Football For Dummies (2015)
The Part of Tens
The Ten Greatest Coaches in the History of the Game
In This Chapter
Getting to know coaches who helped make football what it is today
Appreciating coaches who devised the offenses that most teams now use
I don’t like choosing sides or picking favorites, so know that I went with my gut (and it isn’t that considerable, either) when picking the best football coaches of all time for this chapter. I’m not a big history buff, so I didn’t consider all the old-timers like Pop Warner and Curly Lambeau. And I skipped over some terrific former college coaches like Ohio State’s Woody Hayes, Nebraska’s Tom Osborne, Paul “Bear” Bryant (who actually walked on water in Alabama, I hear), and the University of Southern California’s Pete Carroll.
I spoke with many coaching friends to narrow my list to the following men. Most of them were innovators, and all of them were winners. Everyone speaks of playing hard, win or lose. But I know that a football coach is special when he molds 30 to 50 men into a championship team. All these men are champions. And many of these great coaches are connected to one another. For example, Don Shula worked under Paul Brown, and I know he credits Brown for how well-organized and prepared he was on game days.
I loved playing pro football, but I don’t know if I could have sat still in a Paul Brown classroom. This man turned football into a science class back in the late 1940s. He graded every player’s performance from game film and sent plays in from the bench. Players were turned off by his classroom approach. However, his revolutionary approach to practice sessions and his demands that players take notes and carry playbooks became commonplace and have remained so for decades, from high school ball to the NFL.
In 1956, Brown wired his quarterback’s helmet in order to transmit instructions. Nearly 60 years later, the NFL allows every team to do so (although those transmitters don’t always work).
The Cleveland Browns are the only team named after a head coach — which proves just how talented Paul Brown was. The Cincinnati Bengals’ Paul Brown Stadium is named after Brown as well. After winning a national championship at Ohio State and coaching Washington High School in Massillon, Ohio, to six consecutive state championships, Brown was paid the princely sum of $20,000 to coach and build a professional team, called the Cleveland Browns, in 1945. The Browns won four consecutive championships, but the team’s success (52-4-3 record) doomed the All-America Football Conference. But when the mighty NFL absorbed the Browns, the team didn’t play like second-rate performers. In their first game in the new league, the Browns defeated the NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles. They won three more championships over the next six seasons.
Brown eventually left Cleveland, retiring with a 115-49-5 NFL record. He returned to football in 1968 as the owner and coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, an expansion team. After only three years, the Bengals made the playoffs. Brown died in 1991, and his family continues to have a controlling interest in Cincinnati’s NFL franchise.
Although my Raiders beat his Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII, we also lost to Joe Gibbs’s team a couple of times during my career. I never thought that its personnel matched up with ours, but Gibbs always had his team ready to play and exploit our weaknesses. From top to bottom, the Redskins were as well coached as any group I ever faced. His teams always played hard; they were physical as well as daring, and they played together as a team.
Players say that Gibbs was strict but fair. The biggest testament to his abilities is that he won three Super Bowls — and that he won with three different quarterbacks. He didn’t need many stars or dominant players to win. He knew how to build on his players’ strengths and minimize their weaknesses. Not only was he great with quarterbacks, but he won with big backs (such as John Riggins) and small receivers. His teams were able to play power football (running the ball) one week, and then the next week, he’d open it up and beat you throwing the ball. One of his power football tactics was the three-tight-end offense. Not only did this offense help his team’s running game, but it also negated the strength of New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor.
Gibbs, who won 17 of 24 playoff games, was a tireless worker. I heard he slept in his office two or three nights a week and often worked 20-hour days. I know a lot of people see Joe as a serious guy, but he can also be pretty funny. And I thought he did a great job as an analyst on NBC’s pregame show.
George Halas is my first real old-timer. But I probably wouldn’t be writing this book or even have my job at FOX if it weren’t for George Halas, the father of pro football. When you think of Chicago, the city of broad shoulders, you immediately think of bigger-than-life men like Mayor Richard J. Daley, Al Capone, and “Papa Bear” Halas. I can’t think of another large American city that has a bigger connection with a football team than Chicago, and it’s all due to George Halas.
Legend has it that Halas was cheap with a buck and was a strict disciplinarian, but he was also a showman. In 1920, in the Hupmobile showroom of a Canton, Ohio, car dealer, Halas represented one of the NFL’s original teams, the Decatur (Illinois) Staleys. (Imagine playing for a team called the Staleys!) A year later, Coach Halas wised up and moved the team to Chicago. The next year, he changed the team’s name to the Bears.
