Which Active NFL Coaches Are Sure-Fire Hall of Famers?
Dating back to the legendary George Halas in 1920, the NFL has always had at least one Hall of Fame coach walking the sideline each season.
At least that was true until the 2000 season, which is the first time there was no active head coach who became a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
However, these things take time, and successful coaches like Mike Shanahan (Denver), Bill Cowher (Pittsburgh), Tony Dungy (Tampa Bay) and Tom Coughlin (Jacksonville) were all active. Bill Belichick had just taken the job in New England, which would lead to one of the greatest runs of success in NFL history.
That group should add to the number of Hall of Fame coaches, but what about the current crop of 32 coaches?
To say coaching has been in a state of flux would be an understatement.
Seventeen teams have hired their current head coach since 2011. That number goes up to 19 if you consider Jason Garrett (Dallas) and Leslie Frazier (Minnesota), who were both interim coaches in 2010, as official 2011 hires.
Sixteen, or exactly half, of the league’s 32 coaches have fewer than three full seasons of experience as a NFL head coach, so picking out sure-fire Hall of Famers from this group is not that hard when so few qualify right now.
The difficulty comes in assessing what makes a coach worthy of the Hall of Fame. Entry has been very restricted, so we must dig deep for the trends that make a coach a Hall of Famer.
The 22 Hall of Fame Coaches
If you think wide receivers and defensive backs have had a tough time getting into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, consider that just 22 head coaches have been inducted. Only five have come since 1998.
Here is the list of the 22 Hall of Fame coaches, sorted by descending class (year of induction). Also included are how many years they were eligible and how many years they were a finalist (a documented process beginning in 1970), according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame website.
Note: In the case of Bill Parcells, he retired multiple times. Originally there was no grace period for a coach to become eligible, but by the time Parcells finally called it a career with Dallas following 2006, there was a five-year wait (just like for players) put in place for coaches in 2008. That is why Parcells technically had two years of eligibility and was a finalist four times.
Some of these results are shocking, to say the least.
George Halas and Curly Lambeau were charter members of the first Hall of Fame class in 1963, but since then only three coaches have been first-ballot choices: Tom Landry, Chuck Noll and Don Shula.
That’s one fewer than the four coaches inducted as a Senior Candidate. Before Parcells, George Allen, Hank Stram and John Madden all had more than 20 years of eligibility before finally making it.
Paul Brown, Vince Lombardi and Bill Walsh, three of the game’s greatest innovators and winners of multiple championships, all had to wait three-to-five years for induction.
Let that one marinate for a bit before continuing.
There does appear to be a voting prejudice against non-players, which only seems to be getting worse. Today’s voters may not have been so kind to coach-players like Guy Chamberlin and Jimmy Conzelman or short-lived successes like Ray Flaherty and Greasy Neale.
This chart tracks how many Hall of Fame coaches were active during each NFL season since 1920:
On average, the league had 4.4 Hall of Fame coaches active per season. Excluding the last five years, that number is 4.6. There have not been more than five active Hall of Fame coaches since the 1989 season.
The golden age of coaching, as measured by Hall of Fame coaches, actually starts with the beginning of the Super Bowl era. From 1966-74, there was always at least eight Hall of Fame coaches active with the maximum amount of 11 in 1969. No other seasons in NFL history had more than seven active coaches in the Hall of Fame.
So even with the dwindling success of Hall of Fame coaches, you can probably count on a handful of today’s coaches to one day make it.
The Statistics of a Hall of Fame Coach
Let’s look at the stats for these 22 Hall of Fame coaches. Some liberties were taken in creating this table.
“Years” do not mean the coach was active for that entire range of time. The range is for his first year as a NFL head coach through his last. Many had breaks in between, but there was no way of fitting the table onto the page with those breaks.
For winning percentages, the NFL used to not count ties as half-wins. For the sake of easy math and giving everyone a fair shake, all ties were counted as half wins, so do not judge these percentages against what the NFL officially lists.
No All-America Football Conference (1946-49) stats were included as the short-lived rival league is not officially recognized in NFL records. This really only has a major impact on Paul Brown in Cleveland.
“Titles” are the number of championships the coach won. Some coaches have more titles than playoff wins since there was not a system of any playoff games until 1933. For the playoff era, championships only include wins in the NFL Championship Game (1933-65), the AFL Championship Game (1960-65) and any Super Bowl.
Coaches are sorted by descending overall winning percentage, but again, those numbers are not official.
Clearly, you can see the game has changed a good bit. Halas had 31 ties in his career. There have only been 18 ties since the 1974 season in the entire NFL. That’s with overtime instituted.
