Most will downplay and dismiss it, especially when pressed in front of a microphone. They’ll claim it’s the last thing on their radar, then lean on some trusty clichés to get through a few weeks of uncomfortable news conferences: on to the next practice, the next meeting, the next game. They’ll say there’s no point in worrying about what they can’t control.
But privately, the worry is in the back of their minds and in the pits of their stomach. It weighs on them, their staff, their players, their families. The fear. The angst. The unknown.
“It happens from Thanksgiving on in the NFL,” said former Bengals coach Marvin Lewis.
For a handful of head coaches across the league — like Washington’s Ron Rivera, Chicago’s Matt Eberflus, Atlanta’s Arthur Smith, New Orleans’ Dennis Allen, even New England’s Bill Belichick — an already stressful job grows even more tense late in the year, as disappointing seasons crawl to a close and they await ownership’s decision on their future with the team.
Will they keep their jobs?
Or are they out?
“When you’re in it and playing meaningful games this time of year, there’s nothing better,” said former Colts coach Chuck Pagano. “And there’s nothing worse than being on the other end of it … for the coaches and families, it’s an absolute nightmare.”
Rare is the profession where a single day on the calendar is synonymous with pink slips. In the NFL it’s called Black Monday, the first day after the regular season ends, and it’s usually when coaches on the proverbial hot seat find out their fates.
For some, a firing can bring closure, even peace. But it stings nonetheless.
“No one likes to be told their services are no longer needed,” said former Bucs coach Dirk Koetter.
But even when they sense it’s coming, it’s a hard pill to swallow. In Minnesota in 2013, Leslie Frazier drove into work on Black Monday “hoping against all hope” he’d keep his job. After he was let go, he sat in his car and prayed. Pagano, fired immediately after the Colts’ last game in 2017, went home and poured a drink with his wife, Tina.
“Win or lose, we booze, right?” he said, laughing at the memory.
The final few weeks of the season can be draining.
“You see things slipping a little bit, and those rumors are beginning,” Frazier said. “I got friends right now who are in the same situation, who told me they’ve already talked to their owner and they can’t get a feel for what he’s thinking.”
Black Monday awaits.
Based on conversations with a half-dozen former head coaches, here’s a peek inside the unease, disappointment and fallout that accompanies one of the most daunting days on the NFL calendar.
The weeks before
They hear the chatter. They just pretend they don’t.
Playing into that speculation publicly would serve no point. There are practices to run, opponents to study, game plans to script. Coaches, already creatures of habit, lean even more into their weekly routines, walling themselves off from the outside noise as much as possible.
Sometimes, it’s their families that can’t escape it.
“That was one of the biggest things I had to battle,” Pagano said. “They wanna protect you. They wanna stand up for you. They wanna fight, so they’re gonna pay attention to what’s being said. ‘Hey, Dad, did you hear this?’ Of course I did! My whole deal was blinders and earmuffs, but we’re all human. It gets to you.
“(Coaches) have families. They have kids who go to school and listen to stuff. Can you imagine?”
Added Koetter: “It’s so tough on a coach’s family, the wife and kids not knowing what the future holds. Because in this day and age, you can’t get away from it. It’s everywhere.”
Frazier said the team’s PR staff would keep that type of news away from him — the rumors, the speculation — so most of what he knew about his job status came from concerned family and friends. “Hey, look out!” they’d tell him. “A lot of things swirling about your job security.”
Norv Turner, twice fired on Black Monday — after the 2005 season with the Raiders, then after the 2012 season with the Chargers — said he wouldn’t let any of it creep into his mind.
That is, until it was time for his news conference.
“Someone asks you that question: ‘There’s a lot of speculation that you’re gonna be fired. Do you have an opinion?’” Turner said. “Your opinion is, ‘Yeah, it’s part of the business.’ There’s always a lot of speculation. We can’t sit around worrying about it.”
Near the end of his run in San Diego, Turner used to joke with the team’s public relations director that as soon as his news conference was finished, he wanted it promptly scrubbed from his memory.
“You know in ‘Men in Black,’ that flasher they have where they can flash and you don’t remember anything? I used to tell them after my media thing, just get that ‘Men in Black’ flasher and flash me so I can go do my stuff.”
