Wiedmer: Munchak firing lets Titans start over

Wiedmer: Munchak firing lets Titans start over

January 5th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Mike Munchak watches an NFL game against the Houston Texans in Nashville in this Dec. 29, 2013, file photo.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Friends don't let friends take down their careers.

That may become the quick explanation for why Tennessee Titans president and CEO Tommy Smith canned head coach Mike Munchak Saturday afternoon following three largely forgettable, regrettable seasons.

Quite possibly ordering Munchak to jettison offensive line coach Bruce Matthews -- one of Munch's closest friends and a fellow Hall of Famer and former Titans/Oilers teammate -- Smith quickly parted company with his head coach when Munchak apparently refused such terms.

That's not the official reason Smith gave for the termination. The closest thing to that came from general manager Ruston Webster, who said of the decision, "Tough choices were presented to all sides, and the end result was to part ways and move forward without Mike."

But to believe those tough choices didn't include ordered staff changes, whether they involved Matthews or not, is folly. It's not even inconceivable that Smith made the coach an offer he knew Munchak would refuse, all the easier to sever a relationship that spanned more than 30 years, or ever since Munchak became a Houston Oiler in 1982 after an outstanding collegiate career at Penn State.

And if Munchak chose his buddy over his career, knowing that Matthews would be without a job either way, more power to him. Such character and loyalty are admirable and all too rare.

But that doesn't mean Smith was wrong, even if Munchak is as much a part of Titans/Oilers history as Warren Moon, Earl Campbell and the late Bum Phillips. Few have been more beloved in all hues of blue than Munch.

And given that, plus the fact that Smith has been on the job less than three months following the death of his father-in-law, the Titans/Oilers owner and founder Bud Adams, it would have surprised no one if the coach had been granted a final autumn to return the Titans to the playoffs for the first time since the 2008 season.

That even briefly appeared to be the outcome of Friday's daylong meeting of Smith, Webster and Munchak in the franchise's former home city of Houston. One Nashville media outlet even reported the coach would return for 2014, though there would be several staff changes.

But then Smith reversed field. He cut ties with Munchak and his 22-26 overall record, which included a 2-20 mark against teams that finished the season with winning records. Throw in the $100 million the franchise spent this past offseason on talent to reverse the Titans' tenuous hold on respectability, and it's hard to fault Smith's decision.

It also never made much sense to keep Munchak for the 2014 season without extending his contract. Lame-duck coaches rarely work. Needed talent upgrades in both coaches and players don't want to join an unstable franchise. And those already on board begin to worry more about themselves than the team.

Beyond that, there were times when Munchak's loyalty to his players and his coaches seemed misplaced. Knowing their head coach was on a very warm seat this season, the Titans lost to Jacksonville at home despite the Jaguars entering the game with an 0-8 record. They ultimately split with both the Jags and Texans, who finished with the worst record in the AFC.

Yes, the Titans were crippled by the loss of quarterback Jake Locker, who ultimately missed nine of the team's 16 games. But that's the NFL. Injuries happen. Injuries are guaranteed. And however much worse the Titans were without Locker, they weren't world beaters with him.

Not this year during a 7-9 record. Not last year during a horrid 6-10 season. Not even Munchak's first year, when a surprising 9-7 mark failed to earn a playoff berth.

That said, no one has ever uttered a discouraging word about Munchak the man. Great husband, father, teammate, player's coach. It's why he has no doubt garnered serious consideration for the newly vacant Penn State job, though Miami's Al Golden seems the favorite for that post. It's also why, if nothing else, Munchak almost assuredly will land another NFL gig as someone's offensive line coach, which is his undeniable strength.

But however much no one appears to have taken pleasure in this outcome, it was probably necessary. Smith can now start over. Fresh ideas. Fresh voices. The last remnants of Jeff Fisher's coaching era are now mostly gone, something the Titans' fan base needs almost as much as the players.

"We're attuned to the fans," Smith said last month during a visit to a 60-percent full LP Field.

Saturday, in a move sure to excite an exasperated fan base, he let them know just how attuned he is.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com