Editor’s note: This story originally ran in the Bangor Daily News on May 11, 1994.
OLD TOWN, Maine – Dick MacPherson surveyed the faces of the senior class of Old Town High School gathered expectantly before him in the school’s cafetorium. He selected a story.
“I was at Mass on a Saturday night in California a few months back when the priest told everyone to write down on a piece of paper ‘what you hope to do with your life.’ I’m almost 64, so I’m thinking ‘what am I going to write?’ ” MacPherson recounted, working the room with the ease of a hometown hero among the kids and grandkids of his friends.
“I ended up writing down ‘to make sure my wife and I kept our health, kept our love and happiness, and to hope our death would be a pleasant one so we wouldn’t be a problem for our kids,’ ” MacPherson said before pausing a beat. “I looked at that piece of paper and thought, ‘Is that all I’ve got left? I’ve got to find something to do!’ ”
It was the kind of story upon which MacPherson built a 30-year football coaching career that carried him from college assistant all the way to head coach of the New England Patriots: Profound without being hokey. Motivational without being overbearing. Personal.
“I kept that piece of paper, as a reminder,” MacPherson told the high school kids.
The reminder is that there is indeed life to be lived as long as life remains. There is life after coaching. More specifically, there is life after being fired by the Patriots.
If it seemed MacPherson was relegated to life’s scrap heap 16 months ago when his stormy two-season tenure with the Pats was halted following eight wins and 24 losses, it’s because he couldn’t do much to fight the perception. As a condition for receiving from the Patriots a reported $300,000-per-year settlement of the two seasons plus an option year remaining on his contract, MacPherson had to go away quietly.
“By contract, I can’t coach right now,” MacPherson explained. “By settlement, any money I make in any form of athletics – be it radio or TV or anything – would go back to the Patriots.”
So MacPherson went away, agreeing to stay out of the sports klieg lights until March 1995 when his settlement runs out.
Outwardly, MacPherson appears satisfied with the arrangement. He is healthier, wealthier and, yes, wiser, since returning to Syracuse, N.Y., site of his greatest successes as coach of the Syracuse University football teams of the 1980s.
The acute intestinal inflammation that added injury to insult in Foxborough, sidelining him for seven games during his final season while the Pats went 2-14, is long gone. Regret is not in his vocabulary.
“Here’s what I told my wife and family. If someone were to ask us to come there and go through what we went through, and have that experience and the financial rewards that come with it for me and my family… you’ve got to go,” he said.
Probe a little deeper, however, and MacPherson can’t help but reveal his view of what went wrong in New England.
“When you’re a head coach in name only, it isn’t as much fun. That’s the reason Jimmy Johnson is done. That’s the reason Tommy Coughlin left BC. There aren’t many Don Shulas left in the world that can run their whole program,” said MacPherson, declining to comment further on his relationships with former Pats owner James Orthwein and former general manager Sam Jankovich. The settlement, again.
MacPherson could have simply sat around and waited for his checks to arrive. He could have gone the golf route, or the world traveling route with his wife Sandra. Instead, he took a job as vice president for corporate communication for a business funding group.
Leave it to MacPherson to find the coaching in the job. “It’s getting people together and helping them get things done,” he explained.
MacPherson is enough of a realist to know at his age he is unlikely to ever coach football again at either the major college or professional level. If that’s true, he said he can walk away satisfied.