Gregg Easterbrook: NFL should hire more high school coaches

Well, I know a lot of high school coaches who would agree with this:

[T]he larger coaching issue is that once again, the NFL is stocking up on head coaches who have never been a head coach at any level, even high school, before becoming the boss in the pros.

Steve Spagnuolo, the new coach of the Rams, has never been a head coach at any level, not even when he worked for the Barcelona Dragons. Spagnuolo has been an assistant coach or scout for the University of Massachusetts, the Redskins, Lafayette, the University of Connecticut, the Dragons, the Chargers, the University of Maine, Rutgers, Bowling Green, the Frankfurt Galaxy, the Eagles and the Giants before landing the Rams headmastership. Twelve previous employers — he must have quite a collection of team apparel! But no head coaching experience before becoming an NFL head coach.

Rex Ryan, the new head coach of the Jets, has been an assistant at Eastern Kentucky, New Mexico/Highlands, Morehead, the Cardinals, the University of Cincinnati, Oklahoma and the Ravens. . . . Raheem Morris, the new head coach of the Bucs, has been an assistant at Hofstra, Cornell and Kansas State. Lots of college pennants for his dorm room — but no head coaching experience. Morris has never even been a coordinator at any level, and now he’s an NFL head coach. Todd Haley, the new head coach of the Chiefs, . . . [had] no head coaching experience before becoming an NFL head coach. Josh McDaniels, the new head coach of the Broncos, has been an assistant for Michigan State and the Patriots. He didn’t even collect much team apparel, in addition to less than a decade of experience, before becoming an NFL head coach.

Meanwhile Jim Fassel, Jon Gruden, Dan Reeves, Marty Schottenheimer and Mike Shanahan — a combined 701-536-4 as NFL head coaches — aren’t working in the NFL this season. Schottenheimer and Shanahan each have more career victories than any active NFL coach, yet neither wears a headset. Only four active NFL head coaches have at least 100 victories (Bill Belichick with 153, Jeff Fisher with 133, Tom Coughlin with 123 and Andy Reid with 107). Yet 100-plus winners Shanahan and Gruden were just shown the door and 100-plus winner Schottenheimer can’t get his phone calls returned.

Why do NFL teams keep hiring head coaches who have never been head coaches? This year, inexperienced head coaches sound good because Mike Smith and John Harbaugh, neither of whom had been a head coach previously at any level, just did great jobs in Atlanta and Baltimore. But other factors are at work. One is inexperienced gentlemen earn less than experienced head coaches. Going into the next round of collective bargaining talks, NFL owners are attempting to project a “woe is me, the wolf is at the door” financial image. There will be internal league pressure come late December for no owner to give Bill Cowher the $10 million a year that is reputed to be his price for returning to coaching, as this would counteract the league’s poor-mouth campaign. Hiring inexperienced coaches to moderate salaries, on the other hand, fits the times.

Another factor is that inexperienced coaches kowtow to owners and general managers. For bureaucratic reasons, some NFL front offices prefer a head coach in weak political position. . . .

Next, the track record of major-college head coaches who jump to the pros — Nicky Saban, Bobby Petrino, Steve Spurrier — isn’t good. Few Division I coaches even want NFL posts. Who in his right mind would give up the job security and fawning treatment that football-factory college coaches enjoy, in order to be knifed in the back for a couple of years in the NFL, then fired? If big-college head coaches either won’t take NFL jobs or don’t do well in them, owners may assume that NFL assistants without head coaching experience are the only option. But what about the universe of small-college and high school head coaches? The more coaches I meet and the more I learn about football, the more I become convinced that some of the best coaching occurs at small colleges and in high school — where coaches must succeed without huge staffs and unlimited budgets. But the NFL looks down its nose at small colleges and high schools; Mike Holmgren was one of the few successful recent NFL coaches to begin as a high school head coach.

That pretty much leaves NFL assistants who have never been head coaches as the NFL recruiting pool. But bear in mind: Roughly two-thirds of coaches whose first head coaching experience comes in the NFL fail. That suggests of Haley, Morris, McDaniels, Ryan, Schwartz and Spagnuolo, four will be busts. Then their employers will look around to hire someone else who has never been a head coach at any level!

