Thrill of Victory

Nashville sets a different standard for coaching longevity

They called it “Black Tuesday” for a reason.

On New Year’s Eve, seven of the NFL’s 32 coaches lost their jobs. Some, like Philadelphia’s Andy Reid (he coached the Eagles for 14 years) were nearly institutions in their own city. Others, like Chicago’s Lovie Smith and Arizona’s Ken Whisenhunt, led their teams to Super Bowls within the last five years. There was also Kansas City’s Romeo Crennel, who had just one full season as the Chiefs’ head coach in addition to the three games he served as interim coach last year.

And then, there was Titans coach Mike Munchak, who got a stay of execution from owner Bud Adams on the same day. Despite preseason hope that this might be a borderline playoff team, the Titans’ 6-10 mark was better than just six other NFL teams, and tied them with Buffalo and the Jets. The season seemed even worse, since only the Jaguars, Chiefs, Raiders and Eagles had a worse point differential than Tennessee’s minus-141.

Munchak has only been at the helm as head coach for two seasons, and perhaps last year’s 9-7 campaign was enough to give owner Bud Adams reason to believe that things can be better. Munchak is also fortunate to play for an owner who doesn’t have a quick trigger; the previous coach, Jeff Fisher, took over for the last six games of the Oilers’ 1994 season, relocated to Tennessee with the rest of the franchise, and stayed here until Adams finally let him go after the 2010 season in a move that unanimously was hailed as the best thing for both parties.

Even had Fisher never coached another NFL game, his 263 games coached for the franchise (225 of which came in Nashville) would have ranked him 18th on the NFL’s all-time games coached list. According to Pro-Football-Refernece.com, 466 men have coached at least one game in the NFL, making Fisher’s tenure with the Oilers/Titans very much an an exception so far as the NFL is concerned. (Incidentally, Fisher’s two seasons in St. Louis have bumped him to the No. 13 spot.)

As much as Fisher’s tenure in Nashville was an anomaly in the NFL, it’s not an anomaly in the city of Nashville. Here’s a closer look at the interesting dynamic between this city and its coaches, a slew of whom have stayed here for well over a decade.

Fisher had company
Until last season, Jeff Fisher was the only NFL coach Nashville knew. Just across the river, Barry Trotz arrived on the Nashville scene not long after the Titans relocated. The NHL awarded the Predators a franchise for the 1998-99 season, and Trotz was ownership’s pick to lead the team. He’s been on the sidelines ever since, posting a 455-398-60 record, plus 71 overtime losses.

To say that Predators’ ownership was patient with Trotz is an understatement, though it should have been: the franchise needed a few years to get off the ground as an expansion team, and didn’t really start spending a lot of money on players until about Trotz’s seventh season. Still, the Predators didn’t even make the playoffs until Trotz’s sixth year, and didn’t win a playoff series until last season – his 12th.

But the Predators and Titans don’t have much on Vanderbilt. Men’s coach Kevin Stallings is in the midst of his 14th season, and his counterpart on the women’s side, Melanie Balcomb, is in her 11th. Less than two months from now, baseball coach Tim Corbin will also start his 11th season.

How uncommon is that? Of the other 13 mens’ hoops coaches in the Southeastern Conference, only one – Florida’s Billy Donovan – has been at his school longer than Stallings, and just by a mere two seasons. Balcomb trails only Georgia’s Andy Landers (34 years!) in SEC women’s longevity, and Corbin ranks third behind Ole Miss’s Mike Bianco (entering his 12th season) and Georgia’s Dave Perno (11).

Vandy’s coaches, however, don’t even have a monopoly on tenure within a two-mile radius of their own campus. Belmont basketball coach Rick Byrd has manned the sidelines ever since 1986. His women’s counterpart, Tony Cross, was at BU for 26 years before retiring after the 2010 season. Lipscomb men’s basketball coach Scott Sanderson started his career there in ’99, the same year as Stallings.

And let’s not forget Trevecca men’s basketball coach Sam Harris, who’s in the midst of his 20th season on the sidelines.

Longevity not a one-way street
If we heard it once, we heard it a million times: as soon as Vanderbilt football coach James Franklin would take the first train out of Nashville as soon as bigger schools came calling. Media pundits everywhere advised Franklin to do so; after all, Vanderbilt hadn’t won this many football games in a season since 1915.

Yet Franklin seems to be making it crystal-clear that he’s not going anywhere, signing another long-term deal to stay at VU and making unprompted comments throughout the week that people need to get used to the fact that he’s here to stay. So believe it or not, Franklin may be the city’s next long-term coaching fixture.

Franklin’s close friend, Corbin, says the fact that coaches stay here – and stay here a while – is no coincidence. Like Franklin, Corbin was courted for a lot of big jobs like Auburn, LSU and Oregon, but chose to stay here anyway – something many in the media outside of Nashville swore could never happen, since Vanderbilt baseball was also a complete non-factor before his arrival.

“I don’t think that what you are talking about is a coincidence. Each person is different, but there is no underestimating the strength of Nashville as a city. This is the best place that we have ever lived in. Maggie and I have chosen to live in close proximity to each place that I have worked and we are fortunate that we could do the same here,” Corbin said on Thursday.

“What makes Nashville unique is the warmth of the people, its every day energy, the cleanliness of the city, ease of transportation, entertainment and of course Vanderbilt University. Because our daughters are older and have since moved, Maggie and I have the ability to get out every night and meet people in the community by virtue of dining out. We look forward to this and enjoy the relationships that we have established because of it. I also don’t think there is another city in the world where you can drive a four wheeler to work.

“I once heard someone say that Nashville is a city in jeans. That sums it up best.”

Corbin’s comments are dead-on. In addition, Nashville’s not a “gotcha” media town, where coaches have to be on guard with every word they say. Talk radio and editorial pages of newspapers aren’t calling for a coach’s head at every turn. It’s a reporter’s job to ask tough questions, and reporters here do that, too. But when I’m in press conferences within this city, I detect a level of respect for coaches as human beings that you don’t see in, say, New York or Boston or Philly – or even other SEC towns.

That probably helps athletic directors and owners when they have tough decisions to make as to whether to hire or fire a coach. Bosses are just like the rest of us; they’re prone to peer pressure, and nobody wants to get roasted by fans and media for making an unpopular decision to retain a coach.

As the saying goes, it’s usually better to be lucky than to be good. In Nashville, that cuts both ways: its coaches are lucky to get longer leashes than they would almost anywhere else, to have a chance to make things go right when they start going wrong, which is how I hope things end for Munchak. And likewise, that climate allows the city’s sports fans to continue to enjoy the Corbins and the Franklins – guys who, had they lived in any other city, might have chosen to pack their bags long ago.