Former head coaches flock to assistant jobs

Going from being a head coach to an assistant can be a blow to the ego. But for most, it's hard to resist the urge to coach.

Updated: February 21, 2006, 2:35 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

It has been a decade and a half since Dan Henning was in charge of an NFL football operation, and nearly a full generation of fans likely doesn't even realize that the Carolina Panthers' brainy offensive coordinator, still one of the most fertile minds around after 27 seasons in the business, was twice a head coach in the league.

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In fact, Henning is probably better known for essentially creating the H-back position and for his use of the single-back formation, than he is for compiling a 38-73-1 mark as the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons (1983-86) and San Diego Chargers (1989-91). These days, clearly one of the NFL's most articulate, engaging and well-rounded men in wide-ranging matters from football frivolities to real-world issues, Henning is proof positive that there is, indeed, life after having been handed a pink slip as a head coach.

That's an important lesson, and one that more former head coaches need to learn, particularly for the 2006 season. Why so? Because the coaching ranks in the NFL are suddenly rife with former head coaches, men who toiled for years to reach the top of their profession, but who in 2006 will be subordinates on someone else's staff. And while some of them will have further reincarnations as head coaches, not all of them will rise again to the top spot on an NFL staff.

As staffs are currently configured at this late juncture in the firing-and-hiring cycle, there are now 22 former head coaches who will be assistants in 2006. And that isn't counting men who served as interim head coaches at some point in their careers.

That represents an increase of six from just a season ago and, as far as ESPN.com research can determine, 22 is the most in modern league history. Seven men who were head coaches in 2005 have accepted positions as assistants with new franchises for next season. And essentially, they have accepted the fact they are, to borrow a favorite Steve Spurrier term, "ball coaches."

No matter the titles in front of their names.

"If it's really in your blood," acknowledged Henning after a Pro Bowl practice last week, "then you know that coaching is coaching, and that it's something you love and can't shake. Sure, it's a comedown when you lose a job [as a head coach]. But I'd rather be coaching something [as a] position coach or coordinator or whatever than not coaching at all. I'd think that most [coaches] would get a little stir-crazy just sitting around."

That sure appears to be the case.

Of the 10 head coaches who were either fired or resigned in 2005, only two will not be back in the NFL in 2006, and just one will continue as a head coach. Dick Vermeil of Kansas City opted to retire for a second (and probably final) time and Detroit's Steve Mariucci decided to take at least a year off from the game and probably will seek a job in broadcasting. Herm Edwards, of course, moved from head coach of the New York Jets into Vermeil's former spot with the Chiefs.

The seven others, a few of them after considerable and probably painstaking deliberation in some cases, accepted spots on other staffs at either the assistant head coach or the coordinator level. In most of the situations, the former head coaches could have cashed big paychecks for a season or more just sitting idly in front of the television, but chose instead to go back to work.

Which doesn't surprise Henning, one of three ex-head coaches from the professional ranks on John Fox's staff. Former Tampa Bay Bucs coach Richard Williamson and Jim Skipper, the onetime coach of the San Francisco Demons of the short-lived XFL, are the others.

"Life moves on," Henning said. "And so do coaches."

Time was, though, when moving on in the NFL often meant immediately moving into another head coach spot. But that isn't the case anymore, not with the current trend. Counting the changes since the end of the 2005 season, 18 of the last 32 openings, dating back to 2002, were filled by men with no previous NFL head coaching stripes. Since 2000, rookie head coaches have filled 28 of 47 vacancies. And since 2000, only five men -- Mariucci, Edwards, Tony Dungy, Jon Gruden and Marty Schottenheimer -- went from being the boss of a franchise one season to head coach of another club the ensuing year.

When you're a head coach, you wrap yourself around that job heart and soul. Now, to be disassociated from that, it's difficult. It's like getting divorced from something you've been very passionate about. There's a little period there where it takes a little time for it to settle in, and you come to the conclusion that you're not going to be in that job anymore. You wrap yourself around it so tightly, though, it's tough to let it go.
Mike Sherman, current Texans assistant head coach

Some successful head coaches, such as Vermeil, Tom Coughlin, Dennis Green and Bill Parcells, took time off between gigs. And some, like Dom Capers and Dick Jauron, took a step back into the assistant coach ranks before stepping into their second head coach positions.

