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Does Promoting an Interim Head Coach Actually Work in the NFL?

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Does Promoting an Interim Head Coach Actually Work in the NFL?
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Romeo Crennel has his work cut out for him in Kansas City this year.

When people turn 65, most are looking at retirement. But as Romeo Crennel celebrated his 65th birthday on Monday, he continues to prepare for his second opportunity as a NFL head coach with the Kansas City Chiefs this season.

Along with Leslie Frazier (Minnesota) and Jason Garrett (Dallas), these coaches are trying to conquer a difficult task: proving their promotion from interim head coach was the right move.

Last season, Crennel served as the Kansas City Chiefs’ interim head coach for the final three games after Todd Haley was fired. The team finished 2-1, with an impressive showing that ended Green Bay’s historic 19-game winning streak.

The stingy pass defense was reminiscent of past success Crennel had in New England at slowing down the passing attacks of teams like the 2001 St. Louis Rams and 2003-04 Indianapolis Colts.

But should those three games have been enough for such a promotion? I examined the trials and tribulations an interim coach faces when taking over as head coach.

First, let’s clarify the difference between an interim situation and other promotions. A coach like Jim Caldwell was on Tony Dungy’s staff for eight years before succeeding him in Indianapolis as head coach in 2009

Likewise, when the legendary Bill Walsh retired in San Francisco, the team promoted George Seifert, the defensive coordinator from 1983 to 1988, to head coach.

These were logical succession plans that went into action because a coach retired. Each team was already built to win.

While all coaches may feel they are on an interim (temporary) basis with their team, only a select few have carried the label. When you have an interim head coach, that likely means something went wrong and a head coach was fired during the season.

Usually, this is going to happen on a bad team, and the improvement process can be very difficult. The move can also cause turmoil throughout the team depending on how players felt about the departed coach and how they feel about you filling his shoes.

 

The historical list

It is not a favorable method of getting that coveted head coaching job, but it has happened throughout NFL history

I found 42 cases where a head coach was replaced by an interim coach from his staff during the season and that coach then took over full-time the following season as head coach.

Now there may be a few instances where the coach was given the official head coach title in that interim year, but I am treating them all the same. The common bond is they all had to step in during the season and then next season were the team’s “permanent” head coach.

The “Years” represent the two-season span in which they made the transition from interim coach to head coach. The “Interim Record” is the record that coach had in that initial year when he served as the interim coach.

The “Team Record” is the record the coach had in all the regular-season games he would then coach for that team in the following seasons.

For their win-loss percentage, I counted ties as half a win. The NFL once calculated things differently, but there is no point in using that method anymore.

For a link to a large table, please click here.

Normally I would write a summary of each case, but 42 was a higher number than expected. Last I checked, no one requested a book on the history of interim head coaches. Instead, let’s look at the key points from the data.

 

Overall, not a very successful group

The 42 coaches combined to have an overall record of 1,060-1,222-38 (.465). In the interim period, they were 128-198-5 (.394) versus 932-1,024-33 (.477) afterward, so there was at least an improvement.

Only nine coaches had a winning record with their team after the interim period ended. More on them later

Only Sid Gillman and Marv Levy are in the Hall of Fame for their coaching careers. Gillman’s brief stint with Houston came at the end of his career, when after a 1-8 finish in 1973, he was able to guide them back to .500 with a 7-7 finish in 1974.

Excluding Crennel, these 41 coaches have averaged 48.5 regular-season games as non-interim coaches. That is just over three seasons (adjusted for 16-game schedule). A dozen of the coaches lasted at least 60 games. Jeff Fisher (256), Marv Levy (175), Wayne Fontes (128) and Don Coryell (113) had the longest-tenured, post-interim head coaching jobs.

 

Not a lot of postseason success

Thirteen of the coaches had at least one playoff game, and all but two (Hampton Pool, Ron Meyer) managed at least one win. The combined playoff record for the coaches is 32-39 (.451). Marv Levy (11-8) alone has 11 of the wins and is one of two coaches with a winning playoff record (Raymond Berry was 3-2).

The coaches were 0-6 in the Super Bowl (Marv Levy 0-4; Jeff Fisher 0-1; Raymond Berry 0-1). Only two coaches won a championship on this list, and they did it together

In 1942, Chicago legend George Halas left after five games for the Navy to serve his country in World War II. He turned the Bears over to assistant coaches Luke Johnsos and Hunk Anderson, who would be the team’s co-coaches until 1946, when Halas returned.

Chicago completed an 11-0 regular season and was on an 18-game winning streak but lost the 1942 NFL championship game to the Washington Redskins.

They came back next season for revenge and beat Washington in the 1943 NFL championship game, giving a title to Johnsos and Anderson. After the team slipped to 3-7 in 1945, Halas’ return led to another championship in 1946.

