Illustration by Gabi Campanario
When the news of Mike McCarthy’s firing swept across social media disgruntled Packer fans celebrated and applauded the actions of team president and CEO Mark Murphy. Those fans that live and die with the results on the field each week couldn’t wait to move on from the coach with the second most wins in the history of the NFL’s most storied franchise.
For reasons not completely known, coaching is an occupation that most fans believe they are capable of performing at a high level. I cannot think of any high paying jobs that I feel more qualified to do than those who were trained to do them. Perhaps it is that All Conference award in high school, or that undefeated tee-ball season or maybe even that fantasy league championship that builds that false sense of coaching acumen in the casual fan. Armed with the 20/20 spectacles of hindsight they second guess every decision that goes wrong and always have the right answer. Should have run, should have passed, should have punted, should have gone for it all easy decisions if you know the outcome. Unlike those decisions that are made on the couch, coaches don’t have the luxury of hindsight; their decisions are made in real time and carry real consequences. It comes with the territory.
Plagued by some poor personnel decisions, an unrelenting parade of injuries and without the full support of his millionaire quarterback, McCarthy’s team appeared to have finally quit on him Sunday in the most hallowed of places, Lambeau Field. When Mason Crosby, a player McCarthy has stood by through some awful stretches, missed a field goal to tie the game, a weak and wounded Arizona Cardinals team sent the Packers to an embarrassing defeat. Still considered by most as one of the league’s best head coaches, McCarthy was fired for his team’s lack of victories. In professional sports, coaches are paid to win, there is no substitute. It comes with the territory.
It always strikes me as odd that coaches can be hailed as genius and cutting edge when they are winning, but bums and outdated when they don’t. It has been my experience that I have been a better, smarter, more experienced coach with each passing season. My knowledge of the game and how to handle players has grown by literal leaps and bounds since I began. The puddle of knowledge I entered the coaching ranks with is now a lake, but I believe there is an ocean yet to be discovered. For some reason, the general public is unable to grasp the concept that no coach can win without sufficient talent. If there were a ten commandments of coaching it would be number one. When the talent tree is bare, the coach gets fired. It comes with the territory.
The character building potential of the athletic experience is well documented. And while it should be the goal of amateur sports, it takes a backseat to winning in the professional ranks. Domestic abuse, drugs or illegal performance enhancing products are merely public relations projects and not seen as serious character flaws. In an environment that demands winning, Mike McCarthy never lost sight of his mission as a leader of men. Through his tenure his teams had battled and fought through adversity, slow starts, injuries and more than their share of poor officiating. His teams truly “got going” when the going got tough, until last Sunday. In a season where little has gone right for the green and gold it would be easy to find a litany of legitimate excuses. Mike McCarthy has too much pride and integrity to ever consider that route, because in coaching we are not allowed excuses. It comes with the territory.
As adversity grew this season and the injuries mounted, the pundits speculated that McCarthy had lost his team that they were in need of a new voice. Perhaps, but more likely that he had lost one player, the league’s highest paid player, Aaron Rodgers, who has played like a dime store back-up for most of the season. The very quarterback that McCarthy molded into a superstar has repeatedly pushed his coach under the bus through his words and actions. Rodger’s selfish motives, from his contract that will handcuff his team until he retires, to his veiled discontent with his head coach sealed McCarthy’s fate. When the balance of power between coach and franchise player shifts the end is always very near, for the coach. Meanwhile, his coach, now without a job, has stood firmly behind his quarterback through a season of mediocrity by his own standards. Good coaches have their player’s backs, through thick and thin. It comes with the territory.
Somewhere in Green Bay, Mike McCarthy and his family began contemplating life changing plans that were on their horizon. While fans rejoiced, McCarthy began the arduous task of pulling up roots that had grown for thirteen years. When tough times hit you as a coach, your family is expected to sit back quietly while the fans and media feast on your every decision. They learn to be tolerant in the face of unlimited stupidity from misguided fans that will go as far as bringing signs to your workplace demanding you be fired. You might even need a body guard for your dog. It is possible that not even the Wisconsin whitetail has had as many shots fired at them as McCarthy has over the past few weeks. In coaching, it comes with the territory.
Mike McCarthy will be fine, he will land on his feet and he will coach again in the NFL. But don’t believe for one second that his being fired wasn’t devastating to him and his family. You don’t get to that level of coaching without pouring your heart and soul into your job. When you do your job as well as Mike McCarthy did there will eventually be that realization and recognition that this was a great man and a great coach that Packer fans are lucky to have had come their way. In the NFL you get hired, to get fired. It comes with the territory.
Amid all the outside noise and the disappointment of being fired there is what really matters, what his players had to say. David Bakhtiari called him, “a phenomenal head football coach.” Teammate Bryan Bulaga went a step further, “Besides being a really good football coach, he is a great man too. It’s been an honor to play for him the last nine years.”
Three days after McCarthy’s dismissal, in an unprecedented move, he returned to Lambeau Field to address his team one final time. It felt like an apology from the front office, but in reality was just another example of the quality and character of McCarthy. As his former players stood and delivered a standing ovation, I wonder how many wish they could go back and play that Arizona game over again.
Guard Lucas Patrick said McCarthy’s speech may be the “galvanizing moment” the team has been looking for. Whatever happens, it is clear the Packer players and front office haven’t been this conflicted and uncomfortable since Brett Favre was traded.
Integrity and character are the hallmarks of great coaches, but wins and losses will always be more important.
It comes with the territory, but it doesn’t make it right.
Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach in Wausau, WI. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org