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What does a general manager look for in a head coach?

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If you read our other article, the answer is: exactly what you expect.

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Green Bay Packers v Detroit Lions Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

The road to the day after the Super Bowl

Although it has only been a month since the Detroit Lions relieved head coach Jim Caldwell of his duties, it probably seems like an eternity to fans anxious to hear the team name a new head coach. Back when the search process began, Pride of Detroit examined what head coaches themselves thought about the qualities that great head coaches need. As the Super Bowl approaches and the Lions’ reported pick for the job finally becomes eligible for hiring, we thought about the other side of the negotiating table and wanted to see if perceptions matched: what do great general managers look for in the head coaches they hire?

As our Jeremy Reisman noted, this is a new experience for current Detroit Lions GM Bob Quinn, because the head coach of the New England Patriots was Bill Belichick for Quinn’s entire time in their front office. Similar to our exercise with the thoughts of head coaches, we spent the last month reading through some material that former legendary NFL general managers put to paper:

What we learned in the process was that everything matched up quite well. At the top of the list of traits they look for are a strong inspiring presence, meticulous preparation and organization, and the ability to work with all people in the organization and motivate them to do what is necessary.

NFL Hall of Fame Induction Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Bill Polian

Polian built the four-time AFC champion Buffalo Bills teams in the 1990s, NFC runner-up Carolina Panthers as an expansion team, and the 2007 Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts. An extremely useful thing in Polian’s book for our purposes is a detailed list of guidelines for the selection of a head coach, forming the core of chapter 2 entitled “Deciding on the Decision Maker.” Here are the listed items and some interesting explanatory comments from the body of the text under each heading:

  1. Organization: “That ranges from how he organizes his playbook to his practice plans, from year-round staff assignments to his off-season program.” (p. 30)
  2. Leadership
  3. Communication: “Can he sell his program to all of the team’s stakeholders. . . can he teach. . . (a teacher) gets his students invested and involved in what he’s teaching.” (p. 30-31)
  4. Emotional stability: “Can he function well under pressure. . . does he remain cool on the sidelines? Does he remain composed, organized, and does he take the lead at halftime?” (p. 31)
  5. Vision: “This is the most important quality of them all. Does he have a clear picture of how he wants his team to look and play?” (p. 31)
  6. Strategy: “Although the offensive coordinator usually calls plays and the defensive coordinator calls the defenses, the head coach has to be the one to say ‘third-and-two, I want to run. You pick the run, but I want the ball run in this situation.’ That’s a classic example of a strategic decision, because he wants time taken off the clock and he wants to force the other team to use a timeout.” (p. 32)
  7. Flexibility
  8. Ability to judge talent: “Can he identify and make use of role players who are not yet or will not be complete players?” (p. 34)
  9. Public relations: “Essentially, it boils down to, can he handle himself well in this media maelstrom that he’s forced to endure these days. . . Can he maintain a dignified approach under pressure? Can he articulate well under pressure?” (p. 38-39)
  10. Player respect: “Does his knowledge, leadership, teaching ability, approach to squad morale and discipline, and his personal habits and dignity earn player respect? Do they look up to him?” (p. 40)
  11. Character: “It boils down to one thing: do you want this man to be a standard-bearer for your franchise?” (p. 40)
NFL Hall of Fame Induction Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Ron Wolf

After a tough experience with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 1970s, Wolf moved on to the personnel department of the Oakland Raiders and New York Jets. Hired as the general manager by the Green Bay Packers in 1991, Wolf built the 1997 Super Bowl winning team around quarterback Brett Favre and head coach Mike Holmgren, contributing a ton to modern pro football scouting in the process.

The most interesting takeaway from Wolf’s book is in what he calls stepping stone number 2: “Hire the best — before anyone else does.” The theme of that chapter will come back into play when we look at the particular sequence of events for Bob Quinn and how Detroit moved from extending Jim Caldwell to pursuing Matt Patricia, but for the moment let us stick with the qualities that general managers want in a head coach. To lead off the chapter, Wolf zeroes in on the inspirational quality of the head coach (p.42-43):

It can’t be charisma. Chuck Noll is not charismatic, but he won four Super Bowls. John Madden’s outgoing personality is as different from Noll’s as you can imagine, yet John was very successful too. It has nothing to do with size or weight or the sound of a voice or education. History’s great leaders have no common backgrounds, no common traits, that are obvious on the surface — except they have somehow made something happen and inspired others to follow them. Leaders create a bond that encourages people to believe in them so much they’re willing to buy into their words.