There’s also the matter of getting the team ready to play, which comes with its own challenges, especially as the losses pile up and any dreams of a miracle run to the playoffs fade away.
“You’re always telling your players, ‘Be a pro, be a pro, be a pro,’” Koetter said.
Added Pagano: “If it goes south, and it looks like ‘Oh, he’s lost the locker room,’ and that comes out and you don’t do anything to change it? Then there’s a good chance you’re gone.
“But like I always said, we all know what we signed up for.”
The last game
Turner knew it was over before his last game in Oakland. It was New Year’s Eve 2005. After a 30-21 loss to the Giants — the Raiders’ sixth in a row — he and his wife, Nancy, had some friends over to the house.
“I don’t think I was stressed,” he said. “I was eager to leave.”
Frazier’s last game with the Vikings was a 14-13 victory over the Lions, a divisional win that left him optimistic ownership could be convinced to let him stay another year. He went out for dinner with his family that night, trying not to stress about what might happen the following morning.
“It’s definitely in the back of your mind,” he says. “What’s tomorrow going to be like?
“We had gone to the playoffs the year before. And then we took a step back, and there were circumstances that allowed that to happen. I felt like I was growing as a head coach, and I could see what we needed to do to get back to the playoffs.”
Most know it’s coming, or at least have a hunch. It’s the ones who are left stunned that Lewis can’t figure out.
He was the defensive coordinator for a Ravens team in 1998 that dropped three of its final four. After it was over, coach Ted Marchibroda and his staff were let go.
“It’s weird because we all kind of expected it, but there were coaches that were shocked,” Lewis said, laughing. “And I was like, ‘What season were you just in?’ That’s the hilarious part. There was one coach who had all his binders normally on his shelves, and the binders that were there were completely empty. Most coaches can figure it out. You don’t wanna be the one hanging around, cleaning your s— out.”
Romeo Crennel, fired in Cleveland on Black Monday in 2008, then in Kansas City in 2012, said most of the time the coach’s fate has already been decided when he pulls into the team facility a day after the season finale.
“They usually don’t tell you until Black Monday,” Crennel says, “and you’re not given much of a chance to make a case.”
He had a feeling he was done in Cleveland when he got word that the team’s owner at the time, Randy Lerner, was in town a day early. “That threw up some flags, because he was usually in town on Tuesday,” Crennel remembers.
Lerner came down to his office and delivered the news. “I figured I should probably leave the office, which I did, and I depended on my secretary to help get the office in order. Because, you know, you got to get everything cleaned out.”
Turner knew it was over in Oakland, but he also knew he’d have to wait.
“Al (Davis) wasn’t an early guy,” he said of the Raiders longtime owner. So Turner held one final team meeting, telling the players he looked forward to seeing them on the opposite sideline.
Finally, the boss summoned him.
“I met with Al and it was quick. It was pretty simple. We talked for five minutes and he said he was going in another direction. It was honestly welcomed … we didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things and it wasn’t going to work.”
His exit in San Diego seven years later was tougher. The Chargers ripped off three straight AFC West titles to start his tenure, advancing once to the conference championship game. Then they missed the playoffs three years in a row. Turner survived a touch-and-go Black Monday in 2011 after finishing 8-8; a year later, after a 7-9 season, his gut told him it was over.
“We were 59-43 over six years. And it wasn’t enough, because we didn’t win a Super Bowl, and not making the playoffs the last three years affected me … the last year, we really struggled during the middle of the year (at one point, the Chargers lost seven of eight). So I think it was apparent to everyone that it would be unusual if they didn’t make the change.”
After owner Dean Spanos fired Turner, he allowed him to hold one last team meeting. The players gave him a standing ovation.
“That was very appreciated,” Turner said.
Toward the end of his run in Minnesota, Frazier was left without answers, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Driving home from the team facility after a Friday practice with two games left in the 2013 season, he called up Vikings ownership to address the rumors directly. “Where do you stand?” he remembers asking Zygi and Mark Wilf. “We want to finish this, and I want to be able to stand in front of the guys and talk with confidence.”
