Hard knocks: The healing of Dolphins coach Joe Philbin

As Joe Philbin was about to land his dream job, life dealt him the cruelest of blows. Now, for the first time, the Dolphins’ coach opens up.

08/29/2012 12:00 AM

09/08/2014 6:02 PM

The private jet cruised at 30,000 feet, headed from Miami to Green Bay, Wis. Joe Philbin, his wife, Diane, and their five children had settled into cushy seats for what should have been the flight of a lifetime. They had every amenity at their fingertips, and a monumental career move to celebrate.

It was the evening of Jan. 23, 2012, two days after Philbin was introduced as head coach of the Miami Dolphins, a dream job for a forever assistant who spent nearly three decades behind the scenes. All the family members had put on their fancy clothes and happy faces for the news conference. They were excited about relocating from frigid Wisconsin to balmy Florida, and thrilled to share in the pinnacle of the coach’s professional life.

But up there in that plane, alone at last, away from the cameras, reality hit them like a 250-pound linebacker barreling in at full speed. The mood turned somber. And they cried. One thing was keeping the night from being perfect. Michael wasn’t there.

Ten days earlier, Joe and Diane Philbin had buried their 21-year-old son, Michael, following his accidental drowning in the icy Fox River in Oshkosh, Wis. The college junior, their second-oldest child, had been partying with friends and gone missing around 2:30 a.m. on Jan. 8, the night after Philbin interviewed for the Miami job. A security guard heard someone yelling for help, and called police. The body was recovered the following afternoon. Investigators believe he stumbled into the river and couldn’t get out.

Seven months have passed, and still, it’s difficult for Philbin and his wife to discuss their loss. Diane Philbin broke down a few times during a phone interview. The coach has rarely addressed it publicly since taking over the team, but he opened up in an interview on Tuesday.

“At one point, everything went quiet and everybody on the plane was crying,’’ Philbin recalled. “The kids were crying because their brother wasn’t with them. It’s been really tough, on all of us. But you realize when you have that kind of love in the family, that kind of support for each other, you can make it. You can survive and get through anything.’’

Last month, the Philbins moved Michael’s body from Wisconsin to a Fort Lauderdale cemetery. They wanted the whole family together in South Florida. “We had a little ceremony when he came down, short, just us,’’ Philbin said, choking up. “Diane’s been over five or six times.

“We were just over there last Saturday morning. The team got back from Carolina at 4 o’clock. They had a Mass at 9 a.m. for all the people that had been buried there in July. We went over there, it was great. Our son Matt was there Tuesday, before heading back to Texas. It was big-time important for us to have Michael here with us.’’

INFANT LOST

Michael was not the first child the Philbins lost. Thirteen years earlier, infant daughter Katherine died at childbirth in Boston, right about the time the coach was leaving a job at Harvard for the University of Iowa, his final college job before joining the Green Bay Packers nine years ago.

The family heartaches have given Philbin a greater perspective on life and the NFL. It is evident in his mild-mannered demeanor and ability to make decisions without being rattled. Choosing a starting quarterback? Small potatoes. This is a man who took on a high-profile, high-pressure job in the midst of a horrible tragedy, when other people would have crumpled and wanted to hide. At the same time he was helping his wounded family adjust to a new life, he was in the throes of the NFL draft and the start of training camp.

Since taking over the Dolphins, the coach is probably best known for firing flamboyant wide receiver Chad Johnson while HBO’s Hard Knocks cameras were rolling. It was riveting television. Much has been made of Philbin’s willingness to let HBO invade the team’s inner sanctum.

Philbin doesn’t see what the big deal is. Not after the hard knocks he’s been through. If the team’s imperfections and rough edges are exposed to the world, so be it.

“Everybody says, ‘Gosh, Joe, you’re doing Hard Knocks, you’re a rookie head coach, oh my God.’ C’mon. Get real. Get real. This is nothing. Nothing. I gained a different perspective through all of this. We don’t have the perfect family. Never claimed to. We’ve had some tough things , and we’re not the only family that’s had that. We’re just trying to be good, decent people.’’

Be good. Be decent. Work hard. Be loyal. That, in a nutshell, is Philbin’s life mantra.

He doesn’t seek attention. No fiery tirades or colorful quirks. He was never a superstar athlete, though a good enough tight end/defensive end to play at Washington and Jefferson College. He was not a stellar student. “No dean’s list. B’s, C-plusses.’’ He has no hobbies. He doesn’t golf. Doesn’t fish. Doesn’t travel to exotic locales. The only TV he watches regularly is Seinfeld re-runs (he knows many lines by heart).

He is fiercely loyal. He still works alongside assistant coaches Mike Sherman and Ken O’Keefe, whom he met in the early 1980s at Worcester Academy.

His idea of a perfect day? “Wake up 5:30, exercise, go to the office, have a cup of coffee, watch film, have a great practice, meet with players, go home and spend as much time as I can with my family. I love to grill steaks and cook Sunday breakfast. I make a good omelet, do a pretty awesome job with homemade pancakes, I really enjoy that.

