GREEN BAY — Joe Philbin remembers himself – in his signature, self-deprecating way – as a “B-minus, maybe a B” student. Mike Sherman and Kirk Ferentz’s memories are far kinder to their former pupil.
In the late 1970s, Sherman and Ferentz were faculty members in the English department of Worcester Academy in Massachusetts. They’d come to the prestigious school as young football coaches, decades before they would become well-known, successful ones – Sherman as the Green Bay Packers’ head coach from 2000 through 2005, and later as Texas A&M’s head coach, and Ferentz as the head coach at the University of Iowa, where he just completed his 20th season.
And at Worcester, they shared the halls with a young Joe Philbin, who played football and baseball there. (“Poorly, but I played,” Philbin has said more than once.)
“Joe was one of my students. And I hate to say it, probably one of the best students I had in the class,” Sherman recalled. “Very much into literature and interpretation. He was a good student.”
“Serious and smart,” remembered Ferentz, who was also a dorm supervisor at the boarding school. “And then,” Ferentz added, chuckling, “even though he got a good education, he let all that go down the drain and got into coaching.”
That decision to get into coaching has led Philbin – via a remarkably circuitous path – to this: The Packers’ regular-season finale Sunday against the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field.
It could be the last game of Philbin’s four-game stint as the Packers’ interim head coach, which he became on Dec. 2 when team president/CEO Mark Murphy fired longtime head coach Mike McCarthy shortly after a demoralizing loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
Or, if the Packers win, it could be confirmation to Murphy and general manager Brian Gutekunst that he’s the right man to lead the team in 2019 and beyond – that their coaching search should be “stopped there,” as the team’s No. 1 wide receiver, Davante Adams, advocated for earlier in the week.
Even Philbin doesn’t know.
“Hey, look, to represent this organization as the interim head coach is an honor. To lead this staff and group of players has been a lot of fun. It’s certainly been a privilege – for however longer it lasts,” Philbin said late in the week. “Like I’ve said before (to the players), ‘You take advantage of the opportunities that you have and you do the best you can. Then, you can go to bed at night and deal with whatever happens.’
“I think if you approach it that way, whatever happens will happen and you’ll be prepared for it and you’ll deal with it and you’ll move forward. If you like football and you like coaching, coaching for the Green Bay Packers is a pretty good deal.”
‘The perfect fit’
Philbin joined the Packers as assistant offensive line coach under Sherman in 2003, after college stops at Tulane, Worcester (Mass.) Tech, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Allegheny College, Ohio University, Northeastern University, Harvard and Iowa. He added the job of tight ends coach for the 2004 and 2005 seasons under Sherman, then was hired by McCarthy as offensive line coach in 2006. Philbin was one of the few coaches from Sherman’s staff who were retained by McCarthy, even though McCarthy had never met Philbin before interviewing him.
“I didn’t know Joe, (other than) from reputation. Had chance to interview him, and I just liked him. I like the man,” McCarthy once recalled in an interview. “He was very consistent, very thorough about what he stood for as a person and as a coach, how he got there. I just thought he was a great fit for what I was trying to build. I wanted good people, good teachers, good communicators, and he far exceeded what I thought I was getting. He’s a first-class man and an outstanding football coach.”
McCarthy promoted Philbin to offensive coordinator in 2007, following the departure of Jeff Jagodzinski, and Philbin held that post until January 2012, when the Miami Dolphins hired him as their head coach. He went 24-28 in Miami before being fired four games into the 2015 season, then spent the 2016 and 2017 seasons as the Indianapolis Colts’ assistant head coach and offensive line coach under Chuck Pagano before returning in January to be the Packers’ offensive coordinator again.
To Sherman, who worked for Philbin as his offensive coordinator in Miami, being the Packers’ head coach requires an understanding of the uniqueness of the job and the team’s passionate fanbase – something he knows from firsthand experience.
“It takes a certain person to be the head coach of the Green Bay Packers. Obviously Mike McCarthy did a great job of being that person over his 13-year career. That’s a long time to be in a fish bowl and be with the best franchise in all of sports,” Sherman explained. “But Joe, I think, is the perfect fit for it, and I would not be surprised if he ends up being the permanent head coach. He’ll do a great job of organizing the game plan, getting the players to buy in, and implementing it on game day.
“Everybody that’s around Joe appreciates his integrity, appreciates his attention to detail, and I think that will bode well for him as a head coach. I think he’ll be outstanding.”
‘Very sincere, very authentic’
Before Sherman brought him to Green Bay, Philbin had served on Ferentz’s Iowa staff as the offensive line coach. Ferentz had held that same position at Iowa from 1981 to ’89 under legendary Hawkeyes coach Hayden Fry, and also coached the position in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns (1993-1995) and Baltimore Ravens (1996-1998).
On his first day on the job with the Browns, Ferentz, who’d never played in the NFL, was at the 1993 NFL Scouting Combine and crossed paths with a pair of coaches: Longtime Buffalo Bills defensive line coach Dan Sekanovich, and Russ Grimm, a four-time first-team All-Pro offensive lineman who played on four Super Bowl championship teams who’d just begun his coaching career.
“And both those guys that day said the same thing to me: ‘If you know what you’re talking about and can show players that you’re there to help them, you’ll have no problem.’ I’ll never forget it – a younger coach who was a successful player, and a veteran coach, but both gave me the same message,” Ferentz said. “That, to me, is how Joe coaches. He’s in it for the right reasons, he’s trying to help players be better equipped to be successful, and he cares about people. He’s a good person. I don’t think that ever goes out of style – at any level.
