CJ Kaplan discusses the firing of New York Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum.
The last time I was fired nobody cared. That is to say, there were no Breaking News reports on the ESPN scroll or press conferences attended by reporters from major metropolitan newspapers or Facebook and Twitter updates heralding the announcement.
I was simply called to the agency’s main conference room where my boss and the HR person delivered the news. The only two things I really remember from the meeting was that my boss pretended to look surprised that it was happening and the HR person kept playing with her diamond ring while she told me how terrible she felt. It was a lousy moment for me personally. But, it was essentially a private one.
When the General Manager of the New York Jets, Mike Tannenbaum, was fired this past Monday morning the entire world knew about it before Mike had even left the building. That’s how we roll now.
A couple of things really bothered me about Mike being fired, not the least of which is that we’ve been friends since the third grade. Mike and I went to elementary school, high school and even Hebrew school together. We went on double dates together, played varsity basketball together and got in trouble together. He was in my wedding party and I was in his. Hell, our youngest children were born hours apart on the same day.
So, yeah, I’m taking this harder than the average football fan.
I’m not writing this to defend Mike Tannenbaum as a GM. The truth is, despite the countless hours I’ve spent watching football, playing fantasy football and reading hundreds of football-related articles, I’m not even remotely qualified to comment on the personnel moves that Mike made. And guess what? Neither are you.
No, I’m writing to defend Mike Tannenbaum the person. I feel compelled to do so because Mike’s firing generated over 16,000 “Likes” and nearly 3,000 comments of affirmation on Facebook. Did Mike contribute to the failure of a football team or did he steal Christmas from Cindy Loo Hoo?
I know football fans are passionate, but how twisted to you have to be to take pleasure in a fellow human being losing his job? Especially one who never played a single down or devised a solitary game plan.
Now, Mike doesn’t need me to stick up for him. He’s a big boy and he knew what he was getting into when he signed up for this. In fact, the day he became GM of the Jets he told his wife that his next job title would be “Ex-GM of the Jets.”
But for those who are reveling in the departure of your ex-GM, I think you need to know a few things about the guy that you can’t get from an 8-second sound bite or a 140-character Tweet.
A few months after Mike got the GM job, I ran into an idiot friend of my mother’s who knew both Mike and I when we were growing up.
“Boy, did your friend Michael get lucky,” she sneered, in reference to his new high profile position with the Jets.
Aside from the subtext of jealousy in the comment, her statement could not have been further from the truth. Luck had nothing to do with Mike’s success. He worked for every single bit of it.
When we were 10 years old, Mike Tannenbaum loved the Dallas Cowboys. In and of itself, that fact wasn’t so extraordinary. Lots of 10-year-olds loved the Cowboys in 1979. What made Mike unusual was that he didn’t want to play for the Cowboys. He wanted to run the team. Mike followed Dallas with a passion that was almost obsessive. He poured over items in the Sports Page that I dismissed as inconsequential: Transactions, scouting reports and something called the Waiver Wire. Who gave a damn that the Cowboys had placed their OLB on Injured Reserve or that they had signed some nobody to their practice squad? Mike did.
The other team that Mike tracked relentlessly was our beloved Boston Celtics. The difference was that Mike was studying the off-court moves of the Celtics as closely as the rest of us following their on-court exploits. Mike was fascinated with the way Celtics’ GM Red Auerbach was able to draft Larry Bird a year early and somehow procure Kevin McHale for what turned out to be the forgettable Joe Barry Carroll. And when Red traded back-up center Rick Robey for disgruntled Phoenix point guard and future Celtics star Dennis Johnson, Mike could see his future taking shape before him. One day, he would wheel and deal like Red.
In college, Mike majored in Accounting with a minor in Sports Management. But, our class graduated in the midst of one of the worst recessions in the country’s history. My classmates and I found little in the way of gainful employment and we all compiled a formidable stack of rejection letters from the various companies we’d solicited. Mike’s pile included several polite, but terse letters from pro sports franchises up and down the East Coast.
Later, while he was putting himself through law school at Tulane, he published an article in the Law Journal on the NFL’s brand new salary cap–an article that caught the attention of New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson. Benson was impressed with Mike’s comprehension of the complex cap rules and offered him an unpaid internship with the team.
Mike graduated from Tulane with a degree in Sports Law and a substantial debt. The Saints were happy to have him as an intern, but couldn’t quite pull the trigger when the time came to give him an actual salary. However, their influence and connections did land him an interview with the Cleveland Browns. He went into his meeting with the Browns armed with a notebook that contained each player’s salary, the terms of their contracts and how those conditions would affect the Brown’s cap number in the coming years. The interview impressed Cleveland’s front office enough to offer Mike a position in the personnel department acting as an assistant to Bill Belichick. He was given a cube alongside a young linebacker coach named Eric Mangini. Mike finally felt like he was in.
Then, team owner Art Modell had announced his intentions to move the team to Baltimore if the city did not build him a new facility to replace the crumbling Municipal Stadium currently housing the Browns. The city refused to budge. When the Browns packed up and left Cleveland that spring, one of the things they left behind was Mike Tannenbaum. The newly formed Baltimore Ravens already had a guy in mind for Mike’s job, which made him redundant. However, New Orleans was going through some major changes as well and Tom Benson remembered his impressive intern. He hired Mike as a player personnel assistant under new coach Mike Ditka.
There were other people in Mike’s past upon whom he had made a favorable impression. One of these people was currently in New York working as an assistant coach for the Jets. When Bill Belichick called in February of 1997 just a few weeks after the Super Bowl, he told Mike that he was going to put someone on the phone and that Mike should just listen and not speak. The unmistakable voice of two-time Super Bowl winning coach Bill Parcells boomed through the receiver. The Head Coach of the Jets wanted Mike to come to New York and be the salary cap guru for the team. It was a chance for Mike to work for one of the greatest coaches in NFL history in the biggest media market in the world and be much closer to his friends and family in Boston. Mike was a Jet.
Throughout Mike’s career, his critics have always maintained that’s he’s not a “football guy.” This is code for the myth that you can’t know football unless you’ve made a living knocking large men to the ground. That’s why so many former players are handed front office jobs without any prior administrative experience. But, his fifteen years with the Jets have proved that hard work goes at least as far as a hard head. With Mike in the front office, New York has gone to the playoffs 7 times including two appearances in the AFC Championship game during his tenure as GM.
But, after this year’s disastrous 6-10 season somebody had to be sacrificed to the New York media and fans. And that person was Mike. A guy with his credentials will certainly hook on with another NFL team if that’s what he chooses to do. And no doubt, fans of his new team will flood the Internet with opinions and comments. But, take it from me. Mike will excel in his new job. After all, he’s been working his whole life to get it.
AP Photo by Phelan M. Ebenhack