scott Brooks
Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
With Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City is one of the NBA’s youngest and most exciting teams, but the Thunder’s coach is one of the most unassuming in the game. That’s not for a lack of results, though. Brooks took over 14 games into the Thunder’s first season since moving from Seattle. In three full seasons since, Oklahoma City has increased its win percentage and advanced further in the playoffs in each season, culminating with a 47-19 regular season and a trip to the NBA Finals this year.
7. Mike Tomlin
Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
One reason the Steelers have hired only three coaches since 1969 is that all three were consistent winners. Another reason is that all three -- Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Tomlin -- were hired in their mid-30s. Tomlin was a Steelers outsider with only six seasons of NFL coaching experience, but the results through his first five seasons topped those of his two predecessors. His 55 wins topped Cowher’s 53 in his first five seasons. In 2008, Tomlin became the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl at age 36. He returned to the Super Bowl two seasons later in a loss to Mike McCarthy’s Packers.
8. Peter Laviolette
Team: Philadelphia Flyers
One of the most well-traveled coaches on this list, Laviolette coached three franchises, taking all three to the playoffs. His most successful run came with the Carolina Hurricanes, who won the Stanley Cup in 2005-06. Carolina fired Laviolette two years later, but he returned to the bench when the Flyers fired John Stevens after 25 games in 2009-10. It turned out to be a good move when Laviolette returned to the Stanley Cup finals with the Flyers that season. Philadelphia topped 100 points in each of the last two seasons under Laviolette.
9. Dan Bylsma
Team: Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins’ midseason coaching move to replace Michel Therrien with Bylsma in 2008-09 resulted in the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in 17 years. Bylsma took over in February 2009 and went 18-3-4 before defeating Mike Babcock’s Red Wings in seven games for the title. Despite having the face of the franchise, Sydney Crosby, in and out of the lineup, Bylsma has led the Penguins to the playoffs and at least 47 wins in each of the last three seasons.
10. Ozzie Guillen
Team: Miami Marlins
Notes: Guillen’s star has faded a bit since leading the White Sox to their first World Series title since 1917. Then again, Guillen probably hasn’t helped his reputation with comments on Fidel Castro and Dwyane Wade -- and that’s just from his first season in Miami. Guillen won 272 games in his first three seasons as a manager, but he’s barely a .500 manager since then.