I take my writing cues from the days when as a kid, I would read comic strips, specifically “Peanuts” and the character, Snoopy. Snoopy was Charlie Brown’s dog and would pretend he was a great writer, capable of deep thought. Yet the best he could come up with to start each story was “It was a dark and stormy night”.
Well, I actually have a story to tell about a dark and stormy night.
The setting: November 2012.
Location: South Florida.
I was living and working in Miami as a Director of Football Operations (DFO) at an FBS school, Florida International University. We had just won a challenging Friday night nationally televised game played in a near empty stadium as the Thanksgiving holiday and typical South Florida rain kept people away. The fact that we were playing FAU and both of us were out of bowl contention also didn’t help attendance and the game atmosphere on that night.
By way of example, my parents that were in town from Southern California left during the game’s prolonged lightning delay after halftime. If they weren’t staying in the stands to watch this game, no one was.
It had been a rough season and that was reflected in the win/loss column. There was little satisfaction in this win. I was however very happy for the coaches and the seniors. I know what went into preparation each week.
I couldn’t wait to get out of FAU stadium and onto the team bus. As usual, I was the last person on I had to take care of my typical DFO postgame responsibilities.
The bus couldn’t make the one hour trip back to our Miami campus quick enough.
As soon as we arrived, I walked over to my car and made the twenty minute drive to my Downtown apartment. Per custom, I would sit on the deck at my apartment and gather my thoughts and prepare for our next game by reviewing my notes in my black pocket notebook. I did this in order to speak intelligently with our head coach during our traditional “morning after game” debriefing about any issues that occurred during the game or pregame or anything we could prevent coming at us.
I finally arrived home at about 2am and stared down into the streets, thirty floors below the apartment and saw people enjoying Downtown Miami. The chaos of the city and revelers always triggered clarity of thought. Some people need absolute silence. I’m a city kid.
I loved my view of the city. I had a premonition on the deck that I was not going to have this view for much longer. I said to myself in a stunned whisper “We are getting fired.” It hit me right there.
I didn’t mean just me. I meant “we” as in the staff. I felt it. I didn’t know it. The totality of circumstances made it obvious to me that we were going to be “let go.”
I’m sure that I was one of the only people that probably thought that at the time. I didn’t express what I felt was going to happen “us” to anyone, not to anyone in my private life and especially not to anyone on the staff. There’s something morbid about predicting your own demise, and you never want to put that energy into the universe that you might get fired.
In football, most coaches and staffers think in terms of “we” and “us” to describe the team to give the appearance of cohesion and unity in the collective. The concept of “us” and “we” applies during the season and in the preparation for the season. But as the season heads into late fall and the conference races shake out it becomes clear that “us” and “we” are concepts that are really fictions. The language of “us” and “we” changes in November and it becomes every man for himself. “Us” and “we” still apply if you are headed to a post-season appearance but most guys on staff have their head on a swivel looking for the next opportunity to either get a promotion, more pay or just stay in the profession.
During this time (generally in early November) if you walk down a college football office hallway you will see that there are a lot of coaches’ offices with closed doors. Earlier in the season those doors would be wide open and there would be far more frequent moments of levity. But now behind those closed doors, coaches are on their cell phones and texting and speaking with coaches on other staffs about what they are hearing or what they know. Trust me, I know. I’ve been there and I’ve done that.
Most coaches do this with the intention of going on to what they perceive as a better situation for them. They don’t go through this with the intention of looking for a job because they’ve been fired.
There isn’t any game plan for being fired. Our instincts don’t prepare us to fail. We don’t plan to fall short of our own expectations or those that other have for us. But it happens. It has happened to Super Bowl winning coaches. If it can happen to those that reach the pinnacle of the profession, it can happen to anyone.
Getting fired in athletics is a very public thing. In the media, talking heads discuss coaches getting fired frequently and easily and fans quickly follow suit. Both make the case for someone getting fired with a smile and a gleam in their eye without recognizing the upheaval that getting fired causes to family members. Many of them have never had to comfort a child being teased at school because their father was fired, or had to move their things across country without advance warning. Perhaps if they did, they would be more reluctant to speak so freely about someone else’s livelihood.
Firings don’t just impact the head coach or general manager or coordinators who are often the intended recipients of the termination. The collateral damage is extensive. It also impacts the volunteer assistant or quality control coach that needs this job to get their foot in the door in this profession or to even pay the bills.
For lack of a better word, getting fired sucks.
Losing your job is similar to what it is like after losing a game. After a win, everyone is your friend. Your phone blows up with calls and texts offering congratulations. When you lose a game, the phone goes dead. Silence. You receive very few calls, if any.
I’m not going to make it sound like it is something a young coach or administrator should go through. But if there are somethings to be gained from being fired it would be that you learn a great about yourself. You gain perspective. You become more appreciative. You learn what you are made of. You learn how composed you are. You test all the things you believe about yourself. You learn how you handle humiliation, uncertainty, and a myriad of other feelings.
Here are just some of those things that I learned from being fired:
I have always loved working. I’ve worked since I was a teenager. I started working to be able to afford metal baseball cleats as a kid. I’m the son of immigrants and believe there is dignity in all work. Work and the opportunity that comes from that work is my family’s reason for being in the United States. Yet I’m guilty early on in my career of saying “I have to go to work” as if it were some sort of annoying obligation rather than the opportunity to provide for myself and others. I’ve changed the language of working from “I HAVE to” and replaced it with “I GET to go to work”. I GET to go to an office and sit and use a computer and communicate with other people. I GET to have my work rewarded. I don’t HAVE to.
