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Head coaches are not coordinators

What does it mean to be a head coach? We consulted the thoughts of eight experts who know something about the job to find out.

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Cleveland Browns v Detroit Lions Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

The record is just the beginning

Now that the Lions have officially parted ways with head coach Jim Caldwell, the focus of the organization turns to selecting a new head coach. So far, the team has announced seven candidates, many of whom appeared on the radar early as strong possibilities for the job:

To some fans, replacing the head coach is overdue, but Pride of Detroit’s Ryan Mathews laid out an analysis of why firing the head coach mid-season was usually a bad move in the middle of 2016’s annual October cry for a replacement. In the 2017 iteration, our Mike Payton wrote about the stability and progress that Jim Caldwell specifically had brought to the Lions during his tenure as head coach.

A succint summary of the stability argument was provided by Dan Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Ira Miller back in 2004 when talking about extending Bill Cowher’s tenure (hat tip to Fronteira and Leidl, p. 162):

Some of what the Steelers do is puzzling, such as giving Cowher a two-year contract extension this year when he had two years remaining on his old deal and had missed the playoffs in four of the last six seasons, but it's understandable in the context of how they operate.

"We felt it was important ... to show the public and everybody else that we feel we have a very quality coach who we're pleased with," Dan Rooney said.

In Pittsburgh, change does not come fast.

"Making changes doesn't help you," Rooney said on the telephone from his office. "All it does is put you back two years. Our belief is, if you're going to change every three years, you're never going to get there." Making a change at the top is a big move that is not (and should not) be taken lightly by any team.

While the lack of playoff success by Caldwell-led teams was disappointing, it is useful to think about what was good about having Papa Jim as the head coach for four seasons. Remember the reputation of the franchise prior to 2014, and the records of his predecessors. For more than a decade the Lions were not just a poor football team, but a total mess and lacked any indication of moving up to a level of respectability. Whatever anyone thinks of the Lions now, they are not that anymore. Owner Martha Ford probably said it best (emphasis added):

“On behalf of my family and the Lions organization I would like to thank Jim Caldwell for his exemplary leadership and service to our team and our community over the past four years.

“I believe Jim is one of the finest leaders we’ve ever had as our head coach. Not only did he guide us on the field to three winning seasons, but he also set a standard of excellence off the field that had a tremendous impact on everyone in our organization and our entire community.

“As many of our players have already said, his influence on them transcended the game of football and will positively serve them throughout their lives.

Our organization is better because of Jim, and we are forever grateful. We wish Jim, his wife Cheryl and the entire Caldwell family all the best that life can offer.”

The focus of Caldwell himself on what he was most proud of as head coach of the Lions were the same things (emphasis added): “I am blessed to have had successful years as a member of the Lions’ organization, and I would be remiss if I did not recognize the great effort put forth by our players and coaching staff who poured their hearts out in an effort to maintain the standard of excellence this organization has grown to expect.“ If we want to be honest as Lions fans, there was a massive hole to dig out of, and Papa Jim got us a good part of the way—even if it was not the whole way.

What should the Lions be looking for in their next head coach? How does the team get the rest of the way to the top? What this boils down to is figuring out what a head coach actually does. Since none of us at Pride of Detroit have ever been NFL head coaches, we decided to find out what a few experts thought about the job duties such a position entails:

Some light reading

What makes head coaches different

When Sean Payton was with the New York Giants in 2003, an inquiry arrived from the Dallas Cowboys as to interview the young offensive coordinator. Parcells and Demasio relate general manager Ernie Accorsi’s advice to Payton this way (p. 348):

“I am worried because we have to compete against Dallas, and you’re a good coach. But I’ll tell you this: If Parcells takes that job and hires you, that’s going to be your master’s degree. That education is going to help make you a tremendous head coach. You’ll get lessons in everything from toughness to leadership.”