Halas realized the pro game wouldn’t survive without stars, so he signed Illinois All-American Red Grange in 1925. At that time, Grange was the most exciting player in college football. The Bears went on a barnstorming tour and played in packed stadiums, showing thousands of fans how great the pro game was. Halas pioneered radio broadcasts of games, and he was also the first to use a public address system to describe to fans what was happening on the field: how many yards were gained, who made the tackle, and what the down and distance were.
Halas was associated with the Bears from the team’s inception until his death in 1983. He stepped away from coaching three times, and each time a rejuvenated Halas returned to lead Chicago to an NFL championship. He believed in hiring the best assistant coaches, and he didn’t mind sharing the credit. Clark Shaughnessy drastically altered the Bears’ offense in 1940, and the result was a 73-0 victory over Washington in the NFL title game. The lopsided victory provided national attention for the publicity-starved professional game. Until Don Shula broke his record, Halas was the number one coach with 324 pro football victories.
Jimmy Johnson, like Bill Walsh (whom I tell you about later in this chapter), is a super builder and talent evaluator who also happens to be a great football coach. Nothing ever slips by this man. In his first stint as head coach in the NFL, he totally rebuilt the Dallas Cowboys when that great franchise was on the decline back in 1989. He won two Super Bowls with young, drafted talent (free agency didn’t exist in the NFL when he started). Later his replacement, Barry Switzer, won another Super Bowl with players like Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin — players Jimmy Johnson drafted.
When he left Dallas, the Cowboys were the most talented team in the NFL. Their second-team players could have been starters on other teams — and eventually that’s what happened. When free agency began in 1993, Dallas wasn’t able to keep all its players, especially the talented reserves.
Jimmy struggled in his second NFL coaching gig with the Miami Dolphins because the NFL system had changed. He inherited someone else’s team, and it came furnished, but because of salary cap restrictions and players’ possessive contracts (see Chapter 17 for more details about the pro football draft), Johnson could replace only one or two players at a time. Building a franchise through the college draft takes a lot longer these days. Plus, Jimmy believes that you win with defense (so do I) and by running the football, but Miami’s best chance to win was with its quarterback, Dan Marino.
When pro football first started to become popular on television in the 1960s, Vince Lombardi was in the process of transforming tiny Green Bay, Wisconsin, into the biggest franchise in the NFL. The Packers were as popular as baseball’s Yankees; they were a national team. And Lombardi was the game’s most recognized coach. Like a story fresh off a movie lot, the Packers appealed to many blue-collar fans because they’re owned by the Wisconsin fans and not by some giant corporation.
Lombardi wasn’t an innovator; he honed and borrowed from other coaches’ methods. He learned the passing game from Sid Gillman while the two were assistant coaches at the U.S. Military Academy. He was a lineman in college, so he knew the blocking techniques as a player. While coaching at Army, the great coach Earl “Red” Blaik showed him what organization and execution mean to a team.
Lombardi was a man of basics, and the Green Bay power sweep was one of his productions. On the power sweep, the two offensive guards would run around the end to block, with a fullback leading the way for the halfback carrying the ball. The fans, the opposition, and everyone knew that the play was coming, but the Packers ran it with such precision that few teams were able to stop it consistently.
Over a seven-year period, the Packers won five championships, including the first two Super Bowls. The only championship game Lombardi lost was his first, 17-13 to the Philadelphia Eagles in 1960.
So much about being a football coach is teaching, and Lombardi was one of the best. “They call it coaching, but it is teaching,” Lombardi said of his craft. “You don’t just tell them it is so. You show them the reasons why it is so, and then you repeat and repeat it until they are convinced, until they know.” Lombardi, like George Halas, is one of the game’s legendary heroes, and the Super Bowl trophy honors his accomplishments. After trying his hand at management with the Packers, Lombardi returned to coaching with the Washington Redskins in 1969. He led them to their first winning season in 14 years only to die of cancer the following year at age 57. This great man went too soon.
For nearly 30 years, John Madden was a TV football analyst, but before he became a television star and commercial pitchman, he was one of the game’s best coaches. His enthusiasm and love of the game were obvious from the very beginning. A knee injury derailed his professional football career. However, he hung around the Philadelphia Eagles for most of the year anyway, learning as much as possible from Eagles quarterback Norm Van Brocklin, a future Hall of Famer.
Madden likes to come across as a lighthearted statesman for the game of football — he loves to garrulously describe the play of the oversized linemen and never seems to take the game too seriously — but he’s always been a clever, intuitive leader. Smart like a fox. When you have an opportunity to sit and talk to John, it’s like having an audience with the Dalai Lama; you sit, listen, and learn.
