Some choose to take a break. Others are forced. What comes next? A life-saving reprieve? An anxious stay in professional limbo? The uncertain existence of coaches on pause.
By Marc Sessler | Published Dec. 28, 2016
Mike Pettine built a house.
While his fellow NFL coaches spent spring into summer peeling back the playbook -- teaching nuanced zone coverages and exotic blitz packages to their charges -- the former head coach of the Cleveland Browns found himself knee-deep in polished-chrome faucets and multicolored carpet swatches.
"It was a small log cabin on the property, and the original plan was just to renovate it," Pettine said of his rustic summer home on Johnson's Island, a 300-acre dollop of land nestled in Ohio's Sandusky Bay. "It reached a tipping point very quickly, though, of trying to get a log cabin up to code and dealing with, you know, your outside wall as your inside wall and all those things that go along with owning a cabin. So I made the decision very quickly to go ahead and tear it down and build new."
So did the Browns -- just not with Pettine, who was fired last January after two quick seasons on the job, a move that thrust the lifelong coach into uncharted personal territory.
It's not a new term, and it's not especially creative -- nor is it fair to the men and families it annually tosses off course.
Following the final Sunday of regular-season football, Black Monday spins like a dark blotch on the NFL schedule -- a day when coaches are sent packing into the abyss.
For those men dispatched after the season, finding another job is no guarantee. While big-name assistants and coordinator-types are snatched up, plenty of hardworking coaches are left on the outside looking in.
By choice or by circumstance, those without assignments take their first step into a season without football. A sabbatical year away from the game.
When Pettine was dismissed by the Browns last January, it marked another transition for a Cleveland franchise that has churned through coaches at a ridiculous rate.
Having ridden the emotional roller coaster of two rugged, losing campaigns, Pettine mulled his options before choosing to temporarily step off the main stage.
"It's hard to be away," Pettine said last month. "There's kind of that fear of the unknown of, 'Wow, if I step away from football for a year, is that going to hurt my chances to get back in?' So I really weighed both sides of it and had real good conversations with [my agent], Trace [Armstrong], and just felt like, unless a great opportunity comes along, I don't want to jump back in just for the sake of jumping back in, because there are so many positives to taking a year off. It's been a tremendous thing for me, both personally and professionally."
Exiting the grind of a sport that asks coaches to push family to the background in favor of pressure-packed, 80-hour workweeks takes some adjustment.
"The first thing for me was reconnecting with family," Pettine said. "Football's a business where your schedule makes it very easy to lose time with your family. You used the word 'sabbatical,' and it's just the rare opportunity to press pause. And a lot of people don't ever get that in their professional life, to be able to step back and analyze and think, What's important to me? What's most important? And tending to those things."
For Pettine, that meant time with his three children, two of whom are now in college and one who is a freshman in high school. For someone married to coaching since the early 1990s -- after growing up as the son of lauded Pennsylvania high school coach Mike Pettine Sr. -- it also meant the rare opportunity to pick up a new hobby.
"That was a great experience for me, just to learn everything that goes into the building [of a home]," Pettine said. "You know, it's funny, I go from analyzing football schemes to paint colors and cabinet handles -- and I loved it. It was a great thing. It was a great distraction for me, as well. Building that, and then time with the kids up here for the bulk of the summer was just a tremendous thing. That's time you just can't get back.
"My kids laugh at me now, that I'm actually halfway good at interior design," Pettine said. "Something they never would have expected."
Long before Bill Parcells morphed into a Super Bowl-winning Hall of Fame coach, he made a decision that nearly turned him into a fading footnote.
In 1979, Parcells consciously walked away from football to save his marriage.
Months into a dream role tutoring linebackers for the Giants under then-head coach Ray Perkins, Parcells announced that he was leaving the gig to fly back to his family -- a family tired of relocating -- in Colorado, where Parcells served as coach for the Air Force Academy in 1978.
I HAD A FRIEND OF MINE WHO HAD BEEN FIRED, AND I'M LIKE, 'LOOK, IT'S LIKE GOING TO YOUR OWN FUNERAL. YOU GET TO SEE WHO ATTENDS.' Eric Mangini
As chronicled in "Parcells: A Football Life," which Parcells co-authored with Nunyo Demasio, The Big Tuna found himself in a car to the airport with fellow Big Blue assistant Bill Belichick, who tried to console his new friend:
Although the half-hour drive to Newark International Airport was mostly silent, Parcells expressed his regrets about leaving. He told Belichick how much his family enjoyed Colorado, and explained their reluctance to join him in yet another move. When the two coaches reached Continental's terminal, Belichick asked Parcells if he had his plane ticket. Parcells confirmed that he did, but what he thought to himself was, "Yeah, I've got my ticket out of the business."
