Ron Rivera felt ready to be an NFL head coach. He had played nine seasons as a linebacker with the Bears before embarking on a 14-year journey to learn as much as possible as an assistant coach. He started on the ground floor as a quality control assistant in Chicago, then worked as a position coach (linebackers) with the Eagles before ascending to defensive coordinator of the Bears. From there, he spent one season as linebackers coach of the Chargers, who subsequently promoted him to defensive coordinator for three seasons.
His tutors during his 23 years in the league included a head coach (Mike Ditka) who won a Super Bowl, two others (Andy Reid and Lovie Smith) who took teams to Super Bowls and another (Norv Turner) who won a couple titles as a coordinator. Hence, Rivera thought he had a pretty good feel for the demands of the job when former Panthers owner Jerry Richardson hired him in 2011. However, he quickly realized it would be more challenging and complicated than he anticipated. Even things as seemingly simple as putting together a staff.
"You sit there and talk about all the guys that you've talked to who said, 'Oh, yeah, I'd love to come with you,' " Rivera said recently. "But they either want more money than you thought initially because now they know you really want them, or they've lined themselves up with somebody else and may have taken that job, and now you're out there thinking, I've got to find a guy."
49ers coach Kyle Shanahan has been around professional football throughout his life. His father, Mike, spent a season (and change) as head coach of the Raiders and another 14 as coach of the Broncos while Kyle was growing up. The youngster was a ballboy during high school and worked out with team members when returning home during college breaks. His time at the family dinner table offered a PhD course in football, where he would drill his dad about free agency and the draft, as well as the nuances of managing people.
After graduating from the University of Texas and spending a year as a grad assistant at UCLA, Kyle spent 13 seasons as an NFL assistant, first as a quality control coordinator, then a wideouts coach, then a quarterbacks coach, then an offensive coordinator for Houston, Washington, Cleveland and Atlanta. So as much as anyone could be, he felt prepared to be a head coach when San Francisco hired him. But, like everyone else, he discovered that there is a learning curve.
"I was surprised how hard the time management was at the beginning, in terms of ... I had a way of preparing to call a game for nine years, and during those nine years, my wife could call me on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and know exactly what I was doing at any time on those days," he said recently. "I become a head coach and tell myself I can't change my standard on how to get ready for a game, but then you realize as a head coach that, holy cow, there are a lot of people coming in here on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday that didn't use to come in here, and now I'm three hours behind and I'm stressed. So now I just handled that wrong and I'm not as good."
Seemingly every NFL coach has a story about things he had to learn on the job after becoming a head man. Their stories are particularly relevant this week, as six first-year NFL coaches can open offseason workouts as early as Monday. For Zac Taylor (Bengals), Vic Fangio (Broncos), Freddie Kitchens (Browns), Kliff Kingsbury (Cardinals), Brian Flores (Dolphins) and Matt LaFleur (Packers), there really is no way for them to know what they don't know. So we asked nine active coaches to provide insight on what they learned as rookie head coaches, as well as offer advice to the newest members of their fraternity.
Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers | Ninth year as an NFL head coach
"The hardest thing -- and the first thing that happens to you -- is you don't get to coach as much as you thought you would. You really don't. What happens is, you think I'm going to dive in and do all this stuff from a coaching standpoint, then all of a sudden the personnel aspect of it comes into play, and you start getting pulled over here or over there, and you're not getting an opportunity to go into that meeting room if you're going to handle the offense or defense and coach that aspect of it. I was fortunate that (defensive coordinator) Sean McDermott and I had worked together, so I had an idea of where we were going to go with everything with Sean. But (general manager) Marty Hurney and I had never worked together, and we had the first pick of the draft and we had dived into all the quarterbacks. When you talk about the list of QBs who were coming out that year, you had Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, Ryan Mallett and Andy Dalton, as well as Cam (Newton). We would start every day watching their throws. We watched every throw Cam made, every completion and incompletion. We watched every run -- every called run, every scramble -- for everybody. The thing you find out as a new coach is, whatever you determine you're going to do in the draft is going to take away so much time from the Xs and Os. What you're going to do in free agency is going to take away more time from the Xs and Os. You're not going to do what you think you're going to do (in terms of coaching).
"Then the other realization is, how are we going to handle things? How are we going to do the draft? How are we going to handle free agency? With our coaching staff, are we going to delegate this, delegate that? How are you going to handle things when there's a crisis? It was tough for me, because my first year, we were getting ready for the lockout. The first time I sat down with my whole team was the day we reported to training camp."