I don’t need to add much; this is provocative enough. I agree that the head college job and the head pro job are very different animals. Recruiting versus roster management, the nature of scrutiny is different, as are the players. In this way it is not a surprise that it is NFL assistants that tend to get hired for NFL head gigs. I mean there is a logic that they have at least been around what the head coaches do and much of an NFL head coach’s job is managing his assistants, and you figure a guy who has been an assistant would understand what they do. But I am glad to see Easterbrook say that high school coaches are often more innovative and do better coaching jobs than NFL guys, especially when you take into account resources. (NFL coaches and big-time colleges really have no excuse with the huge resources and staffs they have. I’d like to see one of these big timers coach a HS squad with only two other coaches total and barely any equipment and see what your team looks like.) But again, the skills are different, so it’s not to say that just because you can succeed with 16-18 year old high schoolers you can succeed with 22-30 year old millionaires. But Easterbrook is entertaining and thought provoking, as always.

  • Dave

    I totally agree that this year’s crop of rookie head coaches is uninspiring and watching them implode will be some good schadenfreude.

    But it looks a little silly when Easterbrook complains about guys that haven’t been a head coach at any level and then lists Jim Fassel, Jon Gruden, Dan Reeves, Marty Schottenheimer and Mike Shanahan, of whom only one was a head coach at any level before becoming a NFL head coach (Fassel). That there are so many rookies is noteworthy, but everyone has to start somewhere. And this is a throwaway stat, but 8 coaches who made the playoffs last year were on their first head coaching gig at any level.

  • MarcusR

    You say that “everyone has to start somewhere”. That’s rather the point Easterbrook’s making, isn’t it? You should be selecting those who can be said to have a grounding in the “coaching” aspects of the game, rather than the wunderkind or the retread.

    As Chris has mentioned elsewhere on the blog, the NFL offense isn’t so varied as to necessitate an incisive tactical mind. It’s much more about getting the most you can from your Jimmys and Joes (rather than your Xs and Os), and that’s something that successful high school coaches have been doing for years.

    You can make a reasonable counter-argument regarding the ability of a coach to relate to millionaire players as opposed to awestruck teenagers, but good coaches find a way to coach, no matter who, no matter where.

    The NFL already sucks at evaluating QB talent. Who’s to say it’s not doing a pretty bad job as regards evaluating coaching talent too?

  • MTK

    It is interesting to consider how often NFL coaches move around even while NFL offensive and defensive schemes remain homogeneous (Chris has written about this several times recently). Does it indicate that the contributions of coordinators and position coaches are minimal?

    And on the constantly shuffling lifestyle of football coaches at every level…can you think of another high performance industry in which the leadership is so transient? For a business executive or a church pastor or a university administrator to have such a laundry list on his resume would be a negative thing. Any coach would love to keep a team with depth of experience in tact. But is there a correlation between stable coaching staffs and winning?

  • Ron

    I think a previous TMQ article mentioned about the stability of the Colts’ and Patriots (non-coordinator) staff and how that helps in their success. Unfortunately, like most TMQ columns, it’s a bit short on math, so there’s not much to go on.

    Dave, his thesis wasn’t that coordinators can’t become good coaches, as much as his article may suggest so. His thesis is more like the NFL shouldn’t look just at NFL coordinators for head coaching vacancies. Yes, most of the coaches he mentioned didn’t have HC experience before their first NFL HC job, but now they do, so why doesn’t the NFL consider them? He goes into some of the reasons, like money and power struggles between management and coaches.

    I think one reason the NFL hires mostly coordinators TMQ didn’t really mention is the incestuous nature of the NFL coaching culture, something Chris touched upon before. There seems to be a preference for guys who’ve been in the NFL before as a coach and as a player, and they’re familiar with the more-or-less homogeneous nature of NFL football strategy.

  • jfwells

    Wasn’t there just a post a while back on Smart Football decrying the incestuousness of NFL coach hiring practices? Why should we care that Jim Fassel, Jon Gruden, Dan Reeves, Marty Schottenheimer and Mike Shanahan are all out of jobs this season?

  • Dave

    “You say that “everyone has to start somewhere”. That’s rather the point Easterbrook’s making, isn’t it?”

    I don’t see where that’s the point. He acknowledges that most NFL coaches come from assistant backgrounds, but before that he criticizes teams for taking rookie head coaches because they’re cheaper and they’re reacting to Smith, Harbaugh and (unmentioned) Sparano and ends it with implying most are making a mistake. And I generally agree with him. The point I see him trying to make is that rather than try to find the next Mike Shanahan or Jon Gruden or whoever that teams should just hire him, but he’s not outright saying it, and even if he was it’s nothing new.


