Ron Rivera, Jason Garett, Jim Harbaugh: Analyzing Head Coach Hirings

Eric EdmundsonContributor IJanuary 11, 2011

Ron Rivera has a lot of experience as an NFL coordinator
Ron Rivera has a lot of experience as an NFL coordinatorDonald Miralle/Getty Images

With all of the head coaching decisions that general managers and owners are currently making in the NFL and more likely coming in the next couple of weeks, there has been a lot of debate about potential candidates for each team. 

It got me thinking, “where DO successful coaches come from?” What are their backgrounds? What seems to be the path for success in this very competitive, demanding occupation?

The league changed quite a bit in the early 90s. The modern age of free agency began, which made the talent level on each team more level and head coaches even more important.

The Cowboys were the dominant team during the early 90s, winning three Super Bowls with two different coaches who came directly from the college ranks. But what has happened since that time? What ‘types’ of coaches are winning in the modern NFL?

Since 1995, dozens of coaches have been hired to lead NFL teams. Only 11 coaches have won the Super Bowl. Some teams have attempted to duplicate the Cowboys’ success in the early 90s by bringing in head coaches directly from the college game. Most of them have been failures of epic proportions.

Some teams have chosen to promote a coordinator from within to become their next head coach. None of those ‘promoted’ individuals have won a Super Bowl.

Some teams have hired previous Super Bowl-winning coaches, such as Bill Parcells, Mike Holmgren and Joe Gibbs. None have been able to win one after leaving the team they won it all with. It's hard to recreate the magic, apparently.

So, where are these Super Bowl-winning coaches coming from? Apparently it’s a fairly simple formula, because there are only two backgrounds where they’re coming from.

The first group of Super Bowl-winning coaches are first-time head coaches who had extensive assistant/coordinating experience with other teams in the NFL prior to becoming a head coach for the first time. The coaches on this list include Sean Payton, Mike Holmgren, Brian Billick, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin.

All of these coaches won the Super Bowl with the first teams that hired them as a head coach, but all of them had extensive time learning the league as a protégé under one or more NFL head coaches in different organizations.

These coaches were not college coaches, and were not wet behind the ears coaches who hadn’t been in the league very long.

The second location Super Bowl-winning coaches are coming from are coaches who resigned or were fired from their first head coaching job without winning a title, but were able to win it all with their second head coaching gigs.

These include Tom Coughlin, Tony Dungy, Bill Belichick, Jon Gruden, Dick Vermeil and Mike Shanahan. No coach has been able to win another Super Bowl after leaving the team he was with when it won it all.

In summary, recent history shows us that the most successful NFL coaches:

1) Are successful assistants/coordinators with other NFL teams prior to becoming a head coach with a new organization, or …
2) They are with their second teams after failing to win it with their first teams

The coaches that are NOT successful:

1) Have spent most of their coaching career in the college game, or
2) Were promoted from within their organization, or
3) Won a Super Bowl with a previous team

What does all of this tell us about the current head coaching decisions being made? Well, it may tell us that the odds are against Leslie Frazier and Jason Garrett having tons of success as 'promoted' coordinators with their current teams.

It seems clear that the deck is stacked against Jim Harbaugh since he has mainly been a college coach. It hints that Mike Shanahan probably won’t reach the promised land ever again.  And it indicates that Ron Rivera may be the best hire compared to Harbaugh, Garrett, and Frazier.

Will someone buck the odds?  Only time will tell.