The Philbin journey: All about family, football and sticking together

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Diane Philbin’s favorite family photo has been with her since the day it was taken in the summer of 2010. It has traveled from Green Bay to South Florida to Indianapolis and now back to Green Bay.

There’s Matthew, the oldest of her six children, at her right. Her husband, Joe, the Green Bay Packers' offensive coordinator, to her left. Sons Kevin, John and Tim seated in front with daughter Colleen between Joe and Diane. Son Michael next to Joe.

The picture was a last-minute idea, just days before Matthew -- a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point -- was deployed to Iraq. She called the studio on a Monday; Matthew was scheduled to leave on Thursday.

“I remember calling them up saying I needed to have a family picture because one of my sons is being deployed and you never know what’s going to happen,” Diane said. “So we went and got this family picture.

“And Matt comes home safe, but Michael passes away.”

‘An all-in family’

Michael died on Jan. 8, 2012, drowned in the icy waters of the Fox River, which bisects the NFL’s smallest city. His death, after a night out with friends at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, was ruled accidental. A week later, Joe coached in a playoff loss to the New York Giants at Lambeau Field. Six days after that, barely a week after he buried Michael, Joe was introduced as the Miami Dolphins' head coach.

The Philbins never imagined they would -- or could -- live in Green Bay again, but here they are, nearly seven years later. Joe was rehired as the Packers' offensive coordinator this past January and on Sunday was named interim head coach when Mike McCarthy was fired.

“Tim and my mom left the day that Joe got the job, and Tim started school down there within days,” Diane said. “The rest of us went within two weeks, so I basically just closed up the house and left.”

Even Kevin, the second-youngest son who had less than one semester of high school left at Green Bay Southwest, went to Florida with the rest of the family.

“I felt badly for our Kevin, but we weren’t going to divide our family right after that incident,” Joe said. “Those were obviously less-than-ideal times and less-than-ideal circumstances, but we weren’t going to leave anyone behind. Had Michael’s passing never taken place, then I probably would’ve gone down and they would’ve come in June.”

Which is when Michael joined them: That summer, Joe and Diane had Michael moved from his burial plot in Green Bay to Our Lady Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

“Everything happened so fast, going to Miami, [but] we knew we were going to move him,” Joe said.

Joe coached the Dolphins for three-plus seasons. He was fired five games into the 2015 season and finished with a 24-28 record.

“It seemed like the right thing to do at the time,” he said, reflecting on the move to Miami. “Everything happened so fast when you throw in Michael’s passing. Were we at 100 percent rationality and decision-making in our lives? Maybe not. But it seemed like we were getting pointed in that direction.

“I give Diane a lot of credit -- and our kids. We’ve kind of been an all-in family. If we’re going to do something, we’re all coming and we’re all going to be part of it, and we’re all going to pour our heart and soul in it.

“If we win, we win. If we don’t, we don’t. But it's not going to be because we’re not all-in. We’re never going to be like, ‘Maybe you should stay with the kids, and I’ll go here.’ We’re all going, and we’re going to do our best.”

‘The timing wasn’t right’

Shortly after Philbin’s firing in Miami, McCarthy called Joe to talk about a return to Green Bay.

“We had a conversation after Miami, and it was a family conversation,” McCarthy said. “He thought the timing wasn’t right and, frankly, I didn’t even have a job for him at that time.”

Instead, Joe went to Indianapolis as the Colts’ offensive line coach. Colleen was halfway through her freshman year of high school in Florida. Joe and Diane wanted to go someplace where she could finish high school.

“We said we were going to somewhere for three years, and the Colts gave us a three-year contract,” Diane said.

But the coaching staff was fired after two years.

“Joe could have sat out for a year, mostly because we wanted to get her through high school because it’s been a lot on her,” Diane said. “Three high schools is tough. I said, 'Colleen, I’m staying here until you’re done with high school.’ But when this all happened, she said, ‘Mom, we’re not staying here. We’re going with Dad.’”

A return to Green Bay never seriously crossed Diane’s mind; she didn’t even want to come back when the Colts played here during the 2016 season. But Colleen did. She wanted to see her best friend from Green Bay, Grace Balison. The two met when they were in preschool, and Diane became close friends with Grace’s mom, Aymee.