    Everyone in the business knows that getting a coaching job depends more on who you know and not what you know. For example, look at how many coaches get their foot in the door by working for their daddy’s. In the business world they call this nepotism.

    If you go to any of the high school coaching lectures, there are often college coaches there learning from these guys too. Especially here in Texas. Texas High School Football has some of the best coaches of any league, period. Many of these guys are coaching there simply because they like the stability of the job and they don’t have to move their families around all over the country.

  • It sounds nice/appealing to the target audience, but I still don’t understand what quantifiable characteristic the author is using to support this assertion. Simply “being a HS coach” isn’t what has made these coaches successful, I’d imagine. It is a wild assertion backed by circumstantial evidence without showing causation.

    While most HS coaches may work hard, I’d guarantee that very few put in the hours that pro or small college coaches do. Those hours are spent doing the meticulous details of game planning breakdown to get every ounce out of each rep/snap. Most HS coaches are no where near the level of competency of technique coaching or masters of understanding the game. The majority of American HS coaches are on par with glorified unionized baby sitters or fans with whistles.

    A large portion of the pro game requires one to actually know how to play the bureaucracy and scheduling at that level. This is why so many of the large DI programs feed the NFL (the orientation is very similar).

  • Dave

    “His thesis is more like the NFL shouldn’t look just at NFL coordinators for head coaching vacancies. ”

    That’s not his point. His point is that NFL teams just hired a slew of coaches with no prior head coaching experience at *any* level, not that they’re hiring first time NFL head coaches. It’s why he doesn’t mention Sparano or Caldwell, who were college head coaches. It’s a fine, unoriginal point to make.

  • Tom

    Just wondering: What about current “experienced” head coaches who haven’t made much of a mark lately or since there last move? Aren’t there any of those to offset the examples you cherry-picked to bolster your argument?

    Examples abound of college coaches who don’t cut it in the NFL (Spurrier, obviously comes to mind), so I’m not sure your reasoning is sound. Maybe head coaching experience doesn’t matter. It certainly is no guarantee.


    “Most HS coaches are no where near the level of competency of technique coaching or masters of understanding the game. The majority of American HS coaches are on par with glorified unionized baby sitters or fans with whistles.”

    Brophy, Maybe in other parts of the country, but not here in Texas. I guarantee you some of these coaches put in just as much time and are every bit as knowledgeable. Many, don’t even teach classes. For example, my high school position coach played for the Redskins for over a decade. I guarantee his skill of technique was not surpassed by anyone.

  • Naturally, it goes without saying that TEXAS is excluded from that statement. Texas is its’ own Nation/World

  • beckett

    While I agree with the general disgust most of us have with regurgitated coaching hires at the NFL level and the ‘keep it in the family’ attitude most teams have… Mike Tomlin took only 2 years to win a Superbowl as a first time head coach.

  • MTK

    brophy, I suspect your comment on a “majority of HS coaches” would be infuriating to the majority to which you refer.

    Not sure why you have such contempt? Relative on an hours to hours basis (and certainly relative to the monetary compensation they receive), HS coaches do put in similar hours to big league coaches.

    My experience is that like the hours of Wall Street investment bankers, the hours that coaches invest are often padded with bullsh**. Like, when the senior guy needs to work late and the juniors stay late and act busy. Sure wouldn’t want to be that guy who got the work done in the first 12 hours of the workday… Or when someone disappears for several hours during the day, only to work until midnight. No question, football has gotten more complex. But how complex is it really? Particularly when one is so highly supported like a D1 or NFL staff is.

    In most businesses, the guys who work 100 hour weeks are not the bright or talented ones. But in football, there exists a machismo that says “if I spend the night on the couch in the coaches office and watch film until I can’t focus, I’m a better coach”. That’s crazy.

    Finally, I’ve interacted with smart X’s and O’s guys who couldn’t lead a kid to eat ice cream. My point is that a ever-developing understanding of scheme and organizational leadership don’t alway co-exist. When they do, well, you’ve probably got your dynasty. But neither of those necessarily require a Gruden-esque work week.

  • there is an easy metric to qualify my HS coaches statement (Texas excluded)- how many of them would be coaching if they were not a teacher? Not a great many of them.

  • MTK

    I’d argue that most teach so they can coach and not the other way around.

    The real tragedy is how low we value coaches who have such potential to influence our young men. That is, realistically, until you get to the D1 level.

