"The hay is never in the barn for an NFL coach,” Steve Mariucci explains. Although he’s reluctant to say it, the former San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions head coach knows that the old adage is true. The hard work is never done and there’s little time to enjoy success or to dwell on failure. When the clock strikes zero, it’s onto the next game. It’s a shift in mindset – a step in the direction of preparation. At the end of the day, it’s the coach’s job to win. And winning is hard work.
Much like the players, coaches in the NFL live a travel-heavy, routine life throughout the duration of the playing schedule. On game days, they wake up, attend mass at the nearest chapel, have a pre-game meal and a pre-game nap, all before heading over to the stadium. There are two buses that run the players and the coaching staff from their hotel to the field – an early one for the guys who like to stretch, work out and get their gear in order, and a late one for guys who like to show up ready to play.
“I’m a late bus guy,” Mariucci quips. “I enjoy sitting back in my hotel room. I like to read the game plan over a few more times, watch the pre-game shows on television, and talk to my wife.”
At that point, that’s all that’s really left for the coach to do. Depending on what time his team plays, preparations have usually already been made. The final meeting with the team likely took place the night before, as did the last-minute arrangements with the assistants and the coordinators. The game plan is in motion well before the game has even begun.
However, as perfectly as you chalk it up and as swimmingly as it goes in your head, there are times that things do not go as planned. Injuries, slumps and poor play can toss a winning game plan to the wayside at any given second. The game of football is completely unpredictable.
“When things don’t go your way, the coaches have to come together quickly to discuss what’s going to be said in the room and what plays are going to be rolled going into the second half,” Mariucci says. “Halftime is only 12 minutes. It’s very quick. It’s not really enough time to make major adjustments. If you’re willing to wait until halftime to make those kinds of adjustments, then you’re already too late. You have to make them happen on the fly – as early as the first quarter sometimes.”
In other words, thinking on your toes is the trick of the trade. Really, coaches in the NFL should always be on their toes – expecting the unexpected. Not just during games or at practices, but through every waking second. If the players on the field underperform, it’s usually the coach’s head. If things grow stale, it’s usually the coach’s head. If a shake up is required, guess what? It’s usually the coach’s head. But that’s the nature of the business.
The Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs, St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Miami Dolphins are proof of just that. All five teams have canned their bench bosses before the season’s end, and as many as three other teams are rumoured to have their coaches on the hot seat. It’s a tough gig, to say the least. And that fear of termination is something that weighs heavily on a coach during periods of team turmoil and dysfunction on the field.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it often,” Mariucci says. “As a coach in the NFL, when you sign that dotted line at the bottom of your contract, you know it’s only temporary. Sometimes, owners make changes during the season to show the fans that they are trying to turn things around, or simply to give an interim coach a chance to prove his worth.”
Either way, the pressure that pro-football coaches face on a day-to-day basis is daunting. And that pressure doesn’t just come from management. Where NHL rinks and NBA courts seat around 20,000 fans and MLB diamonds seat around 50,000, most NFL stadiums seat upwards of 70,000 live spectators. And, whether they’re cheering or jeering you, that many voices can add pressure to an already pressure-filled job.
The noise is so distracting that most teams actually practice with loud speakers on the sidelines. They do this in an attempt to accustom their players’ and coaches’ ears to the massive volumes and help eventually phase it out as background noise.
“There’s no doubt about it,” Mariucci concurred. “Some stadiums – the domes, specifically – are so loud that you can’t even hear yourself speak. But that’s what makes it great. The louder the fan is and the crazier they are, the better the fan they are considered.”
Now an NFL Network analyst, Mariucci has witnessed the game of football from every angle and is extremely learned on the subject. He found some degree of success coaching the Niners and the Lions, he was responsible for coaching Brett Favre during his rookie years with the Green Bay Packers and he has coached at UC Berkeley. Still though, he attributes some of his talent to time spent in Canada.
During a two-week stint as the quarterback of the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Mariucci experienced one of his fondest football memories.
“Tom Dimitroff Sr., who coached me while I was playing in Hamilton, taught me a lot,” he recalled. “The day that he let me go, he took me out for breakfast to break the news to me. He said, ‘I know you’re going to be a great coach someday,’ and he presented me with the team’s playbook. I thought that was very special. You don’t typically have breakfast with the guy that you’re about to cut and you definitely don’t give him the team’s playbook.”
With that, Mariucci packed up and headed back south of the border. This would turn out to be one of the first steps in a rather illustrious coaching career. For this, he is forever grateful to the country of Canada.
“The CFL is great,” he says. “The players and coaches who are involved with the league are top-quality. It is a very good brand of football and I enjoy watching it and I enjoyed playing in it – even though it was only for a very brief time.”
He looks back, remembering that the Canadian sports fan does have a place for the gridiron in his or her heart. He knows that fans in Canada can be just as rabid and rambunctious as those in America. He believes that, when the time is right, Canada will have a place in the NFL.
“If or when this league expands, it only makes sense to take it up to Canada,” he says. “We see Canadian cities represented in the NHL, the NBA and the MLB – and they represent Canada very well. So could it happen in the NFL? Absolutely. There are some really great cities in Canada.”