Roots of coaching trees run deep

NFL's DNA flows through branches that connect game's past to its present

Originally Published: May 21, 2013
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Welcome to ESPN's "Greatest Coaches in NFL History" series. In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Vince Lombardi's birth, we salute the finest innovators, motivators, tacticians, teachers and champions ever to stalk the sidelines. Follow along as we reveal our list of the top 20 coaches of all time and document the lineage of the league's most influential coaching trees.


L

ong before it was the fashion, Sid Gillman loved the long ball. His San Diego Chargers offense featured all kinds of dizzying, deceptive motion, multiple wide receivers and a versatile tight end.

The pass-happy Chargers won the 1963 American Football League championship 51-10 over the Boston Patriots, as quarterbacks Tobin Rote and John Hadl combined to complete 17 of 26 passes for 305 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions.

Half a century later, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco threw up similar numbers in a 34-31 defeat of the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII. Keen students of NFL history weren't terribly surprised, for Ravens coach John Harbaugh, in a back-to-the-future kind of way, has Gillman's down-the-field passion in his DNA.

One of Gillman's assistants in the early 1960s was Al Davis, who became head coach of the Raiders in 1963. Bill Walsh's first professional job came as the Raiders' running backs coach, and he later credited Gillman and Davis as significant influences.

During his tenure as 49ers head coach, Walsh made Mike Holmgren -- in his first NFL job -- his quarterbacks coach. After Holmgren got the head position in Green Bay, Andy Reid left the college ranks to become part of his first staff. When Reid got his first head-coaching job, in 1999 in Philadelphia, he wisely retained John Harbaugh as special-teams coach from the staff of predecessor Ray Rhodes.

One paragraph, five sentences, six degrees of separation, the circle of coaching life in the NFL.

The league's coaching fraternity is intimately connected. The Ravens won their first Super Bowl with an unforgiving defense, but when Harbaugh reached back to his Gillman roots and channeled the wild and woolly days of the AFL, Baltimore won its second.

[+] EnlargeSid Gillman
Charles Aqua Viva/Getty ImageThe impact of Sid Gillman's passing innovations from the '50s and '60s still can be seen in the NFL today.

Gillman's teams took only that single league title, but his sphere of influence -- which includes Chuck Noll, John Madden, Joe Gibbs, Mike Shanahan, Mike Tomlin, Jon Gruden and Harbaugh -- has posted 26 championships. That's a lot of Lombardi trophies with Gillman's fingerprints on them.

Who are the greatest head coaches in NFL history? How exactly do you quantify that greatness? Wins and losses? Championships? Innovation?

ESPN assembled a blue-ribbon panel to answer these perplexing questions. Beginning Thursday, and running through the 100th anniversary of Vince Lombardi's birth on June 11, ESPN.com will count down its top 20 coaches of all time.

You will find some of the legendary bronze busts from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio -- even one freshly elected, soon-to-be member. There are three active coaches (can you name them?) and more than a few surprises -- on both sides of No. 20 -- as well as two coaches from the Super Bowl era who never won the ultimate game.

A teaching profession

The essence of coaching on any level is teaching. The best have always had that ability to school players, as well as the next generation of coaches. Paul Brown -- for whom they named the Cleveland Browns -- got his first job out of college at Severn School, a prep school in Maryland. He taught English and history, and volunteered as an assistant with the football team. When the head coach became seriously ill, Brown assumed his role. When Brown returned to coach at his alma mater, Massillon Washington High School in Ohio, he continued to teach -- and his teams lost only eight games in nine years.

"He brought the classroom to football," said Mike Brown, Paul's son and the owner of the Cincinnati Bengals. "He said those were the happiest days of his life because they included teaching as well as coaching. He thought of himself as a teacher."

BrownAP Photo/John RooneyPaul Brown's teaching background helped him become one of the game's greatest coaches.

The Cleveland Browns won four straight All-America Football Conference titles from 1946 to '49. After the league folded, the Browns moved to the NFL in 1950 -- and immediately won the championship. The next season, Paul Brown drafted a rookie defensive back out of John Carroll University. His name was Don Shula. He was an intense player, but he liked to improvise on the field. This left Brown, one of the most organized men in football, often exasperated.

"The problem with you, Shula," he said one day, "is that you're uncoachable."

