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Offseason | 2021

Spagnola: Head Coach Hiring No Exact Science

Jan. 8, 2020
Jan. 8, 2020

FRISCO, Texas – Evidently, and to paraphrase Bill Parcells about finding quarterbacks or offensive tackles, same applies to hiring NFL head coaches:

You just can't go down to Texaco and pick one up.

Pity the NFL owner. They either have no clue when it comes to hiring a head coach, or these successful head coaches just don't grow on trees. Maybe both.

Like, what other profession out there can succeed by swinging and missing on so many critical hires year after year after year as regularly takes place in the NFL.

Well, while driving into The Star this morning pondering my own question, one immediately occurred to me. The newspaper business hiring sports editors, from personal history. Why, from 1975 through 1991, I worked for four daily newspapers after finishing college. During that time, 17 years of my career, went through 11 sports editors for one reason or another, and unfortunately the few good ones always kept moving on up the food chain and out.

Like today, have you been surveying the NFL head coaching landscape over the past couple of weeks? Bet leftovers in the fridge have a longer life span than some of these NFL head coaches.

Seven NFL teams have been searching for a new head coach over the past couple of weeks. That's just this year. But look at recent history.

There were five new head coaches in the NFL last year, one of those Mike McCarthy with the Cowboys, and two of the others in the NFC East. As if three newbies in the East wasn't example enough of how difficult the job of hiring new head coaches has become, now all four division members will have hired a new head coach within a two-year span, Philly ousting Doug Pederson this week. Yep, the same guy gaining genius status in 2017 by winning a Super Bowl.

This has become a league-wide trend.

There were eight new NFL head coaches in 2019, meaning we're going on 20 head coaching changes league wide in just three years. And oh, and if we go back to 2018, add another seven.

That makes 27 coaching changes in a four-year span.

Friends, there are just 32 teams in the NFL. And if you figure only 10 teams still have the same head coach from as way, way back as 2017, some of these teams have made multiple changes in just a four-year span.

Geesh, these guys go through head coaches faster than Whataburger does potatoes.

Think about it. Bill Belichick is a dinosaur, hired by the Patriots in 2000, now starting his 22nd season in New England. Sean Peyton is close, hired away from the Cowboys in 2006 by the Saints. As is Mike Tomlin, becoming the Steelers head coach in 2007. And so is John Harbaugh, landing with the Ravens in 2008.

After that, you have to move into the past decade for the rest of those veritable old fogies, Pete Carroll coming aboard with Seattle in 2010, Kansas City's Andy Reid in 2013, Minnesota's Mike Zimmer in 2014, and in 2017 Sean McVay with the Rams, Kyle Shanahan with the Niners and Sean McDermott with the Bills.

That's it, for in 2021 none of the other 22 head coaches will be starting anything more than their fourth season, and the four-yearers only include Jon Gruden, Matt Nagy, Frank Reich, Matt Vrabel and Vic Fangio.

All further reinforcing that the NFL truly does mean _Not For Long_.

Silly me, aghast and somewhat skeptical of the Eagles' intentions, suddenly requesting interview permission with Cowboys recently re-signed offensive coordinator Kellen Moore for their vacant head coaching position. Like a guy with just three years of coaching experience, the first as Cowboys quarterbacks coach and the last two coordinating the offense. But head coach at 32? Talk about a potential meteoric rise.

Look, Kellen has head coaching in his DNA for sure. His father, Tom Moore, has been a successful head football coach at Prosser (Wash.) High School, winning 21 league titles during his 23-year coaching career (1986-2008) there.

And then this little known fact, his grandfather, Thomas "Bert" Moore, was a highly successful state of Illinois high school basketball coach in the 1950s, at of all places, and unbeknownst to me until Kellen arrived in Dallas, at my high school, Bloom Township in Chicago Heights, Ill.

Just not sure Kellen wants to enter into that Philadelphia hornet nest with that mess of a quarterback situation and that incorrigible fan base. Plus, he needs to make sure Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie's interest is not some counterespionage, wanting to interrogate his brain about the Cowboys.