When Payton got the call to become head coach of the Saints after serving on Parcells’ staff in Dallas, he was ready (p. 401):

Three seasons with Parcells had given the offensive-minded assistant unique preparation for becoming a head coach. While transforming from a football geek into a confrontational coach, Payton had substantially expanded his knowledge of such critical areas as personnel evaluation. Parcells had also taught him the best way to structure a staff, and how to organize an off-season program.

Obviously, a head coach is still a football coach, and must be credible in his or her knowledge of the game. But what repeatedly comes through from the stories of every legendary NFL head coach is a range of responsibilities that are qualitatively different from the duties of anyone else at any other level of the staff. In many ways, head coaches in different sports are probably more similar to head football coaches than offensive, defensive, or special teams coordinators.

Describing the ideal qualifications for coaches, Marv Levy identified three criteria, to which I would add the fourth quality of order and structure that Sean Payton learned from Bill Parcells. Here is Levy (p. 367):

First was his work ethic. I wasn’t interested in men who were willing to work hard; we wanted guys who wanted to work hard, who had a love of the game and a love of their jobs. Secondly, they had to be excellent teachers. They had to be able to convey that knowledge to our players in a manner that resulted in those players applying it with confidence and with effect. Finally, they had to be able to work well with others on the coaching staff and within the whole organization. Those autocratic types who went strutting around as if they knew it all were destroyers of unity and morale.

What does this translate to for head coaches?

  1. Exemplar: As the most visible leader on the team, the head coach sets the tone and vision for the organization. The coach’s conduct and decisions establish the identity of the team, setting goals and examples for players and staff to follow. Just as the team must believe in the coaching staff’s football knowledge of how to do what is being asked, they must also believe that what is being asked is the right thing to be striving for.
  2. Teacher: The head coach must establish credibility with the staff and players in both knowing the skills, techniques, and strategies of football across as wide a range as possible, and be able to communicate that knowledge effectively. While specific coaches have primary responsibility in their assigned fields, the head coach must be able to understand and work with those coaches to develop approved training plans.
  3. Collaborator: A major aspect of head coaching is understanding how to deal with the individuals that make up the team. In driving players and coaches to achieve team goals, the head coach must apply proper motivation and guidance to get the best performance from all people in the organization. They must select and cultivate a staff that works well together toward the same ends as established in the team’s vision.
  4. Administrator: The head coach is a sort of chief executive of on-the-field football operations, setting the schedule and structure of the team. Oversight of how practices and game preparation are carried out, dealing with the media, and enforcing the standards to which all such operations are held are responsibilities of the head coach.

Although Tom Landry was proud of being innovative (Landry, p. 280) with the 4-3 defense and Dallas’ multiple offense, notice the list does not specifically talk about needing a miracle system, whether offensive or defensive. Parcells and Demasio go back to when general manager George Young of the New York Giants first hired Bill Parcells to replace Ray Perkins as head coach (p. 96):

“I’m not looking for a genius coach,” Young told reporters. “I’m not saying that Bill isn’t one. What i’m saying is that we are not in the genius business. If you’re asking for a messiah in this business, forget it. That happened a long time ago.”

Obtaining buy-in

No matter how skilled or experienced a coach may be, or how wonderful a system they may have designed, none of that matters if the players and staff refuse to accept the direction provided by the head coach. It is not enough to know what is right: an effective coach can get others following them to agree that what the coach knows is right. Sometimes people start to believe because they see results, or as Bill Parcells used to say: You are what your record says you are. But there are other ways a coach can inspire belief in his team; cerebral Chuck Noll sold his emphasis on fundamentals, preparation, and intolerance of mistakes (MacCambridge, p. 205)

When Jimmy Johnson took over the Miami Dolphins, he made a ton of changes in the way they practiced and in the general philosophy of the team. Instead of a finesse team that put the game on Dan Marino’s arm all the time, they would out-condition the opponent and run the ball to wear them down. Like Noll’s Steelers teams (and Shula’s earlier dominant Colts and Dolphins teams), Johnson’s teams went full contact all the time in practices. The results validate the changes and inspire confidence (Hubbard, p.124):

“What was important was not only that we won the first game, but how we won,” Jimmy said. “We played defense with people everybody said would be run over ragged. Everybody looked at the names on the defensive team and said ‘This defense won’t stop anybody.’ But we played outstanding defense. We did it with a couple of rookies rushing the football and a rookie back getting 115 yards when everybody said they couldn’t run. That will pay dividends down the road.”

