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The dos and don'ts of hiring a head coach in the NFL

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  • By Mike Nolan
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Head coach is one of the most important and unique positions in a franchise, and not everyone is cut out for the job. Thus, it is surprising and disappointing how, each year, every team in search of a new head coach seems to have the same list of potential candidates. This shows very little imagination when it comes to the selection process -- and I believe it's because few know what it takes to do the job. How many in the interview process have ever worn the head coach's hat?

The biggest mistake is unavoidable for some owners. Often times, owners don't know who to listen to, because most of the people in their ears aren't football people, but outside sources with their own agendas. Based on 29 years as an NFL assistant and head coach (and a lifetime as the son of an NFL head coach), I've compiled some of the more critical factors for success, things I observed after having been directly involved in the process. As the Rams, Chargers and 49ers continue working to fill the position for 2017, what should teams look for? There are several characteristics that I believe are essential to success, but for the sake of keeping it short and sweet, I share with you three "dos" and three "don'ts" of the hiring process:

DO ...

... find someone who can assemble (and trust) a stellar staff. The single most important attribute of a head-coaching candidate is his ability to surround himself with experienced, intelligent and high-energy coaches, specifically coordinators. He must also have the self-confidence to allow them to do their jobs. Experience enables a coach to know his own strengths and weaknesses and thus complement himself with each hire. The best-case scenario for a less-experienced coach to be successful is to join a team that already has structure and a solid chain of command in place. Example: Mike Tomlin was hired by the Pittsburgh Steelers when he was 34 years old with limited coordinating experience, but it was a fit. Pittsburgh has a strict chain of command, and everyone knows their jobs within the organization, which the Steelers' success has reinforced for decades. When Tomlin was hired, the decision to bring in a young motivator fit the bill, given that Pittsburgh also had veteran coaches (defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and Bruce Arians, who was promoted to offensive coordinator) in place. Denver might be in a similar situation following the departure of Gary Kubiak.

... find someone who can work with the personnel man -- or stay the hell out of his way. A good example of this is the Seahawks' combination of general manager John Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll. These two have a working relationship that enables them to each do the job effectively. I believe they are both in agreement as to what the Seahawk model looks like when it comes to players, as evidenced by the utilization of their players on both sides of the ball. This does not happen overnight, and -- like any good marriage -- requires constant work.

... know what you mean when you say you want a "leader." People like to talk about leadership because it sounds good, but few seem to know what leadership looks like. We're not just seeking someone who can do a great General Patton impression. More important than talking a good game is having the credibility to convince players you can take them to the promised land. Players want to win more than anything else, and when they look up at the front of the room, they want to see someone who's won before and can deliver the goods again. This can be hard for a less experienced coach to do -- you don't want the players wondering why they should follow someone who is barely older than they are. It's also important for the coach to stay true to what he says. Anyone can promise to be tough, but following through on that promise is what really matters. A good coach doesn't put up with any crap -- but he also doesn't cross the line into acting like a jerk. This is where, basically, having good parental skills comes in. And it's important to be able to carry yourself the same way with the fans and the media, because frankly, they're looking for the same thing: a credible person who can command the room and stick to what he says.

DON'T ...

... hire the hot candidate just because he is sexy and fans will approve. Every year, we all start here. There have been countless candidates whose names have become hot for one reason or another. Being hot is not the crime -- the mistake is in declaring a coach ready and capable because he is hot. In addition to picking the hot candidates, teams often will hire the one-year wonders, coordinators who prematurely land on the fast track to a head job because of one good campaign. Respect lies in a coach's body of work. A head coach's responsibilities are much different from a coordinator's. To put it simply, the coordinator goes from big brother to dad, taking on more crucial relationships with the front office, setting the tone for leadership within the organization, managing disciplinary actions, assuming hiring and firing duties, and so on. Some people can handle the added responsibility and some cannot.

... become enamored with (and hire) a coordinator from a top franchise with the thought that you will get the same results. Remember, the players do not come with the coach. It's difficult for a coach to replicate what he was part of in a previous job. Often, winning teams portray the image that everything they do is correct and part of the winning process. This is never the case. I have experience being a part of highly successful franchises, and I can assure you that not everything we did was part of winning. For these franchises, it was often the product (a combination of players and coaches) on the field that overcame inner deficiencies.

... allow the media or any other outside entities to drive your search. This isn't a popularity contest. It's more important to hone in on some outside-the-box thinkers and coaches who will best fit the program. Looking back, there are several examples of teams and GMs that hit home runs by choosing to think outside the box. In 2006, Packers GM Ted Thompson hired Mike McCarthy, who had been the offensive coordinator of a 4-12 49ers team ranked dead last in total offense, and who had never held a head-coaching position. Since then, McCarthy won a Super Bowl and has made the playoffs in nine of his 11 years. Before nabbing the Eagles' top job in 1999, Andy Reid (who is now coaching the Chiefs) had been off everyone's radar as an assistant coach in Green Bay. Current Cardinals coach Bruce Arians was overlooked because he was too old or too headstrong for many GMs; thank goodness for Arizona GM Steve Keim, who had the self-confidence and fortitude to block out the noise. Another example was when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired Tony Dungy in 1996. Dungy's Vikings defense had ranked 20th overall and 27th in points allowed in his final season as Minnesota's coordinator. But the Buccaneers saw past the statistics and hired the man and coach they felt fit their need, and Dungy helped Tampa Bay to the playoffs four times in his six years.

Let's make this clear: I'm not saying teams shouldn't hire a head coach who is "hot," inexperienced or from a top franchise. What I am saying is, have a mind of your own and know what it takes to do the job before you start investigating candidates. Otherwise, you will do nothing more than gather information and very likely go through this process again in a year or two or three. Hopefully, your team is one that knows what an effective head coach looks like.

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