So here’s what I was thinking about the other day … why is it important that a professional sports coach or manager (especially in baseball) be a former player? In baseball, as I have already written here, at least 80% of the managers in baseball played in the big leagues, and just about every player was a star ballplayer at some reasonably high level*.
*Even Buck Showalter, who takes more than his share of heat as a non-player, hit .324 one year in Class AA one year and struck out only 24 times in 615 plate appearances.
In the NBA, by my quick count, 22 of the 30 coaches who ended the season last year with teams played in the NBA. And in basketball, unlike baseball, many of the greatest players ever — Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Bob Cousy, Dave Cowens, Bill Russell, Dan Issel, Bob Lanier, even Wilt Chamberlain briefly while playing — have tried their hand at coaching. Few of the all-time great baseball players, especially in recent years, have become managers.
In the NHL, I count 21 of the 30 coaches as former NHL players though remarkably some of the best hockey names in coaching — Guy Boucher, Peter DeBoer, Barry Trotz — did not play in the NHL. They did play hockey at high levels, though,
So the question is: Why? Why is it that playing the sport at a high level is widely viewed as a prerequisite for becoming a coach those three sports? I think you could come up with a million reasons if you want, but I have chosen three:
1. Players’ respect. There’s a sense among general managers and owners that players will be more likely to respect and follow a manager who has played at or near the highest level (or maybe the converse is more true: That players are more likely NOT to respect and follow a manager who has not played at or near the highest level). Pro sports, people will often tell you, are about people. These are not tabletop games — I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard that while writing about sports. And so, to earn the players respect (the thinking goes) you need that history as a player.
2. A sense of understanding. There’s a sense among many that to understand the game at the extreme heights necessary to coach the game, you need to have played it very well. This is why 72.4% of the nasty emails I get contain the phrase “Did you ever play?” Obviously, sports understanding is 1,000 times more important for coaches than for sportswriters, and and the sense among many is that you need to have been in those situations. You need to have been on the court with the game on the line, or in Game 148 with your body aching, or on the ice in the heat of the playoffs.
3. A natural connection between playing and coaching. Anyway the connection seems natural in those sports. While baseball (through gritted teeth) has come to accept various highly educated General Managers who never played baseball above high school (if there), the idea a non-playing MANAGER being hired still seems jarring to the mind. And most people will tell you it couldn’t work. The idea of someone like Bill Belichick — a low-level college football player who basically learned the game by studying film in his father’s basement — becoming a baseball manager is simply foreign to the mind.
And that leads us to the point: None of my three reasons have any effect on football. Below, I’ve ranked the 32 NFL coaches as players … and I should say that it was almost impossible to do because I HAVE NO IDEA how good a player most of these guys really were. That’s because only five coaches of the 32 had real NFL careers (two more were NFL replacement in 1987). Only a handful beyond that had even remotely memorable college careers. One coach never played football at all — he really did want to be a professional golfer. Another almost died on a football field in college and never played another down. There are more coaches in the NFL from Wesleyan College than from Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, USC, Oklahoma and Nebraska combined. And there are more coaches from Eastern Illinois than Wesleyan College.
So how do you explain it? NFL coaches certainly must demand respect. How do they do it without playing in the league? NFL coaches certainly need to have that understanding of the sport — how do they gain it if they never played at the highest level? Football, you would think as much as any sport, should have that strong connection between playing and coaching. But in the NFL playing in the league is certainly no prerequisite … as you will see below only five NFL head coaches legitimately played in the NFL (two seem to have had brief careers as replacement players in 1987). Frankly, when you look hard at the coaches who get hired, you would think that having played in the NFL would be a negative on your resume.
Bill Walsh didn’t play a down in the NFL — he (like many NFL coaches) became a graduate assistant while pursuing a Masters degree. Dick Vermeil followed the same path. Marv Levy didn’t play in the NFL — he went to Harvard for graduate work in English history. Jim Mora didn’t play in the NFL — he joined the Marines. Bill Parcells didn’t play in the NFL, though he actually was drafted in the seventh round out of Wichita State. Jimmy Johnson didn’t play in the NFL, though he was part of the great 1964 Arkansas team as a player. And so on. Even Vince Lombardi didn’t play in the NFL (though it was a fledgling league then, and Lombardi was one of the famed Seven Blocks of Granite at Fordham).
And so on. Though some of the great NFL coaches — Don Shula, Tom Landry, Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and others — did play in the NFL, it almost seemed beside the point. The NFL decision makers (and in many ways the NFL decision makers alone) had come to see coaching football as a completely different career track from playing football.
