Of Fires And Hires, Part 1
The conclusion of another NFL season brought us the involuntary separation of multiple head coaches and their staffs from their respective teams in what unfortunately has become an annual ritual for this time of year. NFL owners have become less patient in watching some of their competitors have dramatic turnarounds in brief time frames, and the shelf life of NFL coaches becomes shorter each year.
Further, with some owners having net worth approaching (or exceeding) $1 billion, the financial consequences of paying out remaining balances of terminated coaches’ contracts are negligible to their bottom line. For example, an owner such as the Browns’ Jimmy Haslam, who bought the team for $1 billion, can easily afford to pay a $10.5 million buyout to head coach Rob Chudzinski one year into a four-year deal, a sunk cost as Haslam now prepares to hire his second coach in 12 months.
The frequency of these coaching terminations—eight coaches fired last year, seven this year—illustrates the natural tensions that many coaches have playing young players towards future sustained success. Coaches—and their agents—constantly are reminded the NFL is a win-now league, despite management’s mantra of drafting and developing. It is an ongoing dilemma, a push-pull complicated by the recent numbers of fired coaches.
During my nine years as vice president of the Packers, I saw us go in a different direction with a head coach twice. The actual firing is short, a minute or two, but the aftermath lasts much longer. It is never pleasant; as with releasing players, these decisions strike at the core of people’s sense of self worth and can become very emotional.
Here is a look at my two experiences with the firing process.
The first firing
I joined the Packers in 1999 soon after a new coaching staff led by Ray Rhodes was hired, following Mike Holmgren’s departure to Seattle. Since we were all newcomers who spent a few months as "dorm mates" in a motel across the street from Lambeau Field, we became close, as did our families when they arrived.
On the final weekend of that 8-8 season, my wife and I hosted a New Year’s Eve millennium party, where the staff danced the night away in a festive gathering. Two days later general manager Ron Wolf told me to stick around following our final game, where he informed me he was firing Ray and his staff. Although the firing was a complete surprise to me, I had to defend against the perception that our New Year’s Eve party was to soften the blow of firing the staff in two days. It was a stark introduction to the fleeting nature of football lives; my wife and I soon realized the need to create friendships outside of the football cocoon.
Rhodes was a true "player’s coach" ultimately undone by our talented but undisciplined team. Wolf was particularly chapped that Rhodes allowed some players to stay behind in Tampa for a couple of days after our penultimate game. That, as I found out that night, was the last straw.
The plan was to let Ray know the next morning following our final game. However, as we walked out of Lambeau Field that night, Ray was in the parking lot at the same time, and the moment presented itself. Ron and Ray walked a few steps away from me for a brief time, maybe 90 seconds, with Ray shaking Ron’s hand (and then mine) and saying, "Thanks for the opportunity." That was it.
The fallout was much more prolonged. I met with the assistant coaches, explained contract offsets—the balance would be "offset" by compensation from other coaching positions during the remainder of the contract—and tried to make it as humane as possible. I then dealt with Reverend Jesse Jackson, who wanted a full accounting of Rhodes’ termination after one 8-8 season. I tried to be as informative with him as possible. (Ray was quite uncomfortable with Reverend Jackson’s inquiry).
My first experience around a coaching staff that was dismissed was a sobering one. Unfortunately, I would see it again six seasons later.
The second time around
Mike Sherman had gone from being an unknown head coach to also being the Packers’ general manager in two years, taking on those responsibilities upon Ron Wolf’s retirement. It was a difficult role thrust upon him, needing the players to like and trust him as a coach while simultaneously holding the purse strings as management. It required me to be "the bad guy" in contract negotiations, a role I completely understood as necessary. Unless a coach/general manager is completely without emotion, the model is inherently flawed; management decisions should be made in a more detached role.
Sherman remained coach yet was stripped of his general manager role in 2005 as Ted Thompson, who had a history with the Packers, returned. That year was difficult, as I sat in several meetings with palpable tension between short-term (coach) vs. long-term (general manager) interests, with the drafting of quarterback Aaron Rodgers one such example.
Thompson fired Sherman after one year together, in a meeting I saw begin and end in a matter of minutes (though I was not there). Thompson does not say much even at his most expressive moments; his message was succinct, ending the tenure of Sherman, a good coach and solid family man who had much success in his time with the Packers.
Again, I saw firsthand the short-lived nature of coaching in the NFL.
Left in limbo
Left in the wake of the firing of a head coach are dozens of assistant coaches and their families, their lives thrown into uncertain turmoil. Coaches usually are told to stick around until the new coach is hired, at which time their fates will be evaluated. The reality, however, is that most assistant coaches are joined at the hip with the outgoing head coach and that new coaches come in with their predetermined list of coaches. Chances of survival are slim.
Thus, for days or weeks that can seem like months, assistant coaches come to the office to comb the internet for news about other positions and talk to their coaching friends on the phone while their wives talk to realtors, movers and schools. Uncertainty reigns as coaches hope to ride the coattails of relationships developed in their peripatetic coaching lives.
Andrew Brandt served as Vice President of the Packers 1999-2008. In Part 2, appearing Friday on The MMQB, I will discuss the more pleasant part of the equation: the hiring side.