Upon taking control, the new general manager of the Packers knew there would be a problem with retaining then-head coach Lindy Infante after the 1991 season. “I brought in some free agents for tryouts. They were good enough to help the team, but Lindy resisted. Despite the losing, he was comfortable with his current roster.” (p. 29) There was an organizational culture of losing and complacency that Wolf encountered in Green Bay that he wanted to break with his head coaching hire. “Most important, I needed a coach who would bring a certain aura of winning to Green Bay, so the players could look at him and be convinced he was right when he said, ‘This is what it takes to win.’” (p. 57)

No one leader can do everything in the organization, and Wolf was careful to split the spheres of influence into an on-the-field component and a front office component. He needed a coach who would continue to push for the team to improve and make use of any talent they could acquire (p. 46):

I’m a personnel guy. My strength is in scouting, grading, and obtaining talent. If I executed those duties correctly, I could make a significant impact on the Packers’ ability to become winners. I needed a coach who could take those players and turn them into a team.

Two things Wolf included in his description of how Mike Holmgren was selected to be head coach of the Packers stand out. As an explanation of why he “became impressed with the way (Holmgren) coached his unit” as Bill Walsh’s offensive coordinator, Wolf referenced preseason games between the Raiders and 49ers that he’d seen while in Oakland. “Frequently in these games, teams used their second-and third-line players. But it didn’t matter with him. He could have a bunch of very average guys out there, and we might still be playing our first-string defense, but the 49ers always would move the ball consistently down the field. The caliber of player seemed inconsequential; they still gained yards.” (p. 59) That, Wolf concluded, had to be chalked up to superior coaching getting the most out of the players.

The other had to do with the level of preparation and thoroughness he carried into the interview. “Fifteen minutes into our conversation, I was so impressed that I already wanted to hire him. His lack of head coaching experience didn’t concern me. He was so confident he could succeed that I quickly forgot about that aspect of his career. . . It was obvious he had prepared himself for this job possibility. This was an intelligent, thoughtful guy with strong beliefs and a background that gave him credibility.” (p. 61)

Similar to Polian, Wolf emphasizes how the overall job of the coach involves being a cool and dignified representative of the franchise at all times. “With our coach, I wanted to know about his preparation. How quickly and successfully can he change during games to adapt to the unexpected? Does he maintain his composure or is he a madman, either in public or in the locker room? If he’s baffled by the unexpected or if he explodes at every misstep, he isn’t a good long-term investment. If pressure throws you, you can’t be a winner.” (p. 63)

New York Giants' General Manager Ernie Accorsi talks to repo Photo by Howard Earl Simmons/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Ernie Accorsi

After an early career in personnel with the Baltimore Colts, Accorsi built the three-time AFC runner-up Cleveland Browns in the 1980s and the 2001 NFC runner-up New York Giants which formed the core of the 2008 and 2012 Super Bowl winning teams. Lions fans may remember he was hired as an advisor during the general manager search which ended with the selection of Bob Quinn in 2016.

Again, the same themes come out of Accorsi’s recollections from the head coach hires he made. Preparation, getting the players to play to their maximums (whatever that may be), and the ability to adapt and remain cool under pressure and changing conditions were all key factors. From back when he was running the Browns, Accorsi remembered the delight he took in interviewing a young Bill Belichick to be head coach (p. 79):

“The interview took place in the Hilton lobby restaurant,” Ernie said, “and I missed practice that day, he was so good. I didn’t want to leave. It was like listening to John F. Kennedy when he was running for president. You said to yourself, ‘This guy has been preparing to be president since he was ten years old.’ That’s the feeling I got with Belichick.”

Years later when replacing Jim Fassel as head coach of the New York Giants, the main candidates were Romeo Crennel, Charlie Weis, Lovie Smith, and Tom Coughlin. Thinking back to Coughlin’s background as a college coach, the long-time personnel man who had to choose between Bernie Kosar and Doug Flutie for the Browns recalled watching the Eagles’ passing attack in the 1980s (p. 90, emphasis added):

(Coughlin) was the quarterback coach at Boston College, where one of his charges was Doug Flutie, and later the head coach at BC for three seasons. “I saw his second game against Michigan,” Ernie said. “They played the Wolverines tough for a long while. Near the end of his time there, Coughlin beat George Welsh’s Virginia team in a bowl game. Virginia had four or five top choices; he didn’t have that much, Glenn Foley at quarterback. But Welsh told me the week before, ‘We can’t figure out their passing game. There’s a timing mechanism to it. We’ve studied it for three weeks, but I’m not sure we can stop it.’ Well, BC completed every friggin’ pass and killed them 31-13.”

