INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (Jan. 18, 2016) – Let’s call them the forgotten men, collateral damage.
While owner Jim Irsay stressed the importance of continuity when signing Coach Chuck Pagano and General Manager Ryan Grigson to contract extensions January 4, that didn’t filter down the Indianapolis Colts’ coaching food chain. Since the team closed the season with an 8-8 record and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011, eight of Pagano’s assistants have been fired. Another, offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, was fired in November.
Clyde Christensen left on his own terms. Despite recently signing a two-year contract to remain Andrew Luck’s position coach, the Colts’ longest-tenured coach – he arrived in 2002 as part of Tony Dungy’s staff – was allowed to explore other options. He’s headed to Miami as the Dolphins’ new offensive coordinator.
That’s the life of an assistant: here today, somewhere else tomorrow. Miami will be Christensen’s 11th employer at the NFL or collegiate level since 1979.
Assistant coaches, he said, are “sort of pawns in this thing, yet they’re so critical. There is a lot of insecurity. And I don’t care who you are, when a man’s out of work, it’s demeaning.
“You wrestle with yourself, thinking your aren’t worth a darn. That’s where my Christianity always been there. I know God has a plan for me. You just keep the faith.’’
The contract status of assistant coaches is difficult to ascertain, but several of Pagano’s aides were signed through the 2016 season. They’ll get paid even if they’re unable to find another job.
“But it’s still hard for a man to be out of work,’’ Christensen said. “You’re not wired that way. You’re thinking, ‘Why don’t they want me? Why didn’t they like me? What should I have done?’’’
As difficult as it is on the coach, being fired – or having a team say it has “parted ways’’ with this coordinator or won’t “retain’’ that assistant – is exponentially tougher on his family. That can be especially true when rumors of a coaching shakeup begin to swirl during a season.
“People do forget there are families involved,’’ Christensen said. “During the season there are kids at school telling your kids, ‘Hey, your dad’s going to get fired.’
“Even though coaches have gotten used to it, their families aren’t immune to it.’’
Once the initial shock is over, reality sets in.
Christensen leaves Wednesday morning for Miami. Debbie, his wife of 36 years, will stay behind to sell the family home in Carmel.
Until the relocation is complete, Christensen will rack up reward points at a Miami hotel. His wife will make frequent trips to South Florida until the local real estate issues are resolved, and the couple eventually will find its next home.
Speaking of home, the Christensens have owned seven or eight and rented property when purchasing didn’t make sense. Early in his coaching career, buying then selling a house could result in a quick profit.
“When you moved and sold your house, you’d make $10,000 or $20,000,’’ he said. “That was one way you accumulated money.
“That’s changed. Now, a lot of time you lose money on your house.’’
Relatively speaking, Christensen, who turns 60 later this month, is one of the fortunate assistants in another offseason of change that’s swept across the NFL’s coaching landscape. He’s got a job and his three daughters – Rachel, 32, Rebecca, 30, Ruth, 25 – are out of the house.
So many coaches have young children in school. Christensen always was fond of holding family meetings to discuss important issues. Sometimes, those meetings dealt with a move from Maryland to Clemson, from Clemson to Tampa Bay, from Tampa Bay to Indianapolis.
“My kids will tell you sometimes when I called a family meeting, they were concerned something was up and we would be headed to another town,’’ Christensen said. “We always prayed about it, talked it through. We tried to make it a teachable moment, learning a life lesson.
“It’s a difficult time when you have to look your family in the eye and say, ‘Hey, I’ve been let go and I don’t know where we’re going to end up.’’’
Seven teams have made a change at the top, including the Tennessee Titans who retained interim coach Mike Mulakey after firing Ken Whisenhunt during the season. New head coaches want their own assistants, which shoves existing ones out the door.
Even status quo guarantees nothing. Remember, Pagano has fired eight assistants, including defensive coordinator Greg Manusky. San Diego kept Mike McCoy despite a 4-12 record this season, but offensive coordinator Frank Reich and at least five of his assistants were jettisoned.
The lesson for assistants: nothing lasts forever, and oft-times lasts only a couple of seasons.
Christensen describes his 14-year stay in Indy as “a great blessing,’’ but understands it’s a rarity for his profession.
“It’s an outlier,’’ he said. “It just doesn’t happen for coaches. And it’s extremely difficult to move on because of all the relationships we’ve built over the year.
“We’ve tried to adopt wherever we go as home. We sell out and dig in. You learn to adjust and make the best of every situation.’’
No one should downplay the magnitude of an assistant coach and his family being forced to relocate.
“It’s a new support system,’’ Christensen said. “It’s a new doctor, new grocery store, new church, new dentist, new mechanic. Those are not little things.
“If you have younger kids, it’s a new school and new friends.’’
Pagano’s uncertain status followed him throughout the season, and intensified in December. He admitted to dealing with stress and at work and at home, but added “that’s what comes with this job. We all know what we signed up for.
“What are you going to do? They can fire you, but they can’t eat you.’’
Christensen said Debbie knew what she was signing up for when she agreed to marry him. He was quarterbacks/receivers coach at East Tennessee State making between $8,000-$10,000, a wage boosted by him serving as a dorm director.
“She should have run right then and there,’’ Christensen said with a laugh. “But fortunately she made that one mistake and stayed and she’s been stuck on the ride ever since. I’ve taken her all over the countryside. She’s been incredibly strong through everything.
“That’s why I’ve always said (coaching) is one of those professions you’d better be called to. If you do it because it’s a job, you’re going to have problems.
“It’s a hard, hard, hard job.’’
During Christensen’s tenure, the Colts posted a 152-72 regular-season record – he jokes he may have won more games than any individual in franchise history, other than Irsay – and reached the playoffs 12 times, including two trips to the Super Bowl. He helped mold the careers of Luck and Peyton Manning, of Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and so many others.
“It’s been a blessing from the Lord,’’ Christensen said. “People have been great and it’s been quite a journey. We buried Tony’s mom and dad and his son. We watched Jim (Caldwell) move on, won a Super Bowl and lost a Super Bowl. Some unbelievable landmarks along the way.’’