Head coach wannabes need substance


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Jan 22, 2006
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Head coach wannabes need substance

By Dan Pompei - SportingNews

Wanted: head coach for NFL team. Experience not necessary.

Unbelievable? Well, seven of the 10 men hired to be coaches this offseason had no previous head coaching experience at any level. One of them, Detroit's Rod Marinelli, had never been a coordinator at any level. Another, Eric Mangini of the Jets, had been a coordinator for one year.

Traditionally, the head coaching pool includes coordinators who have been on Super Bowl teams. Men such as Gary Kubiak, who was hired by the Texans after 11 years as offensive coordinator of the Broncos, and Brad Childress, hired by the Vikings after four years as offensive coordinator of the Eagles. But there aren't enough candidates like Kubiak and Childress because the turnover rate is so high.

As coordinators, Mangini, the Saints' Sean Payton, the Packers' Mike McCarthy and the Rams' Scott Linehan have only four playoff victories among them. Does that make them bad hires? Not necessarily. Jon Gruden had only one playoff victory as a coordinator, and Jeff Fisher was 0-3 in the playoffs as a coordinator -- and they became two of the league's most successful and respected head coaches.

Having success as a coordinator isn't necessarily a precursor to having success as a head coach. A coordinator's perceived success often is a byproduct of issues out of his control -- including the players he has to work with, injuries, the influence of his head coach, the other side of the ball and the schedule.

The job of a coordinator really is not similar to the job of a head coach. "Being a coordinator helps, but there are still things you are going to have to learn about being a head coach -- the scheduling, dealing with the whole team, the media, the things that go with it, appearances, travel, salary cap issues, talking with your G.M. every day about long-term planning," Colts coach Tony Dungy says. "No coordinators are doing that. I know I'm way, way better now, way, way more prepared than I was six years ago and certainly than when I started as a head coach."

Of course, that's why a former head coach who is a proven winner often is the surest bet. He has a track record, whereas a coordinator or assistant is a projection as a head coach. But if a coordinator or assistant is the best option, the general manager or owner doing the hiring would be wise not to get hung up on victories or statistical rankings. Instead, he should seek the qualities that will serve a head coach well: people skills, communication ability, leadership, energy, integrity, salesmanship and strategic acumen.

Because coordinators are responsible for overseeing and leading units, they have an edge over lower-level assistants. "You are now responsible for a whole defense, the players, the coaches," Steelers coach Bill Cowher says about being a coordinator. "You give up 31 points, you walk in front of the defense and they're looking at you for the answers. You have to have answers, just like the head coach does on the Monday after a loss."

Broncos coach Mike Shanahan says he tries to prepare his coordinators and assistants to become head coaches by involving them in evaluations of free agents and potential draft picks. Coaches who have exposure to as many aspects of an organization as possible -- including all three phases of the game -- have a distinct advantage.

It also helps an assistant to be part of an organization with a proven blueprint. Shanahan says he learned much when he was offensive coordinator of the 49ers for three seasons after losing his first head coaching job in Oakland. "They had a philosophy on offense, defense, special teams, the way they dealt with free agency, the draft," Shanahan says. "To see how that organization was structured, how organized they were from top to bottom, I took a lot of things from that experience."

Even if a head coaching candidate has taken every possible step, he still will be surprised and overwhelmed by aspects of the job. Just listen to Cowher.

"You can't possibly prepare for the criticism, the silence in tough times," he says. "Everybody is just kind of listening to you. It gets lonely. I've always said you get in that chair, you find out no one is talking to you. The silence can be deafening. It really tests your commitment and ability to walk in that building after a loss because you set the path. Sometimes even within yourself you might have some doubt about if what you're doing is the right thing. But you have to have conviction, some kind of vision. And you have to see it through."

That's why the best candidates must have much going for them besides a highly ranked offense or defense.

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