Former Falcons coach Mike Mularkey was driving down the highway, somewhere between Flowery Branch and Jacksonville, Fla., on Friday.
“I’ve had a good career,” Mularkey said to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution via his cellphone. “Very happy with it. Very proud.”
Mularkey, 58, served as the Falcons’ offensive coordinator from 2008-11 and returned last season as the tight ends coach. After the season, his 25th coaching in the NFL, Mularkey decided it was time to spend more time with the family, play some golf and do some fishing.
Mularkey coached from 1994-2012. He took 2013 off and got back into the NFL from 2014-19. He was a head coach at Buffalo, Jacksonville and Tennessee.
Before getting into coaching, Mularkey played tight end for nine seasons in the NFL for the Vikings (1983-88) and Steelers (1989-91).
“My family is all in one area for the first time in all of our careers,” Mularkey said. “Probably for close to 20 years, we have not been in the same area. We’ve been spread out. Now, my family lives down in the Jacksonville area.
“I struggled a little bit being up here in Atlanta by myself working. Again, most of the time I’m working, so it’s not like I’d have a chance to be with them.”
Mularkey also wants to do some traveling.
“I just felt like that I’m still relatively young, I’m still healthy as I’m going to be right now at age 58,” Mularkey said. “I have three grandchildren now that I’d like to spend some time with. My wife (Betsy) and I, I missed a lot of time with my wife, and I want to make it up right now, while I can. It’s difficult to walk away from that career because it’s been very good. It’s been a ride. An emotional roller-coaster ride.”
Mularkey had a recent confirmation when his mentor Sam Wyche died Jan. 2. Wyche gave Mularkey his first coaching job with Tampa Bay in 1994.
“That hit me,” Mularkey said. “Sam and I were very close.”
After his playing days, Mularkey was looking to get into coaching.
“(Wyche) gave me my first job not knowing me,” Mularkey said. “Usually, it’s a who-you-know business to get in, but he just gave me a chance. Then when I went to Buffalo as a head coach, I hired Sam back. He wanted to get back into the league.
“I had the honor and was very blessed to be able to hire him back. We stayed in touch, and we’d see each other when we could. I was going to retire before that, but that certainly didn’t help because Sam was a young man at 74. That certainly was part of the confirmation that I’m doing the right thing.”
Mularkey and quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave did an excellent job getting prized rookie quarterback Matt Ryan ready to play in 2008. The Falcons went 11-5 and went to the playoffs.
Mularkey was named the assistant coach of the year by the Pro Football Writers of America. After the 2010 season, he was named the offensive coordinator of the year by Sporting News.
“Like I told Mr. (Arthur) Blank in that Tampa locker room (after the last game), there are a lot of good memories from being in this organization,” Mularkey said. “When we won the back-to-back winning seasons (by defeating Tampa Bay in 2009), those are things I’ll miss. Those are the emotional highs and lows that are hard to match outside of the NFL world.”
In that same Tampa locker room, Mularkey coached his final game.
“That made it a little difficult for me to retire, watching that group,” Mularkey said. “Even being 7-9, to come back like they did … (his phone call dropped).”
Mularkey’s head coaching stints never made it to Year 3. In Buffalo he had two seasons, in Jacksonville one season and in Tennessee two seasons. He was fired after taking the Titans to the playoffs and advancing to the divisional round before losing to New England.
“I have no regrets,” Mularkey said. “I feel like I did the best I could under the circumstances. I’m really proud of a lot of things we accomplished. I have some very good memories.
“In Buffalo, starting 0-4 as a rookie head coach, you really don’t want to be 0-4 in Buffalo in your first year. We ended up being 9-7. We won nine of 11, had to beat Pittsburgh to go to the playoffs.”
They lost and didn’t advance to the playoffs. Mularkey didn’t like the direction of the franchise and left after a 5-11 campaign the following season.
“Even in Tennessee, to do what we did to have the first pick of the draft and do what we did in ’15, to have back to back winning seasons, go to the playoffs and have a win, I’m very proud of,” Mularkey said. “Our staff did an unbelievable job. The circumstances that happen, that’s the NFL. If you can’t take that, you probably shouldn’t be in the business. There are a lot of raw deals that go on every year in the NFL.”
Mularkey’s hard-charging style of power football was derived from his days with the Steelers.
“Without a question, it was Chuck Noll who had the biggest influence on me in my career,” Mularkey said. “I definitely kept that philosophy going from my days in Pittsburgh until my last game here in Tampa. That was preached. The message was always consistent from me about what we needed. Won a lot because of it.”
Mularkey enjoyed his last season in the NFL with the Falcons.
“Well, I think coach (Dan) Quinn did a phenomenal job understanding the pressure that he was under,” Mularkey said. “Watching how he kept this team playing at a level that we had a chance to win every game. That’s not easy to do, knowing that I’ve been in that chair before.”
He believes the Falcons are heading in the right direction.
“It is very clear that it’s a very tight team, very tight staff,” Mularkey said. “You hear the word ‘Brotherhood’ and I will attest to it that there is an absolute brotherhood in that locker room.
“Those guys care for each other and will not ever give up on each other. He’s done a tremendous job of building that. It came to light there at the end to see if we could turn it around.”
Mularkey was easing on down the road as he was asked if he planned to watch the playoffs.
“The playoffs are going on right now?” Mularkey quipped.
Yeah, Baltimore and Tennessee should be a good old-school battle?
“Yeah, that will be a physical game,” Mularkey said. “You’ll have to let me know how it goes.”
Mularkey’s mind was on his golf clubs and fishing rods, apparently.
“I’m not a real good golfer, but maybe I can get to being not awful,” Mularkey said. “My sons play golf. I like playing with them because I don’t mind when they laugh at me, and I can laugh at them. I’m going to play more golf. I’m going to fish a little more.
“I’m going to travel. I like to travel and there are lot of places that we, my wife and I, haven’t been. We have plans to do that from here on out.”
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