It’s fascinating to me that football is like this and has been like this for so long. You would think, from an outsiders view, that football would be the MOST insular of sporting worlds not the LEAST. Football seems so regimented, so stuck in its ways … but when it comes to hiring coaches owners and general managers are almost bizarrely open-minded and revolutionary. When Scott Pioli, who had so much success in New England, took over Kansas City and went looking for a coach, he hired a man who had never played football on ANY level, a man who wanted to be a professional golfer, Todd Haley, And while the jury is still out on Haley — and while former running back Larry Johnson did call out Haley on Twitter — the Chiefs have made strides in 2010 and it seems to me that kind of hire would be almost impossible in baseball.
OK, so now here are all 32 coaches loosely ranked 1-32 as players.
1. Mike Singletary (San Francisco): Absolutely no question who is in the top spot. He was, of course, a Hall of fame linebacker, and the anchor of the legendary 1985 Bears defense.
2. Jack Del Rio (Jacksonville): A pretty clear No. 2 choice as well. Del Rio had an eleven year pro career, with the Kansas City Chiefs, Cowboys and Vikings, and he made one Pro Bowl in 1994. He might be best known for his staunch pro-union stance — he was so pro-union he was once photographed with a shotgun while in a picket line, and he got into a brief skirmish with Chiefs legend Otis Taylor, who was serving as a scout at the time.
3. Ken Whisenhunt (Arizona): He was a sturdy NFL tight end for the Atlanta Falcons — he started from 1986-88 and caught 53 passes over those three years.
4. Gary Kubiak (Houston): He played his entire career as a backup to John Elway in Denver, which is not a bad way to make a living. He did start five games, and he had some talent. His senior year he led the SW Conference in touchdown passes at Texas A&M.
5. Jeff Fisher (Tennessee): He was a star defensive back at USC, and he actually played 49 games for the Chicago Bears, mostly on special teams. He had one punt return for a touchdown.
6. Lovie Smith (Chicago): Well, we’re all done with our non-replacement NFL players. That’s it: FIVE guys played in the NFL, two made Pro Bowls. The ranking definitely gets trickier from here. Smith played linebacker and safety at Tulsa and was chosen a second-team All American by the AP in 1978.
7. Wade Phillips (Dallas … at least as I type this): He was a three-year starter at the University of Houston where it was said that he set a school record for tackles.
8. Tom Coughlin (New York Giants): He set the Syracuse record passing yards, though — through no fault of his own — he was by far the least successful player in the Orangeman backfield when he played (he played in the backfield with TWO future Pro Football Hall of Famers, Larry Czonka and Floyd Little). Coughlin is old enough that when he played, his position was called “Wingback.”
9. Marvin Lewis (Cincinnati): He was a very good linebacker at Idaho State — making first-team All-Big Sky three times.*
*This has nothing to do with anything — and I hesitate to tell this little story because people might think I’m making fun the Big Sky conference and I absolutely not. They play good and fun football in the Big Sky, and they absolutely should have All-Conference teams. But I do think these “All-Whatever Teams” can get carried away. One year my good friend Chuck Culpepper was covering the Great Alaska Shootout, and he was pondering whether to put a guy on first-team All-Great-Alaska Shootout. He was asking me about it, and it suddenly hit me and I found myself asking him what I thought was a rather remarkable question: “Do you mean there’s a SECOND TEAM All-Great Alaska Shootout?” It turns out, there was.
10. Tom Cable (Oakland): He was a star offensive lineman for University of Idaho. It has been written in several places that he was briefly a Colts replacement player in 1987, though I cannot find any official record of it. That little tidbit, though, is actually included in his official Raiders biography (“he spent one year with the Colts”) which is surprising since the Raider tend to keep just about everything, including their last eight seasons, as hush-hush as possible.
11. Sean Payton (New Orleans). Payton was DEFINITELY a replacement player — he played in three games for the Chicago Bears in ’87, completing 8 of 23 passes. What does it say about the NFL that not one but TWO replacement players are head coaches? Payton was apparently a very good quarterback at that hotbed for NFL coaches, Eastern Illinois.
12. Mike Tomlin: (Pittsburgh). He played wide receiver at William & Mary, and was a good player there. He had school record with 20 touchdown receptions. He was good enough there that he has his own YouTube video.
13. Jim Caldwell (Indianapolis). He was a four year starter as defensive back at Iowa, which is not quite as impressive as it sounds. Iowa was struggling quite a bit then. The Hawkeyes went 0-11 one of this seasons. But teammates say he was a good player.