It is a tasty irony that the "uncoachable" Shula wound up coaching the Baltimore Colts and the Miami Dolphins to 328 victories (and 19 more in the postseason), the most in NFL history. There was a deeper connection, too. Shula's college coach, Herb Eisele, was a devoted Brown disciple and attended many of his clinics.

[+] EnlargeBill Belichick
Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty ImagesIt might not be apparent on the surface, but Bill Belichick has a lot in common with Paul Brown.

"My 33 years [of coaching], that was pretty much from the Paul Brown playbook," Shula said recently from his home in South Florida. "To be a successful head coach, you have to have a lot of self-confidence. You have to believe in yourself and be able to teach. You could have all the skill and knowledge that there is about that game, but if you can't transmit it to the people you're responsible for, it's not doing you any good."

He sounds a lot like Brown. You would never know it to hear his bland news conferences, but Bill Belichick is also a gifted communicator -- and widely viewed as the best coach in today's game. His career record, including the postseason, is 205-109 (.653), which places him at No. 7 on the all-time victory list, tied with Marty Schottenheimer. If Belichick maintains his average of nearly 13 wins per season in New England for five more years, he will draw even with Tom Landry, who is No. 3. Belichick's Patriots have played in five Super Bowls since his arrival in 2000, winning three.

Would it surprise you to learn that Belichick's father, Steve, who was a longtime assistant at the Naval Academy, used to take Bill to Brown's Cleveland Browns practices in the late '50s and early '60s? Or that Bill Belichick's practices closely resemble the ones he watched as a boy? As with many coaches -- John and Jim Harbaugh will tell you that the roots of their coaching trees were supplied by their very first coach, Jack Harbaugh -- Belichick's passion for coaching came from his father. Steve loved to tell the story of young Bill in a darkened Navy film room with future Heisman Trophy winners Roger Staubach and Joe Bellino, at the age of 8 or 9 asking precocious questions about gap blocking and run-support responsibilities. Fun fact: Maybe Rick Forzano should get some credit for Bill Belichick's success; he is the only head coach to have both Belichicks serve under him, Steve at Navy from 1969 to '72 and Bill with the Detroit Lions in 1976.

A direct line

NFL coaching is an extremely small shop. You can connect most coaches through the many branches of a relatively small number of coaching trees.

Vince Lombardi coached for only nine seasons in Green Bay, but the Packers won five NFL championships during his tenure, including Super Bowls I and II. Mike McCarthy, who guided the Packers to victory in Super Bowl XLV, drives by statues of Lombardi and the team's other Hall of Fame coach, Earl "Curly" Lambeau, every day on his way into the office at Lambeau Field.

Vince Lombardi AP Photo/David StlukaVince Lombardi's statue outside Lambeau Field is a constant reminder of his enduring impact.

"My proudest moment was when we brought the trophy back home to Green Bay," McCarthy said, "obviously the Lombardi trophy bearing his name. I really enjoy his quotes, you know, being direct, to the point. You knew exactly what he was thinking about. I like to feel that I have that same trait."

While McCarthy embraces the direct style of Lombardi, his coaching bloodline runs all the way back to Gillman, through Davis, Walsh and Paul Hackett, who was Walsh's quarterbacks coach for three years in the 1980s. It was Hackett who gave McCarthy his first major coaching job, at the University of Pittsburgh in 1989. McCarthy's first NFL job came in 1993, when Schottenheimer hired him in Kansas City.

With some coaches, it's difficult to assign them to a single tree. But our intrepid ESPN.com research staff has been meticulous in its calibrations.

[+] EnlargeMcCarthy
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsBringing the Lombardi trophy back to Green Bay was a special moment for Packers coach Mike McCarthy.

Chuck Noll, for instance, was an assistant to Gillman for six seasons in San Diego. But he subsequently served as an assistant to Shula for three years -- and he had played for Paul Brown for seven seasons in the 1950s. No wonder he won four Super Bowls as head coach of the Steelers. We place Noll on the Gillman tree because that was his entry into coaching.

Similarly, "Iron" Mike Ditka has an excellent pedigree. He played tight end for George Halas' Bears for six seasons in the 1960s. His last four years playing in the NFL were under Tom Landry in Dallas, and that's where he was an assistant for nine more seasons before becoming Chicago's head coach and winning Super Bowl XX with the Bears. Jeff Fisher, a defensive back who was on the Bears' injured reserve list in 1985, began his coaching career that year as an unofficial assistant to Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan -- who traces his coaching DNA to the Brown tree. So today, Fisher's St. Louis Rams have the benefit of both the Landry and Brown influence in their daily routines and game plans. Super Bowl winners Sean Payton and Tom Coughlin worked in different systems in Philadelphia and Green Bay, respectively, before coming under the influence of Bill Parcells.

