The 20 Best NFL Head Coaches of All-Time
The 20 Best NFL Head Coaches of All-Time. Seemed like a pretty straight forward assignment title. Then I started thinking about all of the crazy fans that will be screaming for my head on a platter (Mike Ditka fans will never be happy unless he is number one - but he won't be at that lofty rank). A thankless job but somebody has to do it.
There is no formula here for who is placed where. All of the coaches on this list are noteworthy and have been winners. They all have been able to find ways to win year after year, and have longevity on their side as well. This list is a tribute to each of the coaches for their career and their accomplishments.
Pictured here is Don Shula vs. Marv Levy. So that means all the Dolphins vs Bills games headed by these two Hall of Fame coaches should have been remembered as classic affairs. We will go back in history for some of the coaches on this list, so if you aren't familiar with all of these names, then you should be.
Who made the list and why? While conducting research for this article, I placed consideration on the following factors - wins, championships (NFL, AFL, NFC, AFC), longevity, Hall of Fame, and what they did for the game. Your results may vary, and probably will.
If you feel your choice didn't make the list, please be prepared to give some reasonable evidence as to why they should have been included. Thanks for any and all feedback.
Honorable Mention: These are coaches that for whatever reason didn't crack my top 20 list, but I thought enough of them to make sure that they are mentioned in the article.
Sid Gillman - Hall of Fame coach that was a huge proponent of passing the ball, led the San Diego Chargers to five divisional championships in the first six years of the AFL.
Bud Grant - Hall of Fame Coach that led the Minnesota Vikings to four Super Bowl appearances, but like Marv Levy, they both finished their careers with an 0-4 record in the big one. Grant is the all-time victories leader for Minnesota and is in both the NFL Hall of Fame as well as the CFL Hall of Fame.
Curly Lambeau - No disrespect to Curly, but it is difficult for me to accurately gauge him with the modern era coaches. I bring up his name to honor what he did, not to slight him. Don't worry Packer fans, we have you covered in the top five, later on.
# 20 - Marv Levy
Where else would you rather be than right here, right now?
Marv Levy earns the 20th spot in our list due to an accomplishment that is probably never going to be equaled again-- taking his team to four straight Super Bowls. If Levy's Bills had won one of those, he would be higher on this list. Led the Bills to six straight AFC East titles from 1988 - 1993, and one more in 1995 for good measure.
Marv Levy is well educated with a Master's Degree in English Literature from Harvard University. Served in World War II, and his coaching background included stops in college - University of California, where he hired Bill Walsh as an assistant coach, the CFL, the USFL, and finally in the NFL, where he coached the Chiefs and the Bills, retiring as the Bills all-time wins leader.
Consider Levy's list of accomplishments/Career highlights:
* The only NFL coach to coach teams that won four straight league or conference championships
* Won two of three CFL championships in five seasons while head coach the Montreal Alouettes
* Compiled a 17–6 record (14–6 in the regular season and 3–0 in the post-season) against the winningest coach in NFL history, Don Shula. He is the only coach to have a winning record against Shula.
* Compiled 204 CFL-NFL-USFL coaching victories (7th on the all-time list)
* One of only 14 coaches to win 100 games with one NFL team
* The only coach to compete in four Super Bowls in a row and lose
* Retired at the age of 72; tied with George Halas as the oldest head coach in NFL history.
* First USFL alumnus to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame
# 19 - Hank Stram
Hank Stram was an innovator in the NFL. Consider some of the things that he created, such as:
Two tight end formation
Hiding LB's behind defensive linemen (Triple Stack Defense)
Ran the I-Formation
First coach to use Gatorade on the sidelines
Creative coach - brought back the Triple T Formation in 1968 when all wide receivers were injured. Team rushed 60 times for over 300 yards vs Raiders.
Not only was Stram's Chiefs the first AFL team to appear in a Super Bowl, but were the first team to avenge a Super Bowl loss, when they beat the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV.
Stram was a Monday Night Football radio announcer from 1978 - 1995, paired with Jack Buck. I fondly recall how often he would predict what kind of play would happen next, and more often than not, Buck would be amazed that he predicted exactly what would happen. Stram usually laughed it off.
# 18 - Weeb Ewbank
Weeb Ewbank was the winning coach of two of the most famous games in NFL history. In 1958 the Baltimore Colts defeated the New York Giants, in overtime, in the first nationally televised game. Many people still call that game as the greatest game in the history of the NFL.