That victory, over Bill Parcells’ New England Patriots, had a profound effect on the players (p. 125):

“Here’s a guy saying, ‘This is how it should happen,’” defensive end Aaron Jones said. “Then everything he says comes true, and you build confidence because the coach knows what he’s talking about. And you build confidence in yourself because you know when he tells you something about yourself, he’s not shooting you a bunch of bull. It really builds confidence amongst everybody.”

“Players win, coaches teach them. I teach.”

As a player, Tom Landry knew he was not the most gifted athlete, but he could make up for some of that with knowledge and preparation. Reminiscing about the habits he developed running the New York Giants’ defense from his defensive back position, the old coach emphasized how being the smartest guy in the room was not nearly as important as being able to use that to help others (p. 280):

“All the hours of study that required gave me an understanding of other teams’ offenses, a knowledge that made me a more effective player, but in the process, prepared and qualified me to lead the Giants’ defense. The ability to convey my knowledge to my teammates earned me the respect required to lead them effectively.

A leader doesn’t have to be the smartest member of a group, but he does need to demonstrate a mastery of his field. Master means more than just knowing information and facts; it requires an understanding of the information and the ability to apply that information. When I could tell my Giants’ teammates how I knew ahead of time what the opposing offense would do on a given play, that knowledge gave me the authority I needed to establish my leadership.”

Paul Zimmerman wrote an outstanding two-part profile of Chuck Noll for Sports Illustrated in 1980 in which the Steelers legend insisted on the primacy of teaching in coaching:

Noll the teacher has tended to over-shadow Noll the innovator, mainly because Noll himself tends to downplay innovation. “If I had to choose between a coach who’s a strategy guy and one who’s a teacher, it’d be no contest.” Noll says. “I’d take the teacher every time.”

Teaching a rookie defensive back named Tony Dungy how to play punt coverage and punt defense, Noll gave the young player what seemed at face value to be conflicting information: if you do it this way on punt coverage as a gunner, there’s no way you can be stopped. Then if you do it this way as an anti-gunner, there’s no way you can be beaten. So which was it? Dungy told MacCambridge this episode revealed the true brilliance of Noll as a coach (p. 246):

“But, Coach,” said Dungy, “you just told me yesterday there is no way this guy can get down there. Now you’re telling me there is no way these two guys can block him. . . “You know what it is? Chuck said. “It is who is going the hardest, and what state of mind they are in. That is going to determine who gets the job done. The whole game is a state of mind.”

It was in that moment, in which Chuck brought together technique, strategy, philosophy, and the added ingredient of will, that Dungy fully bought in. After the practice, spotting Dungy in the locker room, Chuck came over and added, “Tony — if it was easy, there would be 80,000 people doing it, and 47 people watching. There are no easy jobs down here. It is hard. It is a state of mind, and who has the toughest mentality.”

Dungy, jug-eared, wide-eyed, sat at his locker, transformed. “He made you think, ‘Yeah, this might be an impossible task, but if I do it the way he says to do it, I can do it.’ That is what his genius was, to me.”

Years later, after coaching under Noll and then winning a Super Bowl of his own as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, Dungy reflected on how much he learned from the master teacher: “95 percent of what I learned about coaching, I learned from Chuck.” (p. 363)

Getting the best out of your people

We do not need to see assistant coaches throwing punches at each other on the sidelines to know that collegiality and harmony among the staff and players is critical to success. After all, how can a team defeat an opponent if they are fighting among themselves? Bill Walsh wrote that “the chemistry of the staff is vital. Everyone has his own distinct personality, so you must bring together a group of men who will not only work smoothly with the head coach but also with other coaches and the players.” (p. 101-102).