Parcells boarded the plane and tuned out to a country music station: Then the Giants assistant -- the former Giants assistant -- wept quietly during the four-hour flight.
Parcells, of course, eventually returned to coaching, but only after a year in the mountains selling property for a land-development company, a mixed-bagged sojourn that brought him home to family but left Parcells to say that "reading the sports pages every morning was like getting knifed."
For coaches left out in the cold, the allure of and addiction to football can act like a tractor beam on the senses.
Former 49ers head coach Mike Nolan had worked without interruption since the early 1980s. Making a conscious choice to step away this season, he knows another coaching role is no guarantee.
"I fluctuate," said Nolan, who left his post as a Chargers assistant in January before taking on work with NFL Network and SiriusXM NFL Radio. "There's a lot of pleasure, a lot of freedom in not coaching, from the standpoint that you get to spend more time with your family -- and I've got grandkids now. I would say that the biggest struggle, I'm 57 -- I'm not 65 and retirement age -- so it's like, 'What am I going to do?' And that's why this TV and radio stuff is somewhat appealing, because it keeps me active in the meantime. As far as me coaching again, it has a lot to do with opportunity."
Nolan acknowledged that he still gets "pulled back into" the game, saying that "coaching is a little bit like a drug. I mean it really does -- it gets in your blood -- the excitement and all the things that you do. The highs and lows -- it's almost intoxicating."
That natural rush isn't easily replicated by mowing the lawn or staring out at the sea. Plenty of coaches step away to find that life at home has been buzzing along just fine without them.
"I think most wives would speak for their husbands and say, 'After the season, he's home and we've got an adjustment to make,' " Nolan said. "Because then the guy shows up and the wives will tell you, 'Look, this is my domain. As far as the way I do things here, you've got to get in line.' I think every couple has an adjustment."
That adjustment, per Nolan, comes "even to a larger degree" during a sabbatical year.
"Because you're home 24/7. Now, it's pretty obvious for most couples. Some enjoy each other and some don't," Nolan said. "I'm very fortunate and blessed that my wife (Kathy) and I have always done a lot together. ... She'll go run her errands and I'll do my stuff, but for the most part, we're together most of the day and have breakfast, lunch and dinner together."
Tucked away in Colorado, Nolan finds the unexplored West more to his liking than Parcells ever did during his year on the lam. An avid fisherman, Nolan spoke of solitude completely unavailable to working coaches.
"Once, maybe twice a week, I'll get in the car and kind of drive for hours -- it's just very refreshing to me," Nolan said. "I've never done that in a season before. Unless it's the bye week or something, you would never get even a moment like that."
Eric Mangini found himself without a job when the 49ers canned Jim Tomsula's coaching staff last January. Hoping to find another defensive coordinator gig, the former Jets and Browns head coach saw those vacancies vanish quickly.
If Nolan's sabbatical was by choice, Mangini's was more about a lack of opportunity mixed with the knowledge that stepping away from the NFL grind comes with certain benefits.
WHEN YOU WIN, YOU'LL GET 40 OR 50 TEXTS. ... BUT WHEN YOU LOSE, IT'S LIKE CRICKETS. NOBODY CALLS. NOBODY TEXTS. Eric Mangini
"I'd had some time off before, and that experience was a positive one," Mangini said of his two-year hiatus after being fired by the Browns following the 2010 campaign.
"When you're in football, it's so all-consuming. For that time period of life, when you get back from vacation in summer until the end of the season, there's really no opportunities to do anything related to family," Mangini said. "You'll get some time on Friday night, but because you're so tired from the week of work, that as much as you want to be present, invested and involved, you also can't wait to sleep."
Like Nolan, Mangini has shifted to television, currently working for FOX Sports after a stint with ESPN during his previous break from coaching. And like Nolan, he told a similar tale of adjusting to life at home with his wife, Julie, and three sons, Jake, Luke and Zack.
"I remember a moment after I got through with the Browns where the boys were doing something -- and they weren't being very good listeners at that point -- and I remember addressing them, saying, 'What do you think you're doing? Why do you think you can say that or act like that?' And Jake was walking upstairs with Luke, and Jake goes, 'Dad's home. Party's over.' They didn't think I could hear it, but, yeah, everybody goes through an adjustment."
Mangini pointed to this "off season" as a chance to make up for lost time after years of being away for holidays, birthdays and the less-pronounced milestones that dot regular family life.