I GET to.
This had made all the difference in the world. I didn’t think of this on my own. I learned it from a coach (on the next staff I joined. See the difference? If you can’t see the difference, stop reading right now. I can’t be of any benefit to you.
The “keys to the building” is a concept that I use when discussing with coaches and administrators that complain about their current job. Surely there are characteristics or issues with any job that make it less than ideal or perfect. But as a coach or administrator you can’t complain about every little thing. You don’t go to war over everything. In the world of athletics, coaches and administrators think that the grass is always greener on the other side. They’re always complaining about they don’t have this or they don’t have that. And really most of those things that they complain about are completely inconsequential. Some of them are things such as free apparel, having to turn in a courtesy car for inspection, or the placement or size of one’s locker.
Think about how hard you have worked to get your foot in the door to work in athletics. And you are going to give that away because you don’t have the right sized locker? Or because the head coach didn’t seek your input about something?
When you are out of a job, these things seem irrelevant. They seem that way because they are.
If the issue really is that big of an issue for you, leave. You are free to go and do something else. There are people that are eager to take your job. There might be some aiming for it when you have it.
There are coaches that I know that once were coaching in the NFL and at a high level in college that would do anything to have one more opportunity to be able to work in football again. I’m sure they would do anything to have keys to a building again.
Here is how I think of it. You’re in sports. You grew up loving the game. Most people don’t get the opportunity. With all due respect to everyone else not working in sports, why would you want to be working anywhere else?
Know that at the end of the day, the only things that you really control are your time and effort. You may not directly impact the outcome of a sporting event. But you control how much effort and time you spend on the duties that you have. And you have an obligation as a professional to do them to the best of your ability.
You don’t control how big your budget is. You don’t control whether fans come to the game. And you definitely don’t control whether you get to even keep your job.
Stay in your lane. Generally those things that I discussed are concerns that others in the athletic department have. You aren’t there to solve all the issues in an athletic department. You just worry about the time and effort you spend on your matters at work. Eventually things will work out in your favor.
You don’t have to tolerate obvious disrespect or poor working conditions but your energy is best spent on doing your job. Not anyone else’s.
When you are fired, nothing is owed to you other than perhaps money that is due you per your contract, accrued vacation time and other benefits. (And trust me, sometimes teams and organizations balk at giving you even that).
You are not bigger than the organization. It will continue on exist without your contribution.
You may not agree with your dismissal but what you say and think really doesn’t matter. What’s done is done and you are without a job. It is important to have this perspective so that you can expend your energy on something far more useful, and that is getting another job!
When you are fired, an athletic administrator and human resources person that you likely don’t know meet with and tell you that they appreciate your contributions to the university and explain to you all the rights and responsibilities you have from this point forward. They tell you when and how to turn in keys and other university property. Almost immediately it starts sounding like a warbled mess, a little like Charlie Brown’s teacher. Your rage and feelings won’t allow you to focus on the details and the specifics. There’s important information that you are being given. If they have handouts, take them home and read them. Then react after you have time to calm down.
Don’t take your frustration out on these human resources folks or sports administrators. They are just doing their job. Be kind as you can possibly be.
Work diligently to prepare yourself for life for being fired when you have your job. I planned for this date that I would leave, either by my own choice or someone else’s decision by having all my workplace emails also forwarded to a personal account. I did this from the moment I took the position. I also routinely saved documents on a hard drive or used my own personal computer. I didn’t have to scramble to download vital documents that I created that I would later need. I wasn’t under the gun and had to quickly forward emails. Perhaps this behavior was the result of my background as a lawyer.
Leave the position better for the next person. Don’t destroy any documents. Don’t commit sabotage. It isn’t cool. It also could violate the terms of your contract.
As a pro, you need to leave the job better than when you first say in the seat. You do have an obligation to reasonably cooperate.
But you don’t have an obligation to go out of your way and help someone do their job long after you are gone.
You learn who your friends are in the profession. In athletics people throw the terms “friend” or “my boy” around way too easy.
“That’s my boy.”
“That’s my dude.”
“He’s going to go to bat for me.”
The reality of the situation is that few people want to talk to a guy that lost his job. Your “boy” isn’t calling you. Chances are they are either going through tough times themselves.
Very few people want to be weighed down with a somber conversation about losing a job.
So many friendships are lost because of the perception that a friend had an opportunity to hire someone and opted not to. Don’t vent your frustration at someone for their inability to hire you because often times the people you think have authority or “juice” simply doesn’t. And even if they did, no one owes you anything much less a job.
You need to stay in touch with people when you have a job. People will forget about you and your contributions generally if you don’t remind them of who you are what you are doing. You need to stay relevant and stay in communication constantly.
When you do re-connect with someone after you lose your job, keep your sob story about losing your job to a minimum. You get a job by making meaningful contributions to someone and their department not because of some overwhelming guilt. No one wants to hear you complain.
I tell you about my tales of being fired so that you can prepare for leaving a job. I tell you my story so that you aren’t left figuring out what to do next. Email me with any questions /concerns that you may have at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Juan Lozano is a sports attorney in Los Angeles, California that focuses his practice on representing coaching talent. He is a former Director of Football Operations at a number of schools. Lozano is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin Law School.