Dissecting the Coaching Trees in the NFL Today

Scott Kacsmar@CaptainComebackContributor IJune 6, 2013

FOXBORO, MA - NOVEMBER 16:  Head Coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots (L) hugs Head Coach Bill Parcells of the Dallas Cowboys after the Patriots 12-0 win on November 16, 2003 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images

Many of the NFL’s notable head coaches can be traced back through coaching trees that start with names like Paul Brown, Bill Parcells, Bill Walsh and Marty Schottenheimer.

However, in today’s quickly changing coaching climate, we are starting to see more coaches emerge with a college background or a history filled with working for multiple NFL coaches.

The latter is really nothing new. Having initially provided the coaching histories at Pro-Football-Reference a few years back, it was surprising how many different jobs many coaches have had to go through to reach the coveted position of head coach. Joining a few different coaching trees can help someone establish clout in the league.

That is why a NFL coaching tree is not like a family tree, which focuses on the origin of birth and how people are related. For a NFL coaching tree, it could be more about where that person crafted their philosophy or had their most success, which led directly to their hiring as a head coach.

For example, ESPN has been doing a series on great coaches. Like how everyone else would do, it includes Bill Belichick as part of Bill Parcells’ coaching tree. This mostly comes from their working relationship on the New York Giants, but they also worked together with the Patriots (1996) and Jets (1997-99).

Yet it was actually Ted Marchibroda of the Baltimore Colts in 1975 that gave Belichick his first NFL job as an assistant. Belichick worked under five different head coaches before Parcells became his coach in 1983.

Even when the two joined the same staff in 1979, the head coach of the Giants was Ray Perkins. So should Belichick and Perkins both be first-generation coaches on Perkins’ tree?

It’s a complicated process, but we have sorted out where today’s head coaches come from. Let’s just say it is one big forest with many sharing of branches among the trees.

League-Wide View: The Coaches of the Coaches

First let’s meet our 2013 coaches, considering even a hardcore NFL fan may not be able to match all 32 names and places just yet. Half of the group has less than three full seasons of experience as a head coach in the NFL.

The following lists all of the NFL head coaches each coach has previously worked under in the NFL. The list is essentially in chronological order, ignoring second stints together. Interim coaches not promoted to head coach were excluded.

The average coach has worked for 3.3 other head coaches in the NFL.

Marc Trestman is a tree-swinging nomad, working for 11 different head coaches and even going to Canada to coach the Montreal Alouettes before finally getting the big job with the Chicago Bears this year.

Where do you possibly stick him? More on that later.

Then we have the complete opposite in Chip Kelly, who is the only coach with no NFL experience. His most notable positions have come in college with New Hampshire under head coach Sean McDonnell and at Oregon where he replaced coach Mike Bellotti.

Expectations are high for his high-powered brand of offense, but without any NFL experience, we really do not know what to expect from Kelly and the Eagles in 2013.

With one coach down, let’s see if we can make some sense of these 31 other names. Examining the list above, you will find that 29 names appear multiple times.

Here is the list of the 29 coaches with multiple appearances, which includes five active coaches:

George Seifert, who is part of Bill Walsh’s coaching tree, comes out on top with six. Marty Schottenheimer holds strong with four while everyone else has two or three.

These are the groups we want to pay the most attention to. Going forward, any attempt at a coaching tree is only to focus on the notable active coaches and how they connect to the past. If you want to see full coaching trees in all of their glory, then visit ESPN’s feature or Wikipedia. If you want full coaching histories, look up any coach on Pro-Football-Reference.

George Seifert Steals More Branches than Anyone

This group includes Marc Trestman, Gary Kubiak, Mike McCoy, Pete Carroll, Jeff Fisher and Mike Shanahan.

Seifert has the most active coaches with six, but like with the rest of his career, the numbers will not earn much respect. Seifert is a direct descendant of the Bill Walsh tree given he was Walsh’s defensive coordinator before taking over his place and winning two Super Bowls of his own.

But Seifert needed coordinators himself, so he hired a few impressive names, mostly in the 1990s.

As you will see, all six of these names fit better with another coach.

In particular, Dan Reeves deserves a lot of the credit for this tree. He gave Mike Shanahan his first NFL job as an offensive coordinator for John Elway and the Broncos (1984-87). Shanahan would have three stints with the Broncos, including his head coaching job (1995-08).