  • MarcusR

    Remind me again what coaching is? According to Brophy, it appears to be mostly playing “the bureaucracy and scheduling”. I always understood it to be mostly teaching. Maybe I got it wrong, and actually the sign of a great coach is to be able to wangle that extra money for the program and ensure a favourable schedule…

  • its not that we don’t value HS coaches, its just that;
    1) there is no supporting evidence to the assertion made by the author
    2) being a good HS coach and the HS environment does not equate to the same job requirements of an NFL coach (and the author never addresses this)
    3) There is no requirement that a HS coach needs to understand schemes, game planning, or how to beat the best myriads of passing concepts or coverages….the onus is just to beat whatever regional athletes they face on a Fall evening. While some MIGHT have the knowledge and capacity to contend with these issues, I would argue MOST do not (because it really isn’t necessary).

    More to the point;
    A) DI / DII / DIII Head Coaches typically start out as coordinators, who
    B) once were assistants at that level, who started out as
    C) Graduate Assistants, who cut their teeth with long, endless hours studying every meticulous detail.

    This also is relative to the abundance of ‘successful’ NFL coaches who started out as QUALITY CONTROL COACHES.

    Now, take that formula to the HS level…..
    A) Most Head Coaches started out as teachers
    B) end of logic string

  • The HS coach who can teach Johnny to correctly step playside on inside zone and get a quick interior punch on his defender by the 2nd step, will likely have ‘coached’ Johnny to an acceptable level to be successful.

    The athlete who is playing that position at the NFL level has progressed (in technique) so far beyond rudimentary skill sets that this HS coach in the above example would not be contributing much of anything to help the NFL player become better.

    So, to support the argument that more HS coaches should be coaching in the NFL, you would have to be able to explain or demonstrate how that is different.

  • MarcusR

    That argument would seem to suggest that NFL players have gotten as good as they’re going to get by the time they enter the league, and all that they do over the rest of their career is learn schemes and develop organically, independent of the coaches who’re spending hours “doing the meticulous details of game planning breakdown to get every ounce out of each rep/snap”. Either the coaches have an effect once players enter the pros or they don’t.

    Your own “logic strings” would seem to illustrate the point being made, that there doesn’t, at present, exist a career track for successful HS coaches to progress to the college and/or pro levels, thereby denying the Div1/NFL levels an entire talent base which they might exploit.

    One thing common to both these strings is a certain hidebound way of thinking on your part, which seems to preclude the possibility of HS coaches being able to progress in any way beyond their present surroundings.

  • I suppose before one begins making these wild assumptions, one should first examine why the current system exists as it does (and why).

    The Holmgren progressed through the professional coaching ranks from a HS English teacher WHY? because he taught English or because he did something else?

    The issue isn’t if coaching matters or not, it is the arena in which the coaches are peforming, and attempting to extrapolate those results into a completely different area and environment (that consists of completely different skill sets).

    High Schools should hire more 8 year old league football coaches as Head Coaches. Youth league football coaches are ‘discriminated against’……WHY?

    And that is where this argument is.

    Retarding the discussion into a “HS coaches suck” argument is completley missing the point.

  • Dave

    2 minutes of research by Easterbrook would have shown him that Holmgren was not a head coach in high school, he was only an assistant coach.

  • BillyBob

    Brophy you seriously kill me. I love to read your stuff on your blog ( or at coachhuey, as well as here. You never cease to push my brain as you always seem to find a different perspective to an issue. I think your point was very well made here. As you are apparently done at your present gig, let me know if you ever want to head back up to the midwest, I’d love to have you any day of the week. Thanks for your efforts.


    “Naturally, it goes without saying that TEXAS is excluded from that statement. Texas is its’ own Nation/World”


  • MTK

    brophy, it was your assertion that “The majority of American HS coaches are on par with glorified unionized baby sitters or fans with whistles” that started the “high school coaches suck” argument to begin with. I think we’ve circled back to where we started.

  • chg

    It’s clear some of these commenters come from the talent-bereft parts of the country. My HS has a coaching staff of 16, a weight room and strength program that many small colleges would envy, and a video coordinator. It is also has one of the largest IB programs in the nation, to head off all the “duuur, too much football, your kids can’t read” replies.

  • so, chg, are you saying that your program is TYPICAL or ELITE?
    If you are implying the latter, then it really has no bearing on this discussion, does it?

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