It's a dirty job, so Lions' head coach Steve Mariucci doesn't tell anyone how he does it.
Entering his 14th season in the NFL, and eighth as a head coach, "Mooch" is
all too familiar with one of the toughest parts of the job: cutting players;
ending the prospective pro career of some; the dreams of many, and occasionally,
enraging men twice his size. But as the August 30th cut-down date looms, it is a
day the entire coaching staff prepares for.
"It is not a fun job and I won't tell you exactly how we do it, but we have somebody in our organization get a hold of the player," Mariucci said. "It maybe in the Dearborn Inn during training camp when they wake up in the morning before practice and before we begin. It may be later at night. At that point in time, we would then inform him that we are going to release him and obviously collect the playbooks and we have a checkout physical and yes, they would visit with me and maybe the position coach."
In what could only be an extremely awkward and delicate environment (the type that breaks a sweat for you), Mariucci said that he discusses the future with the recently dismissed player, whether that means an allocation to NFL Europe, a potential return to the practice squad, or, well, that other option.
By next week, he will have had 20 of those grueling decisions. Twenty of those discussions. Dirty work.
So what is the typical reaction of a released player?
"Everybody's feeling is different, I am sure," Mariucci said. "For example, the rookies; there are some rookies that see the writing on the wall and say 'my time is limited here, I am not going to make the grade.' Some of them know that maybe they need to go on with their life's work. Some of them say 'darn it I am good enough to play in this league, and I am going to get another chance and make it with somebody else and prove that I am good enough.'
"Some of them are veteran guys that have to determine 'do I have anything left? Do I still want to do this? Is it my time to move on?' There are a lot of different scenarios."
But none of them really preferable to the other.
Yet, with his playing past, Mariucci can empathize. In 1977, the former Northern Michigan standout couldn't crack the CFL Hamilton Tiger Cats roster. What followed was a brief stint as an assistant with Northern and other transitory stops, followed by an illustrious Division I and NFL head coaching career.
"For me, it was a little bit different then all of that because I was hired to coach at Northern Michigan after I got done playing, with the stipulation that if I had a chance in the pros, that I would take that opportunity to see where it would go," he said. "Then, if I didn't make it, I would come back and coach. That is what happened. So I was in Canada at the Hamilton Tiger Cats for a 'cup of coffee,' as we say in the business. The neat thing is that I had breakfast with the head coach, which is really unique because I've never eaten breakfast with somebody that we've cut.
"So it was a little bit different deal. I simply was not good enough to be in the NFL as a player."
While that may have been apparent to Mariucci at the time, the bulk of the news he delivers doesn't generally spawn an understanding response.
"That would be a new scenario! 'I made it?? You're kidding!' I don't know," responded Mariucci, when asked if any player responded positively to the news of being retained. "I think more of the opposite, where guys are surprised they didn't make it; disappointed and shocked. I have seen all of the emotions. In fact I have seen tears, anger, relief, shock - all of it.
"Sometimes these kids' dreams come falling apart. Some of them have families that they go from making a lot of money to nothing quickly. It is pretty traumatic."
The morning after Detroit's Monday night tilt with St. Louis, several phones will be ringing. And no one wants to hear it.