But it was in 1992-94 that he served as offensive coordinator for Steve Young, who won two MVP awards and a Super Bowl in that time.

Gary Kubiak was Young’s quarterback coach in 1994, but he still owes more to Reeves, who coached him as Elway’s backup (1983-91) and Shanahan, who he followed for most of his professional career until getting the Houston Texans job in 2006.

Raiders coach Dennis Allen also got his start in the NFL with Reeves. He did defensive quality control for the Atlanta Falcons starting in 2002.

It may say Seifert, but at least half of this tree belongs to Reeves.

They Still Play “Martyball” in the NFL

This group includes Bruce Arians, Marvin Lewis, Doug Marrone and Mike McCarthy.

You may think of Marty Schottenheimer as that terrible playoff coach (5-13 record), but that would be selling him as short as the players he coached came up for him in big games.

Schottenheimer actually has created one of the best coaching trees in NFL history. It has a strong emphasis on getting guys their first NFL coaching job.

It is deeper than what we have shown here, but there are multiple Super Bowl winners in his tree. Mike McCarthy’s first NFL job was with the Chiefs (1993-98).

Bill Cowher also has a lot to do with the success of Schottenheimer’s tree. He has his own branch full of coordinators that have gone on to some success on their own.

With Schottenheimer’s early days in Cleveland and Kansas City, he helped former players like Cowher and Herm Edwards get coaching jobs.

Cowher gave Marvin Lewis his first NFL job as linebackers coach of the Steelers (1992-95). Buffalo’s Doug Marrone got his NFL start under Edwards, coaching the Jets’ offensive line (2002-05).

Bruce Arians’ first NFL job was coaching Chiefs’ running backs (1989-92). Cowher later hired him to coach wide receivers in Pittsburgh (2004-06) before he moved up to offensive coordinator under Mike Tomlin. The Steelers beat Ken Whisenhunt, another member of Cowher’s branch, and the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.

Arians now replaces Whisenhunt as Arizona’s head coach in 2013, so the Schottenheimer tree continues to prosper.

Bill Parcells’ Sea of Big Tuna

This group includes Bill Belichick, Tom Coughlin, Sean Payton and Dennis Allen.

If you want Super Bowls, then Bill Parcells’ tree is the place to be. Belichick, Coughlin and Payton have won six of the last 12 Super Bowls.

However, this is not a tree where Parcells was giving these guys their first jobs in the NFL.

As mentioned before, Belichick and Parcells were both on Ray Perkins’ Giants staff in 1979. It was not until 1983 that Parcells became the head coach. Belichick became the defensive coordinator in 1985 and the two won a pair of Super Bowls together before Belichick left to coach the Browns in 1991.

They reunited to lead New England to a Super Bowl appearance in the 1996 season. Belichick followed Parcells to the Jets for three years, replaced him for a day, then went off to coach the Patriots.

Belichick recently had his own coaching tree, but those former Patriot assistants have all been fired (Eric Mangini, Romeo Crennel and Josh McDaniels). He did have Detroit’s Jim Schwartz in Cleveland as a scout, which was his first NFL job.

Tom Coughlin actually got his start in the NFL coaching wide receivers for Marion Campbell (1984-85 Eagles) and Forrest Gregg (1986-87 Packers). He did the same job for Parcells and the Giants from 1988-90. From there he left to coach Boston College before returning to the NFL as successful head coach of the Jaguars (1995-02) and Giants (2004-present).

Sean Payton has strong roots in the NFC East, coaching Eagles quarterbacks under Ray Rhodes (1997-98) and being Jim Fassel’s offensive coordinator with the Giants (2000-02).

But the job that put him on the map was being Parcells’ assistant in Dallas (2003-05). From there, he became the head coach of the Saints, which has led to an all-out assault on the record books with Drew Brees under center.

In New Orleans, Payton has had his share of branch success. He may want to forget about hiring Gregg Williams in light of Bountygate, but Dennis Allen was a defensive assistant for the Saints from 2006-10, which includes the Super Bowl win.

Also, Doug Marrone was Payton’s offensive coordinator from 2006-08.

This is the most successful tree among the active ones, but it did take some time for Parcells to connect with his guys.

Therapy Session: Norv Turner, Butch Davis and Dave Wannstedt Mix It Up

Bear with me now, because this group will recall that famous Faye Dunaway scene in Chinatown where she goes on about “My sister! My daughter!”

