More Than Wins and Losses

In a world where coaching carousel news comes and goes as nothing more than mere fodder for the masses, Mike Munchak's firing was a stark reminder that the people on the sidelines are, you know, people too

(Wade Payne/AP)
(Wade Payne/AP)

Mike Munchak’s name made the scrawl the other day, but somehow that didn’t quite capture the whole story behind his departure from the Tennessee Titans organization after 31 years. The club dutifully thanked him for his many years of service, and to that I’d like to add a simple thanks for the reminder.

The firings and hirings of coaches just keep coming in mind-numbing repetition at this time every year, scrawling along the bottom of our TV screens and re-making the composition of the headset crowd that will assume command of the sidelines later this year. But Munchak’s exit from Tennessee after three seasons as the Titans’ head coach was that rare instance when we get to pause and see people, not just moves, forcing us to realize those non-stop comings and goings are more than just transactions to be reported, digested and analyzed for impact.

Those all-important wins and losses that we live and die with every week in the NFL, the ones decided so often on a razor’s edge, they really do affect a lot of lives, a lot of families and friends and some relationships that were years and years in the making. Munchak moving on from the Titans on the surface looked like the familiar tale of not enough wins and some contract terms to be paid off.

But the way he left Tennessee made it far more real than that to the rest of us, and we owe him one for that.

By now we know that Munchak could have kept his job with the Titans, and even earned an extension, but with conditions. He had to boot a healthy portion of his coaching staff to the curb and start over with hires who were more acceptable to the team’s management team of general manager Ruston Webster and CEO/team president Tommy Smith.

Munchak said he couldn’t do that, at least not on the scale of the requested changes, and didn’t really think he could live with himself if he had opted to go that route. The Titans management certainly had the right to ask that of him, and he certainly had the right to decline. There were no real winners or losers in this deal, not in the cut-and-dried terms we’ve come to expect.

“I can’t fire someone when I don’t believe they should be fired,” Munchak told the Tennessean. “Firing someone is awful. Too many people were going to be affected…. For me to maintain a job and a lot of guys lose jobs on a plan I didn’t think was right, I couldn’t do that. I’ll make tough decisions, but not if they’re not right.”

For Munchak, maybe the ridiculously tiny gap between winning and losing in the NFL, and the label of success or failure that attaches to all on either side of that line, only heightened his discomfort in being in the position of assigning ultimate blame.

I don’t blame the Titans for wanting some significant changes to their coaching staff, because the record and the results weren’t there for Munchak and staff (22-26 in three seasons, with two losing records), and that’s the way the game works. But I also can’t fault Munchak for wanting to retain his sense of right and wrong, and prioritizing his self-respect above all else.

I don’t know Munchak to any degree at all, but I think I like him more today than I ever have. He may never be a great head coach, but he sounds like the kind of guy you’d want as a great friend. And I don’t think he has an ounce of playing the martyr in him. I think he just realized that what he was going to give up wasn’t worth what he was going to get in return. Some parts of who we are and who we want to be, even given the itinerant lifestyle of football coaches, shouldn’t carry a price tag. Even if it is the almighty NFL we’re talking about.

Part of the four-to-six-coach purge Munchak was asked to carry out in Tennessee would have included Titans offensive line coach Bruce Matthews, who has been a teammate, fellow offensive lineman and coach, and mostly importantly a friend to Munchak for 30 years. That’s a tough pink slip to ask anyone to hand out. How many of us could perform that task when it comes to one of our oldest and best friends? I couldn’t, and I’m okay with it if that makes me non-CEO material.

Maybe part of what drove Munchak to his decision was that he knows all too well the narrow margin that really separates 7-9 from 9-7 in the NFL, and how little control coaching can exert when it comes to the breaks of the game. The Titans started this make-or-break season 3-1, got starting quarterback Jake Locker hurt on two different occasions, and wound up needing to win their final two games against struggling Jacksonville and Houston just to rally to a 7-9, second-place finish in the weak AFC South.

It wasn’t good enough, but the Titans, with a smidge of luck, could have easily been the 9-7 San Diego Chargers (a team they beat in Week 3), earning that final AFC wild-card berth and stamping their season a success. The two overtime losses on the road at Houston and at home against Arizona linger in memory, as do the two-point loss at home to the winless Jaguars or the three-point home-field defeat at the hands of the Colts.

Sure, every team has some of those to contend with, but for Munchak, maybe the ridiculously tiny gap between winning and losing in the NFL, and the label of success or failure that attaches to all on either side of that line, only heightened his discomfort in being in the position of assigning ultimate blame. He well knew that they all lost and won those games this season in Tennessee, collectively, so the selective firing-squad notion couldn’t have had much appeal.