ADVICE: "Find a mentor. I didn't find my mentor until my third year. I didn't hire a former NFL head coach on my staff, and I didn't talk as much to Andy (Reid) or Coach Turner as I should have. The best thing that Mr. Richardson did for me was he put me in touch with John Madden going into my third season.
"Mr. Richardson said, 'I think you need a mentor and I would like you to call.' So I did. He did me a favor. John said, 'I know you were 3-13 in games decided by seven points or less. I want you to go back and look at those 13 you lost and think about what you could have done the last four minutes of those games. What could you have done differently?' I did that and I went out to see Coach. We start talking and I said, 'I have the homework assignment you gave me.' He looked at me and said, 'Those weren't for me; those were for you. What do you think?' I said, 'I might have done a couple of things differently, but for the most part, I went by the book.' He said, 'What book?' I said, 'Excuse me.' He said, 'Where's the rule book that says you should kick here or punt there or do this? Ron, you've played enough football that you should know the difference. Stop doing the safe thing and do the best thing.' He was great. That kind of led to the 'Riverboat Ron' thing."
Dan Quinn, Atlanta Falcons | Fifth year as an NFL head coach
"What didn't I know? A lot. You don't have much experience with the media as an assistant coach. You meet with them like one day a week as a coordinator (vs. nearly every day as a head coach). That's a big difference. You didn't have much experience with the salary cap; you didn't have much experience on the financial side. You just weren't as involved with those things as an assistant coach. That definitely took some learning to go through it. The football side of it came easy.
"For me, you have a blueprint of how it would look based on some of your experiences you've had with other people. I was fortunate that I was able to be around some really good guys. My first coaching job in the NFL was with Steve Mariucci. I saw him interact with people. I saw his enthusiasm for the job and ability to connect with players, the energy that he brought. When I went to Miami with Nick (Saban), I saw a guy with a really clear vision of how he wanted his football to look. It probably took me to get back with Pete Carroll in Seattle to find another guy different than Nick, but who was the same in that these principles have to come across. I knew a lot of people had said to me, 'Hey, Dan, be yourself.' That made a lot of sense. I'd been around some other people who felt they weren't authentic to their own personality. So for me, I wanted to make sure, if I had the chance, I was going to do it in my own fashion.
"The fun part is, (the new experiences) are kind of the cool challenges for all of us. We probably weren't ready for the jobs that we took at that time, the first time, but you figure: OK, I'm not going to make that mistake again. I tried not to repeat mistakes. The first draft; that was kind of a cool experience to go through that. The first practice; I've got to call everybody up here and have some words to say to them. The first preseason game and talking to the officials. Then going in and coaching games, that was fun. That whole first year was like firsts and learning. Mistakes that I made, I'm going to try like hell not to do that again."
ADVICE: "First, make sure they do it in their own style and fashion. Just because the place you had been did something one way, make sure it's in your own way. Second, trying to build that chemistry and connection with the entire organization is going to take time. It's players, coaches, front office, personnel. You're not going to be able to do this in one week. It's going to take time and consistency to get that done. Are you going to be the same guy when the team loses and wins and people are watching every time? You set the tone in the culture in the building, so they're going to follow that vibe. Pete Carroll always said, 'Assume the position.' That made a lot of sense to me. Don't defer to somebody else. This is your call. You make it. You've worked hard to put yourself in that space. If you were aggressive before, be aggressive."
Mike Vrabel, Tennessee Titans | Second year as an NFL head coach
"I don't think anybody is ever truly ready. We all make mistakes. You try not to make the same mistake twice, and try not to make too many of them, period. You want to get a feel for your players, but when you aren't able to be with them until April 15, it's hard to learn your team. It's hard to have a relationship with 90 guys and then cut the roster down eventually and have a relationship with 63 guys. That takes time."
ADVICE: "It's critical to hire a great staff of guys who are great teachers that can develop players and inspire them, that are good guys. We spend a lot of time together, and if you have guys who maybe have their own agenda or want to do things not the way that is best for the team, that really can hinder and break down and wear down a team from the inside out. Also, believe in what you're doing. Have something you believe in and do it your way. Commit to it. And then always make sure you do what's in the best interest of the team and the player."
Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers | 13th year as an NFL head coach
"There are a lot of forks in the road in this journey, particularly in the first 12 months. You don't have that perspective of what's really important and what's less important, and the better way to allocate your time because there are only so many hours in a day."