This group includes Greg Schiano, Ron Rivera, Rob Chudzinski, Chuck Pagano and Bruce Arians.

Butch Davis and Dave Wannstedt both lost their jobs as NFL head coaches during the 2004 season, but along with Norv Turner, they have had a huge impact on today’s coaches.

Davis and Wannstedt were both part of Jimmy Johnson’s coaching staffs at the University of Miami and the Dallas Cowboys. Turner was Johnson’s offensive coordinator in Dallas (1991-93). When Wannstedt left Dallas to coach the Bears in 1993, Davis took over as defensive coordinator. When Wannstedt was the coach of the Dolphins, Turner was his offensive coordinator in 2002-03.

These three men have at least one Super Bowl ring with Dallas and many coaching connections.

In Chicago, Wannstedt brought in former Bears linebacker Ron Rivera to do quality control on defense (1997-98). That was Rivera’s first NFL coaching job. Rivera has also worked under Andy Reid (1999-03 Eagles) and Lovie Smith (2004-06 Bears) before joining Turner in San Diego (2007-10).

It was from there where Rivera earned his first head coaching job with the Panthers in 2011. He hired Rob Chudzinski as his offensive coordinator.

Chudzinski had coached under Davis at Miami before joining him in Cleveland in 2004 as the tight ends coach. From there he went to San Diego, coaching under both Marty Schottenheimer and Turner with a return to Cleveland (Romeo Crennel) in between.

So Turner, Rivera and Chudzinski were all together in San Diego at one point.

Now, Chudzinski has made yet another return to Cleveland, taking the head coaching position in 2013. Who is his offensive coordinator? None other than Turner.

My father? My son?

My coach? My coordinator?

But wait, there’s much more.

Wannstedt also had Greg Schiano as part of his defensive staff (1996-98). In 1999, Schiano went to Miami to be Davis’ defensive coordinator, which is really the one notable NCAA-NFL connection made in this study. When Davis went to coach the Browns in 2001, Schiano left for the Rutgers job, which he held until taking the Tampa Bay job in 2012.

For Davis, he brought in a lot of new faces on the Browns in 2001. He made Bruce Arians his offensive coordinator. He brought in Chuck Pagano from Miami as his secondary coach. It was Pagano’s first NFL job.

Turner gave Pagano his second NFL job as a defensive backs coach in 2005. Pagano would eventually serve under John Harbaugh in Baltimore before becoming the coach of the Colts last year.

Who was Pagano’s first offensive coordinator? Arians, who of course is the reigning Coach of the Year after his performance in Pagano’s absence due to his leukemia battle last season.

Wannstedt also had Trestman (go figure) on his staff in 2004 with the Dolphins, which is the last season Wannstedt was a NFL head coach. Trestman sure gets around, but not as much as Davis, Wannstedt, Turner and their brethren.

For one final twist, Wannstedt is now in Tampa Bay as Schiano’s special teams coach.

This group certainly deserves their own tree, which could be the Jimmy Johnson tree, and perhaps some therapy.

Buddy Ryan’s Rowdy Bunch

This group includes Jeff Fisher, Rex Ryan, Jim Schwartz and Mike Munchak.

Rex Ryan and his brother Rob were destined to coach in the NFL thanks to their fiery dad Buddy Ryan. Rex did pay his dues with positional coaching jobs at several colleges, but let’s face it: Nepotism is real, and it happens everywhere.

Rex’s first NFL job came as his dad’s defensive line/linebackers coach for the Arizona Cardinals in 1994-95. After some more jobs in college, he returned to the NFL to coach Ray Lewis and the Ravens defense under new head coach Brian Billick. The 2000 Ravens won a Super Bowl in dominant defensive fashion, though Ryan would not become defensive coordinator until 2005.

Ryan stayed around after Billick was fired, again calling a great defense in 2008 under rookie coach John Harbaugh. After that season, Ryan was off to coach the New York Jets with the same bravado of his father, but also earning the playoff wins Buddy never achieved.

Though Rex is the actual son of Buddy, Jeff Fisher is deeply indebted to Buddy as well. As an injured player for the Bears in 1985, Fisher spent his time on injured reserve wisely. He helped Ryan, his defensive coordinator, during that magical Super Bowl season.

When Ryan took the head coach job in Philadelphia in 1986, Fisher followed him, first coaching defensive backs then moving up to defensive coordinator in 1988.

