In Football, the Coach is King

Mike DussaultSenior Analyst IJune 4, 2008

Unlike most guys who reminisce about their high school football playing days, I actually get worse as more time goes by. And as much as I stunk, our team was even more of a travesty.

Let me put it this way.  After transferring to a new high school and missing all of double sessions, I was recruited by the Assistant Dean/Assistant Coach 10 days before the season started because they were low on numbers.

In our first game, after about five practices, I did not leave the field. I played offense, defense, and every special team except the field goal unit because we didn’t attempt one (nor an extra point).

And remember, I was a horrible 190-pound offensive and defensive tackle.

The only reason I played was because I actually knew how to run and could put my equipment on without help.

We were an embarrassment to the game, led by a coach who was more interested in getting us to use the same team cheer he used at his high school than actually coaching us.

However, this is not an article about reliving my incompetence on the gridiron—because it was there that I first realized something about the game of football.

One of our league rivals was consistently awesome. They weren’t the biggest or the fastest, except in my case where they were all very much faster than me, but every year they won the league and competed for the New England division championship. Good players came, good players left. It didn’t matter because it was the coach who stayed.

A good football coach can trump any amount of opposing talent—this is true at all levels of the game. Why is it that the same teams in college football are almost always at the top? They have a complete turnover of players every five to six years—yet their teams remain dominant.

It’s because colleges seek out coaches like Pete Carroll and Les Miles, coaches who have a vision for their football team from the top to the bottom, and give them the keys to the car. If they win, they can be stay for a century if they like, just ask Joe Paterno.

So why is it that so few NFL organizations have caught on to this? Is it because professional football is a business and the “win now” mentality trumps everything else? Maybe it should be a more of a “win more than you lose” mentality.

The current class organizations of the NFL are inarguably the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts, teams that have had their current coaching staffs in place for nearly a decade. Their systems are proven, and they only add players who fit in with what they are doing. Players depart via free agency or are lost to injuries.  It doesn’t matter.  Both franchises continue to win.

Many other teams, on the other hand, are quick to bury their coach when their team doesn’t perform. Marty Schottenheimer got fired after putting up a 14-2 record because his Chargers were upset in the playoffs. While San Diego may have gone further in the 2008 tournament under Norv Turner, they clearly took a step back early in the season with the team adjusting to an entirely new coaching staff.

How smart the firing of Marty/hiring of Norv was remains to be seen, but it’s just one example of how quickly teams turn on their coaches even when they’re successful. Imagine if the Patriots had fired Bill Belichick in 2002 after the Pats missed the playoffs for second time in his three years at the helm.

Just as NFL teams shouldn’t let a single disappointing loss dictate their coaching moves, they shouldn’t let their perceived players' talent dictate them either.

The Dallas Cowboys are soon to be an example of this. Their roster is littered with stars—but they haven’t won a playoff game since the '90s. The inmates are running the asylum, and the warden is a happy-go-lucky, aw shucks type. Not exactly a recipe for success in Big D.

Who’s in charge? Jerry Jones? Wade Phillips? Jason Garrett? T.O.? Joe Simpson?

Great players do not win football games. Great football teams do—and it’s the coach who molds great players into great teams.

There needs to be a clear delineation of who is running the show. When the head coach and all the executives are on the same page, the players have no choice but to follow. The Pittsburgh Steelers have followed this mantra since their inception, and no one has more Super Bowls than them.

Find a coach with an uncompromised vision and allow him the freedom to implement that system with players and coaches he chooses. That is the first step to building a successful franchise and one that is still lost on teams like the Oakland Raiders.

If owners put extensive effort into identifying special coaches who they believe in, give them the power to implement their coaching philosophy, and stick with them through the early struggles, ultimately the franchise should flourish. Unless you’ve got Matt Millen picking the coach.