But again, why should this surprise me? I mean, the Eagles have either interviewed, planned to interview or requested interviews with six different candidates so far, and one of those is former New England linebacker Jerod Mayo, who has been a Patriots assistant all of two years after his eight-year playing career. And then there was Tennessee offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, too, who just signed on as Atlanta's new head coach with two years of offensive coordinator experience.

Like, who are these guys? Even the Texans having either interviewed, planning to interview or requesting an interview with eight different candidates, including the likes of Rams assistant head coach/receivers coach David Culley, their own offensive coordinator Tim Kelly and Rams first-year defensive coordinator Brandon Staley.

Maybe Wade Phillips was right when previously remarking his son, Wes Phillips, "knows Sean McVay," Wade's dry sense of humor insinuating teams were trying to hire anyone associated with McVay as their head coach.

Look, according to a few reported interview lists, the Jets had gone through a list of 10 candidates before settling on Niners defensive coordinator Robert Saleh as their seventh head coach since 2000 and third since 2015. Jacksonville just convinced Urban Meyer to become its fifth head coach since 2011 after sifting through four candidates. And now the Falcons went through seven.

By one reported account, 24 candidates have totaled 40 interviews – including those requested or planned – for the seven openings to start this offseason, and very few of those candidates with previous NFL head coaching experience. (See Marvin Lewis, Todd Bowles, Jason Garrett, Jim Caldwell and Raheem Morris.)

That just tells me these owners are firing head coaches without any clue who their next hire is going to be, just a little more organized maybe than relying on potluck. At least with Jerry Jones' head coach hiring practices, he knew who his next head coach was going to be six of the eight times, only scouring the field for Chan Gailey and Wade Phillips.

And the NFL's biggest dilemma is, if you're not hiring a previous NFL head coach as the Cowboys did with McCarthy, chances are you're hiring a first-time head coach period. Because it has become a rarity these days for a successful college head coach to make the jump to NFL head coach. Yeah, I know, Arizona's Kliff Kingsbury, but a more noted college head coach at Tech than wildly successful.

But ask Nick Saban how much he liked the NFL. Same with Lou Holtz with the Jets. Or the likes of Dennis Erickson, Butch Davis, Bobby Petrino and John McKay.

That's because a highly successful college head coach now is about making the same salary as an NFL head coach. Plus, those long-time college head coaches at a state institution value those lucrative state pension plans. Why make the jump after creating all that security where you are in college?

Also remember, there have been only three college head coaches to win a national championship that went on to win a Super Bowl as an NFL head coach, two of those right here with the Cowboys – Jimmy Johnson (U of Miami to Dallas) and Barry Switzer (Oklahoma to his couch then Dallas). Carroll has been the other, with Southern Cal and Seattle, though highly unsuccessful in his first soiree as an NFL head coach with the Jets before retreating back into college.

So now NFL assistant coaches almost exclusively must become highly successful coordinators to be considered for an NFL head coaching job, and why the likes of Saleh and Smith are becoming head coaches. Why such coordinators as Moore, Kelly, Staley, Eric Bieniemy, Joe Brady, Nathaniel Hackett, Brian Daboll and former Cowboys assistant Matt Eberflus, the Colts defensive coordinator, are being interviewed for head coaching jobs.

Problem is, being a coordinator is one thing. Standing up in front of the entire room, becoming the face of a franchise and dealing with the inquiring media on a daily basis is entirely another. That head coach needs to have a magnetic personality, with a cross between high football IQ and CEO leadership skills. Oh, and interviewing skills, too.

Maybe why former Cowboys tight end Dan Campbell, never a coordinator but once an interim head coach with the Dolphins and currently only New Orleans' assistant head coach/tight ends coach, is a leading candidate for the Lions head coaching position with no coordinator experience.

There is no sure-thing head coach mold. That's why the vetting process is so difficult. That is why there are so many swings and misses with hires. Not to mention ownership impatience.

If only Texaco had 'em in stock.

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