There’s No Sport in Firing an NFL coach … or a CEO

Every year following the end of the regular season a bunch of NFL head coaches get fired in a purge that’s become known as Black Monday. Sometimes they deserve it and sometimes they don’t but they always seem to bounce back like nothing happened. Or maybe it just seems that way.

Fans and journalists usually treat these seminal events as just part of the sport. Some revel in it, especially if their teams have seen better days. After all, coaches make a very good living doing what the rest of us are happy to do for free or maybe a few beers every Sunday in our living rooms. We certainly shouldn’t cry for them.

Still, it’s not exactly a sport when it’s happening to you. It’s got to be rough after spending years putting your heart and soul into building a team and making a home for yourself and your family. And coaches don’t always land on their feet. Every year some end up having to take lesser positions or exit the sport entirely.

You can say that’s what they deserve for being incompetent or crappy at their jobs, but that’s not necessarily the case. As a former senior executive who’s been fired more than once over the years (that was a very long time ago, so no wisecracks), I can definitely attest to there being two sides to every termination story. It’s not all Peter Principle.

Sometimes getting the boot is the best thing that can happen to a coach … and the worst thing that can happen to the team that dumps him.

After going 40-28 in four seasons with the Oakland Raiders, head coach Jon Gruden was surprisingly traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The following season Gruden took the Bucs to their first Super Bowl where they beat the Raiders. And Oakland has not had a winning coach since.

It’s got to be a great feeling to take a team from nowhere to first place in any sport, but let’s be honest, it’s got to be just as gratifying to watch your former team – or company – unravel without you. It’s actually surprising how often that happens, and not just in the NFL.

Steve Jobs once said that getting fired from Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) was a humiliating loss … and the best thing that could have happened to him. He said it was “awful-tasting medicine” but “the patient needed it.” That event led to the founding of NeXT and Pixar, the meeting of Jobs’ future wife, and his return to lead Apple’s remarkable turnaround.

And while Jobs never spoke publicly about what it felt like to watch Apple stumble so badly without him, I’m sure he had mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it was his baby, so that had to be tough. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was at least some sense of satisfaction, as well.

The first time I was canned it felt as if I’d been punched in the stomach … every day for a few weeks. It was definitely humiliating. It was also deserved, at least to some extent. And it led to some soul searching, a few lessons learned, and a newfound sense of humility that made me a better executive.

And while I moved on to bigger and better things, I have to admit, it didn’t escape my notice that neither the CEO nor the company that dumped me did not. What can I say; I’m only human.

Look, we like to pretend the world is black and white. It would be a whole lot easier if it were, but that’s simply not how it works. Whether you’re talking about a CEO, an NFL coach, or Joe Sixpack, we all have our own unique perspectives. There are no absolutes. And while there are always two sides to every termination, there’s never any sport in it.