GREEN BAY – The wry smile creasing Joe Philbin’s face said it all. It was a hot August afternoon in 2007, early in his first training camp as the Green Bay Packers’ offensive coordinator.
Seven months earlier, he’d been promoted from offensive line coach after coach Mike McCarthy’s first offensive coordinator, Jeff Jagodzinski, had left after only one season. For Philbin, it was the culmination of a 19-year nomadic coaching career that had included stops at Iowa (1999-2002), Harvard (1997-‘98), Northeastern University (1995-‘96), Ohio University (1994), Allegheny College (1990-‘93), the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (1988-’89) and Worcester Tech (1986-’87) after beginning as a graduate assistant at Tulane (1984-’85).
All that was missing from his resume was head coach, and when asked if such a job was the next logical step for him, Philbin shook his head.
“I'm not looking that far down the road,” said Philbin, who frequently likens coaching to parenting. “I've got too many college tuitions to pay for to think about that stuff.”
That conversation is vintage Philbin. Whenever the subject turns to him, the 50-year-old Philbin invariably responds with either a self-deprecating joke or a reference to his large family – or both, as he has long credited his wife Diane and the couple’s six children with keeping him grounded.
Having arrived in Green Bay in 2003 as an assistant offensive line coach under Mike Sherman – his English teacher and coach at Worchester (Mass.) Academy – there is no one on the Packers’ coaching staff more appreciative than Philbin, who was retained by McCarthy after Sherman’s firing after the 2005 season.
“When you're in a situation as I am, with the number of children I have and the age of my children, to be able to hold a couple of jobs within the same city and two different staffs, I feel extremely fortunate,” continued Philbin, who last week interviewed for head-coaching jobs for the first time in his career, with the Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins. “This is the place I want to be. My family loves it here, and I love the organization. So I certainly consider myself lucky.”
That made Monday’s news all the more heartbreaking.
Oshkosh Police confirmed late Monday afternoon that they had positively identified the body of a man thought to be Philbin’s 21-year-old son, Michael, after it was recovered from the Fox River near the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh campus.
Police did not officially release the identity of the man, citing the wishes of the family, saying only that the body was that of a white male in his early 20s. But Packers players and staff members confirmed that they had been told that the body was that of Michael Philbin, shortly after Winnebago County search and rescue divers pulled the body from the water around 3 p.m.
It is the kind of tragedy no parent – regardless of vocation – should ever endure. In May 2003, then-Packers wide receivers coach Ray Sherman’s 14-year-old son, Ray Sherman II, died of an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
"The pain never goes away," Sherman said in an interview several years later. "You never forget. As a parent, I think about it every single day."
The Packers canceled a scheduled locker-room media availability session planned for 3:45 p.m. after the players were told the news. Less than an hour earlier, McCarthy had somberly addressed reporters, saying, “We’re a family first philosophy with our organization, with our program, so we’re supporting Joe and his family the best we can, and we’re holding out hope that this comes to a positive conclusion.”
Michael Philbin had been reported missing Sunday night, having not been heard from since about 2 a.m. Sunday morning. A dean’s list student at Ripon College, he had gone to Oshkosh for the weekend to visit friends. In 2009, he was sentenced to six months in jail and 2 1/2 years of probation for having non-consensual sex with two girls at a party he threw while his parents were out of town, but the convictions were removed from his record after he successfully completed probation.
Michael is the second-oldest of the Philbins’ six children, with an older brother Matthew (23), younger brothers John (19), Kevin (17) and Timothy (16), and a younger sister Colleen (10).
Joe Philbin spent Monday in Oshkosh, McCarthy said, while the Packers prepared for Sunday’s NFC Divisional Playoff Game against the New York Giants at Lambeau Field. McCarthy said the coaching staff had contingency plans in place if Philbin is away from the team for an extended period.
"We're prepared to do whatever we need to do as a staff to make sure our team's ready to go," McCarthy said.
Shortly after learning the news, Philbin’s players took to their Twitter accounts to share their condolences and support the coach and his family.
"As children we all have to someday say goodbye to our parents,” starting left guard T.J. Lang wrote on his Twitter page, “but a parent should never have to say goodbye to their child." Lang’s father, Thomas, died last week.
Packers defensive lineman B.J. Raji wrote, "Life is too short. Live in the present,” while Lang and fellow offensive lineman Josh Sitton asked their followers to pray for the Philbin family.
And Giants defensive end Justin Tuck Tweeted, “Our prayers go out to the Philbin family and Packer nation for their loss.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.