ADVICE: "Don't read too much into situations like this, settings such as this (i.e., the Annual League Meeting). It's an awesome opportunity to gather information and learn and visit with peers, but don't read too much into some of the interactions and things that transpire in a setting such as this. Focus on the things that matter this time of year, and that's the collection and development of talent."
Doug Marrone, Jacksonville Jaguars | Fifth year as an NFL head coach
"When I first became a head coach at Syracuse, I remember how you get the job and you're overwhelmed by the number of people calling looking for jobs. You want to do a good job of trying to get back to everyone and showing the type of respect, but you're not able to do that. It's just impossible. The next time I was a head coach, in Buffalo, I had things set up to deal with it when people called."
ADVICE: "You work so hard to make sure you're prepared and you're ready and you have a plan, whether it's the first 60 days or 90 days. But when you go in there, a lot of times, that plan has got to be very flexible. Things change on the run. You have to learn as you go because every day something different comes up. Each day is a learning experience."
Jon Gruden, Oakland Raiders | 13th year as an NFL head coach
"I feel like a first-year head coach every year I come to this league meeting because your team is always different, your staff is going to change and you have to adapt. I'm sure these (first-year) guys are going through a lot emotionally right now, but I couldn't pinpoint one thing."
ADVICE: "Just be yourself. Don't get too far away from what got you there. Some guys are great quarterback guys, but they get a head-coaching job and maybe they delegate the quarterbacks to somebody. If you're a great defensive coach, keep calling the defense. Don't get too far away from the things that got you there."
Kyle Shanahan, San Francisco 49ers | Third year as an NFL head coach
ADVICE: "You have to be yourself. That was the No. 1 advice I received when I got into coaching. You shoot people straight, and it's been great for me. As long as you work at what you're doing, and you know the answers to the test from an X-and-O standpoint, when a player asks a question and you can be honest with him, he respects you, whether it's what they want to hear or not. I'd say that has worked with me with 97 percent of the players I've coached."
Sean McVay, Los Angeles Rams | Third year as an NFL head coach
"The big thing is, now you have a better feel for the rhythm of the year, whether it's handling something like the combine or the offseason program scheduling, or your in-season rhythm. But more than that, what I do know is that these first couple of years re-emphasize that it's all about people and being surrounded with great people that you can lean on and delegate to and not feel like you have to do everything. That has been really helpful to me through my first two years. But the biggest thing is being comfortable with the rhythm of the year. That's different for each head coach, but there's a comfort in knowing what to expect -- while still knowing that you're inevitably going to have to adjust and adapt every single day."
ADVICE: "What I think was helpful for me was having a core foundation and a core belief that I can always use as a way of guiding my decision-making, whether it be with a player or handling different things behind the scene. And then it's leaning on the people that are the experts in their jobs and not feeling like you have to be the expert in every area -- use it as a chance to learn. I know this, going into Year 3, the appreciation I have for our medical, our equipment, all our different departments outside the framework of just the coaches and players -- I have a better feel for the things that dictate and determine what we feel like are up to our standards. When I first came into it, you don't know what you don't know, and it's the importance of, well, why is your training staff so important? Why is your medical staff so important? Specific to the interaction that you have and how those guys can help be a way of giving your team an edge."
Anthony Lynn, Los Angeles Chargers | Third year as an NFL head coach
"There's not a lot that I didn't know that I know now. You hear all the stories when you talk to enough coaches as you prepare for this job; it's just going through it (that makes it different). The four or five things that come across your desk every day, every single day, that you have to make decisions on that you didn't know about before you walked in the door that morning. It happens. It's real. Sometimes when I go home on the weekend, I don't even want to make a decision. I'm tired of making decisions. My wife loves that. But it's stuff like that -- the media responsibility, you being the face of a franchise. You hear about it, but when you go through it, you realize how much time you're spending on that, away from Xs and Os. You're used to being a football coach, and it takes you away from that. So you better trust your staff and be willing to delegate. That was an adjustment for me."
ADVICE: "What I tried to do right off the bat, which I felt was really important, was to create as much trust and accountability as possible with the coaching staff. We did it through some workshops and exercises. We'd do OTAs in the morning and take the afternoon to do workshops. I thought it helped me understand and learn my coaching staff a little better. We did evaluations on each person as far as personality, just to learn to communicate better and create more clarity. Because if we have it, it's easier to teach it to the players. The players see everything. If they see us interacting with one another in a certain way, then they interact with each other that way. I just believe when there's trust, it's easier to have healthy conflict with one another and get the best ideas. If you don't have that, you're not getting the best ideas."