Like a lot of famous coaches, Madden began his coaching career at the very bottom, with a small junior college team in rural California. In a few years, Madden moved up to San Diego State, studying under Don Coryell, a great passing coach. “John never let his players give up, even if it was in practice,” Coryell remembers. “Our practices got heated because John didn’t even like to lose a scrimmage.” Eventually, Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis hired Madden as an assistant and two years later elevated him to head coach. Madden, only 32, became the youngest head coach in the American Football League.
If you ever watch NFL films on cable television, you may catch a glimpse of Madden during the Raiders’ great glory run of the 1970s. A big man, Madden was an emotional coach. He was constantly on the officials, bemoaning calls, waving his arms, and exhorting his players to work harder. Madden coached for only ten years, but he won 100 games faster than any other NFL coach at that time and led the Raiders over Minnesota to win Super Bowl XI. He walked away from the game on top, after the 1978 season, at the age of 42. Many coaches don’t even earn their first head-coaching position until they’re older than that!
Madden never had a strong urge to return to coaching. He became an icon in sports television, remaining in the game by working as a television analyst. And Madden NFL, the video game series officially sanctioned by the NFL, has carried his name since 1990.
Bill Parcells was a throwback coach in many ways. By that, I mean he could have coached in any era. His greatest strength was his talent to relate to his players and figure out the best approach to use their skills and turn them into a winning team. He knew how to push a player’s buttons, strike a nerve, and force him to dig deep for something extra — for whatever it takes to win. Parcells was a defensive coach, so his focus was on that side of the ball, supported by an offense that preferred to run first and pass second. If I were physically able, I’d love to turn back the clock and play for this man. He was a coach who appreciated toughness and personal sacrifice for the good of the team.
Parcells coached the New York Giants to Super Bowl victories in 1987 and 1991. He retired after the second Super Bowl, but returned in 1993 to coach the New England Patriots to the Super Bowl. The Patriots were 2-14 in 1992, but in Parcells’ first season, the Patriots won five games, and then an amazing 10 in 1994, which is when he won his third Coach of the Year honor. The 1996 team went 13-6, losing to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII.
A New Jersey guy, Parcells abruptly returned to New York City the next season to coach the New York Jets. And in typical Parcells fashion, he made an immediate impact. The Jets, who’d had eight straight non-winning seasons, finished 9-7 in his first season; the year before, they’d won just 1 of 16 games. Parcells is an expert at turning perennial losers into perennial winners. His first such accomplishment was with the New York Giants. After one bad season, Parcells enjoyed a remarkable run with the Giants, winning 10, 11, 17, 6, 10, 12, and 16 games (including playoffs) between 1984 and 1990 with teams led by linebacker Lawrence Taylor and quarterback Phil Simms. Parcells was named Coach of the Year in 1986 and 1989.
Parcells surprised the football world by taking the Patriots to Super Bowl XXXII, knowing that their only chance to win rested with quarterback Drew Bledsoe. Parcells, who would have preferred to control the clock with a running game, proved to everyone that he could win with an offense that went against his basic beliefs and background. However, his finest coaching job was in the Giants’ second Super Bowl run. His team was forced to play the end of the 1990 season without Simms, and they neutralized two great offensive teams, the San Francisco 49ers and the Buffalo Bills, with a stifling defense and a ball-control rushing attack. They beat the 49ers by two points and defeated the Bills 20-19 in Super Bowl XXV.
In 2003, Parcells headed south to coach the Dallas Cowboys, where he was modestly successful with a 34-30 record, making the playoffs twice in four years before he retired at the end of the 2006 season. Parcells is the ninth-winningest coach in the NFL, with an overall record of 183-138-1 (a 0.570 winning percentage). He returned to the NFL to become the Executive Vice President of Football Operations for the Miami Dolphins from 2008 to 2010. He was inducted into the Football Hall of Fame in 2013.
I’m sure many non-football fans have heard of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame is synonymous with college football. And Knute (pronounced Newt) Rockne was college football’s greatest coach. And what a great name! The sound perfectly suits the image of football: You have to be rock hard and tough to play this game.
“The Rock,” as Rockne was affectionately called, guided Notre Dame to six national championships and had a 0.881 winning percentage — the all-time best winning percentage, college or pro. He won 105 games and lost only 12, with 5 ties. In Knute Rockne — All American, a great old movie, actor Pat O’Brien immortalizes Rockne’s famous “Win one for the Gipper” speech. (Former President Ronald Reagan, who was a Hollywood star before going into politics, plays the ill-fated George Gipp.)
