"Mike Munchak spent last season living in Positano, Italy."
That was the entirety of an email I got in February from an anonymous source who's probably given me an equal number of substantive leads and baseless rumors over the years. It is so absurd on its face that it just had to be false. But if I could expense a trip to the Amalfi Coast in the name of "running down a story," well, wouldn't that just be responsible journalism?
So off I went, fully expecting to put in some cursory effort and enjoy a few days of relaxation. If someone had actually tried to coach an NFL team in absentia, someone would have noticed, and quickly. Right?
After the Axe
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After the Axe
Doubt started to creep in on the flight over. Even the stories that hadn't panned out from this source in the past had seemed plausible. What would possess them to throw me something so outlandish? You don't burn this bridge for no reason. Was there ANY possibility that this had some element of truth to it, even if it was a small one?
I got my answer when I landed at Naples International, though it was purely a matter of coincidence. Mike Munchak turned out to be the driver I'd arranged to pick me up.
"Welcome to Italy!" he says with a wide smile. "I make it a point to take any call where the passenger's American. It's a nice reminder of home." He takes my bags, walks me to the car, and we begin the drive to Positano. Munchak's chatty, but in the way that so many drivers are, telling me that the weather just got nice a few days before I arrived, giving me unsolicited recommendations for Pompeii tour guides, pointing out restaurants where he knows the owners. I play along, partially because I'm still shocked this is really happening, and partially because he might drive off the road if I confront him.
We pull up to the villa I've rented and both get out of the car, taking a moment to gaze out at the cobalt sea. "You've picked a beautiful place to hide, Coach," I tell him.
He's quiet, but peaceful, in response. "I really thought I was in the clear after the firing. Figured that tied everything up nicely." Munchak yanks his thumb at a cafe at the far end of the street. "You came a long way. Might as well have some coffee to go with this story."
It starts in November 2012, a few days after the Titans have dropped to 4-7 against a pretty bad Jacksonville team. Munchak's out doing some holiday shopping and happens to turn his radio to a Nashville talk radio station. He'd normally ignore a program like this, but curiosity gets the best of him. Consequently, Munchak hears the 10 words that wind up changing his life forever.
"I can't remember what the question the host asked was, or if there even was a question, but I remember what the caller said: 'A corpse could coach this team better than this idiot.' And that was that."
As Munchak tells it, getting a cadaver in Tennessee isn't particularly challenging. "Medical examiners make a decent salary. But not so good that they'll turn down a thousand bucks. And the selection is really something. You don't have to settle for any old carcass they've got hanging around. It's all customizable. I found one body that looked just like me except for the hair. So they brought a dang barber in and gave him a cut and color job!"
Left: Mike Munchak, human coach. Right: His astonishingly convincing stand-in corpse.
He introduced his deceased double slowly, using him as a replacement in only a handful of meetings to begin with. Gradually, the cadaver's role increased -- it once ran an entire closed practice while Munchak went to a dental appointment -- but he still hesitated to try the swap in front of the media or at a game.
For their 2012 finale, the 5-10 Titans played host to the 2-13 Jaguars. Both teams had long been out of the playoff race, attendance was likely to be low and players on both sides just wanted to get to the end of a disappointing season. Indirectly, the Jaguars were responsible for the birth of Munchak's crazy idea. It only seemed fitting that they'd be the first ones to square off against his dearly departed doppelganger.
Tennessee won by 18. "The win was great, don't get me wrong," Munchak says. "But what was really amazing was how smoothly the whole thing went. I thought for sure the camera would pan over to the sideline, spot the dead guy, and all hell would break loose. Instead? The announcers kept praising dead not-me, talking about how much poise and focus I was showing. From that point on, there was no turning back for me."
So Mike Munchak packed a bag, booked a ticket, and left the country. In his absence, the corpse went 7-9, finished two games out of the last Wild Card spot, and hung in with the eventual Super Bowl champion Seahawks. Not a bad season for a dead body, I point out.
Munchak nods. "Maybe that caller was right. Jim Caldwell's won an AFC Championship, after all."