Like father, like son: Lions scout Patrick Mularkey puts family before football

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Before the COVID-19 pandemic had NFL coaches and front-office executives working from home during free agency, the draft and the early stages of this year's offseason program, before they were indirectly forced to reflect on the long-standing flaws of their work-life balance, the Mularkey family had been ahead of the curve, waiting for their colleagues to catch up. 

Mike Mularkey, a former tight end who recently retired after a 25-year coaching career, and son Patrick, the Southwest area scout for the Detroit Lions, always have made it a point to put family ahead of football, despite the tremendous demands of working in the league. 

An 11-year-old Patrick Mularkey helps out his dad Mike Mularkey on the sidelines during the 1998 Pro Bowl.

"I've had arguments with guys in the office," Patrick said. "I see guys sleeping in the office all the time. I say to them, like my dad used to say to me, 'First day I sleep in the office is the day I resign from this job.' I'll never put my job before my family. The day I do is the day I resign."

Above many others lessons, the elder Mularkey takes pride knowing that one took root. But how could it not, given it was taught through actions far more than words? 

Going hand-in-hand with the profession's demands, coaching at the highest levels is volatile. A glance at Mike's resume is a reminder. Counting a second stint in Atlanta to end his career, he held 13 jobs at nine stops. That's even more eye-opening when you consider he had an eight-year stretch of stability, working for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1996-2003.

Because of this volatility, some coaches prefer to set up a home base for their family, having their spouse and children in a set location, often somewhere close to extended family and friends, where the kids are able to stay in the same school system while growing up. It creates a sense of stability where a career in football offers so little.

That's the route former Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin chose, with his family calling Arizona home while he was in Detroit coaching half the year. 

But that concept never worked for Mike. He always wanted his family by his side. They grounded him. They were his support system. 

Keeping his family close was hammered home by tragedy early in his coaching career, when Mike witnessed another coach's wife get ill and pass away while she was living with the couple's children on the other side of the country. 

"You can't make up that time," Mike said. "It's impossible to make up that time that you lose. That had a big influence on me."

Being a good husband and father was made easier by the men Mike worked for early in his career. In Tampa Bay, where he got his start as an NFL assistant, coach Sam Wyche encouraged his staff to bring their families to training camp and the team held large barbecues after every home game. 

When Mike took the job in Pittsburgh, he found another organization that embraced a family atmosphere. It was there that Patrick's interest football blossomed, working as a ball boy and staying full weeks with his father in the dormitories at Saint Vincent College during training camp.

"I was always around during camp and on the weekends," Patrick said. "I would sit in his office during the draft, when the draft was basically all done in one day. I would sit in his office for 10 hours and watch the whole thing. I would travel with him. Anything that he'd allow me to do, or coach (Bill) Cowher would allow, I was there."

Patrick Mularkey and Mike Mularkey watch a Lions practice in Allen Park.

Mike also developed a key routine during those years in Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh that he would maintain throughout his career — he'd be home for dinner every Thursday night.

Working as Nick Saban's offensive coordinator in Miami in 2006, Mike recalled the stunned reaction of the team's other offensive coaches when he packed up his stuff to head home for the first time on a Thursday evening. 

"Every Thursday, I got up and left them all there," Mike said. "I won a lot of games and lost a lot of games and none of that had anything to do with working any later on Thursday nights. If you're not ready to go by Thursday night, you've wasted a lot of time. You're not managing your time correctly if you can't get your game plan ready for Thursday night."

No regrets

Years before making his way to Miami, Mike thrived in Pittsburgh, earning a promotion to offensive coordinator in 2001. In the role, he turned a middle-of-the-road unit into one of the league's best. The Steelers finished top-five in yards and top-eight in scoring each of his first two seasons leading the offense. 

Not surprisingly, he started generating buzz as a head-coaching candidate. 

Mike Mularkey had three head coaching jobs in the NFL, first with the Bills starting in 2004.

In 2003, he was a finalist for the Bengals job that eventually went to Marvin Lewis. Although it wasn't reported at the time, Mularkey was offered the position, but opted to turn it down. The reason, not surprisingly, was family. 

"I didn't want to live away from Patrick his senior year," Mike said. "He was playing volleyball and we had spent eight years in Pittsburgh. I didn't want to spend a year away from him and miss all of that. I turned down the offer for the job knowing I had a good job as the offensive coordinator for the Steelers. I had something that made it easier to decline the offer. I never regretted it."

