NFL Insider: Easing the fallout from firings
Conditions have improved for assistants, says an NFL Coaches Association official.
By Jim Jenkins -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 am PST Thursday, January 5, 2006
Story appeared in Sports section, Page C3
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There are eight head-coaching vacancies in the NFL and a good chance of a few more.

Most of the time, those shoved out of jobs find another one, often in the same year. Even if it is later, they usually have been paid so well - contracts of $2 million a year or more are the norm for head coaches - there's little pain or economic risk involved biding their time for the next opportunity, pro or college.

But what about the assistant coaches? What becomes of staffs splintered in the wake of a head coach getting fired or retiring? Where do they go?
At best, only a few assistants are retained in a change because the new head man wants to hand-pick a staff that best fits his style.

Not long ago, that reality led to tremendous anxiety among assistant coaches suddenly facing unemployment. But conditions have improved in recent years with the formation of the NFL Coaches Association.

Fed up with too many examples of comrades and their families cut adrift, veteran assistant coach Nick Nicolau stood on a ladder during a social gathering at the heavily scouted Senior Bowl in 1996 and said it was high time his peers organized.

And that was the impetus for the assistant coaches group that today is headed by Larry Kennan. It is based in the same Washington, D.C., building that houses the NFL Players Association.

The 61-year-old Kennan, who had two tours of duty with the Raiders (Los Angeles and Oakland) during his 16 years as an assistant head coach, committed himself to serving as the NFLCA executive director until the group built enough strength to protect its members. The goal evidently has been reached.

"The amazing thing about our growth," Kennan said in a phone interview, "is that when we started out, I think we had 330 assistant coaches in our organization. Now it's 500, virtually all of them.

"We collect dues to pay most of our bills and educate them on what they need to be doing between jobs, give them salary information while they're interviewing for new ones. Coaches have a lot of questions when they're fired - what they're owed by the clubs, what's legal and what's not."

According to Kennan, most coaches catch on in college or the NFL. Many are hired by their former head coach when he goes to a new team, assuming he has the leverage to bring aboard old hands.

"One of the nicest things we've done is help raise salaries of assistant coaches," Kennan said. "For years, nobody knew what everyone else was making.

"Now we do, and it's led to doubling salaries since 1998. We put a value on ourselves instead of getting kicked around."

Kennan said the average pay for offensive and defensive coordinators is more than $600,000, although those who are more experienced and working for successful teams often command seven-figure salaries. The average range for assistant coaches, he said, is $268,000 but can rise significantly, depending on experience and the employer's generosity.

What was the NFL's reaction when the assistant coaches didn't unionize but banded together?

"They (league office and owners) didn't understand us in the beginning and fought us," Kennan said. "And they still fight us on some issues, because when we ask them for something, it likely is going to cost them money. But they have respect for us now that they didn't have before. It's a whole lot better."

Nevertheless, there still are some sad cases, Kennan acknowledged.

Just as retired players from the league's early years drew modest pay and pensions, so did assistant coaches who labored during that era, putting in marathon hours away from their families with little recognition and compensation.

"But there aren't many of those now," Kennan said. "One of our initial problems was that a lot of guys were being forced into retirement before they were 60 and weren't able to collect full (league-funded) retirement until age 65. But we got the full retirement age lowered to (a combination of) age and length of service totaling 75 years."

Now that Kennan's organization seems entrenched, is he thinking of returning to coaching.

"Why not?" he said. "I worked for improving the benefits. I ought to be able to take advantage of it."


About the writer:
The Bee's Jim Jenkins can be reached at [email protected]