Rich Kotite was once a sparring partner for Muhammad Ali.
That was before he played tight end in the NFL in the late '60s for the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers. It was before he became an assistant coach with the New Orleans Saints in 1977, before he was promoted to offensive coordinator by the New York Jets in 1985, and long before he joined Buddy Ryan's staff in Philadelphia this season.
As the new head coach of the Eagles, that bit of life experience should serve Kotite well. If you're going to coach a pro team in Philadelphia -- especially the football team -- you need to know how to take a punch. And Kotite was no doubt a veritable punching bag in the hands of Ali before realizing his future lie in football, not the ring, all those years ago.
Yesterday, after Eagles owner Norman Braman fired Ryan and elevated his offensive coordinator, Philadelphia fans were asking "Why Rich Kotite?" and getting what sounded like rhetoric in return.
"We didn't want to start from scratch," Braman said at his news conference. "We wanted someone familiar with the players and the system."
Somehow, it is not hard to imagine the rest of the Eagles' NFC East brethren rejoicing over Braman's choice. Hey, they could have had Howard Schnellenberger. Or John Mackovic. Or Lou Holtz. Those gentlemen -- respected college coaches all -- have prior head coaching experience in the NFL. All are prime candidates to get back into the league.
Instead, Braman spent several hours at Vet Stadium yesterday choosing between his offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator (Jeff Fisher), neither of whom has head coaching experience anywhere.
Did Kotite get the nod by default? Or was it the age factor (Kotite is 48; Fisher will be 33 in February)?
And what was so great about Kotite's multiple-formation offense, anyway? Where was it against Washington last weekend? Or the rest of the season, for that matter? The Eagles' two biggest victories of the year -- against the Giants and Redskins -- were defense inspired. Buddyball. In five years with the Jets, Kotite was never regarded as the league's up-and-coming offensive genius. Bill Walsh he wasn't.
So, why Rich Kotite, indeed?
Continuity aside, the logical answer is that Braman wanted to defuse the bombshell he had dropped and head off a palace revolt in the locker room.
And have no doubt, it was a bombshell in the Eagles' locker room, where Buddy ranks up there with Mom, apple pie and Pat's cheesesteaks.
Bringing in an outsider would unsettle the players more than a trifle. It would mean a new system, a new staff, a new philosophy and, in the end, new players. They didn't want that.
But did Braman really give in to team morale and continuity, or did he give in to his $15 million quarterback? Once Ryan unceremoniously benched Randall Cunningham in last Saturday's playoff loss to Washington, Cunningham was less adamant, less vocal about how much it meant to have Buddy Ryan as his coach. Suddenly, he was saying the Eagles shouldn't fire Ryan because it would mean they'd probably lose Kotite, too. Buddy was a good coach, Randall said. Rich was a great coach.
Never mind that Cunningham and Kotite were seen along the bench Saturday shouting at each other. Never mind that Cunningham has, at times, looked as lost this season as last. When your $15 million quarterback with a fragile psyche says he wants so-and-so, you get him so-and-so.
Even if that so-and-so looks like a punching bag.