Three Degrees of Separation.
"It's the best of times, it's the worst of times,'' new Miami coach Joe Philbin told me Saturday, and of course it would be, being anointed the head coach of an NFL team exactly one week after burying son Michael, who drowned in Wisconsin.
Getting through this period will be difficult, obviously. And no one should pretend to tell a coach and his family how to mourn, or when to move. Those should be personal calls. But that's not why I'm writing about Philbin this morning. Miami's hire of the Green Bay offensive coordinator as head coach Friday probably never would have happened without Matt Birk, Kirk Ferentz, and two Massachusetts establishments of higher education with significantly different reputations -- Worcester Academy and Harvard.
"But never without Matt Birk,'' said one NFL scout Friday. "And never without Harvard.''
And never without Kirk Ferentz.
Everyone's life, personal and professional, has a certain degree of kismet to it. Every coach can look to one point in his career and say, That's when it all changed for me. Peeling the onion on Philbin's career shows the same thing.
In 1979, Philbin, a high-school tight end, enrolled at Worcester (Mass.) Academy for a post-grad high school year before going on to a four-year college. One of the assistant coaches on the team was a young kid just out of college, Kirk Ferentz, who actually performed nightly bedchecks on Philbin and got to know him well. Fast-forward to 1997. Philbin was climbing the coaching ladder, and took a job coaching the Harvard offensive line. At the time he took the job, Philbin inherited a good but technically raw starting center, Matt Birk. Excellent size and flexibility. But not technically sound. "A reacher and a grabber,'' recalled Philbin. "He would get outside the framework of his body and start reaching and grabbing. Once he learned the fundamentals of punching and pass-protecting the right way, I think some people in the NFL felt he was certainly a prospect worth investing in.''
Here came the scouts, in the late winter of 1998, a month or so before the draft. One of those scouts, Ferentz, was the offensive line coach at Baltimore. "When I came in for a visit,'' said Ferentz, "I looked at Matt and right away I could tell he'd been coached to do things the way we wanted them done. Coaching makes a huge difference. You work guys out, and you can see which ones have been schooled and which ones haven't. Matt had a great head start.''
Ferentz had a good visit with his former student, Philbin, and thought: I knew he was a good kid. Now I can see that he's a really good coach. Birk got drafted, but not by Baltimore. The Vikings picked him in the sixth round, and Philbin went back to work molding another offensive line in 1998 at Harvard. Before he left Harvard, though, Birk went for a barbeque at the Philbin home, with kids running around the house and Philbin and wife Diane (who eventually would have six children) looking so happy to be living the football life. When he left, Birk thought he'd just seen the classic all-American family.
The next spring, Ferentz got the head-coaching job at Iowa. When he formed his coaching staff, he tried to talk veteran line coach Joe Moore out of retirement. Nope, Moore said. So he turned his attention to a young and hungry coach he got to know again at Harvard a year earlier. Philbin jumped at the chance. "Let's just say hiring the line coach from Harvard wasn't exactly greeted with the red carpet when we announced that,'' Ferentz said. The line is important to Iowans. They didn't want some egghead coming in and teaching it; they wanted a physical pounder. But Philbin changed their minds. Soon he developed one of the best offensive lines in the country, with transplanted tight ends Bruce Nelson and Robert Gallery joining Eric Steinbach to help Iowa win a Big Ten championship. And after every win, he and Diane and the brood would host the offensive line for dinner at their home on Thursday nights, a new crew of linemen experiencing the special bond Philbin built with his players.
Four years later he went to Green Bay, and climbed the ladder there, and that job begat the Miami head-coaching job. Why? Teaching, and the personal connection owner Stephen Ross and GM Jeff Ireland saw him exhibit.
Now back to Harvard.
"There is absolutely no question he helped me get where I am,'' said Birk. "I doubt sincerely that I'd be here right now, and had this career that I've had, without that one year of learning the position and all the other things he's taught me over the years.''
