As the decade draws to a close, the ESPN5.com editorial staff look back at the sporting figures and moments that stood out and helped define Philippine sports in the 2010s. Check back regularly until December 31 for the latest features in our ESPN5.com Best of the Decade series.
We honor the coaches who excelled in the 2010s, those who made their mark, raised the bar, and collected championship trophies along the way. This list includes Leo Austria, who has answered every criticism thrown his way by simply winning another championship for the San Miguel Beermen. Only Tim Cone won more titles during the 2010s, and only by one. Having June Mar Fajardo and four other all-stars isn't easy for any coach: win and they'll say you're supposed to with that kind of line-up. Lose and they wonder how could you. Austria's Beermen didn't win all the time, but they won more titles than any other PBA team during the 2010s. And Austria was at the helm for all but one of them.
Coach Leo Austria might have come across as defensive in his final post-game interview of the decade, where it didn't take even a minute for him to remind everyone that San Miguel is still the winningest team in the last five years despite having their Grand Slam hopes dashed for the second time in three years.
"We came up short again on our second try (at a Grand Slam). Nothing happened again. But you cannot win all games. Still, we're the best team in the last five years," Austria said an hour after camping in the Beermen locker room with his staff following a season-ending loss to Barangay Ginebra in the PBA Governors' Cup quarterfinals last Nov. 24.
"You cannot win all games, especially all the teams now in the PBA are getting better and better [in] trying to prevent us from winning another championship."
An alternate point of view, however, should be taken in the fallout of that unceremonious Beermen exit: Austria spoke knowing what he clearly missed, but there was still some personal assurance over the fact that he's still in rarefied air.
"We have to count our blessings," he remarked.
For Austria, the exact count stands at eight titles.
It's easy to get swept up in narratives -- that the Beermen have a stacked core and that he's coaching a team bannered by a mostly-unguardable June Mar Fajardo, among other things -- but to put into perspective how the outspoken coach has affected the tides of the franchise, one should remember that San Miguel only had six titles to show for after the new millennium rolled around.
Six titles in 13 years compared to eight in the last five.
It wasn't really until Austria's arrival that the franchise would regain that elite status. Largely unproven at that point even with an impressive championship run in the Asean Basketball League under his belt, the coach quickly delivered after being thrown into the fire and helped end what was then a three-year title drought in a nail-biting seven-game series win against the Alaska Aces in the 2014-15 Philippine Cup finals.
Coach Alex Compton's Aces would test Austria's Beermen two more times, but the latter made sure that San Miguel would emerge victorious in both instances: first in a 2015 PBA Governors' Cup finals sweep, and later in an unprecedented comeback from a massive 3-0 finals deficit -- the first basketball team in history to pull off such feat -- in the 2015-16 Philippine Cup.
Austria even delivered in big tests against highly-cerebral coaches in Tim Cone, Nash Racela and Chito Victolero from 2016 to 2018, when San Miguel established itself as a juggernaut even if it missed its first try at a Grand Slam in between those years. Behind the coach's very orthodox coaching style, the Beermen stamped its class and made dominance seem routine -- especially in the All-Filipino wars, where the reigning champions are the only team to win five straight titles.
Much of San Miguel's success, of course, stems from Austria's affinity for fielding a short rotation outside of his starters, who are often surefire bets for at least 36 minutes of action on the floor on a given night.
"Before they're wondering bakit ganito ako magpasok ng tao (why I rotated my players this way). But now, nagmumukhang magaling naman ako (I look like a genius again)," Austria joked after his Beermen clinched the Commissioner's Cup title last August.
Whether or not that rigid approach is sustainable is a question that's left to be answered for another day, but right now it's hard to argue with the results: only Cone has more titles this decade with nine so far, and Austria, for all the criticisms lobbed at his coaching style, is still one of only seven multiple-time winners of the Coach of the Year award and is the only coach to date to have won it three consecutive times.
There aren't a lot of losses, too -- San Miguel has topped the podium in eight of those nine finals runs under Austria -- but the lights tend to shine brighter when one suits up on the floor and in the sidelines for the league's winningest franchise, and for some pundits and critics, Austria's inability to cop a Grand Slam in two chances even with all the tools in his disposal stick out like two sore thumbs.
"It's unfortunate for us because everybody wanted to have that Grand Slam, that elusive (accomplishment)," rued the coach. "Painful for us, especially [we wanted] to achieve something."
But Austria, perhaps hardened by the trials and made wiser by championship experience, doesn't seem like he's going to dwell on that for long.
"Everything -- whether you're successful or not -- there's always something that might happen to your team, something for the better or something for the bad. That's how the world works, it changes. Sometimes it's sunny but sometimes it pours," said Austria.
After all, there's both a lot to look back on and a lot to look forward to. More emphasis should be placed on the latter: with months' worth of rest before they plunge back into action when the 2020 season goes underway next March, the Beermen are still heavy favorites to clinch its sixth consecutive title in the Philippine Cup behind a rested core and under a rejuvenated Austria.
And while the losses will sometimes ring louder than the wins, Austria thinks there's no better, more resounding answer than the body of work accomplished at the end of the day.
"Nothing to be ashamed of. I'm still very proud of our team in spite of those issues and adversities that came along the way. It's not smooth sailing, but maybe this is the price of the success," he commented. "I hope these things that happened to us, along the way, could help us in the future."
"I'm happy the way we achieved those things ... but not everything's really going to go your way. This is not the end of the world. We still have a lot of chances. It's up to us. Maybe next time."