It took Nick Nicolau 22 years to get his first job as an assistant coach in the NFL.
And 11 weeks to lose it.
That was in 1980, when Nicolau coached running backs for the New Orleans Saints and was fired with five games remaining in a 1-15 season. He would be fired six more times in his career as an NFL assistant -- a 19-year odyssey that took him to New Orleans, Denver, Oakland, Buffalo, Indianapolis, Jacksonville and San Diego.
Counting the two decades he spent coaching in college and the Canadian Football League, he and his family moved 30 times, and he owned as many as four houses at a time.
“I’ve got a lifetime supply of hotel shampoo bottles,” said Nicolau, 70, who finally walked away from the grind after he was fired by the San Diego Chargers in 1999.
Nicolau’s story is extreme but not unprecedented. When a head coach loses his job -- there have been seven this season -- his entire staff is almost always sent packing. Roughly one-quarter of the 560 coaches in the league are either fired or change teams each season. The average tenure of an assistant is less than two years, according to the NFL Coaches Assn.
“You wish teams would stay a little more focused on the plan and have a little more patience,” said Rich McKay, general manager of the Atlanta Falcons. “But the pressures that are brought to bear by the outside forces themselves are tremendous. You have to deal with them. And that creates a system of change.”
Far removed from the spotlight of Sunday’s Super Bowl in Houston between the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers are 28 assistant coaches who have spent most of their waking hours in the last year working to reach pro football’s mountaintop.
They are paid well -- most have incomes in the low six figures -- but their jobs require that they put in many 20-hour days, sacrifice any semblance of a traditional family life and live with the uncertainty that the next loss could land them on the street.
So transient is the lifestyle that one of the Super Bowl assistant coaches, Carolina’s Dan Henning, lives in an extended-stay hotel less than a mile from Ericsson Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.
That raises no eyebrows around the league. When the Los Angeles Raiders won the Super Bowl during the 1983 season, Tom Flores lived 14 months in what was then the LAX Hyatt. He was on a first-name basis with the maids, bartenders, cooks and front-desk employees. And he was the head coach.
So much for the glitz of the nation’s most successful sports league.
“It’s not a glamorous life,” said Rusty Tillman, special teams coach for the Minnesota Vikings. “Not for an assistant coach.”
Tillman had the same job with the Seattle Seahawks in 1982 when several members of Coach Jack Patera’s staff were fired early in the strike-shortened season. The Seahawk assistant coaches, who had been playing golf together that afternoon, were instructed on the third tee to return immediately to team headquarters.
“One guy ran back,” Tillman recalled. “But the rest of us stayed and finished the 18. We knew we were all going to get fired, anyway, so why not finish our round?”
When the coaches returned to their offices, some found that their keys no longer worked. One enraged assistant kicked in his locked door.
(Seattle wasn’t the only team that kept newly fired coaches out of their offices that way. Among the first advice Joe Gibbs got after being hired as an assistant coach for the St. Louis Cardinals was to watch out for the locksmith’s truck. If it was in the team’s parking lot, somebody was on his way out. The locks were changed on St. Louis Coach Jim Hanifan and his staff by halftime of their 1985 season finale.)
Tillman was able to get into his office and wound up staying with the Seahawks through the 1994 season, eventually rising to the role of defensive coordinator.
At the top of the pecking order for assistant coaches are the offensive and defensive coordinators, who generally earn between $500,000 and $1 million a year. Coaches’ salaries have risen dramatically in the last decade, in part because of the NFL Coaches Assn., which was formed seven years ago by Nicolau and Larry Kennan, another well traveled assistant coach.
The group, which is not a union, has secured better insurance and pension plans for assistant coaches. In years past, they received the same benefits as team secretaries, equipment managers and janitors -- perks vastly inferior to those provided players and head coaches.
“The real reason we formed the association is, we wanted to be treated with the same respect and dignity that we give to the game,” said Kennan, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based organization, which has a four-person staff and is funded by member dues, coaching camps and sponsorship deals.
“The players sued the owners and got huge pieces of the pie. We wanted a little recognition that we’re good guys,” Kennan added. “We weren’t saying that the owners are the bad guys. We’re just saying that we wanted a little bigger piece of the pie.
“We’ve collected information on salaries for our guys. That was like pulling teeth. Nobody wanted to say what they were making. [But] once we came up with that information, salaries raised dramatically. Now the owners couldn’t hide, because information is power.”