In addition, Ewbank led the New York Jets to the first win of an original AFL team in the Super Bowl, when Joe Namath led the Jets to a win over Ewbank's old team, the Colts, in Super Bowl III. Needless to say, the NFL was never the same after either game.
Ewbanks is the only coach in NFL history that won a championship in both the AFL and the NFL. Also of note was that Ewbank only became a NFL head coach at the age of 47, which is fairly old to be a rookie head coach.
# 17 - George Allen
Although he never led a team to a championship, George Allen retired third on the career winning percentage list at 631, only trailing Vince Lombardi and John Madden.
Allen was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2002. He was responsible for turning around two lackluster franchises - the Los Angeles Rams and the Washington Redskins. During his career, Allen never had a losing season.
Allen also coached under George Halas for the Chicago Bears. He was also asked to handle the college draft for the Bears. You might be familiar with a few Bears he drafted - Dick Butkus, Mike Ditka and Gayle Sayers.
# 16 - Mike Holmgren
Mike Holmgren led the Green Bay Packers to a victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI. Holmgren is tied with John Madden as the only coaches in history that led their team to five straight years of winning at least one playoff game.
Holmgren also led a perennial losing team, the Seattle Seahawks to the playoffs five straight years. The Seahawks won four straight NFC West titles under Holmgren.
Holmgren hired and mentored a number of coaches that eventually led to their becoming head coaches, such as: Andy Reid, Steve Mariucci, Dick Jauron, Ray Rhodes and Jon Gruden.
Holmgren was responsible for being offensive coordinator for the 49ers with the likes of Joe Montana and Steve Young. Now serving as General Manager of the Cleveland Browns, it will be interesting to see how "The Walrus" is able to put his offensive prowess to work on the Cleveland franchise.
# 15 - Jimmy Johnson
Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer, college teammates at Arkansas, are the only coaches in history that led their teams to an NFL Championship and to a NCAA championship. Johnson led the Dallas Cowboys to consecutive wins in the Super Bowl over Marv Levy's Buffalo Bills, in Super Bowl XXV and in XXVI.
Johnson did not fare as well with the Miami Dolphins, and retired from coaching after his final game - a playoff loss to Jacksonville - by the whopping score of 62 - 7.
While Johnson has what appears to be a jovial personality working on the NFL Sunday show for CBS, he has a big ego, as evidenced by his falling out with Cowboy's owner Jerry Jones and collapsed relationship with Dolphin's QB Dan Marino.
It is a wonder he ever got to the Super Bowl, since he started out his NFL career with a 1-15 record as a rookie coach. Johnson finally burnt out on coaching and now has lots of time left to fish and make fun of Terry Bradshaw and Howie Long every Sunday.
# 14 - Mike Shanahan
Mike Shanahan led the Denver Broncos to consecutive Super Bowl wins, which is as good a starting point as any in reflecting on his career. Those victories came in 1997 and 1998. In fact, over a three year span, Shanahan led the Broncos to a record 46 wins.
Shanahan might be ranked higher, except for having seven seasons where he failed to qualify for the playoffs for Denver, and never had a winning season as coach of the Raiders. Those two factors alone keep him at #14.... well that and the fact that in his final 10 seasons he led the Broncos to only one playoff win.
Maybe he doesn't deserve to be in the top 20 after all. Maybe he can turn the Redskins into a playoff team again. We will see.
# 13 - Bill Cowher
If and when Bill Cowher leaves the studio for the football field he will have the ability to move up or down this list based on what he does with his new team.
As far as being the coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cowher was running the show from 1992 - 2006. In 15 seasons, Cowher led the Steelers to the playoffs ten different times. Out of those 10 trips, he coached in six AFC Championship games, but only won two of the six contests.
Cowher led the Steelers to a win in Super Bowl XL by beating Seattle, but lost Super Bowl XXX to the Dallas Cowboys. From the time Cowher took over in 1992 up until 2005, Pittsburgh had the best record in the NFL. Cowher's regular season win % of .623 is hard to not like.
Had he won more championships, "The Chin" would be higher on the list. He should also be remembered as a player who laid a lick on Jeff Fisher on a special teams play that ended Fisher's NFL playing career.
12 - Bill Parcells
Bill Parcells..... What do you think of when you start thinking about the Big Tuna? Who has had more retirement announcements, Bill Parcells or Barbra Streisand? During his career, Parcells has been attached to seemingly every major NFL media mecca team - the Jets, Giants, Patriots, Dolphins and Cowboys.