Team Fired Hired
Texans Gary Kubiak Bill O’Brien
Buccaneers Greg Schiano Lovie Smith
Browns Rob Chudzinski None
Lions Jim Schwartz None
Titans Mike Munchak None
Redskins Mike Shanahan Jay Gruden
Vikings Leslie Frazier None

One of the morals of the story this year, and I suppose every year, in NFL coaching was this: Whatever you do, don’t go 7-9 or 8-8, because if you live on that razor’s edge, nothing but bad choices arise. Munchak learned that, but said no to a difficult choice. Miami’s Joe Philbin, he of the 8-8 disappointment with the Dolphins, said yes, on Monday firing his longtime mentor, Mike Sherman, Miami’s offensive coordinator. Sherman was once Philbin’s high school English teacher and assistant football coach at Worcester (Mass.) Academy. They had known each other since 1979, and that couldn’t have been anything but gut-wrenching for Philbin to execute. More coaching staff changes look to be on the way in Miami, where general manager Jeff Ireland was just shown the door on Tuesday.

The Dolphins only missed the playoffs and probably a status quo offseason because they lost at home to the Jets in Week 17. That gave New York an 8-8 finish this year, and assured Jets head coach Rex Ryan of surviving another season. But Ryan, too, is reportedly grappling with management’s request to alter his coaching staff, specifically on the defensive side, where longtime Ryan friend and ally Dennis Thurman, the team’s defensive coordinator, is considered vulnerable. Ryan is known for his fierce loyalty, is thought to be resisting change, and the outcome of that potential pressure point is still undecided.

It’s a big-boy league, and they don’t give you the big office and the big salary for being sentimental or overly loyal in the NFL. Munchak, Philbin and Ryan all understand that and accept it as the price of admission. Head coaches have to fire coaches as part of their job. But there is a point in time when it’s admirable for a coach to make a call based on people’s livelihoods, friendships and making sure you, as Munchak said, “do things the right way with the right people.”

Thanks for the needed reminder, Mike, and for making sure that kind of sentiment still has some small place in the brutal business of coaching football. Good for Munchak that he realized there are things meant to out-last even the wins and losses.

mmqb-end-slug-square

18 comments
retro-grouch
retro-grouch

   One of the most common problems in NFL team management is that GMs make big investments--draft investments, financial investments, and/or ego investments--in mediocre QBs and then blame the coaches for the outcomes.

  There is no "right way" to find a QB but there are several wrong ways.   Good QBs have come high, middle and low in the draft.  A couple of recycling projects have turned out quite well.    The solution to the QB problem is A, make sure the people evaluating QBs for your team know what they are doing and B, don't fall in love with mediocre players.  Give yourself some options and keep plugging away.

     This is not to say that Locker is a bust but they can't let their investment costs color their evaluation of their roster.   A QB controversy caused by too much talent at the position is not a bad outcome.   GMs are afraid of over-investing but the position is so important that even the poster child for over-investment, the Chargers, turned out okay.

jj55
jj55

They beat the Chargers on a last second TD pass. A great 94 yard drive that they can be expected to execute once in ten times, if that. The much more likely outcome of their season was 6-10.

westcoastbias
westcoastbias

Lost in all the very valid and insightful comments below is one simple reality: Munchack got fired and his assistants lost their jobs.  If he had stayed, perhaps FEWER of his assistants would lose their jobs.  So, by making this decision he improved nothing for his coaches - and probably made it worse for some of them, and worse for his family.  I understand his feelings played the central role in his decision, but it looks like he didn't HELP anyone.  I don't see a hero here.

Evan
Evan

I like Munchak as a person.  But I just don't think he was a good coach.  It's about more than this season, he had 3 of them.  This is a very good article.  It shows how great a person Munch is.  It shows that sometimes, being a good person isn't enough.  I wish the best for Munch, but as a Titans fan, I'm glad to see the team move in a new direction also.  

AF Whigs
AF Whigs

I'm not too familiar with Mike Munchak, but I'm now a fan.  Far too many people in this "me me me" culture will step on others to get (or keep) what they want.  The idea of morals and right vs. wrong often gets lost.  Not that this is all about moralizing, but if we all put ourselves in his place - with the limited knowledge of the situation we're given - then we can see what decision we would make personally, and what's really important to us.

I will assume that this goes beyond mere loyalty to friends and that he felt his staff were the best people for the job.  And it looks like they were a few close games away from a winning season.  Which is of course true for many teams.  But to me it also speaks to the impatience and micromanaging that affects many organizations.  