Kennan said the average salary for an assistant coaching a specific position, such as defensive backs, had doubled in the last decade to $225,000, which is slightly less than the average Los Angeles emergency-room physician makes, according to salary.com.
“We don’t want anyone to feel sorry for us; we know we’re getting paid well,” Kennan said. “We just needed to learn how to put a better value on ourselves.”
Along with the gaudy salaries and prestige of working for an NFL team come some substantial family sacrifices.
Andy Reid, a longtime assistant coach before he was hired as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, has five children, all born in different states. Tennessee Titan General Manager Floyd Peters, a former assistant coach, was known as “The Ghost” by neighbors and friends who never saw him at his home. And Norma Fazio, like most wives of assistant coaches, considered herself a single parent for most of her adult life.
“You have to be very independent,” said Fazio, whose now-retired husband, Foge, moved the family from Pittsburgh to Boston to Pittsburgh to Cincinnati to Pittsburgh to South Bend, Ind., to Atlanta to New York to Minneapolis to Washington to Cleveland to Pittsburgh again.
“Communication is sometimes very difficult. There isn’t a lot of quality time where you can sit down and discuss things.
“When he came home, we didn’t talk a lot of football. We had no social life whatsoever. It’s very difficult for people outside to understand. They might ask you to go out for dinner in two weeks. We just couldn’t commit that way. We never knew when there would be a day off.”
A popular truism: There is no such thing as a good football coach’s wife -- only great wives and ex-wives.
“I would compare football wives to the wives of military personnel, or maybe the wives of men who are merchant marines or work on offshore oil rigs,” said Dr. Francoise Carre, research director for the Center for Social Policy at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. “Transience and absence add stress, and it takes much more of a self-starter to survive.... It might be different if the men were left at home and it was the women who were gone. There probably would be different child-care arrangements and a better support system.”
Some head coaches are more sensitive than others to those needs. Steve Spurrier, who recently resigned after two seasons as coach of the Washington Redskins, implemented a family night each week -- a holdover from his days at the University of Florida -- during which coaches’ families could have a dinner with dad.
“It was like romper room,” said Marvin Lewis, Spurrier’s former defensive coordinator, who now is head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. “They put toys in the racquetball courts and it was awesome. At first, I was like, ‘It’s our busy night.’ But normally I would eat dinner in five minutes. And it may have taken 15, because I spent 10 minutes visiting with the other coaches’ families. So that’s a good thing.
“I think everybody benefits from it. Because they’re going to share in your losses and your misery anyway. Might as well let them share in your good times.”
Although the NFL season lasts five months, coaches work virtually year-round. They typically take off most of June, but the rest of the off-season is spent evaluating free-agent players they might add to their rosters and college prospects they might select in the April draft. There are workouts to be led, video to be studied and game strategies to be devised.
Coaches and players have so much access these days to statistical information and computer programs tracking tendencies and patterns that there are not enough hours in the day to process everything.
“In the past 30 years, the NFL has gone from kindergarten to MIT,” said Gil Brandt, the former vice president of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys who now evaluates players for nfl.com.
For Christmas, Viking Coach Mike Tice gave each of his assistants personal DVD players, gifts that were both generous and practical. The coaches can use them to begin poring over footage on the flights back to the Twin Cities from away games. The Vikings recently bought a $50,000 computerized video system that allows coaches and players to quickly divide an opponent’s footage into specific categories, such as third-down running plays.
On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays -- days spent conducting practices, evaluating players’ performances or implementing a game plan for the coming Sunday -- it’s not uncommon for coaches to arrive at the office at 5 a.m. and leave at 2 a.m.
Coaches who have worked for Gibbs, the legendary Redskin coach recently rehired by his old team for $5 million a year, say his best ideas don’t begin to emerge until around midnight the Tuesday before a game. As time-pressed head coaches increasingly delegate the nitty gritty of preparing the players, assistants help devise game plans and conduct practices.
Said Dave McGinnis, recently fired as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals: “It’s just like you open up the hood of a car and you see those shiny chrome headers sitting there on the motor and it looks real nice on the outside. But really, what counts is how those pistons are working inside. That’s what assistant coaches are. They’re really the mechanism that makes it all work.”
Eventually, Nicolau grew tired of being a piston.
“I think if I wanted to coach, I could still be coaching,” he said. “But at what point do you walk away? You walk away when you feel the only thing you miss about the NFL is the bye week.”