What Makes A Successful Head Coach?

I think choosing a head coach is the toughest thing a GM has to do.

A lot of fans seem to think stuff like “Hey, he was a good Offensive Coordinator, let’s make him a Head Coach!” or “Literally anyone would be better!”

Those are both stupid statements and a lot goes into coaching – building a staff and managing a locker room seem to be two of the more underappreciated aspects of the job.

To try to find the best traits, let’s look back at the Super Bowl participants form the last 5 years to see what experiences they had and put together a composite of what the “best” candidates would look like.


Doug Pederson – Jobs before Eagles Head Coach:

  • Quarterback for multiple NFL, NFLE, and WLAF teams
  • High School Head Coach
  • Eagles Offensive Quality Control
  • Eagles QB Coach
  • Chiefs Offensive Coordinator

Bill Belichick – Jobs before Patriots Head Coach:

  • Colts Special Assistant
  • Lions Special Teams Coach
  • Lions Receivers Coach
  • Broncos Special Teams Coach and Defensive Assistant
  • Giants Special Teams Coach and Defensive Assistant
  • Giants Linebackers Coach and Special Teams Coach
  • Giants Defensive Coordinator
  • Browns Head Coach
  • Patriots Assistant Head Coach and Defensive Backs Coach
  • Jets Assistant Head Coach and Defensive Coordinator
  • Maybe Most Importantly: studied under his father, a football coach at US Naval Academy


Dan Quinn – Jobs before Falcons Head Coach:

  • William & Mary Defensive Line Coach
  • VMI Defensive Line Coach
  • Hofstra Defensive Line Coach
  • Hofstra Defensive Coordinator and Defensive Line Coach
  • 49ers Defensive Quality Control
  • 49ers Defensive Line Coach
  • Dolphins Defensive Line Coach
  • Jets Defensive Line Coach
  • Seahawks Assistant Head Coach and Defensive Line Coach
  • Florida Defensive Coordinator and Defensive Line Coach
  • Seahawks Defensive Coordinator

Bill Belichick – Jobs before Patriots Head Coach

  • (see above)


Gary Kubiak – Jobs before Broncos Head Coach:

  • Quarterback for Denver Broncos
  • Texas A&M RUnning BAcks Coach
  • 49ers Quarterbacks Coach
  • Broncos Offensive Coordinator and Quarterbacks Coach
  • Texans Head Coach
  • Ravens Offensive Coordinator

Ron Rivera – Jobs before Panthers Head Coach:

  • Bears Linebacker
  • Bears Defensive Quality Control Coach
  • Eagles Linebacker Coach
  • Bears Defensive Coordinator
  • Chargers Linebacker Coach
  • Chargers Defensive Coordinator


Bill Belichick – Jobs before Patriots Head Coach

  • (see above)

Pete Carroll – Jobs before Seahawks head coach:

  • Pacific Graduate Assistant
  • Arkansas Graduate Assistant
  • Iowa State Secondary Coordinator
  • Ohio State Secondary Coordinator
  • NC State Defensive Coordinator
  • Pacific Defensive Coordinator
  • Bills Defensive Backs Coach
  • Vikings Defensive Backs Coach
  • Jets Defensive Coordinator
  • Jets Head Coach
  • 49ers Defensive Coordinator
  • Patriots Head Coach
  • USC Head Coach


Pete Carroll – Jobs before Seahawks Head Coach

  • (see above)

John Fox – Jobs before Broncos Head Coach

  • Buccaneers Defensive Back
  • San Diego State Graduate Assistant
  • US International Defensive Backs Coach
  • Boise State Defensive Backs Coach
  • Long Beach State Defensive Backs Coach
  • Utah Defensive Backs Coach
  • Kansas Defensive Backs Coach
  • Iowa State Defensive Backs Coach
  • Los Angeles Express Defensive Backs Coach
  • Pittsburgh Defensive Coordinator and Defensive Backs Coach
  • Steelers Defensive Backs Coach
  • Chargers Defensive Backs Coach
  • Raiders Defensive Coordinator
  • Rams Personnel Consultant
  • Giants Defensive Coordinator
  • Panthers Head Coach

The Belichick Outlier

The first thing that jumps out is how many time Bill Belichick shows up. He’s ruined Packer fans. Bill Belichick is an anomaly and Packer fans see him as the standard. Every time an example is cited like “Well, a coach can’t do that,” the really ridiculous fans pipe in with “Well Bill Belichick did!”

It’s nonsense.

