Former head coaches try to stay in game

Former head coaches like Gunther Cunningham and Gregg Williams have to bide their time as assistants.

Updated: September 3, 2004, 1:55 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Gunther Cunningham put aside the ego. Losing a head coaching job is tough, particularly when he felt he did a decent job as head coach of the Chiefs.

But Cunningham loves the game of football. Most coaches do. After taking a couple of years to turn unknown linebackers into solid players for the Tennessee Titans, Cunningham did the unusual. He came home at the call of the Chiefs to coordinate a defense that underachieved in 2003.

The minute he stepped back in Arrowhead Stadium where the Chiefs are headquartered on a daily basis, Cunningham knew it was the right move. Players hugged him. Front office people made him feel at home. He was the defensive coordinator hired to bring the aggressiveness back to the defense.

"I'm going to give them every chance to raise hell," Cunningham said.

Cunningham put together two volumes of defensive plays. Each Chiefs defender had a carry bag. They could use the books for weightlifting. As he does with most projects, Cunningham attacked the defensive scheme with all of his mind and energy. When it comes to aggressive energy, Gunther Cunningham is a machine gun of ideas.

He's not alone. There is life after losing a head coaching job in the NFL. Cunningham is among roughly two dozen former head or interim coaches who put aside their egos and moved from the plush offices to the cubicles to either await that next chance or enjoy coaching in a league they love.

Cunningham's three-year sabbatical from the Chiefs was fun and isn't unlike many others going on around the NFL. While many former head coaches maintain coordinator jobs, others work with varied titles. Mike White, former Raiders head coach in 1995 and 1996, is a director of football administration for the Chiefs. Former Giants coach Jim Fassel is senior consultant to the Ravens. Vince Tobin, former Cardinals head coach, is senior assistant to the Packers.

The key to opportunity in the NFL is staying in the game. Cunningham set the new model. He accepted the linebacker job for Jeff Fisher and coached under the radar for three years. Under his watch, Keith Bulluck developed into one of the best play-making linebackers in the game. Peter Sirmon became a good player.

Unlike the pressures and demands of the head coaching job, a position coach does one thing. He gets players ready for games. Cunningham had a blast in Nashville. He loved the staff. Fisher is among the brightest minds and most generous coaches in the game. Fisher is developing a bright defensive coordinator in Jim Schwartz who will one day be ticketed for head coaching duties.

Cunningham exchanged ideas with him. He worked well with aggressive defensive line coach Jim Washburn, one of the best in the game. More so than anything else, Cunningham coached and had fun.

When he left to become Chiefs defensive coordinator, he got a call from former Cardinals head coach Dave McGinnis, who was being offerend the job that Cunningham was leaving. Cunningham advised McGinnis, who had numerous job offers in and out of pro football, to take the Titans job.

"Gun said he thoroughly enjoyed it," McGinnis said. "I could have done a lot of other things. But I love and respect the NFL so much. I knew it was a good thing and it has turned out to be tremendous thing."

To give the job more respect, Fisher dubbed McGinnis linebackers coach and assistant head coach.

There isn't a former head coach in the NFL that isn't itching for another chance. But there are only 32 jobs. Former head coaches have to be like cornerbacks burned for touchdown passes. Memories have to be short.

"I'm not looking past here," McGinnis said.

You can't. It takes so long to get a head coaching job. Circumstances have to be right to get back. Clearly, Fassel will be back in a head coaching job in the next year or two. He was successful with the Giants. He's got a bright offensive mind. It appeared he was targeted for the Cardinals job, but Bill Bidwill Sr. hired Dennis Green, who was idle for two seasons awaiting his next chance.

Usually, seven jobs a year open and the dynamics continue to change. The NFL rightfully stresses minority hiring because there are so many quality minority assistants who never had the chance to be a head coach. There is a rapidly rising group of former players in their early 40s who make a quick transition from assistant to head coach because they know the ebbs and flows of the locker room.

The key is to find the right job to set up the next head coaching opportunity.

Former Bills coach Gregg Williams couldn't have found a better situation than being the defensive coordinator in Washington. He linked up with Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs, who is a lock to be an instant success in Washington. Williams job is to take his aggressive scheme and make the Redskins defense as threatening as the offense.

If the Redskins make it back to the Super Bowl in the next two years, Williams might be a hot coaching property again. The same can be said for Fassel. The Ravens are among the best teams in the AFC. Their defense alone is good enough to put them in Super Bowl contention. All Fassel has to do is develop Kyle Boller as a quarterback.

Williams and Fassel are probably the most driven to get back in the head coaching mix. Another is Al Saunders of the Chiefs. He was the Chargers head coach from 1986 to 1988. Marty Schottenheimer hired him as receivers coach in 1989 and he was one of the best in the game at developing pass-catchers who could block on the run.

Most good coaches are focused. They can't control head coaching opportunities, but they know success improves a resume. Saunders linked up with Dick Vermeil in St. Louis and learned the Rams offense that has suddenly become one of the league's hottest.

Now, he coordinates a Chiefs offense that could go to the Super Bowl. Times have also changed for assistants like Saunders. Coaching agents work behind the scenes testing the waters and getting feelers on names. Salaries for coordinators have soared to $1 million or more a year in some cases.

Many of the former head coaches such as Fassel, Dick Jauron, McGinnis and others are still being paid by the teams who fired them.

Financially, these former head coaches are secure. Their itch to head coach again is still there, but they can delegate the pressure of getting that next job.

While they await the future, these two dozen former head coaches just coach, which is what they were born to do.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer at ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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