Top Coaching Trees in NFL History

By Stephen Juza

October 17th, 2020

Throughout NFL history, coaching strategies can be traced by following a head coach’s coaching tree--assistants from their coaching staff that went on to become head coaches themselves. Previously, an article examined the difference in success between Andy Reid’s and Bill Belichick’s coaching trees. While Reid’s was clearly superior, it begs the question: how does it stack up among the best coaching trees in history?

Two head coaches stand out with the most successful coaching trees in NFL history, leading in NFL championships won while also maintaining their own level of personal success.

Jim Lee Howell--Highest Coaching Tree Win Percentage (59.6%), Tied for Most Championships Won(7)

Jim Lee Howell was the head coach of the New York Giants from 1954-1960 before moving into a front office role. During his seven season head coaching career, the Giants won a single NFL championship and played in two more. However, his coaching staff was packed with future talent that would influence the NFL for the next four decades.

Howell’s coaching tree does not have the breadth of other coaches, consisting of only four coaches. Between the four of them, they won 421 games and seven championships in their combined fifty one seasons leading their own team--the vast majority of that success coming from Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry, two of the most successful coaches in league history.

Lombardi was the first coach from his tree to branch out and lead a team on his own. While Lombardi’s claim to fame comes from his tenure with the Green Bay Packers, he was an impressive offensive coordinator for years under Howell. Pioneering a zone blocking scheme, the Giants offense improved from last to sixth in a single season.

Under Lombardi’s leadership the Packers won five championships in seven years, a run of domination that has yet to be surpassed by any team in league history. During his career, he would also hold one of the highest winning percentages among coaches in NFL history.

After coaching the defense for six years under Howell, Landry became the first head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Leading the Cowboys for 29 years, Landry’s team won more than half of the coaching tree’s total victories (250).

Under Landry, the Cowboys grew into the dominating team in the NFL during the 1970s, winning two championships and playing three more. While the team remained competitive throughout the 1980s, Landry’s time with the Cowboys, and the NFL, came to an end in 1988 under new owner Jerry Jones.

Not only is Howell’s coaching tree dominant in the regular season, they are also tied with the most championship rings among coaching trees (seven) with Paul Brown’s tree.

Paul Brown--Tied for Most Championships Won (7)

Paul Brown began his NFL coaching career in 1946 for the eponymous Cleveland Browns, replacing the city’s team after the Rams left in 1945. Starting in the All-American Football Conference (AAFC), the Browns dominated the new league to the point of dissolution.

In the four years of the AAFC’s existence, the Browns won all four championships while posting a regular season record of 47-4-3. After four seasons, the league dissolved and the Browns, along with two other teams, joined the NFL. However, this didn’t halt the Browns’ domination. The team played in the NFL championship seven of their first eight years, winning three.

During Brown’s 25-year career with both the Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals, five of his assistants became head coaches themselves. The most successful of the five were Weeb Ewbank and Bill Walsh.

Ewbank was the first to get a head coaching position, first leading the Baltimore Colts and eventually the New York Jets. Ewbank led the Colts for nine seasons and two championships, working with the legendary QB Johnny Unitas. After his tenure with the Colts, Ewbank led the Jets for the newly established American Football League (AFL), eventually winning Super Bowl III. This helped lead to a merger between the AFL and the NFL.

Bill Walsh coached quarterbacks and wide receivers for Paul Brown during his tenure with the Bengals. Walsh left the Bengals after Brown stepped down and coached a year in San Diego before becoming head coach for Stanford for two years. In 1979, Walsh earned his opportunity as an NFL head coach for the San Francisco 49ers.

During Walsh’s ten years as a head coach, the 49ers won three Super Bowls and spawned an offensive revolution throughout the league. Walsh adapted the offense around quick, short passes built on precise timing. Not only did this lead to the dominant dynasty for the 49ers through the 80s, but also Walsh’s own successful coaching tree that soon saw the West Coast Offense take hold across the league.

Andy Reid--Successful and Still Growing

Reid’s tree has more branches (ten) than either Brown or Howell, and is still growing. Eric Bieniemy, the Chiefs current offensive coordinator, has been considered a top head coaching candidate for a few years and will definitely receive consideration again this year January.

However, the tree has a long way to go to match the success of either Howell or Brown. Reid’s assistants have only won two championships so far and several have left a lot to be desired as a head coach. Steve Spagnuolo, for example, lost more games in his three seasons as a head coach for the St. Louis Rams than Andy Reid has lost since 2012.

However, several coaches are primed to carry the torch of Reid’s coaching tree for many years to come. John Harbaugh looks to have the Baltimore Ravens built to compete for many years behind reigning MVP Lamar Jackson while Sean McDermott has the Bills in the pole position to win the AFC East for the first time since 1995. Even if they can’t surpass either Brown or Howell’s trees, they can further cement their status as the most dominating coaching tree in several decades.

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Methodological Note: Only trees with at least four coaches were included. When looking at the success of coaching trees, I made the decision to remove Bill Belichick’s stats from the analysis. The success of the Patriots dynasty made any historical comparison irrelevant. His individual success was enough to raise his parent coaches to the top of virtually any comparison made, making the impact of the broader tree impossible. When removing Belichick’s impact, the affected trees fell far behind the success of Howell or Brown.