The point? The NFL coaches' collective knowledge comes from many disparate sources and remains an organic, ever-evolving thing.

Delegating authority

Shula played seven NFL seasons (1951-57), and was an NFL head coach for 33 seasons (1963-95) in Baltimore and Miami. In April, he visited the Dolphins' training facility in Davie, Fla., and met with coach Joe Philbin and the current coaching staff. Philbin, who joined Mike Sherman's staff in Green Bay in 2003, is part of the Walsh/Holmgren tree. But he's not opposed to learning from Shula and the Paul Brown brain trust.

"Coach Shula is a great connection to the tradition and the history of the franchise," Philbin said. "And you know, it's probably not a bad idea for myself, as a young head coach, and our staff to learn from the winningest head coach in the history of the league. He still knows a thing or two about football."

One thing Shula, 83, knows for sure: These days, head coaches delegate far more authority than they used to.

"With 20 assistant coaches, you've got almost every phase of the game covered with a coach," Shula said. "I think I had three or four when I started. Back then, you had one coach for a lot of different phases. Now it's important for the head coach to actually coach his assistants.

Philbin/ShulaAP Photo/Wilfredo LeeMiami coach Joe Philbin knows there is plenty he can learn from Dolphins legend Don Shula.

"The good thing is that teaching is easier than it used to be. Now, every move they make in practice is videoed. That is a tremendous tool."

There is a general perception that athletes today don't respect authority the way they did in Shula's playing days. Do today's coaches coach differently?

"No," Shula said. "You still see the same discipline problems we had back then. And you deal with them the same way. Coaching is still about getting players to buy in to your system. That's really what it is."

As the game has grown bigger (i.e., richer), it is harder for a head coach to have the singular impact we saw in, say, the '40s and '50s. In those days, football was often a family business. Now, with the average team worth more than $1 billion, successful entrepreneurs from other fields are the only ones who can afford to buy in. Those aggressive businessmen -- hello, Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder -- tend to want to be more actively involved.

"Look at the most successful coaches from that earlier era," said Joe Horrigan, the vice president of communications at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "Halas was the owner of the Bears team that he was coaching. And Lombardi, Brown and Lambeau thought they were. They had total and direct control of their teams."

Today's coach is more of a CEO, coordinating more than 100 people toward the goal of winning games.

Passion, though, never goes out of style.

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
Ric Tapia/Icon SMI/CORBISPete Carroll says he aimed to build the Seahawks
in the tough-minded image of a Lombardi team.

Dave Robinson, a linebacker on three championship teams under Lombardi in Green Bay, is part of this year's class to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

"Coach Lombardi could be selling apples on the corner and wind up with millions of dollars," Robinson said. "His son, Vince Jr., always used to tell us, 'He loves you guys more than me.' He'd cut off his left ear if he thought it would make us better, anything for the club. If you know he'll make those sacrifices, you'd have to be a heel not to do the same for him.

"He'd tell us before the season, 'I can find bigger, faster guys and maybe smarter, too. But there's that little something that makes you special, that thing that makes you a Green Bay Packer, which is something different.' Every year he'd say that to the team. And every year we believed it."

You never know when a coach's influence is going to exert itself on a young student of the game -- or how.

When Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was growing up just outside San Francisco, his Pop Warner teams wore the Packers' logo. His coach at Redwood High School, Bob Troppmann, was an enthusiastic follower of Lombardi.

"It was always about team," Carroll said. "Hard work. Sacrifices that you had to make. Discipline. That's what I was brought up with."

In three seasons in Seattle, Carroll has built a formidable team. The Seahawks were 11-5 in the 2012 regular season and won a wild-card game at Washington -- their first road playoff victory in nearly three decades.

"I don't say this very often," Carroll said, "but in putting together our team in these three years, I had this image in my mind about creating a team that could function like a Lombardi team. Where they were so committed to the running game. And disciplined. And a really smart quarterback that can make great decisions.

"And see if we couldn't put together a team that could do so many things right that you just were hard to beat."

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

EDITORS' PICKS

MORE NFL HEADLINES