14. Andy Reid (Philadelphia): Offensive lineman at BYU. Apparently, according to his own bio, one of his quirks as a player is that at the same time he was a writing a column for the Provo Daily Herald and, yes, that he loved Jim Murray and dreamed of writing at Sports Illustrated. Maybe we could change jobs for a day or something.
15. Chan Gailey (Buffalo): He was a three year letterman at quarterback for University of Florida. I’m not sure how much he played. I do know two things (1) He ran the wishbone; (2) He IS an Eagle Scout. I mention this last bit because once in writing a story about Gailey I mentioned that Gailey WAS an Eagle Scout. I heard from half of the world’s Eagle Scouts who alerted me that once you are an Eagle Scout you are ALWAYS an Eagle Scout, there is no past tense there, it is a lifelong title.
16. Mike Smith (Atlanta): Well, the rankings keep getting trickier and trickier as I get less and less information to work with. Smith was a linebacker at East Tennessee State, and was good enough to twice be named team MVP. I’ve also seen that he played briefly in the CFL.
17. John Fox (Carolina): He played defensive back at San Diego State with Herm Edwards, and Herm said he was a good player. But now that I think of it, Herm always said it in sort of a semi-serious “Oh, John was a good player, yeah, good player” kind of way, so I don’t know.
18. Norv Turner (San Diego): Here we are, barely even halfway through the list, and already we’re talking about backup college players. Turner was a three-year letterman at Oregon though if he’s known for anything there as a player it is for backing up a pretty decent quarterback named Dan Fouts.
19. Pete Carroll (Seattle): He played free safety at University of the Pacific and was good enough to win All-Conference honors.
20. Eric Mangini (Cleveland). He was a nose tackle at Wesleyan University, and it says that he holds the single season and career sack records there. I have no idea what to make of this information except that he was a better player than Bill Belichick.
21. John Harbaugh (Baltimore). He was a defensive back at Miami University, the cradle of coaches. The word I’ve heard is that he was a talented player who had his career slowed by a nasty knee injury.
22. Mike McCarthy (Green Bay). I’m not sure how good a tight end Mike McCarthy was at Baker University, but he certainly takes great pride in the school. He and the Packers have more than once made generous donations to Baker.
23. Jim Schwartz (Detroit): A story about Schwartz at Georgetown’s own Web Site does not go into any detail about how good a player he was … only that he “played linebacker.” Hmm. The story does say that he’s an avid chess player*, and he uses lots of statistics in his coaching.
24. Josh McDaniels (Denver). He played some quarterback and some wide receiver at John Carroll. Hard to find any information about how good a player he was.
25. Raheem Morris (Tampa Bay): He was a safety at Hofstra — that’s about all any of the bios about Morris say. No idea how much he played.
26. Tony Sparano (Miami): He did start at center for the University of New Haven … and the training center is named for him, though I suspect not because of his play. He was a successful coach at New Haven, twice coaching the team into the Division II playoffs.
27. Bill Belichick (New England): He played center and tight end at Wesleyan University. but football was probably not his best sport. He was captain of the lacrosse team his senior season.
28. Rex Ryan (New York Jets): He was a defense end at Southwestern Oklahoma State University. Hard to tell how much or how well he and his twin brother Rob played, but apparently they raised enough hell that at least once their father, Buddy, was called to bail them out of jail.
29. Mike Shanahan (Washington): He was a quarterback at Eastern Illinois, but he suffered a horrible injury during the spring game — he ended up losing a kidney, doctors at the time said his life was in danger. He obviously never played again.
30. Brad Childress (Minnesota): Talk about eerie. Childress was a quarterback who transferred from Illinois to Eastern Illinois, though he never played a down at Eastern Illinois… because he suffered career-ending injury before the season began. That makes TWO NFL coaches who not only went to Eastern Illinois but had their careers ended by freak injuries.
31. Steve Spagnuolo (St. Louis): He was a starting wide receiver at Springfield College. Hard to tell how good a player he was, but he was a good enough student that he won the school’s male scholar-athlete award his senior year.
32. Todd Haley (Kansas City): He never played football — his connection to football was through his father, Dick Haley, who was one of the architects of the Steel Curtain Steelers of the 1970s. Dick Haley, it should be said, DID play in the NFL. Todd wanted to be a golf pro, and while there are no coaches who played FOOTBALL at the University of Miami, Todd did play golf at the U.