“He’s very genuine, very sincere, very authentic, good sense of humor. I think people like that, they possess a real sense of confidence about why they’re doing it. There are some people that have it that probably shouldn’t have it. But Joe, he’s certainly not above making fun of himself, and he doesn’t try to act like he’s the smartest guy in the room – even if he might be.
“The beauty and essence of teaching is making it simple and understandable, and he has a great ability of that. He also had a great vision of the whole picture. What he has done professionally since he left here does not surprise me in the least.”
Packers offensive line coach James Campen, meanwhile, has known Philbin since Tulane, where Philbin was a grad assistant during Campen’s junior and senior seasons. Campen then joined the Packers staff in 2004 and stayed on when McCarthy took over for Sherman in 2006.
“People use the word ‘great’ a lot. I use ‘great’ with my grandfather and I use ‘great’ with my mother and father,” Campen said. “Joe is a great man. He’s a better person than he is a football coach – and he’s one hell of a football coach. I love the guy. He’s outstanding.
“He’s got a tremendous sense of balance, I would say. He knows how to push a player; he pushed me as a college player. And then coaching, he knows how to push me as a coach. But he also knows how to put an arm around a guy, too, and say, ‘Hey look, it’s going to be OK. We know how to get it fixed.’ He’s excellent at that.”
A relationship-oriented coach
Murphy’s decision on the Packers’ next coach figures to come after numerous interviews; league sources confirmed during the week that the team has already interviewed Pagano and another ex-Colts head coach, Jim Caldwell. After announcing McCarthy’s dismissal, Murphy went out of his way to say Philbin was a “legitimate candidate” for the job.
Adams isn’t the only player who has expressed his support for Philbin. Although quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been cautious in his word choices, he’s repeatedly spoken of his “love” for Philbin, getting “another win for Joe” and giving him “the best chance” at the job. Multiple players said Philbin’s ability to both connect with them and command their respect is why they are supportive of his candidacy.
“It’s one of those things where you don’t feel like you’re working for him, you feel like you’re working with him,” said veteran wide receiver Randall Cobb, who was a rookie in 2011, the final year of Philbin’s first stint as offensive coordinator. “Just the way he carries himself, he can make light of situations, he can make jokes about himself. I wouldn’t say ‘collaborative,’ because at the end of the day, he takes input, but he still makes decisions. But he knows. He knows what’s best for us as a team.”
That’s not to say Philbin is all touchy-feely and doesn’t know the game inside and out; it’s just that he believes football is simpler than it’s presumed to be. He’s often said it’s about players, not plays, and that his job is to put those players in the best position possible. And he believes connecting with them is part of that.
“I’m kind of a relationship coach, anyway. If I have any strengths, I try to care about the people I work with every day,” Philbin said. “I think one of the things I learned early on in coaching is, the example you set for your players is priceless. I think players respond to coaches who seem to be hard-working, seem to be detail-oriented, seem to be disciplined themselves, seem to want the best for everybody – not just the coach, but the player. If you can model some of those things – and not to suggest I’ve done that perfectly over 35 years, because I’ve certainly fallen short in certain areas – that’s kind of the foundation of my leadership. Which, hopefully, can earn the respect of the players.
“Again, I’m not going to command a lot of respect walking into the room. Guys are going to say, ‘Jeez, this guy’s not a big, intimidating, physically imposing guy.’ I’m certainly not going to get it from that. I think the day-to-day, minute-to-minute (interactions), hopefully with the passion that I bring to the job in my own way, I’ve been able to earn the respect of the players based on the fact that I care about them, I want them to be successful, I’m willing to make sacrifices to help them reach their potential.”
After the Packers beat the Atlanta Falcons in Philbin’s first game in charge on Dec. 9, after the team celebrated the victory and gave Philbin a game ball, his wife of 30 years, Diane, came into the locker room. As joyous as the moment should have been, his thoughts turned to the absence of his son, Michael, who was 21 when he drowned in the icy waters of the Fox River near the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh campus in January, 2012.
Michael had been the second-oldest of the Philbins’ six children, with an older brother Matthew, younger brothers John, Kevin and Timothy, and younger sister Colleen. Michael’s death came just days before Philbin took the Dolphins job, and after the Falcons game, his emotions as a father got the best of him.
“That was tough, you know? I think a lot about Mike in those times,” Philbin said, his voice cracking. “It was a great win, it was great to be a part of it. But that was tough.”
Then, Philbin paused to gather himself. Among the many reasons he would love to lead this team going forward – even though he hasn’t specifically articulated that desire publicly – are the men and women inside 1265 Lombardi Avenue with whom he’d be doing it, from players to coaches to scouts to support staff.
“The people make everything easier here,” Philbin finally said. “I’ve always believed you’re only given what you can handle. A lot has been thrown at us, but the bottom line is, there’s people that we love here and who love us. Whatever happens, happens. There’s places in coaching where you don’t get asked back. So to have an opportunity to come back, really, is an honor. To represent this organization, is an honor. And I’m very grateful that I’ve had that opportunity.
“I’ve been lucky to coach a long time. I’m certainly closer to the finish line than the starting line. I want the best for the Green Bay Packers, too. They deserve it. Whatever happens, I’m good with. I’ve had an incredible opportunity to coach here 10 years. I never wanted to be a nomad. It wasn’t like I had a master plan. ‘Move here, move there, move up to this level, that level, do this, do that.’ I just felt like these were moves at the time I made them made sense for myself and the family. And this is a special place.
“All those people, they’ve made it easier. Not just all the great people that everybody knows. Not just the Aaron Rodgers, who everybody knows, but some of the people that really nobody knows. Mike, the guy in the mail room, when he says, ‘Wow, it’s great to have you back.’ You feel maybe you’ve had a little bit of an impact. And it makes you feel good.”