Would staffing the team with coaches Munchak didn't want have made the difference in those close games?  No way to know, but I guarantee that if he'd stayed his relationship with upper management would've been negatively impacted.


He made a really tough choice, and I agree with it.  Saving his job was less important that keeping his integrity, and that's to be applauded, I feel.

ianlinross
ianlinross

There's one lesson coaches like Mike Munchak should learn. Don't hire your buddies. Hire the best people possible. Sure works in business.

Shyzaboy
Shyzaboy

But the kicker is that all of his coaches got fired along with him. If he stayed, only some of them would be out of a job, but now all of them are on the street. The new coach is gonna build his own team, with direction from management.

peter.io
peter.io

Coach Munchak sounds like the type of guy I would like to play for... someone who's more interested in doing what is right than he is in doing what's expedient. Talk about walking the walk. In the "me, me, me" world of professional sports in general, and professional coaching in particular (see Lane Kiffin, Bobby Petrino, Bill Parcells, Nick Saban, etc, etc) Coach Munchak stands out by standing up and saying that, for him, there are worse things in the world than not being head coach of the Tennessee Titans. Classy. He should be applauded.

darkgoody
darkgoody

Couldn't disagree more reading this. I'm a manager and one of the first lessons of management is that you can't be someone's boss and his friend. Managers should judge performance dispassionately and reward competence, not friendship. If people weren't hiring their buddies all the time, we'd have more minority coaches in the NFL.

EP1
EP1

"the narrow margin that really separates 7-9 from 9-7 in the NFL, and how little control coaching can exert when it comes to the breaks of the game"

This is an excellent point. I get turned off of the NFL this time of the year. People forget that this is a game and that there is a reason to play the game. At the end of the day there are winners and losers but at this level, no team is lacking in talent. These are top athletes. Some just dont win. Look at Cleveland as an example. I get that the Jaguars started out as worse and finished strong while the browns did the opposite.But they were a competitive team. With the exception I would say of the raiders this year, many of the losing teams were still tough teams (ie. Dolphins, Bills, Browns, Jags, Rams etc.) none were easy outs (except jax early in the year). Im a Giants fan and I will say this 1) the jets played hard for Rex Ryan but they were far from a good team. 2) the Giants were not the best team in football either SB year. but they were champions in that moment. Reality is that you can only coach to a certain point. At that point, life takes it own course. People in our culture today want to much instantly. They want instant cures in everything, not just sports. But as it relates to football, people want to believe they can draft another Peyton or another Brady. You cant. Thats why I stand behind Eli and Coughlin. They had a rough year. They toughed it out. In the end, my generation of football fans (mid 30's) watched the Giants win not 1 but two superbowls. If you want to look at turnarounds like Kansas City or Philly. Look, number one Reid inheritated a ton of talent from the ousted pioli. Hes a good coach and put it together. In the end, they lost. No reason for it. Not because the colts were neccesarily better... just because... they lost. Someone has to lose. Philly. Give them a few years. They had a great year. But dont think you can just go find the next hot college coach and think why cant we do the same. 


The Redskins situation, I get that one. Ownership and coach did not see eye to eye (pick your reason why). But Cleveland, Tennessee, and the Vikings I think set there teams back because they think they can get the next big thing in time for next year. Good luck to that.

BillRobinson
BillRobinson

@lanlinross - Who's to say Munchak didn't believe he was hiring the best people possible? For example, Bruce Matthews is a Hall of Fame lineman - one of the very best ever - with a career of 20 years, if I recall correctly. Lots of business people have hired (or chosen partners) who were their best friends. Sometimes it works out well, and sometimes not. When it works, it's spectacular. When it doesn't, it's a downer big time. You need to be careful with general statements. In any event, I admire Munchak's decision; and I hope (and suspect) that it was the best decision for him.

As a general statement (with all the caveats about general statements), I don't think it's particularly good practice to tell a coach/manager who to hire or fire. It generally is no secret when that occurs, and it undercuts the authority of the head coach/senior manager. Suggestions are one thing; top-down orders are another. If you're an owner, and you lose faith in a head coach, you're probably better off making a clean break and fire the head coach. The let him choose his staff.

CharlesVekert
CharlesVekert

@ShyzaboyYou raise an important issue. Sometimes there are no good options, and the best you can do is find the least bad. Is it better to quit rather than obey an order that will hurt many people? Will the next guy be even worse. Many people throughout history have faced the question whether it is better it is better to quit altogether or just try to limit how bad things get. Many people who cooperated with the Nazis gave this as an excuse, some of them honestly, some not. 


