Success of Modern Coaching Trees

By Stephen Juza

May 24th, 2020

Throughout NFL history, future coaches have learned how to succeed from current coaches. By learning their strategies, what works well and what can be improved, they hone their skills as an NFL coach. Rising through the ranks until they get their own opportunity to lead a team.

Some head coaches have a better track record of turning their assistants into head coaches to continue their core strategies. Bill Walsh is the best example of this. During his years as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s and 1990s, the team reshaped the league with the west coast offense. During these years, many assistants became head coaches carrying on a similar offensive philosophy.

Walsh’s former assistants carried the torch of the west coast offense far from San Francisco as they were hired as head coaches throughout the league: Sam Wyche to the Bengals, Mike Holmgren to the Packers, Dennis Green to the Vikings, and many others.

From there, the Bill Walsh coaching tree continued to grow. Among the new branches were Andy Reid, assistant coach under Mike Holmgren, who was hired as the head coach of the Eagles and Lovie Smith, assistant coach under Dennis Green, who was hired by the Bears. Pretty soon, most teams had some connection to the Walsh coaching tree.

Current organizations are no different, often poaching assistant coaches from successful teams to lead their own organization. This has led to several teams around the league with ties to Reid, head coach of the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.

During Reid’s coaching career, ten coaches spent seasons on Reid’s staff before becoming head coaches. The most tenured coach under Reid’s tutelage was Sean McDermott, veteran of twelve seasons under Reid and current head coach of the Buffalo Bills. On the other end of the spectrum is Todd Bowles, who spent a single season as the Eagles secondary coach, filling in as interim defensive coordinator for the final ten games of the season.

Reid’s coaching tree consists of these ten coaches, combining for 77 seasons under his leadership. They have led teams for 49 seasons and counting. The most successful among his coaching tree is John Harbaugh, current head coach of the Baltimore Ravens. Harbaugh’s team won the Super Bowl in 2012, and he makes up more than half of the group’s playoff wins. Doug Pederson is another notable name, current head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, and winner of the 2017 Super Bowl.

Coach (active head coaches in bold) Regular Season Record Playoff Record
John Harbaugh 118-74 10-7
Ron Rivera 76-63-1 3-4
Brad Childress 39-35 1-2
Doug Pederson 38-26 4-2
Todd Bowles 26-41 0-0
Sean McDermott 25-23 0-2
Leslie Frazier 21-32 0-1
Matt Nagy 20-12 0-1
Steve Spagnuolo 11-41 0-0
Pat Shurmur 19-46 0-0
Total 393-393-1 18-19

Simply because an assistant has worked under a successful head coach does not guarantee their success. While Reid’s coaching tree has had success, the same cannot be said for Bill Belichick’s tree. Despite Belichick’s accomplishments as arguably the greatest NFL coach of all time, his coaching tree legacy leaves much to be desired.

Belichick has had nine assistants become head coaches, with little success at the NFL level. While there are several coaches still getting started in their head coaching careers, such as Joe Judge and Brian Flores, many coaches that had their chance failed to achieve even modest success.

Belichick’s coaching tree consists of nine coaches who have combined for only twenty-five seasons as head coach, combining for a win percentage of 42% with only two playoff wins among the group.

Coach (active head coaches in bold) Regular Season Record Playoff Record
Bill O'Brien 52-44 2-4
Eric Mangini 33-47 0-1
Romeo Crennel 28-55 0-0
Nick Saban 15-17 0-0
Josh McDaniels 11-17 0-0
Matt Patricia 9-22-1 0-0
Al Groh 9-7 0-0
Brian Flores 5-11 0-0
Joe Judge 0-0 0-0
Total 162-220-1 2-5

The notable exception in this group is Nick Saban--while he struggled in his two seasons as the head coach of the Miami Dolphins, he has become one of the most successful coaches in college football history with his tenure at Alabama.

Between Reid and Belichick, a third of the league’s head coaches have spent time on their coaching staffs. However, their success with their opportunities could not be more different. Coaches coming from Reid’s coaching tree have had success throughout the league. Despite Belichick’s personal success throughout the league, his coaching staff has not prospered beyond the Patriots, a fact that does not bode well for the Giants and new head coach Judge.

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