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

By Don Banks
January 08, 2014

(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.


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