I must admit my opinion of him has grown for the better since I watched footage that aired of him with Bobby Knight, talking about stories from their early careers starting off at West Point Academy.
I often wondered why he kept needing to change teams so often. Certainly he is a great motivator, but it just seemed like he kept changing teams so often. Either his act wears out quickly on people, or he needs new challenges to keep from getting bored.
Parcells is best known for coaching the New York Giants to an upset win over the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV. One of the most memorable Super Bowls in history, Parcells owes a thank you to Scott Norwood, or else his record in Super Bowls would have been 1-2 instead of 2-1.
The Giants also won the Super Bowl in 1986 under Parcells, beating Denver 39-20, which was memorable for the initial Super Bowl Gatorade dunking shower for the winning coach.
Parcells other Super Bowl appearance was with New England, but they lost that game to Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXI.
Parcells has led his teams to the playoffs in ten different years, which is impressive. He was not able to win in the playoffs while running the Dallas Cowboys and his overall playoff record of 11-8 is only good for a .578 winning percentage.
# 11 - Paul Brown
The Father of the Modern NFL Offense, is a tag line associated with Paul Brown. For me, this was another difficult coach to accurately judge due to the vast time period differences and era of the game between when Brown coached and today.
Thanks to Geoff Hobson, Official Cincinnati Bengals Writer, for compiling the
"Paul Brown has to be on the Mount Rushmore of NFL coaches. From 1946 to 1955 he led Cleveland to 10 straight championship games in two leagues. Not only that, he founded two teams, the facemask, playbooks, the draw play, year-round coaching staffs, and the 40-yard dash while putting the word 'Pro' in 'Football'. Three years after giving birth to the Bengals he coached them into the 1970 playoffs for the quickest postseason bid for an expansion team until the Jaguars and Panthers emerged in the '90s with an unlimited checkbook."
Not only that but look at the former players under Paul Brown that later went on to became successful NFL Coaches: Abe Gibron, Otto Graham, Chuck Noll, Ara Parseghian, Lou Saban, Don Shula, Bill Walsh, and Sam Wyche.
Paul Brown was also an innovator: He was the first to use intelligence tests to judge players, establish a game film library, instruct players in a classroom setting, use a radio transmitter to communicate with players on the field, and install face masks on helmets.
Brown also employed multiple guards to rotate in and out and bringing in the next play call to the QB.
Paul Brown's offense directed by Graham was the predecessor of the West Coast offense made famous by Bill Walsh, a protégé of Brown.
Quite an amazing list of accomplishments.
# 10 - Joe Gibbs
Joe Gibbs is as interesting a case study as any other top NFL Head Coach could be. From the NFL to NASCAR, back to the NFL, back to fast cars again, Joe likes challenges.
During his first coaching job in the NFL, Gibbs coached the Washington Redskins for 12 seasons and led them to eight playoff appearances, four NFC Championship titles, and three Super Bowl titles. After retiring, Gibbs left the team to take over his own NASCAR racing team, which was equally successful.
He then unretired 12 years after he left the team to take over the Redskins again, but in the five years of running the team, never won another NFC Championship. They did go to the playoffs three times in the five years, but his run ended with a 2-3 record in the playoffs the second time around.
He found a way to bring in talent that was thought to be over-the-hill type of players and molded them in to a championship team. Gibbs regular season record with the Redskins was an impressive 154 wins and 94 losses, good for a .621 winning percentage. He was even better in the playoffs, winning 17 and losing 7, which is an amazing .708 winning percentage in the playoffs.
That is the type of coach you want running your team.... A winner.
# 9 - John Madden
Has there ever been a more popular coach in the history of the NFL than John Madden?
From turducken, to Madden NFL, to the telestrater, famous quotes, on-air love affair with Brett Favre, pitchman for Ace Hardware to tough acting Tinactin, impersonations by Frank Caliendo, thinking about John Madden puts a smile on your face.
Madden is the youngest NFL head coach to win 100 games, doing so at the age of 42. He closed out his coaching career with the second highest winning percentage ever, (including playoffs), and never had a losing season in his career.
Madden led the Raiders to a victory in Super Bowl XI over the Minnesota Vikings. The win helped out his reputation, which previously had been that he couldn't "win the big one", since the Raiders had lost all five previous championship games before that win.
Madden was the losing coach in the infamous "Immaculate Reception" game to Franco Harris and the Pittsburgh Steelers. I miss not hearing Madden in the broadcast booth anymore.
# 8 - Mike Ditka
Is there anyone else that is more synonymous with Chicago Bears football than Mike Ditka? When I think of polish sausage, I think of Ditka too, but that is more of a memory from old Saturday Night Live skits.
Iron Mike Ditka coached the Bears from 1982 - 1992, resulting in a win loss record of 106 wins and 62 losses, which is a .631 winning percentage. His best years were from 1984 - 1990 when the Bears won 6 out of 7 NFC Central Division crowns, with the highlight being a Super Bowl crown in Super Bowl XX against the New England Patriots.
Ditka and Buddy Ryan, his defensive coordinator, eventually parted ways, and Ditka was able to run the team until he suffered a heart attack. Ditka survived that as well, until the team fired him following the 1992 season.
Ditka returned to coaching to lead the New Orleans Saints, which was a pretty awful team. Ditka probably didn't help much by deciding to trade the entire 1999 draft class along with their first round pick in 2000 to be able to select RB Ricky Williams. That is the epitome of mortgaging your future.
To this day, you can't meet Bears fans without thinking of Ditka. He has been part of the ESPN Sunday morning countdown show with Boomer, Tom Jackson, and the cast of thousands.
# 7 - Bill Walsh
Bill Walsh made the West Coast offense popular. It helped that he had quarterbacks on his team like Joe Montana and Steve Young.
Walsh had an amazing success rate in big games. He won three out of four NFC Championship Games, and won all three Super Bowls he coached in, (Super Bowls XVI, XIX, and XXIII).
During his tenure of coaching the San Francisco 49'ers, Walsh had a regular season record of 92-59, good for a .609 winning percentage and went an incredible 10-4, a .714 winning percentage in the playoffs.
Walsh was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1993 and he passed away in 2007. If you look at the coaching tree of Bill Walsh, it contains the vast majority of NFL coaches. The first branch included Mike Holmgren, Jim Fassel, Paul Hackett, Sam Wyche, George Seifert and Dennis Green. The second and third branches include roughly half of all current NFL coaches.
R.I.P. Coach Walsh.
# 6 - Chuck Noll
Leader and mastermind of the Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty that captured four Super Bowl championships in a six year time period, Noll led the Steelers to wins in Super Bowls IX, X, XIII and XIV.
For 23 years, 1969 - 1991, Chuck Noll coached the Steelers. He amassed more than 200 wins, (including the playoffs) and was responsible for bringing the Steel Curtain defense to Pittsburgh, that led to many victories. Noll was able to land great players in the draft, year after year, from Mean Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Jack Lambert, Lynn Swan to Mike Webster.
Like Jimmy Johnson, Noll completed his rookie season with only one win, but he was able to turn around a losing franchise into perennial winners. Noll was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1993. He will also be remembered for being a pioneer in providing opportunities for African Americans in the game.
# 5 -Tom Landry
Tom Landry invented the now popular 4-3 defense, as well as the "flex defense" system. To my way of thinking, Landry's most impressive professional accomplishment is his record for coaching the Dallas Cowboys to 20 consecutive winning seasons (1966–1985). That is a NFL record and is one of the longest winning streaks in all of professional sports history.
Landry won 2 Super Bowl titles (VI, XII), 5 NFC titles, 13 Divisional titles, and compiled a 270-178-6 record, the 3rd most wins of all time for an NFL coach. His 20 career playoff victories are the most of any coach in NFL history.
Wearing that legendary hat, you would see him scrutinizing the field with that scowl of his, while the shadows crept in as the game progressed. I grew up being a Cowboys fan because of Landry, but when the AFC merger was completed, I dropped them like a bad habit.
Interesting fact: In 1956, Tom Landry was the defensive co-ordinator of the New York Giants. On that same coaching squad was offensive co-ordinator Vince Lombardi.
# 4 - Bill Belichick
Out of the current crop of NFL head coaches, is there anyone more successful than Bill Belichick? Three time Super Bowl winning coach, Belichick has led the New England Patriots to an impressive seven AFC East divisional titles in the past nine seasons.
It didn't start out that positive for Belichick, as he began his coaching career with the Cleveland Browns. Spanning his Browns record, and including his first year with the Patriots, Belichick recorded losing seasons in five of the first six years. That kind of losing normally means you are asked to go find something else to do with your life.
