Pat Shurmur went down fighting. Even more appropriately, shadow boxing.
In the last gasp of his team’s season and, presumably, his tenure in Berea, an angry Shurmur ran well onto Heinz Field after a sack of Thad Lewis. He threw some emphatic air punches to protest what he considered a helmet-to-helmet hit on his third-string quarterback.
With the Steelers in victory formation a few minutes later, Lewis shook Shurmur’s hand. Shurmur stopped to congratulate Ben Roethlisberger at midfield, hugged Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and then took a long, solitary walk toward the locker room.
Shurmur still had a job to do Sunday. Sometime today, or soon after, he’ll have legacy. It won’t be much of one after just two seasons, but that’s only partly because he fought a losing battle against a regime change.
In an unforgiving business, he’ll be remembered as a coach who rode into Berea on training wheels and experienced a demolition derby in his first season. He’ll be remembered as a coach who came aboard as Mike Holmgren’s boy — out of a small interview pool — and who will depart as Mike Holmgren’s mistake.
It’s not quite that simple, obviously. He got sucker-punched by an ownership change that greased Holmgren’s departure first and is expected to usher a coaching staff and a GM out of town. That’s no small thing. Still, he didn’t do nearly enough to change minds. And some of that was his failure to ever really look the part.
Sunday he was asked about his future, as any coach with a 9-23 record might, let alone one with new bosses in just about every Berea office.
“I don’t know,” he said before suggesting the media “call your league sources.”
That was Shurmur tilting at one last windmill. He made another snide mention of “league sources” in the postgame interview, a reference to a Plain Dealer story Sunday on the expected clean sweep in Berea. In the same breath, he acknowledged the rumors had floated around since mid-season.
Butch Davis was the last to know Randy Lerner wanted a coaching change. Shurmur’s circumstances alone — on top of his record and his game-day gaffes and inconsistencies over two seasons — should mean he’s a quicker read.
“I have not talked to Jimmy [Haslam] or Joe [Banner] in quite some time,” Shurmur said. “I saw them before the game but we weren’t close enough to speak.”
Shurmur said he didn’t read anything into the relative silence from his bosses over the last few weeks. He didn’t need to. Everybody saw change as inevitable. It’s a credit to him that he kept his focus and his players did the same.
“When new ownership comes in you have no control,” cornerbacl Joe Haden said. “I’ve never been in this position before with a new owner taking over. But whatever he wants to do, I’m behind it 100 percent.”
What everybody can rally around is Haslam’s stated intentions to speed the timetable and to bring accountability. And, hopefully, to never utter a single sentence that ends in “five-year plan.”
Shurmur came in as a coach in training. Holmgren knew about the labor uncertainty the league faced, but hired Shurmur and let him go into his first season without an offensive coordinator. Holmgren’s self-serving lack of urgency was handed down — we know now — from an owner who knew he was going to sell the team and be out from under the pressure to produce a turnaround.
When Shurmur arrived to his second training camp, he had a new owner in a much bigger hurry. The pages started flying off the calendar — old Hollywood movie style — the day Haslam bought the team. That’s a welcome change for a fan base weary of double-digit losing seasons. For an unsuccessful head coach with inexperienced players all around, that’s a mountain climb in flip-flops.
You can’t blame Shurmur for feeling put upon by circumstances or believing he improved in his second season as head coach. He did.
“I’m looking forward to coaching this team next year,” he said. “If not, then what I’m going to do is help coach and help inspire a team to win games in some role. I have kids in college and I have mouths to feed and this is my profession. ... That’s it. That is how simple it is in my mind.”
If the expected happens, Haslam and Banner are simply betting they can do better.
Who can argue?
Bud Shaw is a sports columnist at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.