Thursday, January 25, 2007
The young and the restless
By Jemele Hill Page 2
1994 was a crazy year. Tonya Harding attacked Nancy Kerrigan. O.J. Simpson was arrested. The World Series was canceled because of MLB's player strike. Kurt Cobain committed suicide. "Pulp Fiction" and "Clerks" were released. John Candy died.
Dylan McKay was always Lane Kiffin's favorite.
This all happened the year Lane Kiffin, the Oakland Raiders' new head coach, graduated from Bloomington Jefferson High School in Minnesota. Just picture it: Kiffin slow-dancing to Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" at his prom. His date probably wore the "Rachel" haircut.
You can expect to see a lot more head coaches from the "Beverly Hills 90210" era in the NFL. The Dallas Cowboys have hired 40-year-old Jason Garrett as their offensive coordinator and are still considering hiring him for their head coaching position.
All kidding aside, people are becoming unsettled unnecessarily about the influx of young NFL coaches -- particularly Kiffin, who is the youngest NFL coach of the modern era. Even though his father is revered Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, Lane Kiffin's only NFL experience was as a "quality control coach" with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Be honest -- how many of you saw that and said, "Oh, he was the one who made the Starbucks runs." Résumé padding is so 1990s.
For forever, the NFL has been billed as an old man's game. But this youth movement is merely a changing of the guard that was bound to happen. Seventeen of the NFL's 31 head coaches -- excluding the Cowboys because they still have an opening -- are now 48 years old or younger. But take note of the ages of the coaches who recently left the NFL -- 65-year-old Bill Parcells, 60-year-old Art Shell, 57-year-old Dennis Green, 55-year-old Nick Saban and 49-year-old Bill Cowher.
The primary reason NFL teams are much better off trying to find the next Eric Mangini than rehiring a retread like Green is that NFL success is no longer strictly based on who is a master of X's and O's. Guys like Parcells, Bill Walsh, Don Shula and Dan Reeves built their reputations on their strategies. But these days, an NFL coach can be successful as long as he can build, foster and manipulate relationships with his players. This doesn't mean younger coaches can't strategize too, but their success isn't as dependent on it.
I know all this sounds a little too "Steel Magnolias." But today's player isn't interested in being barked at -- unless it's by a coach who already has rings. Today's player needs to be nurtured, since his emotional growth likely was stunted by being told how great he is 1,000 times a day. Young coaches are willing to stroke egos. Older coaches are not.
It's no coincidence that the two coaches in the Super Bowl this year don't fit the mold of a traditional NFL coach. Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy, both non-screamers, have prided themselves on the emotional ties they've forged with their players. Of course, they're tough men who demand respect -- but neither rules with an iron fist.
In the real world, most of us would rather listen to a peer than a parent. And athletes are no different. Terrell Owens compared Parcells to his grandmother, and who wants to be coached by grandma? Parcells is one of the greatest coaches ever in the NFL, but he was Lawrence Welk in a game better suited for Young Jeezy.
It's fair to say that coaches of this millennium will not be sticking around as long as Parcells and Dick Vermeil did. The pressures, scrutiny, shaky job security and seemingly endless work weeks make it extremely difficult for any coach to stay in the NFL a long time. Dungy, who turns 52 this year, is at the height of his career, but he continues to drop hints that his coaching career might end soon. Years ago it would have been unfathomable for a coach to leave an organization like the Pittsburgh Steelers because of burnout, as Bill Cowher did.
So expect the league to get even younger. It's only a matter of time before some NFL team hires a head coach who has no idea Adam Sandler's "The Longest Yard" is a remake.
Jemele Hill, a Page 2 columnist and writer for ESPN the Magazine, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.