At the bottom you can see the averages of the 22 coaches. Make note that there are just over 150 regular-season wins, an 0.618 winning percentage, 8-6 playoff record and 2.5 championships.
Does a coach need to win a championship to make the Hall of Fame?
Well, 19 of the 22 did. Seventeen of them even won multiple championships. Only Madden and Sid Gillman claimed one, and Madden’s wait for induction was very long despite his overall contributions to the game and his high winning percentage. Gillman was just 1-5 in playoff games.
The only three coaches to make it without a ring: George Allen, Marv Levy and Bud Grant.
Like Madden, Allen had a very long wait despite one of the best winning percentages in NFL history. Allen never did worse than 8-6 in any season, but his teams were just 2-7 in the playoffs, with Washington's only wins coming in 1972 when his Redskins lost to Shula’s undefeated Dolphins in Super Bowl VII.
Levy and Grant both lost four Super Bowls, but Levy’s Bills did it in consecutive seasons (1990-93) while Grant’s Vikings were more spread out. Levy did get into the Hall of Fame in four fewer years of eligibility compared to Grant.
What a coach better have for Canton is a winning record, which all 22 did.
Weeb Ewbank barely made the cut (.507), but his selection is more about being in Baltimore and New York at the right time. Ewbank’s Colts, behind a young Johnny Unitas, beat the Giants in back-to-back title games in 1958-59. Then, with Joe Namath and the Jets, Ewbank upset the mighty Colts in Super Bowl III to earn his third championship.
Longevity also counts for something. It may be why Lombardi and Walsh had to wait to get in. Both coached just 10 seasons and neither won 100 regular-season games.
Fourteen of the 22 men coached at least 200 games, including playoffs. Only four coaches—Lombardi, Flaherty, Neale and Chamberlin—were under 150 games.
Sometimes, longevity can hurt a coach too.
Noll’s first-ballot choice was built on the strength of his four Super Bowl wins, which no other coach has ever done. But following that last Super Bowl, Noll spent his final 12 seasons (1980-91) in Pittsburgh compiling a 93-91 (.505) record in the regular season and going 2-4 in the playoffs.
That stretch helped Noll reach 209 total wins, which is the fifth-most ever, but that run would never put anyone even close to the Hall of Fame. It also drags his winning percentage down to near the bottom of the list. Still, it was his massive success in championships that put Noll where he is.
Want to be a Hall of Fame coach? It looks like you need to win at the highest level and win for an extended period of time.
Even then, nothing is guaranteed.
The Coaches the Voters Have Passed On
We can also learn what makes a Hall of Famer by looking at who is not in the Hall of Fame. Several interesting coaching names have been eligible over the years, but there has been nearly no push to vote anyone in recently outside of Parcells’ recent triumph.
The good news is there are almost no snubs in Canton when it comes to coaches.
The milestone of 150 total wins looks pretty good, though it does not appear Marty Schottenheimer (205), Dan Reeves (201) or Chuck Knox (193) will ever get into Canton. They have never been among the last 15 finalists in the voting process.
None of them ever won a Super Bowl either. While Schottenheimer gets overly criticized for a 5-13 postseason record. Knox could never get past the conference championship either. Reeves did take Denver and Atlanta to a total of four Super Bowls, but lost them all. Yet, he does not receive the same credit as Levy and Grant did for some reason.
A “decent” number of wins and one ring does not impress much either.
Mike Ditka and Dick Vermeil each won a Super Bowl, six playoff games and at least 120 regular season games, but neither has generated any buzz for the Hall of Fame. Ditka is already in as a tight end. It is unclear if a potential Hall of Famer can be enshrined for two different roles.
Even winning multiple championships is no guarantee to gain the Hall of Fame. Tom Flores, Jimmy Johnson and George Seifert all won two Super Bowls, but have never been a finalist.
Flores killed his winning percentage with a 14-34 (.292) stint as Seattle’s coach in 1992-94. He finished 97-87 (.527) in the regular season, but was 8-3 in the playoffs with the Raiders.
Johnson deserves a lot of credit for putting together a Dallas dynasty. He was 1-15 in 1989, but the Cowboys quickly were on top of the league. It got to the point where Barry Switzer could come in and coach the team to another Super Bowl win, which may be working against Johnson, who finished 80-64 (.556) in the NFL after four seasons with Dan Marino in Miami. The longevity and consistency just were not there.
Seifert was Walsh’s defensive coordinator in San Francisco, but a funny thing happened when he took the head coaching job in 1989—the 49ers had their most dominant season yet with another Super Bowl win. Seifert rode the Joe Montana ship, followed by the Steve Young era to win a second championship in 1994. When he took over as coach Carolina in 1999, he went just 16-32 with a 1-15 finish in 2001.
