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Fans may watch pro football games on television or at a stadium, and wonder what the coaches are doing on the sidelines. Why do they pace back and forth? What’s up with the headsets? How does one become a coach in the National Football League, anyway?
There is no handbook to explain how to be a coach in the NFL. It’s all up to the ownership of teams, and these franchise leaders usually have their own unique criteria for coach selection. For some teams these criteria can be quite extensive; for other NFL teams, not so much.
Getting a job as a coach in professional football depends on several factors, among them experience, pedigree (explained below), industry contacts, history, career record, personality, and specific knowledge of important elements of the game.
Being head coach of an NFL team means that person is the field manager of the squad, overseeing practices, strategy, game planning, game management, and more. Most head coaches are granted great authority to hire and fire players ~ as well as a cadre of assisting coaches.
We mentioned above that several factors could be involved in determining whether a person can serve as an NFL head coach. If such a position had a public list of qualifications, it might look something like this:
- Degree in sports sciences or fields related to football, like sports medicine, kinesiology, or physical education preferred
- Previous experience as a head coach; or 3 to 5 years as an assistant coach required; experience with NFL teams preferred
- Significant previous experience as a football player required
- Solid contacts within the industry (e.g. with other teams, coaches, scouts, and management representatives) very helpful
- Complete knowledge of college football, and how the NFL player draft operates
- Great communication skills; ability to get along easily with others
- Innate skills in delegation of duties
- Time management skills
- Technologically adept (use of wireless headsets; digital video)
- Experience or education in psychology helpful
- Motivational speaking
- Transformative instruction skills
- Visionary thinking
- Passion for sports competition
- Intense desire to win
While the game is generally the same, the rules and players of college football are much different than what we see in the NFL. Still, NFL teams often tap coaches who have demonstrated significant success at the college level to take over professional teams.
It’s a difficult transition for longtime college coaches, who might have found success due to their ability to recruit high school talent to join their university program.
In the NFL there is no recruiting, only selecting college players in the draft. That involves scouting and some luck, but it is quite different from targeting players you want and having a plan to attract them.
So, notice the second bullet point above, and how it is carefully written. Coaches in the NFL are expected to have experience coaching at high levels of football, whether national or international. Most of the time, however, NFL teams prefer candidates with solid experience coaching in the NFL.
Let’s take the example of Sean McVay of the Los Angeles Rams, who in 2017 became the youngest NFL head coach ever at age 30. Consider how he got there:
- Offensive assistant coach, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2008
- Wide receivers coach, Florida Tuskers, United Football League (UFL), 2009
- Offensive assistant coach, Washington Redskins, 2010
- Tight ends coach, Washington Redskins, 2011-2013
- Offensive coordinator, Washington Redskins, 2014-2016
- Head coach, Los Angeles Rams, 2017-present as of 2022)
That’s a lot of different titles and experiences gathered in less than a decade. What does it all mean?
Differences in Types of ‘Coaches’ in the NFL
The head coach is the main NFL team person you will see on the sidelines during games, but there are many other coaches who assist.
The head coach is responsible for deciding which players will participate in each game, as there are a lot of injuries week-to-week in the NFL, and strategies can differ greatly depending on who they play, and even where.
On top of personnel, the head coach has the final say on which plays are called, and also strategic decisions like calling timeouts or requesting video reviews of referee calls.
However, regarding that last part, there are NFL head coaches who delegate decisions on challenging referee calls to an assistant, usually seated high up in a booth with access to fast video playbacks.
Broadly, there are a lot of assistant coaches, such as in McVay’s resume a tight ends coach ~ responsible for preparing players of that single position for specific game play, and maybe in contributing to leadership discussions about offensive strategy.
Many player positions in the NFL come with a coach dedicated to them, like the quarterback, running back, and wide receivers. Entire offensive lines get a coach, who often carries an assistant to help with this vital role.
Aside from the assistants, there are coordinators: those assigned to manage the offense, defense, and special teams during games. Finally, some teams just flat-out call a person an assistant head coach, a pretty broad assignment.
The National Football League was formed in 1922, and of course at that time there weren’t many people with experience in being head coach of a professional football team.
It took a very long time for the sport to catch on nationally and turn into the mammoth enterprise it is today. But back then a handful of people familiar with football decided to create a pro league similar to what they had with baseball.
Before 1922, there were regional professional football leagues (like the Canton Bulldogs that Jim Thorpe played for, which later became a founding member of the NFL), but college football was the rage.
In pro football’s early years, coaches mostly were also players. There was not a lot of money to be made yet in the NFL, so players often played both ways (offense and defense, unlike today’s players), and if needed, they coached.
Of course, that was not how college football coaches were selected, and nor did the player-coach trend remain in the NFL. Eventually college coaches “graduated” on to the pro ranks; and older veteran players were convinced to not play any longer and just manage the team and game play.
Eventually, many coaches gathered significant experience coaching in the particulars of the ever-evolving NFL, and were able to parlay that experience into head coaching gigs they held for long periods of time.
