Mike Munchak takes input, but ultimately takes charge of Titans

Sunday, August 28, 2011 at 10:05pm
MunchakMain.jpg
Eric England (SouthComm) 

Everybody has an idea. 

Mike Munchak learned that more than two decades ago, when he first considered what he might do once his days as an NFL player were finished. Of course, he had no idea at that time that he would be a coach, let alone the head coach of the franchise that drafted him and for which he played every season of his Hall of Fame career. 

Rather than turn a deaf ear, the son of a truck driver and a factory worker from Scranton, Pa., is willing to listen. In fact, he welcomes as many opinions as people want to offer. 

Ultimately, though, like any leader with a team of rivals, Munchak is going to make a decision. He will know full well why he made it, and he will own it — right or wrong. 

“You have to have the confidence to believe that what you’re doing is correct, and to have the ability to say, ‘You know what? I need to adjust a couple things,’ ” he said. “It’s a fine line between making too many changes. I don’t think I ever have.”

At 51 years old, Munchak is in his first season as head coach of the Tennessee Titans, where his biggest job will be to change a franchise that seemed lost last year into one with championship-caliber drive and determination. He’s been with the organization in some capacity ever since 1982, setting a standard of stability that’s difficult to comprehend in the professional sports world. 

As the successor to Jeff Fisher, Munchak must follow the most successful coach in franchise history — not to mention one of the most dominant personalities of Middle Tennessee’s professional sports era. He comes at the job with undeniable playing credentials, a solid resume as an assistant coach and an unfailing focus on professionalism. His thick, barrel-chested physique allows him to maintain an unassuming personality yet still command attention. His knees, beset by injuries dating to his college days, reduce his gait to little more than a shuffle, but his voice is rich and authoritative, which makes him impossible to ignore. 

“I’ve always said he has a John Wayne way about him,” said Chet Parlavecchio, a college teammate of Munchak’s and current Titans assistant. “He has a presence. He does. He’s a big, strong man who, when he walks into a room, he commands presence. Then you add to the fact what a great player he was and how intelligent he is as a coach, and that’s a tough combination not to be impressed by.”

When he was a player, coaching was one of the few things Munchak figured he wouldn’t do later in life. He’d barely cleared out his locker — after a career that lasted 12 years and included nine Pro Bowl appearances and a spot on the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 1980s — when former Titans general manager Floyd Reese, then an executive with the Houston Oilers, approached him about a job with the organization.

Munchak accepted a position as assistant to football operations for the 1994 season. He was involved in personnel evaluations and decisions, draft preparation and other aspects of the operation. The next season, he evolved into the role of offensive quality control coach, which he held for two years. When the franchise relocated from Houston in 1997, he asked Fisher for and was granted
the position of offensive line coach.

“I retired in July and started a week later,” he said. “… I’m a worker, and once I got involved — my wife was worried about this — she knew once I started messing with [coaching], and she knew how focused I am and how into detail and doing it the right way. Whatever time it takes to get the job done, I’m going to do it. She knew that. I knew that. So that was kind of my fear of getting sucked in.” 

As offensive line coach, Munchak typically slept at the office on Tuesday nights during the season. That was his busiest day each week, and he wanted to be on hand early Wednesday, when players arrived to begin preparing for the next game. Every other night, he made it a point to be at home with his wife and two daughters.

As head coach, Munchak has “a couple couches” in his spacious office but doubts he will spend many nights away from home. 

“I’m a delegator,” he said. “I’m going to let people do their job. I think I’ll direct them and let them know what to expect, so guys know exactly where they stand with me and what I’d like to accomplish. Then I’ll get out of the way and let them do their job.”

Thus far, he’s made it look easy. 

Despite the handicaps created by the NFL lockout, training camp went smoothly enough that he ended it a day earlier than scheduled. Players talked regularly throughout those three weeks about the productivity of practice sessions and noted an enhanced opportunity for them to enjoy their jobs. 

“I tell him all the time … ‘Man, I actually believe you’re the head coach now,’” said offensive line coach Bruce Matthews, Munchak’s closest friend and former teammate. “At first I was like, ‘Munch, how are you going to do this?’ Now it’s like, ‘Man he’s a head coach, he’s the real guy.’

“To be honest, all joking aside, I knew from Day One what he was capable of and what I think he’s going to accomplish here, and I believe wholeheartedly he’s going to get it done.”