 

Winning as the interim coach is not a prerequisite for promotion or predictor of success

Only 12 of the 42 coaches (28.6 percent) had a winning record during their interim stint. These coaches, excluding Crennel’s future tenure, would combine to post a record of 259-264-16 (.495) the rest of the way.

However, only four had a winning record. Of those four, only Don Coryell and Art Shell would go on to coach more than 40 games for their team. Do not let a good interim stint fool you into thinking your team has the right guy.

Defensive coach Ed Khayat took over a 0-3 team in Philadelphia in 1971. They were 7-22-2 since 1969 under Jerry Williams. Under Khayat, the team would finish a respectable 6-4-1. A year later the offense got even worse (just 145 points scored), and the Eagles were 2-11-1.

Just like that, Khayat was out of a job.

 

A bad interim stint does not guarantee failure

There were 19 coaches who won less than a third of their games as interim coach. This was not the overwhelming sign of failure you may expect.

These coaches would go on in the post-interim to have a record of 466-522-15 (.472). Marv Levy, Jeff Fisher, Mike Tice and Jerry Glanville all reached the postseason and won at least one playoff game out of this group.

Glanville (0-2 as interim for 1985 Houston Oilers) and Tice (0-1 as interim for 2001 Minnesota Vikings) only got the interim job very late in the season, so their record is deceiving.

 

Ron Meyer: The good, the bad and the ugly

In the 1980s, head coach Ron Meyer displayed all angles of the interim coach experiment.

Consider the case of Meyer’s final season in New England in 1984. Meyer, a fiery personality, fired defensive coordinator Rod Rust without notifying general manager Pat Sullivan, who was the son of team owner Billy Sullivan. Meyer was already in hot water with the Sullivans, wanting to trade away several of the team’s best players, including future Hall of Fame guard John Hannah.

As Pat Sullivan told Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated:

I overruled him. He wanted to flush everyone down the toilet and rebuild from the ground up. O.K., maybe when you're a 2-14 club there's some justification for something like that, but I felt we were a darn good team with playoff-caliber material. I didn't want to see everything torn apart.

Meyer was fired after a 5-3 start, and the team replaced him with Raymond Berry (yes, the former receiving great for the Baltimore Colts). It was an instant hit with the players.

In Mike Felger's book Tales from the New England Patriots Sideline, running back Tony Collins is quoted as saying, “Raymond Berry earned more respect in one day than Ron Meyer earned in three years.”

The team finished 4-4 under the laid-back Berry, but his first full season would become legendary. In 1985, Berry’s Patriots finished 11-5 and became the first team in NFL history to win three straight road playoff games on their way to the Super Bowl.

Berry finished 48-39 (.552) as New England’s coach and is one of the success stories for an interim coach.

Meanwhile, Meyer returned to coaching in the AFC East once Rod Dowhower was let go after a 0-13 start for the 1986 Indianapolis Colts. Meyer coached the team to three straight wins (even after trailing by double digits at halftime in each) to end the season and was promoted to head coach for 1987.

The Colts rebounded with a 9-6 season and made the playoffs, and Meyer was named AFC Coach of the Year. Meyer finished 36-35 (.507) in Indianapolis before he was fired again in 1991 after a 0-5 start.

 

What makes the interim promotion a success?

For any coach the question has always been how much they actually impact the game from the sidelines. After all, the players still have to execute all the plays on the field. You never know when a star player is going to make a huge mental mistake like taking a foul when you don’t have to (too soon, Oklahoma City?).

No coach has ever consistently won without great players. But for the interim coach, they are likely taking over a team that does not have a deep roster. Even with free agency and the salary cap, it is difficult to collect such talent in a short period of time.

With just nine interim coaches going on to have a winning record in the post-interim phase of their career, let’s look at the factors that led to their success.

One thing that stands out: Seven of the nine coaches had their first head coaching gig in the NFL after being named interim coach. Only Marv Levy (1978-82 Kansas City Chiefs) and Don Coryell (1973-77 St. Louis Cardinals) had prior experience. 

 

Luke Johnsos/Hunk Anderson (1942-45 Chicago Bears)

This aforementioned pair basically got to take over George Halas’ prepared machine in Chicago and rode them the rest of the way to an undefeated season in 1942. But that upset loss in the championship game hurts.

They would win a championship the following year, but most fans likely are not even aware Halas left during the war, which did enough damage of its own to the league’s competitiveness.

The Bears were Halas’ team, and great players like Sid Luckman, Bronko Nagurski, George McAfee and Clyde Turner were the ones who will be remembered. You really cannot compare the achievements of Johnsos and Anderson with these other coaches.