"I just know from what I saw he was a huge part of Matt getting to be a pro,'' said Ferentz.
"It was huge,'' said Philbin. "Huge. I just don't think I'd have ended up here, without that experience.''
Now to the tragedy.
Birk asked coach John Harbaugh if he could take a day to go to Green Bay to mourn with the Philbin family, and Harbaugh, in the middle of a playoff week, gave Birk a day. He went to the wake on Thursday night, the night before the funeral, and got to tell Philbin how much he'd meant to his career, and his life, and to tell him how sorry he was. He wasn't alone. Ferentz went to the funeral, and the outpouring from Iowans touched him. "Dallas Clark didn't even play for Joe,'' said Ferentz. "Dallas was a tight end. But he drove seven hours to pay his respects. That just showed the respect he had, and so many of the former players had, for Joe.''
"The outpouring of support from the Kirk Ferentzes, the Dallas Clarks, the Matt Birks, all the Packers, all the friends in our lives, without that, I don't know how we'd have made it,'' said Philbin. "This was a tough call, in a very tough time. When Mr. Ross told me things were looking good on Friday, I told him I had to go home and look my wife, my kids, in the eye and see how they were with this. Is it the right thing at the right time? So I went home. I talked to them all. My children said this would be what Michael would have wanted.''
"Good things happen to good people, at a time they really need good things to happen,'' said Birk.
One other thing Birk shared with Philbin.
Six children. They both had six children.
Think what would have happened if Dan Rooney's wish had come true back in 1969.
Sad news, however you fall on the Joe Paterno spectrum, with the news of his death Sunday at 85 ... 85 days after he coached his last game at Penn State. My feeling is that he could have done more, by his own admission, to bring the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal to light. He hung on too long to a job, when clearly he wasn't up to the physical demands of it anymore; he should have left the job six or seven years ago for the good of the program. But all of that doesn't erase the enormous good he did on a growing campus and for the lives of the players he coached.
The following has gotten some play over the last few weeks, but I thought I would sum up his three biggest flirtations with the NFL over the years.
In 1968, the Steelers went 2-11-1 under coach Bill Austin, and owner Art Rooney and son Dan decided to make a coaching change. Not long after the season ended, they made an offer that Paterno seriously considered -- because it was for $70,000 a year, $50,000 more than he was making at Penn State. At the time, Paterno was a hot property. Penn State had beaten Kansas in the Orange Bowl and finished the season (Paterno's third at Penn State) ranked second in the country.
"I thought he was going to come,'' Dan Rooney once told me. "We had him in my kitchen in Pittsburgh having lunch one day. We had a great conversation. I thought there was a good chance he'd want to coach our team.''
But Paterno felt he hadn't stayed at Penn State long enough, and he felt indebted to the school for giving him the job three years earlier. The Steelers hired the defensive coordinator from the Baltimore Colts, Chuck Noll, prompting disgruntled Steeler fans to complain they couldn't even get a college guy to coach their team. It turned out to be the best decision, arguably, in the history of the franchise.
The pursuit of Paterno happened again in 1973 and in 1982 with the Patriots. Twice Paterno was offered the coaching job in New England, and he verbally accepted in '73 -- but backed out because he reportedly was skittish over the shaky ownership and management of the team.
Imagine if Paterno had taken the Steeler job and Noll hadn't. My first question is whether Paterno would have taken Joe Greene of North Texas State, as Noll did, as the first draft pick of the club in 1969. Greene became the cornerstone of the Steel Curtain, and is probably the single most important draft pick in club history. We'll never know if Paterno would have liked quarterback Greg Cook enough to pick Cook and build his offense around him, or maybe even his own tight end from Penn State, Ted Kwalick, over a player from a smaller school. Noll never feared the college players from schools outside the power conferences; in fact, many of his cornerstone players came from the lesser schools and predominantly black colleges. Would Paterno have shared Noll's affection for the less famous?