Despite winning 64.8 percent of his regular-season games and going 10-5 in the playoffs, Seifert will likely never earn the reputation as a great head coach. Maybe he should have called it quits after 2000. That way, he would have won 70.6 percent of his games.
The only other eligible coaches with multiple championships who are not in the Hall of Fame are Buddy Parker (Detroit) and Lou Saban (AFL-era Bills).
Only two coaches have been a Hall of Fame finalist without getting in—Blanton Collier (1987) and Don Coryell (2010). T-formation master Clark Shaughnessy was a finalist multiple times, but it appears to be more of a contributor/innovator nomination rather than for his 14-8-3 record as a NFL head coach.
Collier took over for Brown in Cleveland, winning a championship in his second season in 1964, but that was it. He finished 76-34-2 (.691), which is the sixth-best winning percentage ever (minimum 80 games).
Collier’s case is similar to that of Jim Lee Howell, who took over for Steve Owen with the Giants. Howell also won one championship and compiled a 53-27-4 (.663) record.
Coryell has been a debated name over the years. The argument for him is the innovation he brought to the passing game, which was best showcased by Dan Fouts’ passing attack in San Diego with the “Air Coryell” Chargers.
Coryell's detractors will point to his 3-6 playoff record, no Super Bowl appearances and an inability to field a good defense. Coryell passed away in 2010, which is the first year he was a finalist.
With all of these eligible names passed on, the coach with the best chance is Cowher. He has a ring as the first No. 6 seed to win a Super Bowl. Although he lost in another Super Bowl, he won 161 games, has a top-25 winning percentage (.623) and was liked by the media.
What continues to haunt Cowher, howerver, are his Steelers' four losses at home in the AFC Championship Game in 1994, 1997, 2001 and 2004.
Cowher did not make the first cut to 25 semifinalists for the 2012 class, which was his first year of eligibility. He fared no better last season, so Cowher could be taking one on the chin from voters for many years to come unless he comes back to the game and has more success.
How voters view Cowher becomes very important as first-ballot nominees for 2014 such as Mike Holmgren and Dungy are sitting in the same boat with one ring and the disappointment that they should have had more.
This trio of Cowher, Holmgren and Dungy will offer the toughest Hall of Fame vote yet for one-ring coaches.
The Active Sure-Fire Hall of Fame Coaches
Keeping in mind half the coaches in the league are entering one of their first three seasons on the job, this one is pretty easy.
It is all about Belichick and Coughlin.
The two are connected in many ways. Both were part of Parcells’ staff with the Giants. Belichick was the defensive coordinator and Coughlin coached the wide receivers. Then of course you have the two head-to-head meetings in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI, both won by Coughlin. In fact, Coughlin’s 5-1 record against Belichick is very impressive.
Let’s start with Belichick, since he has the best chance of induction.
There is no doubt that Belichick can retire today and end up in the Hall of Fame, but it will be very interesting to see if he is a first-ballot choice considering that’s only happened for five coaches.
Belichick has the three Super Bowl wins and five appearances. His 18 playoff wins only trail Shula (19) and Landry (20). With 187 regular-season wins, he has a chance to finish near third place, where Landry sits with 250 wins.
Will Belichick be a first-ballot Hall of Fame coach if the Patriots continue to flop in the playoffs?
It’s not hard to look at the Patriots’ run and note that they could easily be anywhere from 0-5 to 5-0 in Super Bowls. Belichick’s coaching history has often come down to one big play at the end of the game.
The only two do-or-die field goals ever missed in a championship game both benefitted Belichick.
The first was when Buffalo kicker Scott Norwood missed in Super Bowl XXV, clinching the win for the Giants and preposterously putting Belichick’s defensive game plan in Canton.
As a head coach, Belichick's fifth Super Bowl appearance was clinched when Billy Cundiff missed a game-tying field goal for Baltimore in the 2011 AFC Championship.
Of course, the foundation for the Patriots was the tuck rule, but forget that for a moment and recall Adam Vinatieri’s all-time clutch kick in the Foxboro snow to beat the Raiders in the very first playoff game of Belichick’s New England tenure.
Simply put, no coach in NFL history has risked his legacy on the swinging leg of a kicker more than Belichick.
When you look at Belichick’s lackluster run in Cleveland (36-44 in five seasons), his shady gamesmanship, leading to the largest fine ($500,000) against a coach in NFL history for Spygate, there is a lot not to like here in terms of an all-time great coach who deserves first-ballot consideration.
The fact that he has kept a team in winning shape for more than a decade will easily put him in the Hall of Fame.