That continued into the professional ranks after Coughlin became the head coach of the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars (p. 90):

“A number of coaches,” Accorsi said, “including Schottenheimer, told me Coughlin was a bear to coach against. Marty said ‘You’re probing all the time, you’re changing all the time. You can’t set a game plan for him. If something doesn’t work, he’s quick to try something else. So when John Mara and I sat down with Coughlin at the Newark airport, he was the favorite.”

Recalling how Ron Wolf made sure the Packers’ structure organized everyone into getting the right people into the right positions and ensuring the organization had clear cut division of responsibilities, Accorsi felt Coughlin could be a successful on-the-field partner to his front office (p. 90-91):

“Tom had done an incredible job with no players at BC. He had made Jacksonville competitive right away. All that said, you’re bothered by the three losing seasons [7-9, 6-10, 6-10] at the end in Florida. But the more we studied it, the more we thought it was mostly a personnel problem, and he wasn’t going to be in charge of our personnel. He had screwed up the salary cap, too, not signing the right guys, giving too much money to the wrong ones. But he wasn’t going to have control of that, either.”

Leaving the Coughlin interview, Accorsi told Mara, “If we can’t win with this guy, I’m taking up tennis.”

Get your first choice if they are available

When the Detroit Lions extended Jim Caldwell’s contract before the start of last season, they may very well have intended to have him as the head coach in 2018 at that point. Even at the end of the year, when the extension was revealed to be for a single year, that may have also been the actual plan at the time. But things change in the fast-paced world of professional football, and knowing Bob Quinn’s history with the Patriots organization, eventually hiring Matt Patricia to be head coach of the team he built may have been the long-run plan from the beginning. And, as pointed out by Ron Wolf, if you know your candidate is available and about to be taken, you have to hire your first choice before anyone else does.

When Bill Polian took over the Indianapolis Colts, the aforementioned Lindy Infante was the head coach under then-general manager Bill Tobin. The Colts had some legitimate talent like Marvin Harrison and Marshall Faulk, and Polian’s “immediate thought was that the team had an absolute need for discipline and focus. There were too many penalties, too many guys doing their own thing rather than playing within the offensive or defensive scheme.” (p. 227-228) He replaced Infante with Jim Mora, who “brought such accountability, discipline, and work ethic to the program.” (p. 246) The problem several years in was that Mora was committed to sticking with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s 3-4 defensive scheme (p.255):

On top of that, our defensive scheme was complex. It required us to have an abundance of experienced players, and that meant more expensive players. With the investment we knew we were going to make in the offense — where we would be re-signing Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, Tarik Glenn, Jeff Saturday, and Edgerrin James -- it was clear we wouldn’t have the salary-cap space to afford that kind of defense. It required a lot of recognition, a lot of communication, a lot of sophistication.

Polian went to Mora and told him the defense was a good system, but unsustainable under the financial limits of the salary cap. “We are going to have to do it with young guys and, in that regard, I think that it’s mandatory that we get a new system. We’re going to have to have a defensive coordinator with a system that is relatively simple. I’m not telling you who to hire, but we need somebody who runs a system similar to the Tampa Two defense because it makes it easier to get young players on the field and it’s zone-based.” (p. 255) When Mora refused to make a change, the team made the change at the head coach level. “Jim deserves a great deal of credit for instituting the discipline and work ethic that formed the bed rock of all of our Indianapolis teams.”

When it came time to hire a replacement, as luck would have it, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had just released Tony Dungy to bring in Jon Gruden. Polian told owner Jim Irsay, “Let’s go get the guy who invented the defense we want to play.” Similar to Accorsi interviewing Belichick and Wolf interviewing Holmgren, Polian was immediately taken by Dungy’s interview (p. 256):

Ten minutes into the interview, I was sold. There was a point where I asked Tony about preparation of the team, wanting him to take me through training camp all the way to the end of the season and the playoffs, and he outlined it beautifully. About three sentences into his answer, he stopped and said, “I notice you are smiling and nodding your head. Is there something here that I said that’s funny?”

