Fifty Ways To Leave Your Owner

January 12, 2004

How would you like to be fired? This is not a threat but an
honest question, meaning "In what way would you like to be
fired?" The New York Jets, for instance, recently "cut ties" with
four assistant coaches, evoking an oddly festive image of four
neckties being scissored off, Stooge-style, just below the knot.

The Miami Dolphins, on the other hand, "stripped" coach Dave
Wannstedt of his general manager duties, denuding him of his
business suit with one swift yank of the lapels--accompanied, no
doubt, by a sound like ripping Velcro.

Perhaps you'd prefer to "resign," as Steve Spurrier did from the
Washington Redskins. It's the perfect Nixonian verb--redolent of
disgrace--and suggests that Spurrier, who helicoptered into a
Redskins pep rally before his first season, likewise choppered
out of Washington, flashing twin victory signs, one for each of
his losing seasons. Victimized, you might say, by Visorgate.

Spurrier was not, it should be noted, "bought out," which hints
at a selling of one's soul. (The buyout is Faustian, which can't
be said of Gerry Faust, who resigned after five seasons at Notre
Dame, lest he get "canned," like a Christmas ham.)

Rather, the Redskins will tell you, Spurrier was "released" from
his contract, like a convalesced sparrow into the wild. In
football a Roget's-sized volume of euphemisms is employed to
describe the newly unemployed. The NFL has as many words for
fired as the Inuit do for snow. And, like snowflakes, every
departure is different, remarkable in its own way.

For instance, in December, Dan Reeves "stepped down" as coach of
the 3-10 Atlanta Falcons, implying, delusionally, that he had
descended from a great height. To say that Dave McGinnis "stepped
down" as coach of the perpetually woeful Arizona Cardinals would
be sillier still, like saying a man "stepped down" from his bath
mat. And so McGinnis was, instead, "let go" by Arizona.

An owner who "lets someone go" casts himself not as ogre but as
emancipator, liberating his employee, Lincoln-like, to "pursue
other opportunities." Like the timeless It's-Not-You-It's-Me
breakup, letting go puts the onus on the firer. It makes the
firee feel better. Which is why I always say, before abruptly
ending an unwanted phone call, "I'll let you go now."

Sometimes a contract simply "expires," like lunch meat, leaving
an owner no choice but to dispose of it. When Bill Callahan's
contract with Oakland expired, the Raiders "declined to extend"
it, putting us in mind of a sated Al Davis, napkin tucked into
shirt collar, politely declining a second helping of 'Han Salad.

Nor did the Buffalo Bills fire Gregg Williams, though The Buffalo
News did use a British synonym ("sack") in its headline. We can
sympathize with a coach who's been "sacked"--it's what Huns did
to Roman outposts--but Williams's contract was, to read some
Transactions columns, simply "not renewed." The distinction is
important, for the nonrenewal is entirely passive and implies a
benign bureaucratic oversight, as if the Bills had absentmindedly
neglected to renew their Redbook subscription.

Time was, Mr. Dithers would call Dagwood into his office and cry,
"Bumstead, you're fired!" In December, New York Giants coach Jim
Fassel did something like the opposite, charging into his boss's
office and crying, in effect, "I'm fired!"

Thinking it inevitable, Fassel asked for the ax in a meeting he
called with executive vice president John Mara, who claims to
have required some persuading on the matter. Indeed, Giants
co-owner Wellington Mara managed to sound like a cuckold in
describing Fassel's departure as "an unwelcome divorce." Still,
the owner obliged, sealing the divorce, strangely, with a "pink
slip"--a term evocative of lingerie, which would seem better
suited to honeymooners.

Only Dick Jauron, who was under contract to coach the Chicago
Bears through the 2004 season, appears to have received a good
old-fashioned, Dagwood Bumstead-style firing. It's an apt word,
the flammable firing, hellish but hardening, like the process
used to finish pottery. Ask any earthen jug: Firing makes you
stronger.

Over the holidays, while vacationing on Florida's Gulf Coast, I
was bewitched by the story of two other vacationers, 15-year-old
girls from Springfield, Mass., near my home. The two were
parasailing in a tandem harness when their rope broke, leaving
them to drift, 600 feet in the air, across Bradenton Beach, over
the Beach House restaurant, along Gulf Drive and into live power
lines, on which their parachute, emblazoned with a smiley face,
snagged and burst into flames, dropping the dangling
girls--miraculously without major injury--20 feet to the
pavement.

I thought of those girls on my flight home, while reading how the
New Orleans Saints had just "severed ties" with two assistant
coaches, cutting them adrift--untethered in a tandem harness--to
whatever fate awaits them.

Two lessons should occur to those Saints assistants, and to the
three assistants with whom the Cleveland Browns recently severed
ties: You can never count on a golden parachute. But you can
alight safely, and maybe even land on your feet.

COLOR PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER

In football, a Roget's-sized volume of euphemisms is employed to
describe the newly unemployed.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)