PITTSBURGH – If not for a last-minute phone call, Joe Philbin might not be coaching the Miami Dolphins Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field.
Philbin, a 1984 graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, was a candidate to replace John Luckhardt as the Presidents’ head coach in 1998, when Luckhardt resigned after a highly successful tenure.
As W&J narrowed its list, two of the leading candidates were former Steelers defensive lineman and then-current W&J assistant John Banaszak and Philbin, who was the offensive line coach at Harvard.
But Philbin withdrew his name from consideration when longtime friend Kirk Ferentz, an Upper St. Clair native, called to offer him the position of offensive line coach at Iowa, where Ferentz had just been named head coach. Ferentz coached Philbin in high school at Worcester Academy in Massachusetts. Former Green Bay head coach and current Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman also was on the staff.
How close was Philbin to taking the W&J position?
“Pretty darn close. Twelve hours away from taking it or something like that from taking it,” Philbin said. “I got a call Sunday night at about 10:30 or 11. My wife was a nurse at a correctional facility in Massachusetts, and she came home at about midnight and Kirk had called me at about 11:30 and asked her if she liked corn. She had certainly never been to Iowa. It’s kind of interesting how things work out; that’s for sure.”
Had Philbin been hired at W&J, he likely wouldn’t have made the move to become the Green Bay Packers assistant offensive line coach in 2003 under Sherman. Philbin spent the next nine years with Green Bay, eventually rising to offensive coordinator.
“It’s funny how things work out,” Philbin said. “Kirk Ferentz is truly one of the great guys in college football or coaching in general, but John Luckhardt, who did a great job at Washington & Jefferson College and at California University of Pennsylvania, is also great. Things happen for a reason, and I am lucky to have the job that I am in today.”
A rare return to the Pittsburgh area has been a good one for Philbin, who has found himself serving as a ticket broker this week.
“There are some friends that I didn’t know I had, but I guess I have them 30 years later,” he said with a laugh.
When the Dolphins were searching for a replacement for Tony Sparano, Philbin, who had helped the Packers to a Super Bowl win over the Steelers at the end of the 2010 season, emerged as the leading candidate.
Philbin has led the Dolphins to a 13-15 record in two seasons, including 6-6 this season, and has them in position to earn a spot in the postseason in the muddled AFC playoff race.
The Dolphins are currently tied with Baltimore for the final wildcard spot in the AFC, one game ahead of a group of four teams that include the Steelers (5-7).
“I think the good news for all of those teams is that there a lot of opportunities out there,” Philbin said. “It’s going to come down to what teams play the best in December, which is probably the way it should be.”
Philbin and the Dolphins had to overcome some adversity along the way. In early November, offensive tackle Jonathan Martin left the team citing personal issues with guard Richie Incognito, whom he said had threatened him on numerous occasions.
Incognito eventually was suspended for conduct detrimental to the team.
Philbin has been the glue that held the team together throughout the situation.
“It’s a good group of men. These guys are professional guys. They work hard every single day,” Philbin said. “If you look at our season over 12 games, obviously we have won half and lost half, but one thing that has been consistent is that we have played very hard on a weekly basis. We’ve had eight games, I believe, that have been decided by a close margin and we are 4-4 in those games. We have to find a way in December to win more of our share of the close games and, hopefully, not be in as many.”
Odds and end zones
Guard David DeCastro (foot), linebacker LaMarr Woodley (calf) and running back Le’Veon Bell (concussion) are probable to play for the Steelers. ... Nose tackle Steve McLendon (ankle) is questionable, and left tackle Kelvin Beachum is doubtful with a sprained knee. Mike Adams will start if Beachum can’t play.