But the Wilfs dodged the question, Frazier said. They told him to keep coaching hard and they’d see where they were at the end of the season.
Two weeks later, he was out of a job.
“They wanted to go — the famous cliché — in a different direction,” he said. “And that was that.”
Frazier went home to “lick his wounds,” and that’s when his phone started ringing. One player after another, plenty of them emotional. Frazier had been an NFL cornerback himself, and to his players, he’d been a friend and a father figure.
“Some of the guys got really, really emotional,” he said. “That part was hard. That was really hard.”
The ownership factor
Turner’s first firing came in Washington, seven years into his tenure, when the club’s fresh-faced new owner, Dan Snyder, canned him with three games left in the 2000 season. Turner had taken the team to the divisional round of the playoffs the year before, but after working under Snyder for 19 months, he was completely over it.
“When it comes to people making decisions about your future,” Turner says now, “I think it’s important to always consider the source.”
And in some Black Monday calls, that source is a team owner who is either naïve or overly involved, or worse: both.
“I never felt anything negative (about being fired in Washington) because I knew what was going on behind the scenes,” Turner said. “It was an impossible situation and it proved to be that for another 20 years.”
Snyder had pushed to sign a number of aging, veteran free agents well past their prime — Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith, Mark Carrier, Jeff George, Adrian Murrell — and as the league’s first team to climb past $100 million in payroll, expectations soared. Of those personnel decisions, Turner says, “I’ll be nice, we had our differences along the way … our relationship was deteriorating.”
Same as it is with first-time coaches, first-time owners experience a learning curve. And as the price of franchises continues to skyrocket, fewer and fewer arrive with any sort of football background.
That hurts them, Lewis said. This is an entirely unique business.
“They’ve been very successful in other walks of life, and their ability to afford an NFL squad came in a different way,” he said. “They expect results like that all the time. And they really believe all these pieces are interchangeable, which as we know, they’re not. You can’t just plug and play (a head coach) like you’re changing out a department head.”
Pagano has noticed a thinning patience among owners the last few years, especially the newer ones, who are less likely to give a coach the requisite time it takes to reshape a roster and change the direction of the team.
“Shoot, anymore, it could be a year in, two years in, the way people react and respond to the narrative out there,” he said. “When pundits and critics start going after you, these owners — not all of them, but a majority of them — start to listen to that stuff.”
Turner, who worked for two owners he didn’t get along with in Snyder and Davis, added this: “When you’re the head coach, unfortunately, you can’t fire the owner. A lot of these owners would be fired if you could. I’ve been with, like, five different first-time owners. And it’s comical, they make the same mistakes … and it seems it takes them a while to learn, too.”
Of those tense conversations toward the end of his stints with both teams, Turner said: “Sometimes if you’re too honest, it doesn’t help the relationship.”
Frazier has some advice for interim coaches hoping to land the full-time gig: Don’t take it. He served as the interim in Minnesota before being hired on full-time, and he doesn’t believe it sets a coach up for long-term success. “When you are the interim, they still somewhat see you as part of the previous regime,” Frazier said. “You’re still trying to get some of that stink off of you … you need to be able to start fresh and get your people in different areas.”
After he was fired, Frazier took comfort in knowing he’d be a better head coach the second time around, confident that he’d get another chance. That helped ease the pain.
That chance still hasn’t come.
“Lo and behold, that was 10 years ago,” Frazier says. “It’s a lot tougher than I thought it would be to get that opportunity.”
Most recently, he was the assistant head coach and defensive coordinator for the Bills. Last March, he decided to take a “sabbatical” — his word — after 35 straight years in the profession. In a recent conversation, he said he’s not retired, he’s not quitting and he wasn’t fired in Buffalo.
And he still wants the opportunity to lead a team.
“I hope there is an owner out there that is looking for an experienced former head coach who has had success in this league as a coordinator and a guy who led a team to the playoffs,” he said.
The pain of his first Black Monday firing still lodged in the back of his mind, Frazier wants another shot, with hopes a second head-coaching stint has a different ending than so many do.
(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; photos: Kirk Irwin, Rich Schultz, Michael Reaves, Nick Cammett / Diamond Images / Getty Images)