Many NFL coaches famous for winning in the past were linked to successful coaches before them ~ because they worked for the older head coach and learned quite a bit from that person, or even that team’s system.
Head coaches in the NFL can be a strange breed. Most fans don’t know that Vince Lombardi, when brought on to coach the Green Bay Packers after the worst season in franchise history, demanded full control over football operations if he was going to transform the squad into champions.
Green Bay franchise leaders agreed to Lombardi’s bold request: “I want it understood that I am in complete command here.”
That command granted, the Packers went on to win 5 NFL championships in the 7 years Lombardi headed the team.
Sometimes it’s not the strategic decisions, or calling the X’s and O’s of football plays, that decides whether or not a head coach is successful. Some NFL teams seem to win on the sheer determination (or perseverance) of their head coach.
Teams can seem to play like the personality of the coach, like the 1985 Bears under tough guy Mike Ditka; or the quietly and deadly effective San Francisco 49ers under Bill Walsh.
The style of those teams were radically different, yet both teams won in their era. The Bears won with a brutally effective defense, using new schemes by assistant coach Buddy Ryan to terrorize opposing offenses.
Walsh teams, on the other hand, won many games due to scoring a lot of points under Walsh’s new and revolutionary West Coast offense. With quarterback Joe Montana completing lots of short passes over and over again, Walsh’s teams could lull defenses into submission over the length of a game.
Think of the different personalities of managers you may have worked for over the years; or, perhaps more appropriately, the personality of the President of the United States. These leaders could be quietly cunning, verbally forceful, silently effective behind the scenes, or a combination thereof.
It is not an easy task for NFL teams to choose their new head coaches, for those and many other reasons.
Intangibles Considered in Hiring NFL Head Coaches
Football is an extremely competitive sport, a system of competition that often brews bad feelings between players, coaches, and franchises. In the modern NFL of multiple divisions, this often occurs between teams in the same division, or maybe in the same conference.
A franchise owner who tires of his team always failing to win the division, or maybe even winning a conference to play in the Super Bowl, to the same team. Imagine being in the American Football Conference (AFC) East all those years when the New England Patriots and Tom Brady were winning year after year.
So NFL franchise leaders can take careful consideration of candidates who coached for rival teams, in an effort to emulate a part of the other team’s play, while at the same time weakening that team by taking away a key coach.
In this vein, all those attributes noted above might be less important than a candidate’s intimate knowledge of how another team ~ a team that keeps beating you year after year ~ operates.
Other times, franchises might hire head coaches to go into totally different directions in terms of style of play, either to keep up with evolving other teams, or to go against the grain to be different.
So in a division with a bunch of teams applying the pass-happy West Coast offense, a head coaching candidate might in his interview mention how to beat that offense with solid defense and a good running game to manage the clock.
These are very detailed attributes that NFL coaching candidates may have in terms of specific head coaching jobs that become available.
In the NFL, perhaps more than in any of the other major team sports in North America, who assistant coaches work for or with carries a tremendous amount of prestige in terms of qualifying for head coaching jobs.
Look at Walsh, mentioned above. The list of coaches who worked for those successful 49ers teams, who went on to excellent success, like Mike Shanahan in Denver and Mike Holmgren in Green Bay, is long.
Bill Belichick’s success is his own, of course, but the landing of his first NFL head coaching gigs was aided greatly by his work for Bill Parcells.
They call it a “coaching pedigree” in the NFL. Pedigree means recorded ancestry of a person or animals, as in, who one might be a descendant of. In the NFL, while officially many head coaches are not blood family to the head coaches before then, they still carry along the pedigree of the preceding coach.
A lot of NFL head coaches are branded early on to a particular style of play, whether from the coach they worked for previously, or maybe the teams they were on as players. This goes back to the mentality or personality traits of NFL coaches, and it’s a concept not always easy to explain.
Question: How much can an NFL coach make per year?
Answer: The average annual salary hovers around $6 million per year. Top coaches like Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll have salaries into the double digits. Carroll, by the way, took the strange route of head coaching in the NFL, then at a large college football program, and then back to the NFL before finding true success at the pro level.
Q.: How important are personal references toward getting a coaching job in the NFL?
A.: Very. Modern coaching in the NFL is ever-evolving, and coaches are expected to not only be fully versed in the most recent trends and fads, but agile enough to respond to newly emerging practices. Good coaches do this by being around other coaches who excel at the job. Those coaches are typically well-respected and listing their names on an application could only help chances. A candidate who worked 2 years as an assistant coach under Bill Belichick will be favored over a candidate who worked 4 years as an assistant coach for a rookie head coach. Past success speaks volumes in the NFL.
Q.: Is there an age requirement to be head coach in the NFL?
A.: No. Sean McVay was 30 when named the head coach of the Los Angeles Rams.
Q.: Can’t NFL owners just trade for new coaches?
A.: Yes, NFL coaches can be traded just like the players. However there are rules for coaches already under contract with a team, that offer protections to that team should another team approach their head coach to basically “steal” him away.