A year later, Mike took the head coaching job in Buffalo. It was the first of three head coaching positions he would hold prior to his retirement. Patrick was still finishing up his senior year at North Allegheny and, when necessary, Mike would make the six-hour round trip to catch one of those volleyball games. 

It was also during those last couple years of high school, Patrick began attending the NFL's scouting combine with his dad, serving as a volunteer. The jobs were menial, grabbing coffee and shuttling prospects from one spot to another, but it was during those trips Patrick decided he wanted to pursue a career in football. 

In Buffalo, Mike tested Patrick's budding acumen for talent evaluation, having him and his younger brother Shane study and write up player evaluations on Bills players. 

"You'd be amazed, for as young as they were, the evaluations they would write up were pretty impressive," Mike said. "I just wanted to know what they saw. Do you see the same things I see, our scouts see, our coaching staff sees? You get opinions from eight different guys on a player all the time, so another one, I just wanted their input and I was always impressed by it. I'm not surprised Patrick has been a scout as long as he's been because I know he's a very good evaluator starting back to when he was in high school."

Patrick went on to get a degree in sports management from Clemson, where he volunteered with the school's football team. After graduating, he sent his resume out to NFL teams and got a few bites. He knows having the last name Mularkey didn't hurt, but Mike said he never pulled any strings to help his son land a job. 

"Patrick showed his face around enough at those combines, working with the Steelers, people knew who he was," Mike said. 

Patrick ultimately took a scouting assistant position in Jacksonville. A few years later, Mike was hired as the team's head coach. For the tight-knit family, it was a dream opportunity, but one that was unfortunately short-lived.

After the Jaguars went 2-14 in Mike's first season at the helm, he was fired. And Patrick got the broom, as well. 

"I was devastated, not by losing the job, but by losing my opportunity to work with him when I got fired," Mike said. "That bothered me more than anything. We finally were together, but because his name is tied to mine, even though he's good at what he does, because he's got my name he had to lose his job. You don't get many of those opportunities to be together, so that really bothered me. That hurt."

Back together again 

For a year, Patrick was out of the NFL. And when you find yourself out of the league, there's no guarantee you'll be able to find your way back in. Because he was under contract when he was let go in Jacksonville, he took advantage of the down time, using up the frequent-flyer miles he had accrued over the years to travel with his wife. 

But at some point, he needed to weigh what was next, if a return to the NFL wasn't in the cards. That included a job shadow for a medical supply sales position along Florida's Space Coast. But at the end of that day, while decompressing at a local bar with the person he had shadowed, Patrick looked up at the TV and got a sign. 

Texas, Oklahoma and LSU are among the schools Patrick Mularkey scouts for the Detroit Lions.

"ESPN is playing in the background and they're showing a highlight of Chris Johnson, the Titans running back, running up the sideline and he almost runs into me," Patrick said. "I was the strength coach (with Jacksonville) and on the sideline at that time. I saw myself on TV and knew I would never get that feeling doing this job. It was then and there I know what I wanted to do. I'm going to get my a-- back in the NFL."

Around that time, Mike had landed a new job as the Titans tight ends coach. Using that connection, Patrick got credentialed to go to back the combine. Where he decided to pursue a career in football was where he hoped to find his way back in. There, he ran into Brian Xanders, then a senior personnel executive with the Lions. 

That chance encounter led to an internship, and his performance landed him a full-time job in Detroit's pro personnel department in 2014. And when Bob Quinn was hired as the team's general manager, Patrick saw an opportunity to make a long-desired switch to college scouting. 

In his seventh year with the franchise, and fourth as a college scout, Patrick oversees some of the most important schools in the country, including Texas, LSU and Oklahoma. Like many in his line of work, he loves the grind and is hopeful there are brighter days and bigger professional opportunities ahead. 

"I think everybody's ultimate goal is to run a football team," Patrick said. "It just seems like one of those things that you have to keep your head down until the opportunity comes. You've got to win. That's the biggest part about advancing. If you don't start winning, people aren't going to want you. Until we start winning, you can't look too far ahead."

And through it all, just like his father, Patrick always puts his family first. After transitioning into college scouting, he and his wife Kristen moved back to Jacksonville, where they have two young children, Waylon and Lula. 

And after calling it a career, Mike has relocated there as well, along with wife Betsy, and brother Shane. The entire family is separated by only a few miles.

When we talked on a June afternoon, Mike and Betsy had joined Patrick's family on a trip to a local alligator farm that morning and had plans to get back together in the evening for Waylon's tee-ball game. 

"There's been a lot of family time together and that hasn't just been because of the quarantine," Mike said. "It's because it's who we are. We're a close family."

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers