In The Firing Line

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by Henry L. Liao

Fort Acuna's humiliating experience as Toyota head coach led him to commit suicide in 1981.
Fort Acuna’s humiliating experience as Toyota head coach led him to commit suicide in 1981.

This is a ticklish question: Is the authority of management, specifically a club owner, abused when it meddles in the game strategies and player substitutions of his team’s head coach? Or, from another point of view: “Where does a coach’s prerogative to field or bench a player end and where does management’s right to intervene begin?” asks writer Jun Engracia of the Evening Express in his “Trouble at the Toyota Camp” article for the 1980 PBA Annual.

My take is that even if a club owner is dissatisfied with his team because of what he perceives as poor coaching, he absolutely has no right to interfere at any given time DURING the game.

Decency dictates that Mr. Team Owner, if he decides to do so, dismisses the bench strategist AFTER the game or several games thereafter – but not DURING the game itself.

Even worse, at halftime comes the firing. That’s just too tactless of the team owner, a classless act that humiliates a coach and permanently tarnishes his reputation for life.

Unfortunately, Fortunato (Fort) Acuna learned it the hard way.

Acuna, a product of the University of the Philippines, suited up for the Toyota Comets/Tamaraws in the first four seasons (1975-78) of the professional league Philippine Basketball Association before succeeding Dante Silverio as the club’s top bench honcho late into the 1979 campaign following the renowned car racer’s abrupt resignation due to rampant allegation of game-fixing by some of his players during the third conference (All-Filipino) title playoffs.

Tams manager Pablo Carlos (right) unceremoniously handed coach Fort Acuna his walking papers during halftime of Game 3 of the All-Filipino finals in 1980.
Tams manager Pablo Carlos (right) unceremoniously handed coach Fort Acuna his walking papers during halftime of Game 3 of the All-Filipino finals in 1980.

Acuna was a soft-spoken, meek-as-a-lamb person both as a player and coach. In Game 3 of the best-of-five All-Filipino finals against Walk Tall Jeans/Crispa, wherein the Redmanizers enjoyed a 2-0 series lead and owned a 19-game winning streak in the conference, “binangga ni Acuna ang pader” by benching the uber-popular and ultra-powerful Robert (Sonny) Jaworski throughout the first half for disciplinary reasons.

That caught the ire of Tamaraws manager Pablo Carlos as Toyota trailed badly at the break. During the lull, Carlos sought the coach and demanded that The Big J be fielded in the second half. Even after four callouts, the head-strong Acuna stood his ground and would not budge. Right then and there, Acuna was fired by Carlos with thousands and thousands of spectators witnessing the execution.

“I’m sorry Fort, but you’re fired,” said Carlos, who called Acuna inadequate, incompetent, and it turned out later, insincere.” Added the Delta Motors executive: “He could not deliver the responsibilities of a coach. He lacked professionalism, the skill needed by the position, and a good personal relationship with the players. Fifty percent of a coach’s competence is his ability to motivate the players and Acuna was considerably weak here. He demanded respect when he should have earned it.”

In defense, Acuna questioned management’s encroachment into his coaching prerogatives, saying that the coach calls the shots while the manager merely attends to the material needs of the players and should not interfere with the play. I had a game plan and “I’d rather be fired in defense of my prerogative as coach.”

Acuna and Jaworski did not see eye-to-eye during the third (All-Filipino) Conference of the 1980 PBA wars.
Acuna and Jaworski did not see eye-to-eye during the third (All-Filipino) Conference of the 1980 PBA wars.

Carlos called Acuna’s assertion as “fantastic and asinine.”

In the end, Acuna paid the price for this humiliation by taking his own life months later.

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Flashback: It was December 11, 1980 – Game 3 of the best-of-five All-Filipino finals between Crispa/Walk Tall and Toyota.

There was a sudden coaching change by Toyota at halftime as team manager Pablo Carlos fired coach Fort Acuna at the break and then coached the team himself thereafter. Acuna got the pink slip for benching star Robert Jaworski for the entire first half.

The simmering feud between Acuna and Jaworski started during the early goings of the 1980 season when Toyota wound up only second in the first two conferences.

The Tams dropped a 3-2 defeat to U-Tex in the Open conference, including the historic Game 5 wherein import Glenn McDonald and the Wranglers overcame a four-point deficit with 16 seconds remaining to deadlock the count in regulation and win it in overtime. Acuna blamed the players for not following instructions in the infamous 16-second meltdown and the players, on the other hand, blamed Acuna for mishandling the team. Toyota was swept, 2-0, by Nicholas Stoodley-USA, in the best-of-three finals of the Invitational Conference.

Jaworski: His first-half benching by Fort Acuna resulted in the latter's ouster as Toyota head coach during Game 3 of the 1980 PBA All-Filipino title playoffs.
Jaworski: His first-half benching by Fort Acuna resulted in the latter’s ouster as Toyota head coach during Game 3 of the 1980 PBA All-Filipino title playoffs.

The friction between the two had been an open secret in the league and it came to the fore after Game 2 of the All-Filipino finals when the Tamaraws lost for a second consecutive time in the series.

Acuna had thought that in the past five encounters versus Crispa, all of which Toyota lost, Jaworski had not given his best.

But the Big J had an excuse: He had been playing with a torn ligament in one of his ankles.

Then again, Jaworski himself led the players in giving Acuna a vote of confidence in a post-Game 2 meeting with everyone, including Acuna. Acuna reportedly agreed to set aside his personal differences with Jaworski.

It would seem that the two had buried the hatchet and smoked the peace pipe. But in reality, it never came to fruition.

With Carlos at the helm following the halftime exit of Acuna, Toyota would on to beat Crispa (carrying the name Walk Tall Jeans), 97-94, to break a 19-game winning streak – the longest in PBA history – and spoil the Redmanizers’ bid for a 20-game sweep of the All-Filipino tournament.

Ironically, this was one game that the Redmanizers allegedly did not really intend to win. (Of course, that’s another intriguing story to tell.)

Crispa/Walk Tall subsequently pulverized the Tamaraws in Game 4 to secure the crown, 3-1.

On July 6, 1981, a despondent Acuna committed suicide, ingesting a lethal dose of insecticide.

Henry Liao
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