The name that should come up in comparison is Joe Gibbs, who had to wait until his fourth year of eligibility to make the Hall of Fame. His 17-7 playoff record (3-1 in Super Bowl) is identical to the 17-7 record Belichick has with New England, yet Gibbs never had Tom Brady. Gibbs won Super Bowls with Joe Theismann, Doug Williams and Mark Rypien.
Gibbs hurt his legacy with his second stint (2004-07), but his first 12 years in Washington without a Hall of Fame quarterback compare favorably with Belichick’s run. Still, it was not good enough for a first-ballot entry for Gibbs.
What could help Belichick on his first ballot is the likelihood that he and Brady will retire together, which means they will be eligible for the Hall of Fame at the same time. Some voters may find it “cute” to put them in together, as they would be lost without each other.
It's not as likely that Coughlin (who turns 67 in August) and quarterback Eli Manning (32) will leave the Giants together. They arrived together in 2004 and have been one of the most successful coach/quarterback combinations in NFL history.
Parcells making it into the Hall of Fame speaks well for Coughlin, because the truth is that Coughlin has a better case than his mentor.
Both coaches have gone 8-3 in the playoffs with the Giants, winning a pair of Super Bowls. Parcells did have an additional Super Bowl appearance with the 1996 Patriots, taking down Coughlin’s Jaguars in New England's playoff run, but it was still very impressive for Coughlin to have an expansion team that far in his second season.
Both coaches (with the Giants) faced teams in the playoffs that were 132-43-1 (.753) in the regular season. The difference is that Coughlin’s strength-of-victory rating was a staggering .797 while going 5-1 on the road.
Coughlin’s Giants are among the worst teams ever to win a Super Bowl based on their regular-season stats, but in the playoffs, they took down juggernauts.
Coughlin has beaten three of the highest-scoring teams in NFL history, including the top two, and held them to an average of 17 points per game.
His regular-season stats will not overwhelm anyone. Coughlin is 151-121 (.555). He has started 5-2 or better in nine straight seasons, which ties Landry for the NFL record. His 12 playoff wins are tied with Cowher for the seventh-most in NFL history.
It would be nice if the Giants finished seasons with some more consistency, but Coughlin still has a little bit of time left for one more run.
However, he should be able to call it quits now and still make the Hall of Fame.
Possibly on Their Way to the Hall of Fame?
Obviously, the current list of any potential Hall of Fame coaches will be longer than the sure-fire candidates, given the absurd amount of coaching turnover in today’s NFL.
Many are probably wondering where Shanahan was in the previous section. Yes, he won two Super Bowls with Denver, but he has been everything but super since John Elway retired.
Considering that his stint with the Raiders lasted 20 games and was unsuccessful (8-12), Shanahan's window with Elway (1995-98) is even shorter and making up more of Shanahan’s career success than it appears.
It has been a long time since Shanahan was on top of the league. After Elway retired, his teams were known for starting well, but fading down the stretch. The 2008 Broncos were 8-5 and led the AFC West before blowing the final three games to miss the playoffs.
No coach has ever won a Super Bowl with two different franchises, so Shanahan has his work cut out for him in Washington as he handles the durability of Robert Griffin III. If it’s another sorry finish for a coach with a 1-5 record in the playoffs since 1999, then voters may not look too fondly on his resume when the time comes.
One thing working in Shanahan’s favor is the undisputed success of his running back system. However, offensive line coach, Alex Gibbs, deserves a lot of that credit.
A coach like Cowher was still having more success than post-Elway Shanahan without a great quarterback. When he finally got Ben Roethlisberger in 2004, Cowher had a dominant two years in 2004-05 and won a Super Bowl. He just didn’t stick around long enough to reap more of the benefits. Cowher’s career almost went in reverse order of Shanahan’s.
Shanahan will likely be a finalist some day, but he’s going to need a deep playoff run or two in Washington to cement his legacy.
Andy Reid (140 total wins) and Jeff Fisher (154 total wins) both have the longevity and have at least been to a Super Bowl. However, they seemed destined for the Schottenheimer/Knox/Reeves tier of coaches who will never make it to the Hall of Fame.
It will have to take an incredible effort by Fisher with the Rams and Reid with the Chiefs to get over the hump. One Super Bowl win would probably not cut it in either case. People will remember the times Fisher had the league’s best record and flopped in the first playoff game at home (2000, 2008). The same can be said for Reid’s 1-5 record in championship games.
This finally brings us to seven names: Mike Tomlin, John Harbaugh, Jim Harbaugh, Mike McCarthy, Mike Smith, Sean Payton and Pete Carroll.
