NFL Head Coaches: Small Men Who Control Giants

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NFL Head Coaches: Small Men Who Control Giants

Imagine this scene for a moment.

Fifty large, muscular men are gathered together in a room, laughing and carrying on with each other. When I say large, I understate the situation a bit: some of these men are HUGE. Most of them are well over six feet tall, and quite a number of them eclipse 300 pounds, with hands that could palm the head of an average-sized human.

All of them have muscles that ripple and roll as they move: they are prime athletic specimens, and the picture of coiled ferocity comes to mind as you watch them mill about the room.

A man walks into the room, quietly and unnoticed at first, but he eventually catches the attention of one, then another, then another, until eventually every other man in the room has gone quiet, settled down, and is intensely watching this man to see what he will do or say.

He's not really all that impressive a creature; he may or may not be around six feet tall, but physically he is not a match for any other man in the room. In fact, he may be a bit on the rotund side, but still these gargantuan men have their eyes locked on him.

Sometimes he is younger than most of the guys in the room, other times he looks old enough to be their fathers, if not their grandfathers. Still, it doesn't matter: no one moves, no one makes a sound, no one dares breathe too loud lest they draw the specific attention of this seemingly unassuming, but obviously important man.

As he walks to the center or front of the room, these men shuffle out of his way to give him plenty of room. It's almost like they are afraid to touch him lest they contract some ghastly disease, or get burned by the acid that might be on his skin.

Who is this guy? Is he some alien visitor, come to earth to select a host for his dying race, so that they may continue to live? Is he a law enforcement officer looking for the perpetrator of a recent crime?

Is he EF Hutton?

No, he is none of these people. He is in fact, an NFL head coach, and he commands respect and attention by his mere presence in a room.

I know you've all witnessed the scene: Large football player rumbles off the field after making a bone-headed play, small-ish head coach walks over to the player—or runs, if the situation warrants—reaches UP, grabs the players facemask, and proceeds to chew him a new one.

Large football player stands there and takes it, probably muttering the whole time, "Sorry, coach. Didn't mean to, coach. It won't happen again, coach. I'll do better next time, coach. Please don't eat me, coach."

If you don't think this takes intestinal fortitude of a herculean measure, try it some time. Go to your local semi-pro league team's practice, pick the biggest lineman you can find, jump up and hang off his facemask while you commence to tell him just what he did wrong and what he needs to do to fix it.

Odds are the guy will look at you like a late afternoon snack, lick his chops, then grab you and heave you completely out of the practice facility.

So how do they do it? Sure, some of them have been around a while, but more than a few have no NFL playing experience of note, and worked their way up from sometimes obscure college divisions to take the positions they hold. Some, like retired head coach Tony Dungy, are rather soft-spoken. They don't scream and yell, they simply speak and the players listen.

It all boils down to one common thread: respect. The most successful head coaches respect their players, respect their organization, and respect their team's history.

You can tell who the good ones are, and who the good ones aren't. The good ones, like Mike Tomlin, Jeff Fisher, Joe Gibbs? They are constantly interacting with the players, congratulating them when they do well, correcting them when they do wrong, and sometimes celebrating on the sidelines with them when the team does well.

The not-so-good ones—and I'm not talking about their records, I'm talking about the sway they hold with their players—like Jon Gruden, Romeo Crennel, Lane Kiffin, Mike Nolan, have less interaction with the players.

They don't get the same level of respect and admiration from the players as their more successful counterparts. Oftentimes they are somewhat removed, physically and emotionally, from the players and other coaches on the sidelines.

Nor are they able to hold the respect of team owners; each of the coaches above is currently out as a head coach. To emphasize my point, one of the reasons given for Gruden's ouster was that the players "didn't trust him" to take them to the top.

Respect, trust, accountability. All are two-way streets in the world of football. Show respect and you will get respect. Trust your players to follow you, and they will trust you to lead.

Be accountable for your mistakes, and they will acknowledge when they have come up short and work to improve before you even have to say a word.

Fail in any of these three areas and your days as a head coach are limited. You may see some small success, but ultimately you will be replaced.

Doubt me? Look at Jeff Fisher, the head coach for the Tennessee Titans. Fisher has been with the franchise since before they moved from Houston. In that time he has taken the Titans to one, ONE, Super Bowl, which they lost.

But he has kept the Titans competitive nearly every year of his tenure. They came tantalizingly close to reaching the championship game this year, only to be undone by poor ball control.

More importantly, Fisher has maintained the respect, trust, and admiration of the fans, players, and owners in Nashville. There is no talk of Fisher being replaced anytime soon. In fact, if he is able to continue with the success he has seen there, he will more likely than not be allowed to coach there until he retires from football.

With 10 new coaches in the league in 2009, they would all do well to look at Fisher's and other long-term coach's examples. They have established the benchmark for what good coaches must do to have continued success and longevity in their careers, to continue to get their players to do their job, to continue to grab that facemask without any fear of being thrown around like a rag doll.

To all those asking, "What does it take to make it as a head coach in the NFL?": here's the answer.

Respect. Trust. Accountability. And maybe a little bit of a lucky bounce every now and then.

Do these things, and you will make it to the Hall one day.

Fail to do these things, and the only way you get in to the Hall is if you pay the entrance fee.

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