What’s Going On In That Coaching Interview? Inside the Firing-and-Hiring Process
The end of the NFL regular season brings a flurry of activity in the business of football. The player sections of the team facilities “go dark” after the season, only to fully re-open in April when the offseason workout programs begin. Teams are now signing players to “future” contracts, a term used for contracts set to begin in the 2019 league year, which does not begin until March.
More notable has been the exit ramp for NFL head coaches, with eight of the 32 head coaches this season being told the team was “moving in a different direction.” Coaches are the immediate casualties of team lack of success, told to move forward in their lives away from their now-former teams. And in a couple of months, scores of players will face the same fate from their teams.
Let’s look at this harsh time of year in the business of football.
Twenty of the 32 NFL teams ventured into the offseason before the calendar hit 2019, and four more—the Bears, Ravens, Seahawks and Texans—exited on Monday. Players pack up their lockers, load up cardboard boxes and trash bags and disperse to their offseason locations. I vividly remember feelings of loneliness every year on that day; the locker room—so vibrant for six the past months—turns instantly into a space you could drive a car through without hitting anyone. And the CBA now mandates that players stay away from the facility until mid-April, a compulsory three-month vacation with no contact with anyone in football operations.
I always felt like a counselor at summer camp saying goodbye to the campers and heading back into a lonely bunk. In Green Bay, players would all go to warmer climes as I would inevitably get this question every year from a player walking out: “Andrew, do you have to stay here in the offseason?” I replied that I did; it was, after all, my job. But it always took a week or two to get used to being in such a quiet facility after the season.
VRENTAS: In the Room at a Coaching Interview
From a management perspective, everything is future focused once the regular season is over, even for teams in the playoffs. Scouting staffs soon gather in war rooms to assemble and architect “the Board” before heading to the combine in late February. General managers and cap analysts project roster deletions and free-agency additions. And here is the cold reality on the player side: There are probably 10 to 20 players per team leaving those locker rooms who will never to return to them again. They may not know it now, but they will get that phone call at some point before the team gathers again in April.
A Coach’s Life
One in four of this season’s head coaches were “relieved of their duties” during or after the NFL season, and the trend does not seem more forgiving. Two years ago, seven new head coaches were hired; only the Eagles’ Doug Pederson still has his job. That is as stark a statistic as there is. The lack of patience with coaching performance—the Cardinals fired coach Steve Wilks after one season—seems at an all-time high. My sense is that there are two compelling factors behind this owner impatience.
First, with NFL franchise values all at or exceeding $2 billion, owners can justify jettisoning a coaching staff that will cost them, say, $15 million to 20 million in leftover contract expenses. With the head coach being the face of the franchise, owners will spend, and spend some more, to get it right. There is no better example of this than Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, who goes through coaching staffs like a hot knife through butter. The Browns are the clear league leader in payroll for fired coaches and executives.
The other reason for the quick trigger by NFL owners is, to my view, a sense of envy and competitiveness. Owners see teams improve quickly with systematic restraints on player costs—salary cap, free-agency restrictions, revenue sharing, inverse order draft, etc.—and wonder, Why not us? Owners also see quick turnarounds with teams such as the Rams and Bears and want the “next” Sean McVay or Matt Nagy, damn the consequences of firing the coach.
Beyond the head coach, there are many ripples to a firing. Coaching staffs are in holding patterns, coming into work every day hoping “the new guy” will want them to stay on, even knowing the chances of that are very small. Families are also on hold, not sure where the children will be going to school or whether to put homes on the market at the worst possible time of the year. I know what a lot of you are thinking: “But these coaches get paid a lot of money and know the life they signed up for.” That is true, but it doesn’t mean it is an uncertain and unsettled time for so many of them.
Compared to players, however, coaching contracts are quite secure. They are guaranteed subject to offset, meaning the owed amounts are potentially reduced by coaching income from other teams. Having said that, my experience is that coaches want to coach; they are not prone to sit around and collect checks. It is the life they have chosen.
The Interview Process
I was part of a two different interview processes in selecting a head coach for the Packers. In 2006, our finalists were Mike McCarthy and Sean Payton. McCarthy won the tiebreaker due to more familiarity with our staff and having served as quarterbacks coach of the Packers for one year, in 1999.
While different for every team, there are a couple of constants. Team personnel is a major discussion point, as coaching candidates are asked (1) thoughts on certain players and their fit with his scheme; (2) commitment to certain players (to see if that lines up with the front office’s commitment); and (3) willingness to play young players, reliance on veterans, etc.
Structure is obviously a discussion point in interviews, often depending on the leverage of the candidate. For someone in high demand, a team might be more deferential in terms of structure and control over the roster. For a first-time head coach, there is little to no leverage on his part to have any control with roster construction; that is the general manager and player personnel role.
Another important discussion point is staffing. Every coach comes (or should come) prepared with a full staff in mind, from coordinators all the way down to conditioning and strength coaches. And the team may state a strong preference or suggestion to keep a certain coach or coaches from the previous staff. When we interviewed Mike Sherman, an unknown tight ends coach from the Seattle Seahawks, for the Packers head coach position in 2001, he had a full coaching staff prepared, with complete biographies and resumes of each coordinator and position coach.
Search Firms and Agents
Over the past decade in the NFL, search firms have become an increasingly large part of the head coach selection process. Jed Hughes, formerly of Spencer Stuart and now of Korn Ferry, has become a go-to resource for NFL owners. Hughes has his “book” of candidates and is retained by teams to do background checks as well as interview, research and recommend candidates.
The value of search firms in this process can be debated but, well, I just don’t see it. NFL owners are paying these firms handsomely, with fees ranging as high as 33% of the coach’s first-year salary, to essentially identify candidates who can be identified relatively easily, and to ask questions that they themselves can—and do—figure out to ask. My best guess as to why owners continue to use this expensive tool that has shown mixed results is that owners want to “check the box.” They can answer to themselves, their fans and their owner brethren that they have taken that extra step in ensuring they have the right person. And, of course, if things don’t work out, they have cover to just blame it on the search firm!
Agents for coaches are another other group heavily involved in the coaching selection process. This is the time of year where coaches’ agents change their names to “league sources,” as they work their media contacts to get their clients’ names out in the mix of “hot” candidates. I often receive solicitations from coaches’ agents to “get his name out there” or to tweet that he is “receiving interest”’—the point being, to spark further interest. I won’t play that game. This is time of year when coaches’ agents—just like player agents in February and March—work it hard.
The most important games of the year are happening on the field, but the business of the NFL is in high gear off the field, and will be that way now for a while.
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