Even with having recently picked Seattle as the next dynasty, that does not mean Carroll has to make the Hall of Fame. He spent too much of his prime years at USC.
Smith actually has the fifth-highest winning percentage (.700) in NFL history (minimum 80 games). He could enjoy a nice run with Matt Ryan, but the Falcons have to improve on that 1-4 playoff record first.
Jim Harbaugh has pressed a ton of the right buttons for the 49ers, but this is too soon after two seasons. Let’s give it some time.
The top name here has to be his brother, John Harbaugh, who of course won the “HarBowl” to claim his first Super Bowl.
Though Tomlin had recently been considered the best coach in the AFC North, he has been surpassed by the older Harbaugh brother, who still has not missed a postseason in his five seasons.
Tomlin has already missed the playoffs in 2009 and 2012, and the Steelers were one-and-done in both 2007 and 2011. They could be a team on the decline, and we do not know how Tomlin will fare when defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau does finally retire. He basically inherited Cowher’s team.
Tomlin won Super Bowl XLIII, but lost Super Bowl XLV to Green Bay. The extra Super Bowl appearance over Harbaugh should not make up for the other failures.
Besides, we know Harbaugh endured one of the worst endings in playoff history in 2011 when Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff made certain they would not appear in Super Bowl XLVI.
Harbaugh has won a playoff game in each of his first five seasons, which has never been done before.
With a playoff win in 2013, Harbaugh can become the first coach in NFL history to win at least one playoff game in six consecutive seasons. He is already tied with Belichick (2003-07), Reid (2000-04), Holmgren (1993-97) and Madden (1973-77) for the record at five.
Harbaugh is the first coach ever to reach three conference championship games in his first five seasons.
Harbaugh has the most playoff wins (nine) in a coach’s first five seasons in NFL history. With a 9-4 playoff record, Harbaugh is already one of 20 coaches with at least nine playoff wins in NFL history. Six of those wins have come on the road along with the neutral win in the Super Bowl.
Baltimore is going to endure some big changes this season without Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and many others, but Harbaugh seems to be an elite coach who will keep the wins coming. He had better hope Joe Flacco lives up to that contract, which could be the single biggest factor in whether or not Harbaugh’s career ends up as being good enough for Canton.
Lastly, we have two offensive wizards with a lot of toys to play with in Sean Payton and Mike McCarthy. Both of them, however, only won a Super Bowl in the season where their defense produced a high volume of takeaways, including several in critical situations.
Payton comes back after missing the entire 2012 season due to a suspension for his role in Bountygate. A quick return to the playoffs will look good for his resume after the team struggled to 7-9 without him.
He should have several years left with Drew Brees at quarterback, ensuring the Saints will produce one of the all-time runs in offensive domination. But it’s going to take improvement on the defense for the Saints to get back to title contention.
McCarthy rejuvenated Brett Favre at the beginning of his Green Bay coaching career, nearly making the Super Bowl in 2007. He won a Super Bowl with Aaron Rodgers in 2010, but it’s been a continuous trend of falling flat with the big game on the line that hurts his record and opportunities for more success.
McCarthy’s Packers are 9-30 (.231) in fourth-quarter comeback opportunities in his career. An average team should be around 35 percent while an elite team should be near .500. This continues to happen even with Hall of Famers at quarterback.
The best thing that can be said about McCarthy is that he has his team playing a competitive game almost every week. There were some cracks last year against the Giants and 49ers, but usually if the Packers aren’t winning big, they are right in the game at the end.
With that level of competitiveness and having Rodgers in his prime, that is why it’s easier to trust McCarthy over Payton in terms of long-term success that can qualify for the Hall of Fame.
The Saints have never come close to dominating in the way the Packers did during their historic 19-game winning streak where they never trailed in the fourth quarter.
It’s funny how the NFL works sometimes.
If not for the domination of Belichick’s recent New England teams, Coughlin might not be in the same sentence with him. If McCarthy had won those games at home against the Giants in 2007 and 2011, he would be where Coughlin is now.
If McCarthy had then beaten the Patriots, he would be considered the best coach in football, and the most sure-fire Hall of Famer.
All coaches still live at the mercy of their players. Finding the best ones and continuing to succeed with them is how a select few end up in the Hall of Fame.
So, in the distant future when someone makes a chart of Hall of Fame coaches by year, the number for 2013 may read as “6” with the names being Bill Belichick, Tom Coughlin, John Harbaugh, Jim Harbaugh, Mike Shanahan and Mike McCarthy.
What, did you expect, Chip Kelly and Doug Marrone?
With this historic amount of uncertainty in the coaching ranks, it is only fitting to end with a conservative call.
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.
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