"As the boys have gotten older, you miss out on so many things," Mangini said. "So taking a step back gives you a chance to go to a basketball game or a wrestling match or a football game or a school play, a parent-teacher conference -- all things that a lot of parents take for granted, but for you, some of them are firsts. And it's pretty special, and you appreciate those moments so much more because you haven't been able to have them, and your family appreciates those moments, as well."
There's innate appreciation within the coaching community for grinder types who hit the facility before sunrise and wind up sleeping in a heap on office couches. With so many of these men in their 40s and 50s -- and beyond -- the unadvertised toll on the body is fierce.
"I think too often, especially in coaching, it's a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses thing: 'Hey, I worked 'til 2 in the morning and then I'm back in the office at 6 a.m.,' " Pettine said. "It goes back to Brian Billick, who had a quote that's always stuck with me: 'Don't mistake activity for productivity.' Get your sleep, get into work, do your work and go home. I think there's too many guys that just think, Hey, if I'm at the office, I'm working, as some badge of honor, as opposed to being smart."
By all accounts, time away from the stressful vise grip of the NFL schedule produces marvelous results on the physical body.
"My medical tests were very different. Much improved," Pettine said. "All those levels and blood pressure and all that stuff. I think it's certainly something -- I just turned 50 in September -- which obviously is a landmark, so it's a bit of a wakeup call, too, from a health standpoint."
I'M 57 -- I'M NOT 65 AND RETIREMENT AGE -- SO IT'S LIKE, 'WHAT AM I GOING TO DO?' Mike Nolan
Said Pettine: "I joke now with people that I can smell smells now and see colors. The leaves just changed; it was a beautiful thing. Physically, it's tough. It's tough during a football season to maintain your health. ... So it's been a good year for me, healthwise. I made sure I went in and got a full physical and I've done a pretty good job of working out and eating right -- I can actually see my toes now."
Mangini agreed, emphasizing the "tremendous benefit" time away offers from a health perspective, saying: "I know, for me, it gives you a chance to get back to some exercising and what you're taking in, in terms of your eating habits and sleeping and so many things that you push to the side oftentimes in a season because you're just trying to get things done."
When Nolan left the Chargers, he went through a battery of tests with his personal physician, finding that "all my numbers were so much better than they've been in the past. Both of us kind of relate it to the stress level. ... So many areas were different, it was pretty obvious what it was from. There's really only one thing different in my life: I'm not coaching."
Not actively coaching, though, doesn't mean the obsession fizzles away.
"I've watched a ton of film," Mangini said. "On Sundays, I'll have Red Zone on, and then I'll have two or three other games on different satellite feeds that I go back and forth to. I also have [Game Pass], so I can watch the coaches copy. And whatever the issue of the day is, I can watch that coaches film. I can go watch [rookie Eagles quarterback] Carson Wentz on coaches film or I can look at Philadelphia's defense from that perspective or Minnesota's defense or [rookie Cowboys running back] Ezekiel Elliott, and that's been good for me."
Pettine praised the experience of gaining a "30,000-foot view of the league," saying that he's been "exposed to more ideas and what's working and what's not working. And you also get a better sense of the personnel around the league."
It's an alien vantage point for the classic bunkered-in coach who might not normally watch a down of football from offenses and defenses not on his team's schedule.
"When you're just preparing week to week, coaches have that ability to compartmentalize, and you throw everything you have at that one opponent," Pettine said. "Then it gets to Sunday night and Monday morning ... you wipe all that out and you're on to the next team."
So does Pettine plop down on the couch like the rest of us to soak in Sunday's action?
"There's some Sundays, if I don't have a lot going on, I'll sit and watch the games," Pettine said. "My girlfriend and I took my mom to Hawaii and she loves football. She watches it every Sunday. So the strange thing there, the 1 o'clock games were on at 7 a.m. So you roll out of bed and have a cup of coffee and start watching football. There was a London game -- the Redskins game -- and I had a chance to wake up just in time for overtime!"
Anxiety around a sabbatical year is softened by the reality that most of these coaches are netting a full paycheck during their time away.
Pettine is still being paid by the Browns, while Nolan explained that even lower-level assistants are far from financial castoffs.
"The thing that's nice about the NFL is that most NFL teams -- most I've ever been with -- unless the guy turns down an additional year on his contract, everyone has a severance year," Nolan said. "When guys do get let go, it's a little scary for them to take the year off, but a lot of guys are paid in the course of that, so it's not that stressful on the marriage and everything, because obviously there's income. ... So that's a big difference between a regular person. An assistant coach will make anything from $200,000 to $2 million, depending on whether you're a coordinator or position coach. That's a lot of money."
