Joe Horrigan last week surprised Pro Football Hall-of-Fame candidates, inductees, selectors and staff when he announced that he’s retiring after 42 years in Canton.
Officially, Horrigan is the Hall’s executive director. Unofficially, he’s its historian, knowing everything about everyone and everything associated with the Hall and/or the NFL. So losing him is like the Patriots losing Tom Brady. He’s the heart and soul of the selection process, the guy who makes everything work, and there was supposed to be “zero” chance of Horrigan retiring … until, of course, it happened.
But why? And how? We caught up with him to find out.
Q: It’s been about a week since you announced you were leaving. How many people have you heard from?
HORRIGAN: Oh, my, I was just bemoaning that – being so flattered by that. I mean, it’s hundreds. The world of instant communication is wonderful until everybody decides to communicate at once.
Q: Why retire and why retire now?
HORRIGAN: Well, there’s no good time ever for something like this. It’s one of those things where you get to an age where you start wondering when you’re going to do it. To quote Marv Levy, ‘When you’re thinking about retiring you probably already have.” It got to the point where I said there are so many good things going on here at the Hall that my original intention was to see it through to a certain point – with all of the changes that we’re going through. And as those continued to grow, I realized there’s going to be no end to it … because it’s going to be a five-or-six-year project. So I said it’s probably better to leave before you get too deep than to get too deep and wonder why you didn’t move out of the way for others to take charge. That’s part of the whole growth of the organization and personal growth. You feel comfortable and confident in your successors. So the time was good. I keep telling people I’m not totally going away. I’ll be around at least for a while on some specific projects, just to see them through because I have basic commitments. It was just a matter of timing. A lot of folks don’t get that opportunity to make a choice as to when they retire. So, making my own choice … I really can’t give a reason why. I wish I could say, “Aw, heck, I got fired.” But it’s not that.
Q: Is there an official date of retirement?
HORRIGAN: June 1 will be when I will be officially retired, but, as I said, I will be doing some things beyond that.
Q: Will you have a say in choosing your successor?
HORRIGAN: Actually, I’ve been nurturing my successors. There are going be three people that will kind of pick up and do things that have typically been under my umbrella. Pete Fierle for a couple of years now has already taken over communications on a day-to-day basis. He’ll continue to be in charge of that now. Saleem Choudhry has worked with me, and he’ll take over the museum operations. And he’ll be the liaison with the selection committee and the selection process … and the administrator. And Jon Kendall, who’s been our archivist for some years now … he’s going to get more into the history part of it as a student of the game.
Q: You’re a historian. Why not wait until after the 100th anniversary celebration in 2020 to leave? Did you ever consider that?
HORRIGAN: I did. That was a big temptation. I’m 67. I’ll be 68 in September. If I had a date in mind ever it was probably 68. I said, “I don’t want to go much beyond that.” Then I started looking at the centennial: 2019 will be the 100th anniversary year so this means going on to there if I was interested in that. Then 2020 … Sept. 17th is the birthdate of the NFL here in Canton. So those two things obviously appealed to me, and there are ways I’m going to remain involved in both those efforts that specifically David (CEO and President David Baker) has asked me to be available for the centennial celebration and projects relative to that. I don’t know clearly yet exactly what I’m going to do yet relative to specific responsibilities. But I felt if that I break away now it’s probably better. If I were to be looking at … let’s just say Sept. 18th, the day after the 100th anniversary celebration ... you’d feel like, ‘Well, that’s probably not the right thing to do.’ You’d want your commitment to that event to be total ... and not thinking about retirement.
Q: What are you going to miss most about the job?
HORRIGAN: Truly, it’s very difficult to answer, but one thing: The selection process. Because I really have a connection with that and the people that have run it for so many years – the present selectors and the many past that I’ve worked with. That’s a real important part of what we do. In fact, I think it’s the most important thing we do. So I’ll miss that. I’ll miss that interaction and the responsibility that went with it. There are so many things that it connects to. It is why we exist. This is the Hall of Fame. Having witnessed the game, and we use the word ‘excellence’ around here an awful lot -- and that’s really what it means. You’re talking about the best of the best. The good things about the game and the good things about the players and the coaches and contributors – all those things that we espouse to be and the reasons we exist. You do that on a regular basis, and that becomes important to you.
Q: Give me a favorite memory or story about you and the Hall.
HORRIGAN: It’s kind of like asking somebody, ‘"f your whole life, what’s the most important thing you did?" It’s 42 years of my adult life. I’ve kind of been on the periphery since I was 13 years old. No, I don’t know that there’s any one single thing. I think it’s more the collective ability to have experienced what I did. I was quoted somewhere else, and it’s true. I said, “I’ve had lunch or dinner with Bronko Nagurski, Red Grange and George Halas.” And people say, “Well, how old are you?” And I’d say, ”Well, I was very young, and they were very old.” But that’s been my life. I’ve lived a life that a lot of folks would enjoy for just one day as a memory. But I’ve had a lifetime of memories.
Q: So this is going to be the last selection process that you will be part of?
HORRIGAN: Yes, this will be the last one.
Q: Well, then, how emotional will it be for you?
HORRIGAN: I will tell you in all honesty I made my announcement in January because I really wanted to go to one more final selection meeting where I would say, “Goodbye.” It’s one thing to send out an e-mail to everybody saying, “Well, I’m leaving.” It’s another thing to say, “Thank you,” and really mean it. The 48 people in the room represent, really, 200 to me because there are a lot of selectors who have come and gone. So I’m hopeful it comes off the right way. It’s my tip of the hat to everything that they’ve done, you’ve done, to make my job what it is. And I do appreciate it. That’s been so important to me.