But starting with the 2001 campaign, Belichick has never had another losing season, including surviving the year when Tom Brady was lost for the season in week one. Belichick led the Patriots to an undefeated season in 2007. At New England, he has a regular season winning percentage of .700 (112-48) and it is a lofty .778 in the playoffs (14-4).
Belichick will be remembered for Spygate and being an innovative coach. He excels in defense and was the driving force behind the New York Giants defense slowing down the K-Gun offense of Jim Kelly and the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV.
# 3 - Vince Lombardi
Vince Lombardi, Green Bay Packers legendary coach is # 3 on my list. He is so special of a coach that the Super Bowl trophy is named after him.
Lombardi's head coaching career in the NFL was rather short compared to most of the other coaches on this list. He coached the Green Bay Packers from 1959 - 1967. In those nine years at Green Bay, he got the Pack to the NFL Championship game six times, winning five titles. In fact, he lost the first championship game in 1960, just one year after taking over the team. He never lost another playoff game, finishing his playoff record at 9-1, which is a playoff winning percentage of .900..... That is unbelievable.
Lombardi retired briefly for one year from the coaching ranks in 1968, and then came out of retirement to coach the Washington Redskins. He passed away after that season, dying way too early at the age of 57 years old.
Lombardi paid his dues as he worked up the ranks. One of his longer stops was at West Point Academy, where he coached for five years. At West Point, Lombardi learned to become not only a disciplinarian, but also learned to execute. Those trademarks and philosophies carried over with him to the NFL.
Prior to his head coaching job with the Packers, Lombardi served as the offensive coordinator for the New York Giants in 1956, which turned out to be another NFL Championship team. Vince Lombardi was truly a special man and a beloved coach.
# 2 - George Halas
George "Papa Bear" Halas was truly a legend in the ranks of NFL coaches. Halas was seemingly the entire Chicago Bear franchise. Consider the following:
Moved the team to Chicago.
Named the team the Bears as a tribute to the Cubs, who let the Bears play their initial games at Wrigley Field.
Played end - both ways - as a wide receiver and as a defensive end.
Sold tickets before the games.
Oh yeah, he also coached the team as well.
Halas was a well rounded athlete as he also was good enough to play as an OF for the New York Yankees, until an injury cut short his baseball career.
Halas coached the Bears, off and on, from 1920 - 1967, finishing with a win total of 318 games. His winning % as a head coach was .682. Since they didn't use overtime, Halas also had 31 ties during his career.
Halas was an innovator as well, and worked on creating the Triple T offense. The Bears used it to perfection in one of the most memorable games in Bears franchise history - the 1940 NFL Championship Game, when the Bears edged the Washington Redskins by a whopping 73-0. Games like that helped the team to be known as the "Monsters of the Midway".
According to the NFL Pro Football Hall of Fame, Halas is the only person that was part of the NFL's first 50 years of their history. He coached the Bears for 40 years, and won six titles. His win total stood for decades, until another coach, not yet named in this article, broke his record.
Halas passed away at the age of 88 in 1983 on Halloween. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963.
# 1 - Don Shula
Don Shula has won more games coaching in the NFL than anyone else. His longevity and ability to consistently win year after year is worthy of the top selection for my top 20 NFL coaches of all-time. Only 2 losing seasons out of 32 years coaching in the NFL, and leading the only NFL team to have a perfect record for the regular season and playoffs, in the modern era, is sufficient grounds for this lofty rank.
Shula coached two different teams. Initially, he took over the Baltimore Colts and led the team from 1963 - 1969, where his record was 71-23, good for a winning percentage of .755. The Colts never won a NFL Championship under Shula, but did reach the Super Bowl, losing to Broadway Joe Namath in the famous Super Bowl III, when Namath predicted the Jets would win.
Shula then moved on to Miami in 1970 and remained with the Dolphins until 1995, the year he retired from coaching. The last season was the year he eclipsed George Halas to become the all-time leader in career wins.
Shula's third year in Miami, 1972, was the year of perfection. A 14-0 record in the regular season and a 3-0 playoff run, was the icing on the cake. In fact, the Dolphins wound up repeating as Super Bowl champions the following year, as they wound up winning Super Bowl VII and VIII.
While at Miami, Shula amassed a record of 257-133-2, good for a winning percentage of .659. His overall coaching record was 328-156, which was a .678 mark. His overall playoff record was not as good, 19-17, which was slightly over .500 at .528.
Congratulations to Don Shula, on an amazing career.