 

Hampton Pool (1952-54 Los Angeles Rams)

Pool coached both the offense and defense for the Rams in the 1950s. He was there for the team’s prolific 1950 season that saw them score a record 38.8 points per game. After winning the championship in 1951, Pool feuded with coach Joe Stydahar, who would resign one game into the 1952 season.

When coaching in the AAFC, Pool was accused of undermining his head coach before taking over their job, so this was par for the course. The Rams would go 23-10-2 in the games he coached, but the growing rift between him and the team led to Pool resigning in 1954.

 

Don Coryell (1978-86 San Diego Chargers)

With a vision for an explosive, high-risk, high-reward passing game, Coryell got the job at the right time.

After Tommy Prothro resigned following a 1-3 start in 1978, Coryell unleashed his offense with quarterback Dan Fouts at the controls. It was the same year the league liberalized the passing rules by enforcing illegal contact after five yards (the “Mel Blount rule”).

With a rookie like John Jefferson, the addition of tight end Kellen Winslow in 1979 and Fouts coming into his own, “Air Coryell” was born in San Diego, rewriting the record books for offense. Now if only Coryell could have built a defense.

 

Marty Schottenheimer (1984-88 Cleveland Browns)

His .635 winning percentage in the regular season (post-interim) is the highest of any of the 42 coaches. After Sam Rutigliano was fired for a 1-7 start in 1984, Schottenheimer got the team to finish 4-4.

In 1985, the team acquired quarterback Bernie Kosar in the supplemental draft. That is where they found back Kevin Mack a year earlier, and second-year running back Earnest Byner was also improving.

The team would grow and make the playoffs in each of the next four seasons, only to suffer bitter defeat in the end, especially in two AFC championship games.

This would be a trend in Schottenheimer’s career that followed him to Kansas City and right through San Diego at the end.

 

Raymond Berry (1984-89 New England Patriots)

Mentioned earlier, Berry took over a team that was 5-3 and had some talent in place with John Hannah, Stanley Morgan, Tony Collins and Andre Tippett. Irving Fryar became the first wide receiver in NFL history taken first overall in the draft.

In 1985, Tony Eason had a surprisingly efficient playoff run until he ran into the Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl. Still, nothing will change the fact that Berry was the first coach to ever win three road playoff games on his way to the Super Bowl.

His only losing season came in 1989 (5-11), after which he was fired. But no one regrets the decision to replace Ron Meyer with Berry in 1984.

 

Jerry Glanville (1985-89 Houston Oilers)

The man in black, known for his “Gritz Blitz” in Atlanta, took over as interim coach for the final two games of the 1985 season after Hugh Campbell was fired.

He would only repeat the team’s 5-11 record in 1986, but Glanville brought a nasty, defensive approach to the team that turned the Astrodome into the “House of Pain” for opponents.

Though the defense would rank in the bottom half of the league during Glanville’s tenure, he found himself a quarterback as Warren Moon put things together in 1987.

The Oilers made the playoffs in each of Glanville’s three seasons before he moved on to Atlanta to less success.

 

Marv Levy (1986-97 Buffalo Bills)

When Buffalo fired Hank Bullough in 1985, the stage was set. Marv Levy will go down as the most successful interim-turned-head coach in NFL history. Not to take anything away from him, but he did step into one of the better situations and did have past experience with a 31-42 record at Kansas City.

The team finally had the rights to quarterback Jim Kelly after his USFL stint, and Bruce Smith and Andre Reed were already drafted in 1985. As those players improved and the Bills drafted more quality players like Thurman Thomas, the pieces were set for an AFC dynasty.

Still, Levy deserves a lot of credit for making Buffalo one of the most resilient teams in NFL history, as evidenced by their four consecutive Super Bowl losses in the 1990s. Levy is in the Hall of Fame, and was inches away (Scott Norwood) from being a Super Bowl champion.

 

Art Shell (1989-94 Los Angeles Raiders)

After firing Mike Shanahan 20 games into his first NFL head coaching job, Al Davis went with a former player-turned-coach as his interim coach. Art Shell became the first African-American head coach in modern NFL history.

After the team’s 1-3 start, it finished 7-5 in 1989 under Shell. In his first full year, the team would finish 12-4, its first winning season since 1985, and reach the AFC championship game. The Raiders would make the playoffs two more times under Shell before Davis regrettably fired him after the 1994 season.

Shell’s second tenure with the Raiders was a disaster (2-14 in 2006), but his successful coaching career paved the way for today’s minority coaches.

 

Jeff Fisher (1994-2010 Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans)

The most recent success story for an interim coach, Fisher went just 1-5 after taking over for Jack Pardee in 1994.

