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John Spencer Will Rise Again

My take on the renewed drama surrounding the crumbled relationship between John Spencer and Merritt Paulson, and why I think John Spencer will come back and be a successful coach someday.

John Spencer's stock is at an all-time low. But it will rise again.
John Spencer's stock is at an all-time low. But it will rise again.
Steve Dykes

Part 3 of Nick Firchau's three-part feature about Portland Timbers owner and president Merritt Paulson is out today, as promised. While it doesn't deliver quite the level of controversy that Part 2 did, it's still an interesting look at Paulson's actions in the face of adversity. The moral of the story appears to be that Paulson has learned some hard lessons.

But one aspect of the story that still dogs us is how negatively John Spencer was depicted throughout the story -- as an overconfident, stubborn and abusive coach who took a purely instinctive approach to managing a team, eschewing statistics and analysis and instead yelling and cursing his way to victory and (more often) defeat.

I'm not buying it.

(Stumptown Footy user Aasher99 wrote an interesting discussion in the FanPosts about what Spencer's defense might have been against such accusations -- it's definitely worth a read.)

To me, this Paulson-Spencer feud isn't a case of two giant egos going head to head against each other. To me, this is a simple case of a technically skilled employee and a goal-oriented manager who had both enjoyed and come to expect success -- and who were sorely unequipped to handle failure.

I would imagine most of our commenters have had similar experiences in their own careers. I've had plenty myself, in which my supervisor has had little to no idea of what I do and how I go about doing it, being concerned only with the finished product. When things are going well, it's a fantastic setup, because then I have the freedom to do whatever I feel is right to get the job done.

But when things go wrong, and the manager decides to butt into my work and try to suss out what is wrong with my process, solvable problems spiral out of control and previously functional relationships go all pear-shaped.

As a worker who has more technical knowledge than the boss, I have to figure out ways of packaging the intricacies of my daily work into easily understood morsels, and clearly document where that work might fail to meet its objectives. I also have to prepare my manager for the occasional but inevitable failure and address far in advance how we will know that I have failed and what I plan to do to correct it.

In other words, you have to learn how to manage your boss. Which, for John Spencer, isn't exactly a skill he ever had to learn before joining the Timbers.

Spencer never really had to be responsible for a failing club before -- he did really well with Houston when the team was also doing really well. And then he had an amazing anomaly of an inaugural season and probably didn't do well enough to explain how much the team had over-performed and why it had happened.

Spencer certainly isn't the kind of guy who claims undue credit for the team's success, but I don't imagine he is the kind of guy to expressly say to the management, "I want to reiterate that our success on the field this year should not be taken as a guarantee of future success."

After all that, when things went south, Spencer was forced into a corner where he had to say, "Much of the success that I tacitly took credit for last year was actually a complete fluke and part of the long, bumpy road to this being a decent club." I don't get the sense that Spencer was able to say that, or if he was able to say it, that Paulson was in the optimal emotional place to receive such wisdom. Either way, Paulson clearly didn't trust Spencer anymore.

One of Caleb Porter's strengths is his reluctance to get excited about wins or frustrated about losses/draws, and his ability to manage his own emotions and those of his superiors. After a recent training session, he told reporters, "I think it's important that we keep our highs low and our lows high," before talking at some length about the importance of maintaining perspective.

Win or lose, Porter is telling Gavin Wilkinson and Paulson, these are our goals, this is my process, and these are the measurements by which we will have some idea of how my process is getting us towards the aforementioned goals and deliverables. If something goes wrong, we'll know where and why it's going wrong by this set of measurements, and I will take these steps to address those issues.

Whether Porter's approach will win games remains to be seen, but he certainly seems likely to keep his job longer than Spencer did (which could either be fantastic or really bad for Timbers fans).

As for Spencer, his first year and a half as a professional head coach was a difficult but beneficial learning experience. His immense experience as a player gave him a unique understanding of how to manage players and get them to work together effectively; but only his experience with the Timbers could give him the much needed skill of managing the general manager and the owner.

Someday, I hope, Spencer will coach again, and if/when he does, I think he'll be better equipped for success, both on and off the field.