I have the privilege of advising several NFL coaches on their contracts and career decisions. Larry Kennan of the NFL Coaches Association encourages coaches to have agents, but most teams have internal policies that prevent them from recognizing agents for any position below coordinator or, in some cases, head coach. As a result, Kennan acts as the voice for these coaches, and advisors such as myself help counsel them in their dialogue with management. However, the coaches are not unionized and are fearful of doing so.
Last March, the NFL passed a resolution giving all teams the individual flexibility and expanded option to control their retirement plans for front office and non-player employees, including coaches. To date, nine teams have decided to discontinue retirement funding for their coaching staffs. All benefits earned through 2008 are funded and are earned by all coaches with those nine teams.
Kennan believes that all teams, with the possible exception of two, will phase out their coaches’ pensions over the next two years. This has left most NFL coaches with a sinking feeling. In addition to the pension concerns, owners are also asking coaches to take a pay cut if there’s an NFL lockout or strike. Language for work-stoppage-related salary reductions started creeping into coaches’ contracts about two years ago. Currently, management is asking coaches to accept salary reductions of 50-75 percent of their 2011 salaries, depending on the length of a possible work stoppage.
I know of one team that has asked its coaches to take a salary reduction at their arbitrary discretion with no definitive start date. This NFC team could reduce salaries to whatever level it chooses, or eliminate them altogether, as early as March in anticipation of a lockout or strike. Once again, this doesn’t sit well with coaches and has them quietly huddling to discuss their options because many have already been offered extensions but have yet to sign. Yes, this is going on right now during the season and is a distraction for some staffs.
Many NFL coaches I’ve spoken to the past few months have voiced frustration and concern about their futures. I’ve heard of one case in which Kennan was denied entry to a team facility to talk to coaches and represent their grievances. This leaves coaches looking to the head coach to step up on their behalf. I’ve also heard, but can’t confirm, that one AFC coach told his team owner that if he pulled the pension, “you will have my resignation on your desk.” Only coaches with some clout and a ring can pull this off. The situation actually has put some head coaches in uncomfortable positions. If they go to ownership and demand a pension, they risk their own job security. If they don’t, they risk losing the loyalty of their assistants.
The pension problem has some NFL coaches looking to catch on with teams like the Eagles, who take good care of their coaches, have a pension and have a leader like coach Andy Reid, who has juice with the owner.
Owners have to be sensitive to the DNA of coaches. Coaching in the NFL is an insecure job because you’re judged on your wins and losses. Additionally, coaches see themselves working for the head coach, not ownership. The head coach gave them the job, and that’s where their loyalty is. Pulling the pensions from this group will create mistrust and align the coaches more with the players than with management. Can you say union?
An NFL coach works long, hard hours and on average has three or four children whom they usually place in private schools. In addition, they’re typically stuck with two or three mortgages on homes they can’t sell because of the real estate bubble. I tell my coaches, “When you’re in the coaching business you’re also in the real estate business because you have to move around so often.”
I would guess that 80 percent or more of NFL coaches are married. Their wives usually handle the finances, the moving and the day-to-day management of the kids and household. Trust me when I say this: Wives do not like having their husbands work without a pension. The real-world dynamics can result in the head coach’s wife having to listen to the concerns of the assistants’ wives. All in all, none of this is good for the morale of a coaching staff and its families. It also can put the head coach in the middle, and possibly in danger of losing his staff.
Taking away the coaches’ pensions now has many assistants looking to college football for potential jobs. Interestingly, it was the stability of the pension that attracted most coaches to take jobs in the NFL over college. So don’t be surprise if you see a migration of quality NFL coaches to the college ranks for their next gig.
Many assistant coaches feel awkward talking to management and even their head coaches about the pension and work-stoppage issues. Most feel that doing so may cut their careers short.
In fairness to the owners, they’ve compensated coaches very well over the years, especially in the past 10 years. The league office has provided a solid pension solution, but it’s now out of their hands and back with the owners. I believe the commissioner’s goal was to give owners “flexibility” in funding choices, not to eliminate them entirely. If the trend of stopping pension funding continues, you’ll see the teams with pensions attract the best coaches, who will be working with highest morale.
Eliminating these coaches’ pensions is a bad idea. It’s like taking the lifeboats off a ship without telling the captain — then asking him to keep the crew’s morale high and beat all the other ships to port. The crew will keep working hard, but it will always have one eye on the ship with lifeboats.
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