PITTSBURGH (AP) Mike Munchak will hop off a bus Monday night and walk into the covered depths at LP Field, much like he’s done for the last 16 seasons.
Only this time, Munchak won’t quite be sure where to go. Left? Right?
Sorry, Munchak never bothered to figure out where the visitor’s locker room was during his more than three decades with the Titans, first as a Hall of Fame offensive guard when the team played in Houston and was called the Oilers, then as a member of the coaching staff as it transitioned to Nashville.
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Fired by the only NFL organization he’s ever called home after going 22-26 as head coach from 2011-13, Munchak now finds himself preparing the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive line to face a roster filled with players he either drafted, developed or both.
”I know them, I know how they play,” Munchak said. ”You find yourself rooting for them a little bit except for this weekend.”
There are no hard feelings, at least on Munchak’s part. The 54-year-old understands how unusual it is to be associated with one team for so long. He also knows that for all the family ties, business is business. The Titans failed to gain much traction during his three years at the helm, including a 7-9 mark last season in which Tennessee squandered a 3-1 start.
He called the ending ”disappointing,” but is trying to move on. While he still has a house in Nashville, Munchak stressed ”Pittsburgh is my home now.”
Maybe, but his ties to the Titans run deep. Tennessee left guard Andy Levitre signed with the Titans in 2013 in large part so he could learn from Munchak, a nine-time Pro Bowler as a player from 1982-93 who became one of the most respected line coaches in the league.
”He’s one of the reasons why I’m here, so I have a lot of respect for him what he’s done in his past and what he’s doing now,” Levitre said.
The feeling is mutual. Munchak allowed he still finds himself ”rooting for (the Titans) a little bit” but will put it to the side when the Steelers (6-4) try to bounce back from an ugly loss to the New York Jets last week.
The players who now call him coach understand the importance for their mentor, though it’s not like the understated Munchak is bringing it up in meetings.
”He’s not like that,” guard David DeCastro said. ”I think every game is important to him. I’m sure this one in the back of his head is a little more important.”
Munchak estimates this is around the 50th time he’ll be on the sideline for a Steelers-Titans game. He went 2-1 against Pittsburgh as a coach, including a 17-9 win in September 2013. The optimism soon faded, however, as Tennessee lost eight of 10 in the middle of the season to miss the postseason for the fifth straight time.
When the front office talked about retaining Munchak but making changes to his staff, he balked and was let go on Jan. 5.
”We understand that it didn’t work,” he said. ”You get so much time to get the job done and we didn’t and had a difference of opinion on how to go forward.”
Munchak didn’t stay out of work for long. The Steelers hired the Penn State graduate less than three weeks later to provide some cohesion for an offensive line that struggled to stay healthy and keep quarterback Ben Roethlisberger upright.
The early results are promising. Pittsburgh has the NFL’s fourth-ranked offense with Roethlisberger having an MVP-caliber year. Having time to work helps. Roethlisberger tossed 12 touchdowns over a two-game span, including a 522-yard performance against Indianapolis in which he dropped back to pass 49 times and wasn’t sacked once.
DeCastro praised Munchak for ”simplifying things” while left tackle Kelvin Beachum believes Munchak’s playing experience makes him an effective communicator whether it’s in the film room or on the field.
”When we make a mistake, he puts us out, sits us down and tries to correct the mistake and go out and execute so it’s not so much about him trying to be the top dog around here,” Beachum said. ”He’s just doing his job and keeping us level-headed at the same time.”
Even if keeping an even keel will be difficult while jogging out through the visitor’s tunnel at a place he knows better than anyone, it’ll be a bittersweet moment.
”I’ve never been through this as a player or a coach, going back to a place because I stayed in one place for so long,” Munchak said. ”I was spoiled that way.”
AP Pro Football Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville contributed to this report.
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