Despite flaws, coaching tough to leave behind

PHOENIX -- Deep into thought and slumped even deeper into a plush lounge chair on the sunny veranda of The Arizona Biltmore -- the immaculately manicured resort at which the league convened its annual meetings this week -- John Madden sat and watched the NFL universe slowly pass him by.

The Hall of Fame coach, color analyst and computer-game namesake looked tan. He looked relaxed. And he looked on, at times seemingly bemused by it all, as the NFL proceedings spun wildly around him as coaches hustled to get to meetings, headed off to early-morning media breakfasts and huddled with general managers over important draft and free agency matters.

So, three decades after he abruptly walked away from the sideline and into the network broadcast booth, does Madden miss it at all? Is there any part of him that wonders why, after coaching for only 10 seasons with the Oakland Raiders and winning Super Bowl XI, he never returned to the madness of the NFL rat race?

Not at all.

"When I left, I left, and that was it," said Madden, elected to the Hall of Fame in 2006. "I just really didn't need it anymore."

In that regard, Madden is definitely in the minority.

There are few vocations, it seems, with the tempting siren's call of the coaching profession. Men leave it and come back, even years after they've allegedly retired -- some, like Joe Gibbs of the Washington Redskins, following a hiatus of more than a decade. And others appear to never want to walk away at all.

What's the allure of a job that is so rife with stress, demands such long hours and includes the highest highs and the lowest lows? It's hard to say and, in truth, probably varies from one coach to the next. But like "The Godfather" figures who try to escape the Mafia, there is a draw that keeps dragging coaches back in and won't let them walk away from the game as easily as Madden did.

"It's kind of [trite], but it just gets in your blood," said Wade Phillips, who will take over the Dallas Cowboys this year after not having been a head coach since he was fired in Buffalo after the 2000 season. "We all [aspire] to be as good as we can be, and coaching in the NFL is the highest level there is, right? You're testing yourself against the best. And if you've got that natural competitiveness a lot of us possess, it's where you want to be. You don't want to be away from it. You just want to keep coming back for more."

That's for sure.

"It's kind of [trite], but it just gets in your blood. We all [aspire] to be as good as we can be, and coaching in the NFL is the highest level there is, right? ... And if you've got that natural competitiveness a lot of us possess, it's where you want to be. You don't want to be away from it. You just want to keep coming back for more."
-- Dallas coach Wade Phillips

Of the league's 32 head coaches last season, a dozen were working with at least their second different franchise. Bill Parcells of Dallas and Marty Schottenheimer of San Diego were on their fourth teams and Buffalo's Dick Jauron was with his third. Even with the trend toward hiring first-time head coaches over the past two years, 11 of the 32 coaches for this season will be with at least their second teams.

It's hard to jump off the coaching merry-go-round. And hard, too, to ignore returning to it once the calliope music starts playing. For many coaches, the lure is too strong.

That includes Gibbs, who returned to the Redskins after a Hall of Fame career and an 11-season hiatus. Dick Vermeil was away from the league for 15 years when he emerged from retirement in 1999 to coach the St. Louis Rams. He retired again after winning the Super Bowl in 2000, sat out two years, then came back to coach at Kansas City for five seasons. Parcells has twice retired and returned.

There is so much skepticism when a coach retires now that the Hall of Fame this week debated a motion that would enact a five-year waiting period, the same as currently exists for players, before coaches could be considered for enshrinement. Currently there is no such waiting period for coaches. But given the history of coaches returning to the game after a hiatus, does anyone really think a successful sideline boss like Bill Cowher isn't coming back to the NFL in the next year or two?

"We'd all be shocked if he's not [back]," said one AFC coaching contemporary of Cowher over breakfast Tuesday morning. "Even if you accept his rationale for leaving, that he plans to spend more time with his family, and I take him at his word on that, he's got the coaching bug. He's too competitive a guy not to be back. He's been to the top of the mountain. And guess what? Guys who have been there usually want a second view. For whatever reason."

Among the reasons of late, of course, is the upward spiral of coaching salaries. This is an era in which even mediocre coaches are banking $4 million annually. In the past couple of years, owners have attempted to bring their coaching costs under control by hiring first-time coaches and signing them to shorter-term contracts. But veteran coaches demand a richer pay scale, and a résumé with some weight characteristically translates into financial clout.

Then again, money doesn't always translate into success.

At about $5.7 million per year, Gibbs is one of the NFL's top five highest-paid coaches, but it hasn't bought him a fourth Super Bowl ring. Three seasons into his second incarnation as the Redskins' coach, Gibbs has, to this point, proven to be an ordinary Joe, with a record of 22-28 and just one postseason victory. Parcells' last two jobs, with the Jets and Cowboys, produced one playoff win. The latest chapter of his career ended ignobly, with holder Tony Romo fumbling the snap on a potential game-winning field goal.

For Parcells, who will be an analyst for ESPN this season, that was likely the final chapter. But coaches who assembled here this week for the annual NFL meetings acknowledged that closing the book entirely comes hard. Someone once suggested that coaches are little more than glorified gym teachers. If true, that goes to the core of why most of them are in the profession in the first place.

"Coming up playing and then working for Coach [Chuck] Noll, you understood how much the teaching and leadership elements meant to him," said Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy. "Take away all the money, all the fame, the attention ... and I think most of the guys here would still be doing the same thing. The biggest common denominator, I think, is wanting to work with people, maybe not so much mold them, but being able to bring together a group of guys for one goal. There's something attractive about that, something that goes beyond ego and money, and I think it keeps [coaches] in the game and keeps them coming back to it."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer with ESPN.com.