Fisher would then work for the Rams and 49ers before taking the defensive coordinator job with the Houston Oilers in 1994. When coach Jack Pardee resigned during the season, Fisher was the interim coach. He was promoted to head coach, which is a position he held through the 2010 season before taking a year off and returning to coaching with the Rams.

Fisher joined the Oilers the same time as Hall of Fame guard Mike Munchak did. With Munchak coaching the offensive line, the two stayed together through all those years with Munchak taking over for Fisher in 2011.

Munchak has incredibly been a player or coach with the Oilers/Titans in every season since 1982. He better start winning if he wants to stay there, but that’s a topic for another day.

In 1999 Jim Schwartz joined Fisher’s staff as a defensive assistant. He moved up to defensive coordinator in 2001, spending eight seasons in that position before taking the dreaded Detroit job following an 0-16 season. But he did get the Lions to the playoffs in 2011.

John Fox and Mike McCoy: Two Hearts Beat as One

Sparing the overtones that might upset Roy Hibbert, John Fox and Mike McCoy share an interesting story, crossing two teams, of how true love will always find its way back to you.

Fox received his NFL start from Pittsburgh legend Chuck Noll when he became the Steelers’ defensive backs coach in 1989. While he would also work for the Chargers, Raiders and Rams, his next big stint came with Jim Fassel’s Giants (1997-2001), where he was the defensive coordinator.

Technically, Fox can also fall under the Bill Walsh tree due to his connection with Fassel.

In New York, it made for a pretty good pairing with offensive coordinator Sean Payton. The Giants even got to the Super Bowl with Kerry Collins at quarterback.

Fox received his first head coaching job with the Carolina Panthers in 2002. It is there where he met Mike McCoy, who had already been there for two seasons under George Seifert. He stayed on with Fox as an offensive assistant, and in 2003 the team made an improbable run to the Super Bowl with Jake Delhomme leading a record eight game-winning drives on the season.

McCoy never moved up to the official title of offensive coordinator under Fox, but after Delhomme imploded in the 2008 playoffs against Arizona, he took a better job as Josh McDaniels’ offensive coordinator in Denver.

After McDaniels was fired, sure enough Fox found his way back to McCoy again in Denver in 2011 as the Broncos’ new coach. Now Fox’s offensive coordinator, McCoy received the most respect of his career for turning the Tim Tebow-led offense into a playoff win, then reaped the benefits of sitting back as Peyton Manning ran the show last season.

Being so used to going into battle together, McCoy will now coach against Fox as the head man in San Diego this season. Also keep in mind Oakland’s Dennis Allen served as Fox’s defensive coordinator in 2011. The AFC West is nearly a full Fox coaching tree.

So the handshakes at midfield may be accompanied by a hug.

Andy Reid and Joe Philbin: Green Bay Keeps It Simple

When Mike Holmgren was coach of the Green Bay Packers (1992-98), he had a great staff with people like Andy Reid, Jon Gruden and Steve Mariucci.

For the Packers, they like to keep it simple with coaching trees. In the NFL, Reid only worked under Holmgren, coaching different aspects of the offense from 1992-98 before getting the Eagles job in 1999.

Likewise, Miami coach Joe Philbin spent all of his initial NFL tenure with the Packers, coaching the offense under Mike Sherman (2003-05) and Mike McCarthy (2006-11) before the Dolphins hired him in 2012. Sherman rejoined Philbin as his offensive coordinator. Sherman also coached quarterback Ryan Tannehill at Texas A&M.

So there’s not a ton going on here, though Reid has a decent-sized tree of his own with three current coaches.

Leslie Frazier coached defensive backs (1999-02) and Ron Rivera coached linebackers (1999-03) on Reid’s initial Philadelphia staffs.

John Harbaugh was hired on Ray Rhodes’ staff in 1998, but Reid kept him on as special teams coordinator and defensive backs coach (1999-07) until he took the Ravens job in 2008.

Harbaugh can be said to have a coaching tree of Rex Ryan and Chuck Pagano, though some would joke that is Ray Lewis and the defense getting two more people jobs.

Had Pat Shurmur not been fired by the Browns, he would have been another head coach on Reid’s tree. Shurmur coached tight ends and quarterbacks for the Eagles from 1999-08.

What’s Your Deal, Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll?

We know the NFC West is hot right now with these guys leading the 49ers and Seahawks, but both are known for having their success in college. Jim Harbaugh had a great run at Stanford and Pete Carroll was incredible with USC after a so-so NFL career.