FOOTBALL'S A BUSINESS WHERE YOUR SCHEDULE MAKES IT VERY EASY TO LOSE TIME WITH YOUR FAMILY Mike Pettine
Streams of loot, though, can't mask the emotions that come with being dismissed from a job you put intense energy, passion and devotion into -- often at the expense of anything resembling a balanced life.
"I'm still ... you know ... the things with the Browns," Pettine said. "You kind of go through stages with it. The disappointment that you let people down. There's the anger part. The relief, in some sense. But it's still, you grow close to a lot of people in that building, whether it's other coaches, the support staff and certainly guys on that team. And there are a lot of great people in that building that I'm still rooting for. It's tough to watch what they're going through."
Also fired by the Browns -- seemingly hundreds of regimes ago -- Mangini can relate to being on the outside looking in.
"It's such an interesting game. When you win, you'll get 40 or 50 texts. Texts, calls, everybody, 'Hey, great job. Looked good,' " Mangini said. "But when you lose, it's like crickets. Nobody calls. Nobody texts.
"I had a friend of mine who had been fired, and I'm like, 'Look, it's like going to your own funeral. You get to see who attends,' " Mangini said. "You have more friends than you can possibly imagine when things are going well, but when things aren't going well, you get a real sense of the depth of your relationships."
Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary is back in the game as a defensive assistant for the Rams after a two-year coaching hiatus.
The ex-49ers head man took an active approach to his sabbatical, accepting a role with the league office as a senior advisor to NFL executive VP of football operations Troy Vincent in 2014.
"I really wanted to see how things were done in New York, how they made decisions," Singletary said. "I wanted to get a chance to understand [Commissioner] Roger Goodell's position and some of the people in that building and look at the officiating and how they made those decisions. So I really wanted to take a year and study that. That was eye-opening for me."
Singletary assumed he'd jump back into coaching in 2015. When that didn't happen, he embraced a second year away -- this time with even more attached learning, as Singletary drew up a list of 25 to 30 coaches and coordinators he respected.
"Then I traveled around the country and visited them, and sat down and talked about why they made certain decisions, what they would do differently, and how they feel about their jobs," Singletary said. "... And it gave me a lot of insight in terms of how I want to do things going forward, the Lord's will, when the opportunity comes again."
Now back in the NFL -- though for how long is uncertain, given that since we spoke, the Rams have embarked on a search for a new head coach -- Singletary offered advice for fellow coaches who find themselves out of the loop and wondering what's next.
"Make sure that you have a segue or an entry point back in, because I got out of the game and really just took for granted that I'd get right back in, and it really wasn't that way," Singletary said, noting that he continues to learn from his head-coaching stint with the 49ers.
"I'm thankful when I left San Francisco that I didn't become a head coach right away," Singletary said. "I think the lessons I've learned ... I remember coaching at San Francisco, asking myself, How in the world can I do this from week to week? Because I was coaching like I played, and that's pretty frustrating, especially when you can't go out there and get rid of some of that frustration. And what I've learned is, the preparation -- the preparation is where you lose the frustration."
Singletary wanted back in. He isn't alone.
After parting with the Browns, Pettine traveled last spring to visit Chiefs minicamp, a journey that put him back on the practice field with his old friend and former Jets colleague Bob Sutton, Kansas City's defensive coordinator.
"It was May at that point, and I had been away for a while," Pettine said. "Part of it was a self-test. How would I feel being around practice, sitting and talking football with Bob, and just the proverbial 'would the juices get flowing again?' And they did. I had a great time."
Said Pettine: "I could have felt a bunch of ways, but it was great for me that it confirmed that this is something that I do and I'm looking forward to getting back in."
Mangini joked that his wife is likely tempted, at times, to say: "Alright, it's time for you to go back to work."
"You can't replace the feeling you get on game day. Yes, some of it's really good, some of it's really bad. The highs and lows," Mangini said. "But there's adrenaline associated with that -- that's pretty amazing."
While the concept of a coaching sabbatical is riddled with natural insecurities about one's future, every coach I spoke with glowed over the personal and professional positives of stepping back for a season.
For those who take time away, though, the void left by football tells a man all he needs to know about the path he's chosen in life.
"I realized this year that I love to coach," Pettine said. "And it took me some time in the NFL to learn this, but it's so much more of a people business than people think. It's not about the playbook. It's not about a lot of the fringe things. It's about people first, and building and maintaining relationships. Missing that's been the toughest part of this year, but I know this is what I'm meant to do, and I can't wait for a new challenge."