Happily for Coach Munchak--and all of us really--he was not facing a problem involving life and death or good or evil.

darkgoody
darkgoody

I appreciate everyone's thoughts and responses. I agree that if a manager feels he's being required to fire someone without merit, he should stand his ground. And I'm not saying any of this is easy. I'm friendly with my employees and I offer encouragement, but that doesn't make us friends. This is a difficult area for me and many others I believe. "Balance" is hard to achieve without having an internal set of ground rules.


I'd say in my own life I've had to be particularly self-critical in regard to male and female employees, since I socialize more frequently with male employees, to make sure I'm judging performance fairly and rewarding employees appropriately. I used the minorities example here because it's more relevant to the NFL. I would think that in the hyper-competitive environment of the NFL, assessment should be even more fair and dispassionate than it is in the rest of the world, yet somehow we just seem to accept that everything should be based on relationship history and personal loyalty. If a coach only wants to work with his buddies, that should disqualify him. 


BillRobinson I don't think a manager's sole responsibility is to maximize profits. I think you should strive to create an atmosphere where employees communicate regularly and effectively, feel valued and treated fairly as a member of a team, and hold themselves accountable to achieving the team's goals. Full disclosure, I manage a non-profit. ;)


thatmansu the article pretty clearly implies that he didn't want to fire line coach Bruce Matthews because of their long friendship, and that that's an admirable quality. It may be an admirable quality in a friend, but I would argue that it's not an admirable quality for a boss.

EP1
EP1

@darkgoodyBut what if, as I am in management as well, you were told to get rid of someomone because they didnt meet upper managements criteria?


I had a similar situation where, in an sales and service environment (7days a week), an employee was just not good at sales. I wouldn't say he was overly friendly. He was just a mild mannered person. But I had good sales people. What I had in this employee was someone who showed up on time, rain or shine and never complained. He worked every day he was scheduled and never asked for it to be changed. So... I shilled him from what upper management deemed to be non-performing because his sales numbers were low.


I get what your saying and I do agree about seperation. I am still close friends with many former employees and some I have had to write up and discipline. One of my former assistant managers was the best man at my wedding!!! So if Munchak didnt feel like specific people were the issue and that those were his guys then he did the right thing.

thatmanstu
thatmanstu

@darkgoody You are making a false assumption and setting up a straw man in doing so. The the point being made through out is that it is not patently clear that the coaches to be replaced failed to  perform. Munchak  cuts players and he is presumably capable of firing coaches. He was not going to fire a coach just because ownership decides he should. There is nothing to indicate Munchak was reluctant to fire a friend. He was reluctant to fire someone with out merit just to save his job....

BillRobinson
BillRobinson

@darkgoody - I'm a manager too, and I don't agree with your first lessons of management. Things are rarely as simplistic as you assume. There's nothing essentially wrong with your last two sentences, but they don't necessarily align the way you suggest. Don Banks wrote a far more nuanced article than you give him credit for. Munchak made a difficult decision that other coaches would make differently. It seems that Munchak made the right decision for himself.

It reminds me of those who think a manager's sole responsibility is to maximize profits. Taint necessarily so.

BillRobinson
BillRobinson

@darkgoody - I re-read the article, and Munchak said he didn't believe they should be fired, not that he couldn't fire a long-time friend. I've heard it said that you're not really a manager until you've had to fire someone. I've had to fire people. Worse yet, I've had to lay-off dozens of people who have had many years of good or excellent performance with the company. When you fire a person because of performance, it shouldn't come as a surprise; hopefully, as a manager you've had the opportunity to work with the employee for a reasonable time to help improve their performance before you reach that point.

AF Whigs
AF Whigs

@BillRobinson:  I agree completely.  I'm not currently a manager but I have been in the past.  While it's true that management is not about "friendship", far too many managers and supervisors I've dealt with feel that their only responsibility is to whip their subordinates to "work harder", or to constantly chastise for every little mistake, perceived or real.  As in all things, balance is needed to truly achieve success.  Of course managers and supervisors are often driven to their actions by pressure from above, which is another discussion entirely.


I greatly admire Munchak's decision.  Who's to say that his staff were merely "his buddies"?  To my mind, a head coach should not be micromanaged.  His staff should be of his own choosing.  


That being said I do agree 100% with you, darkgoody - the lack of minorities in coaching in the NFL is inexcusable, and I think to all who put some thought into it, a sure sign of the "old boy's club" that exists in the league.   More should be made of this.  And I will never believe the oft-repeated nonsense of there not being qualified candidates.  There are PLENTY of seemingly unqualified white candidates who get a shot, so you can't tell me the same can't happen for minorities.

Newsletter