Latest coaching trends favor fresh faces, not retreads

1/18/2008 - NFL

Not all that long ago, if NFL franchises had published want ads every time they desired to make a head coaching change, the job description in many of those cases would likely have included this critical caveat: "Only those with prior experience need apply."

But not anymore.

In recent firing-and-hiring cycles, the notion of adding a retread head coach is being increasingly rejected by owners and general managers. And the trend clearly has extended to this year as well, with very few former NFL head coaches being contacted for interviews, as the league continues to skew toward new.

Suddenly, younger and fresher is the in thing in the league. The good ol' boys network that used to represent standard operating procedure when franchises were looking for head coaching replacements is coming undone.

Eight of the 12 teams in this season's playoff pool, and three of the four franchises in the conference championship games this weekend, are stewarded by head coaches who are in at least their second go-rounds as NFL sideline bosses. San Diego's Norv Turner and Dallas' Wade Phillips are each in their third gigs as head coaches. Yet even with the successes of the second- and third-time coaches, the obvious momentum in interviews over the past three weeks has been with newer candidates.

"Take a look at what's going on," said one former head coach who wasn't a candidate in Miami and hasn't been contacted by any of the three clubs still conducting head coaching searches. "It seems like the obvious preference now is for the
so-called 'fresh face,' the new guy who doesn't come with any baggage or track record, and hasn't been fired by anybody.

"Having 'former head coach' on your résumé, which used to be enough to at least get you in the door when there were job openings, is like having a third eye in the middle of your forehead or something. I don't get it. When did it become such a stigma to actually have experience running the show?"

Actually, about three years ago.

Since 2005 -- when there were only three openings in the league, and first-time head coaches Nick Saban (Miami), Mike Nolan (San Francisco) and Romeo Crennel (Cleveland) landed them -- there have been 22 head coaching spots that were filled, counting John Harbaugh's hiring by the Baltimore on Friday. Only five of the positions (less than one-quarter of them) were awarded to men with previous NFL head coaching experience.

Yet in the 10-year stretch between 1995-2004, nearly half of the vacancies (33 of 68), were snatched up by candidates who had previous head coaching experience in the league. In 1997, for example, there were 11 vacancies, the most since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. And eight of those were filled by coaches making encore appearances in the league. Dick Vermeil was dragged back by the Rams that season, after 15 years of retirement. Bill Parcells landed a head coaching job with his third different franchise. And New Orleans dusted off Mike Ditka.

These days, a proven commodity such as Marty Schottenheimer, whose 205 victories are the sixth most in league history, sits around collecting dust. A casual conversation with Baltimore Ravens officials was his only nibble. Steve Mariucci, Dennis Green, Dan Reeves, Jim Fassel or even the recently deposed Brian Billick? They aren't exactly on speed dial for any league owners right now.

And neither, it seems, are former head coaches who are still in the league as assistants. That lengthy list includes guys such as recently dismissed Miami defensive coordinator Dom Capers, Tennessee linebackers coach Dave McGinnis, Jacksonville assistant head coach Mike Tice, former Dolphins tight ends coach Mike Mularkey, St. Louis defensive coordinator Jim Haslett and Washington assistant head coach/offense Al Saunders. None of them has received so much as a cursory telephone call concerning any of the current vacancies.

That is not a criticism of what occurred in Miami -- where Parcells, the new vice president of football operations, tabbed Sparano as his man early on -- or of the ongoing processes in Atlanta or Washington. The preference for recycling head coaches, which existed for way too many years, promulgated a mind-set that bordered on a kind of closed shop mentality, one which stymied inclusiveness.

It is meant, instead, to emphasize the phenomenon that has taken place in the NFL over the past three cycles of head coaching change, with the pendulum having swung decidedly toward candidates with no experience as the top guy.

Most of the owners who have sought to make head coaching changes in the past three years aren't necessarily looking for candidates with lengthy résumés or faded accomplishments. Instead, they are looking more at assistants (generally at the coordinator level) whom they deem ready to make the next step.

In many cases, that translates into younger and newer. Arguably the most coveted candidate of the past few weeks, Jason Garrett, who rebuffed head coaching offers in Atlanta and Baltimore to continue as the Dallas Cowboys' offensive coordinator, is only 41 and has been an assistant in the league for just three seasons. Such lack of tenure, and obvious dearth of experience as the top man on the coaching ladder, didn't seem to bother the Falcons or Ravens, each of whom offered Garrett a contract worth at least $3 million per year.

The whole dynamic of what makes a coach a hot candidate in a given year is an interesting study, but certainly Garrett had all the requisite ingredients: working for a successful team, garnering considerable national publicity for his accomplishments, knowing how to articulate his message well with the media and prospective employers. It seems to be a combination that sells well.

And that's part of what owners are seeking in new head coaches: someone who can sell tickets, usually to fans who are disgruntled by losing, and whose pitch also resonates with players.

There appear to be several candidates who meet the "in" model this season, but one of the notable elements of this season's four head coaching searches is that teams have focused on the same subset of men. This is an era in which mechanisms such as the Rooney Rule -- which mandates that teams interview at least one minority candidate -- have sought to make the pool of potential head coaches more inclusive. The term the NFL likes to use is getting more candidates "into the pipeline."

But in part because there are fewer job openings than in most years, and because there are several candidates that multiple teams expressed interest in, the pipeline has been a relatively narrow one.

To this point, only 12 men have interviewed for the four openings that existed, and they combined for a total of 20 interviews. Five of the candidates met with multiple teams and three of them -- Sparano, Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, and former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan -- each interviewed with three different franchises looking for new head coaches.

But here is perhaps the most notable part of the process: Only two candidates with previous NFL head coaching experience, Washington assistant head coach/defense Gregg Williams and Seattle secondary coach Jim Mora, received interviews. Both men met with the Redskins, the only franchise among the four with openings to interview a retread coach.

Even with the reduced job openings, that's a remarkably small number, but one that is obviously reflective of the movement in the league to stress qualities that range beyond just experience.

At least for this segment of its history, no one can accuse the NFL of functioning as the good ol' boys network that it has been in the past.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.