Rockne was a master of the fiery pep talk, a type of speech that even Little League coaches give now and then. When his team was playing badly, he would sarcastically refer to his macho players as girls, which is the last thing tough guys want to hear. But after the game was over and his verbal berating finished, Rockne loved his young players like a father. The players knew Rockne’s rough words weren’t personal — even though he scared them at times by saying he might die if they didn’t win.
Rockne was an inspirational speaker and traveled the country sharing his thoughts and opinions of life and football. He sold football across the land and made many Americans stand up and take notice of the sport.
Rockne was also influential on the field. In 1913, playing end for Notre Dame, he teamed with quarterback Gus Dorais to develop the use of the forward pass in a game against West Point. He was also the first to use shock troops, or second-team performers, to wear down the opposition’s first string. He believed in playing the best teams every week, which is how Notre Dame became a national team.
I don’t know if Don Shula is the best coach who ever walked a sideline, but he certainly is the most successful. After the 1995 season, Shula retired after 33 years of coaching in the NFL with more wins (347, including the postseason) than anybody. He also possesses the league’s only perfect season: 17-0 in 1972, a season the Miami Dolphins capped off by winning Super Bowl VII. He was the first head coach to cost his owner a first-round draft choice, the price Miami had to pay Baltimore for hiring him away from that team in 1970. The beauty of Shula, NFL executive George Young said, is that “he was best at playing the cards he was dealt.” Shula built his offensive and defensive systems around his players, not the other way around, which is more common in the coaching fraternity.
“We take a lot of pride in that,” Shula said of his adaptability. “My philosophy was to get the most out of the talent you have, then design your system to best take advantage of that talent. I’d rather not tell a player, ‘Hey, this is my system’ and demand they either do it this way, or I’ll find someone else.”
Shula had tremendous success with three different styles of offenses: He played power football with Larry Csonka in the early 1970s, a more balanced scheme with the Colts back in the 1960s, and at the end of his career he pretty much turned the offense over to Dan Marino’s big arm and allowed him to throw as much as he wanted. Players win championships, and Shula was fortunate to have quarterbacks such as Johnny Unitas, Earl Morrall, Bob Griese, and Marino, all Hall of Famers, guiding his teams.
Shula has always been respected by his peers and upper management. He was always at the forefront of advocating better rules, and he supported the instant replay system for rectifying an improperly made call on the field.
They don’t call Bill Walsh “The Genius” for nothing. He built the San Francisco 49ers out of the ashes (they were a 2-14 team when he took over) and transformed them into the dominant franchise of the 1980s. To this day, his imprint on the game remains visible. For example, Walsh created the West Coast offense, and now many NFL teams use a version of it (see Chapter 8 for more on this offense).
In Walsh’s third season, the 49ers won their first of his three Super Bowls. His first offensive team had an incredible lack of talent, but he designed a system that truly worked for them. The 49ers, unlike the Raiders, worked on throwing short, possession-type passes. To them, a 5-yard gain was a 5-yard gain, whether it was a pass or a run play. Walsh didn’t care; he simply wanted to maintain possession and keep the ball moving.
In the process of devising this offensive system, Walsh developed one of the game’s best quarterbacks, Joe Montana. Now, Montana didn’t have the greatest arm, nor was he the biggest guy. But he was one of the toughest and definitely one of the greatest quarterbacks under pressure. In fact, Montana may be the best decision maker pro football has ever seen. Walsh deserves a lot of credit for Montana and for designing a passing offense that was an extension of the running game.
Although Walsh was a huge factor in developing quarterbacks like Dan Fouts, Montana, and Steve Young, he’s also a great judge of talent at other positions. His drafts built the 49ers into champions, and I know he had to watch only five plays by Charles Haley in college to know that Haley would be a great pass-rusher in the NFL. Jerry Rice, probably the best receiver who has ever played, was another Walsh selection.
Even though many players benefited from his offensive system, Walsh was often quick to release or trade veteran players that he thought were expendable or were running out of time. This policy caused some animosity in the locker room, but Walsh believed teams needed a constant infusion of young talent. He always seemed to be ahead of the curve, allowing an experienced veteran to depart while grooming a faster, quicker rookie for the role. Walsh was criticized for being cold and calculating, but I know he had a soft spot for many of his players and simply was dealing with the extremely high expectations of pro football owners.
Walsh is another coach connected to Paul Brown’s tree. He coached under Brown in Cincinnati, but when he wasn’t named Brown’s successor, Walsh moved on, thus becoming available to the 49ers.