“A true snapshot of my life is my family and my profession. That’s it. Family has always been huge to me.’’

IN MASSACHUSETTS

Philbin, 51, is one of six siblings and grew up in an old colonial house in Longmeadow, Mass. There were four girls, and two boys. Joe and his younger brother, Paul Jr., shared a bedroom and a love for the Boston Red Sox and Dallas Cowboys. The Carl Yastrzemski poster was still hanging on the back of their bedroom door until a few months ago.

Their father, Paul, who turns 91 in September, served in the Navy in WWII. When he returned, he figured he’d do what many Irish Catholic men did — become a firefighter or a police officer. Instead, a man on the street approached him and asked if he’d be interested in learning stenography.

He was, and in 1947, he opened Philbin and Associates, a full-service court reporting company that is still in operation 65 years later. Philbin’s mother, Mary, was a schoolteacher. She made a mean roasted chicken with gravy. “Best gravy I have ever had, anywhere,’’ the coach said. But her real claim to fame among her children was her fastidious laundry habits.

“She did 17 loads when it could have been three or four,’’ said Paul, Jr., who runs the family business with sister, Mary. “We always joke that when she dies, there won’t be a tombstone over her grave, there will be a washer and dryer.’’

Coach Philbin said he remembers shoveling paths through the snow to the clothesline in the dead of winter because his mother insisted on drying the sheets in fresh air. He visits his parents whenever he can, takes his mom to the beauty salon, attends Mass with them.

The siblings remain close, and all but Joe remain in Massachusetts. Ellen is the executive director of the Cambridge (Mass.) Retirement System. Ann works at Massachusetts General Hospital. And Jean lives in Newton, Mass., with her family. The entire Philbin clan, including the coach’s parents, plan to fly down for the Dolphins’ home season opener against the Raiders on Sept. 16.

Philbin’s wife, Diane, grew up in the Philadelphia area and comes from an even bigger family. There were 10 siblings in the Donahue brood. She met Philbin in 1987, during her last semester of nursing school at Villanova. He was on campus for a football camp, and it was love at first sight. They married within the year, and their eldest son, Matthew was born in 1988.

She followed him through 15 years coaching at the collegiate level before he joined the Packers in 2003. He was Iowa’s offensive line coach for four years. He also served as offensive coordinator at Northeastern (1995-96) and Harvard (1997-98).

“I think coming from a big family helps you cope with life because things that seem like chaos to others don’t bother you as much,’’ Diane Philbin said. “We are able to process it and stay focused on what needs to be done. Joe has 14 relatives coming to stay with us for that first game, and I don’t see it as 14 people, I see it as love and support. Joe has dealt with big families, big teams, big organizations, lots of fans. He stays steady.’’

Their giant extended family and circle of friends has also played a huge role as the Philbins dealt with the tragedy. Relatives showed up to pitch in. Tim Miller, a close family friend, resigned from his job in Philadelphia and moved to South Florida temporarily to help with the house, carpools, and anything else that arises.

Both the coach and his wife consider it a blessing that their two youngest kids, 16-year-old Timmy and 12-year-old Colleen can attend the University School on the Nova Southeastern University campus, adjacent to Dolphins headquarters. Joe Philbin sees the school from his office window. Last Tuesday, Timmy stopped by after school to hang with his dad for a little while. On Wednesday, Colleen showed up after volleyball tryouts, did homework in the lobby, and got a ride home with dad.

‘REASSURING’

“Considering all that happened, it’s very reassuring to Timmy and Colleen to have their dad right there,’’ Diane Philbin said. “Coaches work such long hours, and aren’t really around much during the season, so it’s huge that they can stop in and say hi, chat for a few minutes. Those moments are irreplaceable, as we now know more than ever.’’

The older Philbin sons live away from home. Matthew, 24, is a West Point grad and first lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He served overseas for a year and is now based at Fort Hood, Texas. John, 20, is a third-year biochemistry major at the University of Pennsylvania, and 18-year-old Kevin is a freshman at Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Diane Philbin ordered up a family portrait last summer two days before Matthew was deployed to Kuwait. Everyone grabbed a white shirt and jeans, and lined up at 8 a.m. “I wanted a nice family portrait before he went away. Who would have imagined it would be our last?’’ she said, choking back tears.

The coach’s brother said the move to Miami came at the perfect time.

“Going to Miami helped immeasurably in the recovery process for Joe and his family,’’ Paul Philbin said. “What they went through was absolutely devastating, and the change was good for them. It gave them something fresh and positive to look forward to in the middle of the lowest point of their lives.’’

Diane Philbin admits she will miss wearing her Ugg boots, but the idea of “a mani-pedi, shorts and sandals in September’’ is appealing. She is eager to get involved in the community, explore the diverse culture, and make friends.

“Right after we lost Michael, Joe was trying to decide what to do, and Timmy urged him to take this job,’’ Diane Philbin said. “It’s still really hard, but every day we have to choose if we’re going to exist or live, and we’ve chosen to live.”

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