The 2-14 season allowed for the team to draft Steve McNair third overall in 1995, followed by Eddie George and Jon Runyan in 1996 and Derrick Mason in 1997.

After later adding pieces like Samari Rolle and Jevon Kearse, the Titans broke through in 1999 with their first postseason appearance under Fisher. They rode the Music City Miracle all the way to coming up one yard short of tying the Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV.

Fisher can be accused of underachieving. Twice he had the best record in the league and went one-and-done in the playoffs (2000, 2008).

He had six seasons with a winning record in his 16 full seasons with the franchise, which made him the longest-tenured coach in the league.

 

Why is it harder for the interim coach to have success?

While we have seen some stories of success, there are no cases of the hotshot assistant being promoted to head coach and turning the team into a consistent winner or dynasty. No interim coach became a Chuck Noll, Bill Walsh, Tom Landry, Joe Gibbs or Bill Belichick.

You can almost compare the interim coach to the No. 1 quarterback taken in the draft. He goes to one of the worst teams and is expected to be the savior without a whole lot of help.

Everyone knows you have to have a quarterback to win consistently in this league. Basically, if Christian Ponder is not the guy Leslie Frazier thought he was, there will be a job opening in Minnesota soon (probably one for Ponder shortly after).

To win big consistently, you have to have a lot of great players, which is hard to put together. But all coaches face this dilemma (some more than others) when starting a new job.

However, there is usually one big difference. Since the interim coach was promoted, he is more likely to keep a lot of the same coaching staff that produced the less than desirable results that season.

Did the Vikings really look that different last year from the Brad Childress version of 2010? The defense (Frazier’s specialty) actually got worse, surrendering a 107.6 defensive passer rating.

Has Jason Garrett been a big improvement over Wade Phillips? The Cowboys are still criticized for underachieving and blew five leads in the fourth quarter in 2011.

When a team goes out and hires a brand new coach from the outside, there is usually a lot of housecleaning that goes on as it starts anew.

This makes it even harder on the interim coach to make his mark when there’s so much of the past still left behind. Relationships (friendships) have likely been formed along the coaching staffs, and who is going to want to put a friend out of work?

Let’s use the Cincinnati Bengals, who have been accused of being “cheap” in the past, as an example.

When Bruce Coslet relieved David Shula (1-6) and went 7-2 down the stretch as the interim coach in 1996, the Bengals felt they had their guy and promoted him to head coach.

Of course Coslet would proceed to go 14-37 the rest of the way, leading to defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau assuming the interim head coach job in 2000. LeBeau would go 8-24 in his two full seasons as Cincinnati’s head coach.  

Is it any wonder the results were consistently so bad when the team kept messing up the draft (Akili Smith anyone?) and kept using the same coaches? If the chess pieces on the field are not getting better, then the brains behind the moves need to get better or get out.

Look at the Bengals’ coaching staffs for 1996, 1997, 2000 and 2001 (click here for large image).

Six of the staff in 1996 were still there in 2001 (Kim Wood remained strength and conditioning coach until 2003). Nine of the names (10 counting LeBeau) from 1997 were there in 2001.

Now it’s not uncommon for a team to retain several of their assistant coaches for many seasons. Paul Alexander and Jim Anderson were still on Marvin Lewis’ staff in 2011.

Kevin Coyle was coaching the corners in 2001 and did so for Cincinnati last year. I am not going to tell Tim Krumrie he cannot coach the defensive line anymore. A news strength and conditioning coach is likely not going to be the difference between 6-10 and 10-6.

If that positional coach is doing a good job (good effort), then that is fine. But when you consistently are struggling and losing, as the Bengals were just 32-64 (.333) from 1996 to 2001, then it is time for more changes than just promoting Dick LeBeau and bringing in Bob Bratkowski.

 

Where art thou, Romeo?

This season, Kansas City is returning the same five members of the defensive staff from 2011. That is Romeo Crennel’s specialty, so of course he is pleased with what he has going on that side of the ball.

They changed their special teams coach. Maurice Carthon remains at assistant head coach. Three members of the offensive staff return. The big change is going from Bill Muir (retired) to Brian Daboll for offensive coordinator. Daboll worked with Crennel in New England.

Familiarity is good, but only when it helps you.

For Crennel’s second attempt as a head coach to work, he is going to be counting on the healthy, productive returns of Matt Cassel, Eric Berry, Tony Moeaki and Jamaal Charles. That is a good core of the team Todd Haley got to the playoffs with in 2010. If they all return, then the Chiefs may be a real threat in the AFC West.

If not, then Kansas City will soon be looking for that next coach to rebuild its team, instead of the quick fix it is hoping to get by having promoted Crennel.

 

Follow me on Twitter @CaptainComeback

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