Why do NFL coaches rarely rise from the ranks of players?
August 24, 2014 12:00 AM
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is one of several National Football League coaches who never played in the league.
By Ray Fittipaldo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League, the highest level of playing experience is almost a prerequisite to becoming a head coach or manager. In the National Basketball Association, almost half the head coaches have played in the league.
In the National Football League, the criteria for selecting a head coach has little to do with one’s playing career. The owners of the 32 NFL teams might as well have “No Experience Required” in boldface on the job description for the most important position in their organizations.
The number of head coaches with playing experience in the NFL has decreased dramatically in the past 30 years while the other three major sports churn out ex-player after ex-player for head coaching jobs.
In MLB, 83 percent of managers on opening day this year played in the major leagues. In the NHL, 60 percent of the head coaches reached the league and 43 percent in the NBA.
In the NFL, only 19 percent — six of 32 — of the head coaches who will lead their teams into the 2014 season played in the league.
Playing experience has never mattered much in the NFL. It has become less important as head coaches become more like CEOs. They must be able to delegate to assistants because the job entails so much more than it once did.
Vince Lombardi, who is widely considered the greatest head coach of all-time, never played in the NFL. Neither did Bill Walsh or Paul Brown.
Still, as late as 1984, half of the league’s head coaches — 14 of 28 — had played in the NFL. This season only Ron Rivera of Carolina, Doug Marrone of Buffalo, Jason Garrett of Dallas, Jim Harbaugh of San Francisco, Jeff Fisher of St. Louis and Ken Whisenhunt of Tennessee played in the NFL.
Numerous factors have contributed to the trend. The game’s economics are one factor. Higher player salaries mean more players don’t have to work in retirement if they are smart with their money.
PG graphic: Playing experience (Click image for larger version)
The average NFL salary in 1970 was $23,000. Today it is nearly $2 million.
“I think the money has a lot to do with it,” said Ernie Accorsi, the former general manager of the Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns and New York Giants. “If you played in the NFL you made a lot of money. If you didn’t, you’re still hungry and making a way for yourself.”
Of course, that fails to explain the percentage of coaches in MLB, the NHL and the NBA with professional playing experience. Average annual salaries are just as high or higher in those sports and yet playing experience remains important.
In football, it’s almost irrelevant. Head coaches in the NFL don’t even need major-college football playing experience to land jobs. Occasionally, high school playing experience is not required.
Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley was the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs for three seasons from 2009 to 2011. He attended Upper St. Clair High School, a WPIAL football powerhouse, but his fall days were spent on the golf course, not the football field along Route 19. He was a golfer in high school and college and worked as a golf professional before making the transition to football in his late 20s.
“The key is when you do take a different path you are going to start at the bottom and you’re going to build a really good foundation because you’re going to be doing all the grunt work as you work your way up,” said Mr. Haley, who started his NFL career in the New York Jets scouting department and later worked as an assistant coach for 12 years in the league before getting his opportunity to be a head coach. “It wasn’t until I actually got a coordinator spot that I thought I could be a head coach.”
Every head coach in the NFL this season has at least some college football playing experience, but competing in Division I – the highest level of college football – need not be on the resume.
The most successful head coach in the NFL today is New England’s Bill Belichick, who played at Division III Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Miami Dolphins coach Joe Philbin played only one season of college football at Division III Washington & Jefferson College. Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy, a native of Greenfield, played at Baker University, an NAIA school in Kansas. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin played at Division I-AA William & Mary.
“I think it just goes to show you that if you’re a good leader and you understand the game and how to manage people it doesn’t matter if you played in this league or not,” said Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak, a Hall of Fame player for the Houston Oilers who was the head coach of the Tennessee Titans from 2011-13. “A lot of times a good college coach knows how to assemble a good NFL staff. So maybe he won’t have the NFL experience, but he’ll have guys on his staff who did.
“But it’s become obvious you don’t have to be able to play in this league to be a great coach. When I walk into the room, I may get that instant respect because I sat in their seats. But if I can’t teach them or make them better they’ll shut me off real fast. If you have experience that’s a nice little plus, but [Maurkice] Pouncey, [David] DeCastro and [Kelvin] Beachum want a guy who will push them, prepare them, make them better on Sundays. Players buy in fast if you show them you can help them.”
Mr. Tomlin has seven assistant coaches on his staff who played a total of 84 seasons in the NFL. There are two Hall of Fame players and four others who played 10 years or more in the league. But Mr. Tomlin said he does not feel a need to employ former NFL players.