“Grace and Colleen walked out of Holy Family School at 4 years old holding hands, and they’ve been best friends ever since,” Diane said. “That day, Aymee and I were looking around and I said, ‘Are you with her? I guess we need to be friends.’ And we have been.”

It was at Lambeau for the Colts-Packers game when Diane realized she could be comfortable again in Green Bay.

“I was still kind of struggling to go back,” Diane said. “We went into the stadium with Aymee and Grace by our sides. I think the Colts scored pretty quick and I went, ‘Oh my gosh, why is nobody clapping?’ It hit me that we are the visiting team. But in that millisecond, I thought, ‘No one’s clapping because I’m the visiting team.’ But I said, ‘You know what, Diane? You do feel home here.’

“That, for me, was a little bit of a changing point in my mindset. Maybe that one time … was a big help for me to be ready to come back to Green Bay and embrace the good times -- because I was happy here a lot.”

‘Thanks for coming back’

McCarthy wanted to make sure the Philbins could be happy in Green Bay again. It was the first question he asked Joe in January, when he broached the idea of coming back as offensive coordinator.

"We move a lot but if you ask them where home is, even Matt -- and he was here for just two years before he went to West Point -- this is where they consider home." Diane Philbin on Green Bay

“I said to Joe, ‘Colleen is going and we’ll go for you.’ But there’s a point in your life where you can feel so incredibly loved and so incredibly heartbroken at the same time; that’s kind of how I felt about [Green Bay],” Diane said. “But you always choose to be positive, at least that’s what we tried to do, and I just have so many good friends here. So for me, coming back was all about the people.”

The Philbins had been back in Green Bay for about two months when Joe and Diane went out for dinner. The restaurant was crowded, yet no one said anything to them as they waited for a table. It wasn’t until they were on their way out that someone approached them.

“We’re walking to our car and a man turned to Joe and says, ‘Hey coach, welcome back,’” Diane recalled. “They talked for a minute and then there was a pause and the man turns back to us one more time and says, ‘Hey coach, thanks for coming back.’

“I stood there. Couldn’t even get in the car. I had chills. That was the sweetest thing that anyone ever said. It was just an afterthought, but I wish I knew who he was because I would tell him that I think about that all the time, of how lucky we were are to be back.”

Despite the Packers’ 4-6-1 record heading into Sunday’s home game against the Arizona Cardinals, it has been a happy homecoming for the Philbins.

“It’s definitely been as I had hoped, if not a little better because I’m doing better,” Diane said. “I was never worried about Joe, because he has a lot to keep him busy with football, and he’s very good at that. And I wasn’t worried about Colleen. She has Grace and all the other friends, and she’s good.

“I was mostly worried about me, because I didn’t specifically have a focus. And we, as a couple, talk a lot about Michael. I had a dream about him the other day, and I woke up at 5 in the morning when Joe was getting ready for work and we talked about him. But I realized that I had so many friends here, that I have more to do here than anywhere else. And that’s the best part about it is I have an incredible amount of friends here.”

Perhaps that’s because this is home to the Philbins more than anywhere else is; they’ve lived here longer than anywhere since Joe began his coaching career in 1984, even though no one in the family was born in Green Bay.

Matthew, now 30, was born in New Jersey while Joe served as the offensive line coach at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (1988-89).

Michael (who would have turned 28 this month), John (26) and Kevin (24) were all born in Pennsylvania when Joe was the offensive coordinator at Allegheny College (1990-93). Thirty days after Kevin was born, the Philbins moved to Athens, Ohio, where Joe spent one season as the offensive line coach at Ohio University (1994).

By the time they moved to Massachusetts a year later, Diane was pregnant with Tim (23). There, Joe served as the offensive coordinator at Northeastern (1995-96) and then Harvard (1997-98).

Colleen (17) was born in Iowa City, Iowa, while Joe was the Hawkeyes’ offensive line coach (1999-2002).

“We move a lot. But if you ask them where home is, even Matt -- and he was here for just two years before he went to West Point -- this is where they consider home,” Diane said of Green Bay.

Except for Michael.

They won’t move him again.

His final resting place will remain in Florida.

“I have a vision of Michael when they got him out of the water, and his body was frozen,” Diane said. “I want him to be warm. I know it’s silly, but I want him in Florida where he’s warm.”