 

If Munchak has indeed found his calling, it’s happened only after he listened to many other voices. 

One of the most prominent belonged to Joe Paterno, the legendary college coach who recruited Munchak to Penn State. It was during the first meeting of Munchak’s freshman season that Paterno told the players in the room that odds were only 1 percent of them would make it to the NFL. 

“When I looked around and saw who was sitting in those seats — and it was the best of all the different high schools all over the country — I thought, ‘You know, I may never play again,’ ” Munchak said. “There is nothing promised.

“I think [Paterno] emphasizes getting the most out of the football experience, and you’d better come out of here with your education,” he said. 

Munchak left college with one remaining year of eligibility and a business degree. He took that education with him to Houston after the Oilers made him the first offensive lineman selected (the eighth player overall) in the 1982 draft. Quickly, he began to look for opportunities to put his degree to work. At the recommendation of an accountant, he met with a couple local businessmen because he wanted to hear what they had to say about opening and operating health clubs, which he’d planned to do back in Scranton. Fifteen years later, they were part of an investment group that owned 15 Gold’s Gyms in the Houston and Dallas areas. 

“That kind of gave me a taste of the business world and gave me the opportunity to look for other possibilities when I retired,” he said. “I found that things I didn’t get involved in, I didn’t do as well. … Everyone has a great idea. They all sound good. It might be a small thing here and a small thing there, and six months later: ‘How’s that going?’ ‘Oh, it didn’t go so well.’ ”

The Munchak philosophy of total personal involvement carries from the business world to football. But it dates back to his childhood in Scranton, and what his parents said — or didn’t say.

“My dad working as a truck driver. … I watched him work 14 hours a day and never complaining about that, and then coming home and helping coach me in peewee football or baseball,” Munchak said. “So I saw the sacrifice. Seeing my mother work the night shift at a book factory, so I’m sitting there watching and they’re sacrificing without saying a word.

“They never explained that to me,” he said. “It’s just something you see going on, and I don’t know how it doesn’t affect you when you see what your parents do at an early age.”

 

By the time Munchak accepted the position as offensive line coach and relocated with the franchise to Middle Tennessee, he was ready to do the same with coaching. He divested himself from whatever remaining business interests he had and committed himself completely to the profession. 

That first offseason, Munchak spent weeks developing his own vocabulary, one that he would use to try to explain to his players how he accomplished some of the things he did during his career.

“I sat there and thought for weeks just writing out blocking words, terms,” he said. “How do you describe that in words? … It’s finding ways to say things to players so they get it.”

That hasn’t changed with his new position. Munchak’s simple expectation for every player, as it was for his offensive linemen, is this: “Be a pro. Know what to do and do it.” He also made clear some of the specifics of what he wants in individual meetings and conversations with players, as well as what they ought to expect from him. 

More than anything, Munchak made it known that eight years removed from the team’s last playoff victory and three years out from its last postseason appearance, the status quo is not acceptable. The coaching staff is almost completely of his choosing. Practices are more competitive but also more efficient. Many players are asked to do less but to do it better. Music plays through loudspeakers to help maintain the energy level. 

“He’s got it real relaxed for us out there,” wide receiver Justin Gage said. “He’s giving us an opportunity to play fast, play hard and have fun with it. He’s bringing excitement to the game. It’s something that every guy misses — even back to my high school days when you used to get to go out there and have fun and play. That’s what he’s allowing us to do.” 

Among those Munchak consulted when he took the job were former Titans assistants Gregg Williams and Jim Schwartz, who went on to be head coaches with other organizations. His offensive coordinator, Chris Palmer, has experience as an NFL head coach. So does senior assistant coach Dave McGinnis. 

The decisions he’s made, though, have been completely his own. As he sees it, input is important but understanding is essential. 

“There’s a lot of knowledge in this building before I even go outside of it,” Munchak said. “There’s a lot of ways to do things, and if you talk to them they’ve all done it a little differently.” 

“I was always big on, if I don’t feel like I can teach something or I didn’t think it made sense to me, no matter how good it was, I wasn’t doing it. Because I feel players can see right through that. If I don’t have the answers, something is going to happen where I’m not going to be able to explain it. I don’t ever want to be in [that] situation.”

Regardless, he’s always willing to listen.