But in Harbaugh’s case, his best NFL experience comes from being a quarterback for 15 seasons. The only other NFL job he had was coaching the quarterbacks for the Oakland Raiders in 2002-03 under Bill Callahan. Rich Gannon won MVP in 2002 and reached the Super Bowl. Harbaugh was in San Diego (NCAA) by 2004 before returning to the NFL in 2011.

Carroll’s NFL start came coaching defensive backs in the ‘80s with Kay Stephenson’s Bills (1984) and Bud Grant/Jerry Burns’ Vikings (1985-89). He served as Bruce Coslet’s defensive coordinator with the Jets (1990-93), which does land Carroll on the Bill Walsh tree.

After one year of being the head coach of the Jets, Carroll did double time on the Walsh tree by working under George Seifert with the 49ers as defensive coordinator (1995-96). He has been nothing but a head coach since 1997.

Brad Childress: You Are No Tony Dungy

It did not feel right to think about a Brad Childress coaching tree, so let’s look at it this way: Mike Tomlin and Leslie Frazier have used Childress as a stepping stone to their positions today. Both should rather cite Tony Dungy as their influence as both have that background with the Tampa-2 defense.

Tomlin’s first NFL job came from Dungy as Tampa Bay’s defensive backs coach in 2001. Jon Gruden kept him on through 2005, which is when Tomlin left to become Childress’ defensive coordinator for the Vikings in 2006.

After one season there, Tomlin was off to Pittsburgh as its third head coach since 1969. He has already won one Super Bowl.

Frazier had jobs under Andy Reid and Marvin Lewis, but he won a Super Bowl as an assistant to Dungy on the 2006 Colts. With Tomlin out of Minnesota, Frazier slipped in as the new defensive coordinator in 2007. He would take over for the fired Childress as interim coach in 2010 before getting the title as head coach in 2011.

Bill Walsh Tree Still Dominates

If we put as much of the Bill Walsh tree together as possible, it can account for 28 of the 32 head coaches in 2013. This is thanks to being able to add Mike Holmgren, Dennis Green and Ray Rhodes as part of Walsh's staff with the 49ers. Jim Fassel often gets credited on Walsh's tree, though his only connection is replacing Walsh at Stanford.

Technically, there were two cheap moves here to get to 28. Putting Fassel under Billick (Ravens' offensive coordinator in 2004-06) after he had his last head coaching job is not a strong relationship. Likewise, using Wade Phillips in Houston under Gary Kubiak is a cheap trick to get to Jason Garrett in Dallas.

Regardless, it's all but four people. We know Kelly has no NFL connections. Belichick and Parcells have roots too deep that Parcells could not make an appearance here. That leaves Schiano. It was impossible to get the Jimmy Johnson coaching tree going here outside of Norv Turner, but amazingly those two have never crossed paths anyway.

Conclusion: Who Was Left Out?

With all the twisting, turning and overlapping, it is hard to believe anyone has been left out, but let’s hit on the final few coaches.

America’s Team was left quiet here with no mention of Jason Garrett. A NFL quarterback, he became Nick Saban’s quarterbacks coach for the Miami Dolphins (2005-06) before taking the offensive coordinator job in Dallas under Wade Phillips in 2007. Phillips was fired in 2010, making Garrett the interim coach before he became the official head coach in 2011.

Saban’s most notable NFL job was as Bill Belichick’s defensive coordinator in Cleveland (1991-94). Phillips of course got his start from his dad Bum Phillips with the Houston Oilers, but he also worked under Buddy Ryan in Philadelphia and Dan Reeves in Denver before taking the Broncos’ head coaching job in 1993.

Baltimore’s Brian Billick has been mentioned, but his tree is actually impressive with Marvin Lewis, Mike Smith, Jack Del Rio and Rex Ryan all getting jobs as head coaches. Smith actually worked under Del Rio in Jacksonville before getting the Atlanta job in 2008.

Speaking of Jacksonville, new coach Gus Bradley has had a fairly simple coaching history in the NFL. Jon Gruden made him his linebackers coach in Tampa Bay (2006-08). He then became the defensive coordinator for Jim Mora Jr. in Seattle, only to see Pete Carroll take over as head coach in 2010 and retain him.

After having the No. 1 scoring defense in Seattle last season, Bradley has earned his first head coaching job with the London Jaguars.


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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