Bill Belichick is the most successful coach in the modern game and there is only one of him – and he’s not coming to Green Bay, so get real.

Still, we can’t just discount him because he has been wildly successful (and, unlike Patriots fans, I don’t believe his success was all due to a single player).

So we’ll count him as one of the 7 coaches that have qualified for the Super Bowl in the last 5 years.

A Country For Old Men

When you look at the victors, you see Belichick, Carroll, Fox, and Pederson. Pederson is the spring chicken at 50 and the rest were in their 60’s – that means that these guys have been around the block and had a lot of time to learn their craft.

Guys like Sean McVay may be in vogue, but none of these young candidates has won a title yet. Maybe it’s just a matter of time, but right now, the profile for success is to put in your time over the long haul.

Keep in mind most coaches don’t last long and statistically, very few even get to a single Super Bowl. A lot of good ones never win one.  These guys are part of a special club and here’s what they have in common:

Key Takeaways

So, of the 7 head coaches who made it to the Super Bowl in the last 5 years:

  • 4 of 7 were former NFL players
  • 4 of 7 had previous experience as an NFL head coach
  • 4 of 7 had experience in college coaching (plus Pederson did HS and Belichick studied the college game under his father)
  • 5 of 7 were defensive-minded head coaches
  • 7 of 7 had previous experience as an NFL assistant

So, the best amalgam of Super Bowl caliber coaches for the last half decade is a guy who was a former NFL player, had previous experience as an NFL Head Coach, has experience coaching in college as well, is defensive-minded, and was also an NFL Assistant Coach.

John Fox is the only guy who fits that bill (and he barely does because his pro career was almost nothing) and none of the “hot” coaching names meet them all. Besides, we don’t want John Fox.

So Now What?

So how do we get the most important traits to ensure success?

The only item that they all have in common was that they were all NFL assistants. If you use that as criteria, it would rule out guys like Lincoln Riley and Pat Fitzgerald, whom many people are so high on.

I think the big issue for me here is that these guys are only used to dealing with 18-22 year-old students on a rental, not grown-up millionaires that can go free agent or force a trade. It’s tough to manage players, not just in a scheme, but as human beings. Look at the recent headaches we’ve seen with guys like Damarious Randall and Ty Montgomery – college coaches don’t have to deal with that because their players know they can’t get away with that stuff.

The other factor that really stood out for me was that most of the guys were defensive-minded coaches. With all the emphasis on offensive schemes, maybe the lesson here is that those creative offensive schemes are a full-time job and you would be better off with a defensive guy as your head coach so your OC can spend all his time just on creating a great scheme.

Who knows? It’s hard to tell, but those are the factors that we’ve seen from the last seven guys to make it to the big game.

Comparing The Candidates

Given those five key factors of the most recent Super Bowl coaches, here is how the field of men that have been mentioned so far score:

  • Matt Eberflus (3/5) College Coach, NFL Assistant, Defensive-minded
  • Dan Campbell (3/5) NFL Assistant, NFL Head Coaching Experience, Former Player
  • Mike Munchack (3/5) NFL Assistant, NFL Head Coaching Experience, Former Player
  • Jim Caldwell (3/5) College Coach, NFL Assistant, NFL Head Coaching Experience
  • Chuck Pagano (3/5) College Coach, NFL ASsistant, NFL Head Coaching Experience
  • Brian Flores (2/5) NFL Assistant, Defensive-minded
  • Pete Carmichael (2/5) College Coach, NFL Assistant
  • Josh McDaniels (2/5) College Coach, NFL Assistant
  • Matt LaFleur (1.5/5) College Coaching, NFL Assistant, Former Player (NIFL)
  • Lincoln Riley (1/5) College Coaching

It’s also worth nothing that when Mike McCarthy took over, he only met 2 of the 5 common criteria listed above as well (College Coach and NFL Assistant).

Put It All Together

When you look at it all like this, it just looks like a mess, a hopeless crapshoot. There’s no one out there that fits the profile!

That’s the point.

Just like scouting players is ridiculously difficult and an inexact science, scouting coaches is even more complex.

At least half a dozen teams get a new head coach every year and, despite the fact that every one of those teams thinks they picked the guy who is the right fit, most of them suck. Maybe one hangs around past his first deal, and the rest all get fired and bring in new guys.

As fans, we can look at players on film and try to gauge who’s better, but doing so with coaches is really impossible without access behind the scenes.

This is fun stuff to explore and try to understand, but at the end of the day, we just have to wait and see how it all plays out.

Such is football – so let’s just enjoy the ride.

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