If the old recycling system of the past isn't quite dead yet, it's certainly on life support. Coaches increasingly seem to realize now that to resuscitate their head coaching careers, they might have to take assistant head coach or coordinator level positions. The seven men who went from being head coaches in 2005 to assistants in 2006 represent an unusually large class. But taking a step back in the ranks isn't nearly as unusual as it used to be.

"You've got bills to pay," said San Diego defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who has been a full-time head coach twice and an interim head coach on two occasions, and who went back to being an assistant after losing each of those four positions. "But mostly, you just like to coach. It's probably more an ego [comedown] to have no job at all than to go from being a head coach to an assistant coach."

In addition, the group of former head coaches who accepted assistant coach positions over the last six weeks represents a boon to their new teams. As terrific a job as Nick Saban did in Miami in his first season in 2005, his staff is strengthened remarkably by the additions of Capers (fired by the Texans) to run the defense and Mike Mularkey (resigned as Bills coach) to preside over the offense. Norv Turner, jettisoned by the Oakland Raiders, will attempt to rectify the offensive problems across the bay as the new coordinator for the 49ers. Former Vikings coach Mike Tice, as the new assistant head coach in Jacksonville, will get back to his roots coaching offensive linemen. Is there any doubt onetime Rams coach Mike Martz can help the offensively challenged Detroit Lions?

In all cases, that will mean putting ego aside a bit, but all seem prepared to do so.

Mike Sherman, the former Green Bay sideline boss who earlier this week accepted the position of assistant head coach on Gary Kubiak's initial Houston Texans staff, is the most recent of the ex-head coaches to take a job of lesser title. And he conceded that letting go of the concept of being a head coach was a difficult thing to do.

"When you're a head coach," Sherman said, "you wrap yourself around that job heart and soul. Now, to be disassociated from that, it's difficult. It's like getting divorced from something you've been very passionate about. There's a little period there where it takes a little time for it to settle in, and you come to the conclusion that you're not going to be in that job anymore. You wrap yourself around it so tightly, though, it's tough to let it go."

Arguably victim of the most mystifying of the head coach changes this offseason, since he had taken the Packers to four playoff appearances in six years and suffered through 2005 with a lineup decimated by injuries, Sherman could have taken two years off and collected the $6.4 million that Green Bay owed him for the balance of his contract.

Likewise, former New Orleans coach Jim Haslett could have banked about $3.2 million for taking the 2006 season off, but instead took a job as the St. Louis Rams' defensive coordinator. Martz would have made roughly $1.6 million in 2006 for sharpening his golf game, but, after some waffling, became the offensive coordinator of the Lions.

Three of the men -- Sherman, Martz and Haslett -- will be working under rookie head coaches.

Martz conceded that he hopes to be a head coach again in the NFL, but emphasized that he did not accept the job on Rod Marinelli's staff just to reposition himself on the ladder. It would be na´ve, though, to believe that with so many ex-head coaches back as assistants now, there won't be some rumors of palace intrigue, power plays and even backstabbing in 2006. But Martz insisted he is on board to help Marinelli do his job, not to take it, and that he will be very patient in waiting for a second head coaching opportunity.

"I did not come here with the thought that I'm going to be coach [in Detroit] one year and then go be a head coach [elsewhere] again," Martz said. "That's not why I'm here. If I was going to do that, then why take this job? You know what I mean? Why not just sit out a year and then try to do that? No, I came here because I want to be here, and not just for a year."

In light of recent occurrences, and especially what transpired during this firing-and-hiring cycle, that seems a realistic mind-set. After all, there were 16 ex-head coaches on staffs as assistants in 2005, and only three of them garnered interviews for vacancies in the past six weeks. Just one -- former San Diego head coach and most recently Kansas City offensive coordinator Al Saunders -- interviewed with more than one franchise.

Guys like Henning, Joe Bugel and Ray Rhodes -- each of whom was a head coach for two different franchises in the NFL -- understand that you eventually run out of chances, but still don't necessarily run out on the profession. There are men such as Dick LeBeau, Gunther Cunningham and Dave McGinnis who might never get another shot, but who continue to coach defenses at a very high level. And there are others, such as former New York Giants head coach and current Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Fassel, who desperately want another chance.

For some of the seven former head coaches who have gone back into the assistant coaching ranks for 2006, the step back might eventually land them another top job. Even if it doesn't, though, they are in their element and in a vocation they have embraced.

"It's still," Henning said, "a pretty good life."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.

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