Keith Strudler: Coaching Without Tenure
Being a head football coach in the National Football League is the complete opposite of having tenure as a professor. First, you get paid a lot, as a coach that is. And second, unlike tenured faculty, you have absolutely no job security. So with tenure, you pretty much have to work to get fired. As a head coach, it can happen because the owner didn’t like color of your pants that day. Such is the high stakes world of professional football management, where five years is an eternity and each day is an obstacle.
By that regard, now former New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin had a fantastic run. He lasted 12 years with the team, on top of eight coaching the then expansion Jacksonville Jaguars. He won two Super Bowls with New York, both as an underdog, and kept New England from posting the first ever 19-0 record in NFL history. He’s 102 and 90 in the regular season with the G-Men, which, in a zero sum league, is admirable. But, in a world where the only thing that matters more than today is tomorrow, Coughlin’s past accomplishments held increasing little relevance to his future employment. His team missed the playoffs for the past four years and posted a losing record the last three. They stumbled in an admittedly awful NFC East Conference, and they endured some embarrassing blowouts in recent weeks. Add that to a series of blown leads late in way too many games and some questionable play calls at key moments, and the Giants, one of the league’s most stable and level headed organizations, finally ushered coach Coughlin out of the building.
In his own exit speech, since this technically was a resignation instead of a firing, Coughlin left the door open to coaching again, although it’s likely difficult for any team to hire a 69-year-old to rejuvenate their franchise. As much as anything, hiring a head coach in the NFL is a way to sell the future to an angry fan base. That’s much easier with someone who isn’t already collecting Social Security. So it is entirely possible, if not likely we’ve seen the last of Tom Coughlin on an NFL sideline. That’s led most everyone to reflect on his extensive time in the league, a series of thanks and compliments for wins and titles. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think it was a eulogy instead of guy that just got fired after consecutive 6-10 seasons. But such is the nature of an industry where friends and enemies are often two sides of the same coin.
Coughlin isn’t the only head football coach to lose his job these past several days. In all, there are six teams currently hiring, a pretty significant churn on a yearly basis. Most of those recently departed didn’t have even remotely the time Coughlin had – like Chip Kelly, who was fired during, not even after, his first losing season of three with the Philadelphia Eagles. Others were let go from literally terrible situations, like Mike Pettine from Cleveland, where you’re lucky if the quarterback even shows up to games. And pretty much all because they lost more games than they won, which doesn’t work in an orientation where winning is the only litmus of success. In other words, if you coach in the NFL, unless you’re a genius or made an exclusive deal with the Devil – and I believe Bill Belichick fits one of those two categories, you decide – then you will eventually be fired. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but eventually you will. Even if, like Tom Coughlin, you won two Super Bowls for your employers and its fans.
So, the question remains – is that fair? The easy answer to that is that there is no such thing as fair, especially when you earn more in a season than most do in a lifetime. But maybe more to the point, is it right? Are NFL teams making smart decisions by firing someone that not long ago was the messiah? That’s a far more complex quandary. And the answer is, I think, it depends.
If you hire a head coach because they have skills and knowledge that can help a team and its personnel get better, than no, you shouldn’t fire someone because the law of averages finally caught up. But, if you hire a coach, like most teams do, because you’ve got to do something to make people believe there are better days ahead, even if there’s no guarantee, then yes, this is a good idea. See, employing a football coach is the exact opposite of hiring a college professor, where someone can prove their value forever through six years of good work. In the NFL, you can’t even prove it based on a year ago. Hiring a coach is about public perception, a vital stat in the mediated landscape of the NFL industry.
So, should the Giants have fired Tom Coughlin? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, while he never actually got tenure, his 12 years may as well have been a lifetime.
Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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