“No, I apologize,” I said. “But I have heard this all before almost verbatim from Marv Levy.”

I knew we had the right person.

The follow-up reaction from Jim Irsay would have made Ron Wolf proud. When he found out Dungy was going to also interview with Carolina, Irsay called him immediately: “I want you to be our coach. You are hearing it from me as the owner of the team. The job is yours.” (p. 257)

How is this relevant to the Lions’ situation? Just suppose from his time in New England that Bob Quinn knew someday whenever he got a chance to run a team, that Matt Patricia was going to be the guy he wants to take the team he builds to a Super Bowl. Now Patricia becomes one of the hot commodity coaches getting inquiries from a lot of teams and if the Lions fail to move to sign him, somebody else will. Maybe he was not available in the past, but a year or two later the coach is now willing to make a change. Does Bob Quinn do what it takes to get his guy before someone else does?

Sound far-fetched? How could Quinn possibly know who he might want as a head coach so far ahead of time? Consider the following from Polian as he contemplated replacing Hank Bullough on the Buffalo Bills in 1986 (p. 117-118, emphasis in the original):

This team needed direction and inspiration. It needed a leader who the players could follow, who they believed, and ultimately, would take them to the Promised Land. And that was Marv Levy.

I go back to my first year in Kansas City as a scout and we were on the practice field during training camp at William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri. The next day, we were going to practice against the Houston Oilers at the Arrowhead Stadium. Marv called together all of the rookies and young backup players, most of whom would be going against another team for the first time in the NFL. . . “Listen, I know that you want to do your best tomorrow,” Marv said. “I know you have been working hard at camp to reach this day, and tomorrow is the first step along the road to making a career for yourself in professional football. Now, there are some things that you have to do, beginning with tonight — make sure that you get your rest. Most importantly, make sure you pack your AstroTurf shoes because we have been on grass here all week and now we are going on AstroTurf. Don’t leave it to the equipment manager. Double check your bag before you leave the locker room tonight and make sure you have your AstroTurf shoes.

“Because, not only do you want to do your best, we want you to do your best. You have invested a lot of time and effort here. We are proud of the work you put in and we want to see you have the opportunity to do your best. Is everybody with that? Good. Let’s go!”

I said to myself, Holy mackerel! I never heard anything like that in my life. I’d walk through fire for this man.

Bill Polian started as a scout for the Kansas City Chiefs in 1978 while Marv Levy was the coach there. Eight years later, asked by Buffalo owner Ralph Wilson who he thought would be a good candidate for head coach, Polian already knew who he wanted. “‘Marv Levy,’ I said, without hesitation. ‘I don’t think there is any question that he is what we need at this point in time, if we are forced to make a change.’” (p. 116) Ron Wolf remembered admiring Mike Holmgren from his days in Oakland, and Ernie Accorsi remembered Tom Coughlin’s knack for beating superior opponents with less talent on his own squad. The great football executives remember, so it is not such a stretch to think that Bob Quinn remembers something he liked about Patricia with the Patriots.

Sometimes, you just know

Looking back on the process once the Lions officially announce their head coach selection after the Super Bowl, people may wonder if this was too fast and too predetermined. After all, it was just five days into the head coach search that the Lions brought the Patriots defensive coordinator in for an interview, and all other avenues of inquiry ended shortly thereafter. Let us go back to Accorsi and another interview process he helped the Detroit Lions with. From a Justin Rogers article at mlive.com:

Accorsi, the former GM brought on as an adviser to spearhead Detroit’s search, said there’s little reason to delay when you know you’ve got your man.

”We did a lot of work on him, but once we had a conviction, there are other general manager jobs open,” Accorsi said. “If we know this is the guy who we want, the object is not to drag this out, it’s to get the guy you think is the best guy, so don’t lose him.”

The Lions had two face-to-face meeting with Quinn, the first on Tuesday in Providence, R.I. and the second on Thursday. Accorsi said through the interviews it became clear to him why the Patriots don’t just win, they dominate.

Ten minutes into the interview with Dungy. Fifteen minutes into the interview with Holmgren. What would be a fair over/under on Patricia? Twenty minutes? You don’t delay when you have a Bob Quinn or a Matt Patricia, and you know other teams are out to get them. If that’s your guy, and you believe your guy can get the team to buy into his program to winning, you have got to get him.