Mr. Tomlin subscribes to the same theory as Mr. Munchak: if a coach can help a player succeed that player will follow.
“I know a lot of coaches who had distinguished playing careers,” said Mr. Tomlin, who was a graduate assistant coach in college for one season and a position coach in college for five more years before moving to the NFL. “I had apprenticeship. I did mine in a [graduate assistant]-like fashion, getting coffee and things of that nature. Others do theirs on the field.
“Oftentimes, the guys who have long and distinguished playing careers have had their fill and move on to other things. There are probably a lot of former players who are capable of coaching who choose not to.”
For a time in the 1970s and 1980s, former NFL players enjoyed great success as NFL head coaches. Chuck Noll, a guard with the Cleveland Browns in the 1950s, remains the only coach in NFL history with four Super Bowl victories. Don Shula and Tom Landry each won two Super Bowls.
But lately the list of Super Bowl winners is dominated by coaches who never played in the league. In 26 of the past 28 Super Bowls, the winning head coach had no NFL playing experience. Only Bill Cowher and Tony Dungy broke the mold.
“It used to be that ownership would look at guys who had been in the league,” said Herm Edwards, a former NFL player with the Philadelphia Eagles and head coach with the Jets and Chiefs. “Now, with the way football is being played, a lot of people are getting opportunities because they have college experience or maybe they can relate to the younger players. It’s a game where you have to be a manager of people. A lot of these teams are young. You’re constantly adding new players. It used to be a very old running league. It’s not that way anymore.”
Mr. Tomlin is 71-41 entering his eighth season as Steelers head coach. He has won one Super Bowl and been to another. Success stories such as Mr. Tomlin’s do not making it any easier for former players to reverse the trend anytime soon.
The rise in popularity of football in the 1970s led to professional and college teams investing more money into their organizations. It was not uncommon for NFL teams to have only five assistant coaches in the 1970s. Today, the Seattle Seahawks employ 24 assistant coaches under head coach Pete Carroll.
More jobs have meant more opportunities for people who never played in the NFL. Those people are beginning their coaching careers immediately after graduating from college. Mr. Tomlin began his coaching career when he was 23. He was an NFL assistant by 29 and a head coach at 34.
When former players want to get into coaching many of the people they are competing against for jobs have more experience and better coaching connections.
“There are just so many opportunities to make football coaching a career now,” said Mr. Accorsi, the former general manager of the Colts and other teams. “Art Modell used to joke when he sent out the Christmas cards with the team pictures on them that there were more guys in sweaters than in uniforms. When we won the Super Bowl in Baltimore [in 1970] we had five coaches. Now you have graduate assistants in college, which you never used to have. They don’t make anything, but these guys can see a career in coaching football. Back then, you probably figured you had to play to coach in the league.”
The game is far more intricate, too. Mr. Edwards laughed when recalling his playing days. He said Steelers receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth always ran their routes from the same side of the field. The playbook was much smaller and the passing game was still rudimentary.
“There were very few plays,” Mr. Edwards said.
In today’s NFL, coaches must have a base in the pro-style offense, but they also must be familiar with the spread offense influence that came from the college game in the past couple of decades. Pro coaches have been forced to incorporate many of college football’s schemes into their playbook because college players are more specialized and are not being prepared in pro-style offenses.
The popularity of the game has also has made the NFL big business. Mr. Tomlin’s weekly news conference is produced as part of a television show that is broadcast live for an hour every Tuesday during the regular season.
This has opened up new avenues for coaches should they tire of the 80-hour work weeks. Former players and head coaches can earn big money as television analysts without the worries of being a head coach.
That’s what Bill Cowher is doing now. Mr. Cowher was 49 when he left the Steelers head coaching position after the 2006 season. Many assumed he would take a few years off and return to coaching, but he is entering his eighth season as an analyst for CBS.
Mr. Dungy was 53 when he stepped down as Colts head coach in 2008. He has been the lead analyst at NBC for the past six years and has rebuffed offers to get back into coaching.
Mr. Cowher and Mr. Dungy exited the NFL after winning the Super Bowl. Mr. Edwards never won a Super Bowl as a player or head coach, but he has found his television work rewarding and has not elected to return to coaching despite many offers.
“When you sit here you have a bigger platform to speak from,” Mr. Edwards said. “As a coach, you are guarded. I have elected not to go back. I was in the NFL for 30 years. I have nothing else to prove. I am still relevant. I have a platform. I think I’m an ambassador and keeper of the game. If something doesn’t sit right with me, I’ll say something. I’ve done everything you can do. I’ve walked in those shoes.”
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.