Jimmy Johnson experienced the horrors of a hostile staff when he took over for Howard Schnellenberger at the University of Miami. His first year was miserable in spite of having very skilled coaches and a talented squad because the organization was not united in purpose. Once he replaced coaches who did not want to work with him, Miami became an unstoppable force in college football for the rest of Johnson’s years there. The Hair believed that motivating everyone to work together to be the best they can be was the main role of the head coach. When selecting assistant coaches, Johnson stated “Xs and Os are not as important to me as chemistry among the staff.” (p. 199-200) He goes on to explain in detail (p. 216, 219):

There’s a helluva lot of difference in knowing Xs and Os and being a head coach, or being the CEO, or the leader, or the president, or the manager. There’s a helluva lot of difference in knowing the technical part and knowing the organization. Running an organization is more a matter of knowing people than knowing the mechanics of how the game is played or how the product is manufactured. If you can’t get the best out of the people in your organization, it doesn’t really make any difference what you know.

A lot of times I say, “To hell with the Xs and Os — if everyone in our organization is performing at maximum level, we’ll win.”

This is a constant across the entire spectrum, from the firebrands like Don Shula and Bill Parcells, to the reserved like Chuck Noll and Tom Landry. Understanding how to motivate people to take the skills and talent they have to reach their goals is what it is all about. Or, as Landry put it, “to get men to do what they don’t want to do in order to achieve what they want to achieve. That’s what coaching is all about. That’s the challenge I will miss.” (p. 278)

Responsibility for everything

The wide range of things that a head coach must deal with is dizzying: media relations, equipment and facilities, practice scheduling, offseason workouts, public appearances, travel and accommodations. There are stories about managing the training staff, nutrition and the training table, secretaries and clerical support, and on, and on.

Hold on, travel and accommodations? Yes! Jimmy Johnson had a lot of experience with the media circus surrounding championship games from his days at Miami, but to truly understand Super Bowl preparations, he called around to veteran NFL coaches who had gone through it before. Of particular value was advice from Bill Parcells (Johnson, p. 247):

But Parcells also talked about one very important area, which was different from the way we’d done it in college. He said, “The biggest thing you need to do is have a meeting right away with the players about their tickets, their merchandise endorsements that sometimes hound you during the Super Bowl, and their family arrangements for going to the game. That will be the biggest headache of all: worrying about their families and friends getting hotel rooms, getting [side] event tickets, getting game tickets. You need to make sure not only that they take care of that early, but also that you assign some people in the organization that the players can go to to get it done.”

Additionally, Johnson made another instruction to one of the guys from operations that was handling Super Bowl preparations for the Cowboys (emphasis in the original): “‘For the night of January 30, book us into a different hotel. Somewhere in the Pasadena area. Find one, book it, and don’t tell anybody else. Not even me. I don’t want to know.’” The point of that instruction was to eliminate distractions by hiding the team from the public and keeping them in the feel of a road game as opposed to being comfortable and complacent during the festivities of Super Bowl week (p. 253):

And not until weeks later would I learn that the Beverly Garland was the same hotel to which Joe Gibbs moved the Redskins the night before their Super Bowl XVII victory in Pasadena in 1983, and to which Bill Parcells had moved the Giants the night before their Super Bowl XXI win in Pasadena in 1987.

In case it seems like Parcells was overselling the headache of dealing with tickets and friends and family, Johnson ran into it the next year before Super Bowl XXVIII in 1994 (Hubbard, p. 58-59):

Before the team flew to the Super Bowl, each player was handed his ticket allotment. Backup defensive tackle Chad Hennings, the nicest, straightest guy on the team, set his tickets on a table, walked away to do something, came back — and his tickets were gone. The Cowboys landed in Atlanta Monday, and Jimmy told them they had the night off and they could get the partying out of their system because they would have no curfew that night. But they did have to catch a team bus at six-thirty the next morning to attend Media Day interviews. Then it was No More Mr. Nice Guy:

“Chad Hennings’s sixteen tickets are missing,” Jimmy told the Cowboys. “Only teammates were in the room at the time they disappeared. I want those tickets in my hands by six a.m. tomorrow, before we get on the bus. I don’t care who you are, I want them in the hands of Ben Mix [Dallas’ security chief] and then ultimately in my hands.”

Jimmy’s voice grew loud and he bit off each word.

“No questions will be asked if you return them. But if you don’t, Ben and the league and I will use every bit of security to find out who did it. When I find out, I’ll do everything in my power to make sure you never play for this team or any team in this league. So help me God.”

Jimmy had the tickets in his hands at 6 a.m.

Rarely do we see the disciplinarian job of the head coach in action, and the stonewalling of the media can be frustrating to fans, but there is so much more going on in the workload of the head coach than “just football.” Bill Parcells in particular was a master at controlling the messages coming out of his organizations, preventing any appearance of dissent or strategic information from leaking. Those methods eventually pushed the league to force teams to have their people cooperate with the press because other teams saw the value in doing it his way. “Greg Aiello, the NFL’s public relations chief, concluded that too many head coaches had instituted Parcells’s approach, creating an access problem across the league. So to enter the 2007 season, the NFL required media availability of assistant coaches at least once per week.” (Parcells and DeMasio, p. 431)

Does the head coach really need to be so conscious and paranoid about giving secrets away via media access? A tale from Jimmy Johnson about the Super Bowl in 1994 says there’s something to it (Hubbard, p. 117):

“Paranoia? Maybe not. Jimmy was watching the sports on an Atlanta station the week the Cowboys were in Atlanta, preparing for Super Bowl XVIII with the Bills, when he saw Jim Kelly warming up with Thurman Thomas before a practice. They were in sweats, didn’t even have all the linemen in, but they were practicing a shovel pass, a play they hadn’t run all season. Jimmy noted the formation and practiced against it. He told his defensive linemen if the Bills lined up in that set, they should not rush upfield after Kelly. They had to close inside, toward Thomas. “I think they ran it three or four times, and we stopped it every time,” Jimmy said. “The first time the Bills tried it, Leon Lett stripped Thurman Thomas -- and James Washington picked up the fumble and ran for a touchdown.” The Bills were beating the Cowboys 13-6 before that shovel pass launched a Dallas run of twenty-four unanswered points.

(It was actually the earlier fumble with the score tied at three, but still.)

Looking to the future from Jim Caldwell

When the Detroit Lions make their decision on a head coach, we should all remember that they are not trying to pick an offensive style or a defensive system, but an organizational figure. The selection of a good head coach can have a lasting effect, as pointed out by the Cowboys’ Jerry Jones (Parcells and DeMasio, p. 379):

Conversely, Jerry Jones learned things from Bill Parcells about structure and organization that the Cowboys lacked during his fifteen years of ownership. For example, the club no longer relied on just one college scout assigned to a geographic area, making sure his evaluation was cross-checked. Jones also heeded Parcells’ advice to end any overlap in the personnel department between his college and pro scouts. After one conversation with Jeff Ireland, Jerry Jones told the scout, “Gosh, Bill has brought so much more to the Cowboys than just coaching. We’ve learned a lot from him.”

Setting the table for the next head coach may be the lasting legacy of Caldwell’s time in Detroit. Prior to Bill Parcells, New England was a mess, and the foundation he laid was taken by his successors to new heights. Whichever candidate ends up selected by Martha Ford and Bob Quinn to take over as head coach, they must be much more than a brilliant Xs and Os gameday mind to keep the franchise moving in the right direction; they need to instill the belief that the Lions belong with the best.

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