Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Comparing the Greatest Coaches in NFL History

Steve Bowers of WNWS 101.5 FM
Sporting Chance Press author Patrick McCaskey was interviewed yesterday on Steve Bowers' popular drive time radio show on WNWS 101.5 FM in Jackson, Tennessee.  McCaskey was asked about the current NFL play versus the early days, the origins of the league, how the game has changed, and many other issues that are addressed in Pillars of the NFL: Coaches Who Have Won Three or More Championships.  

One thing that many people want to know about the top NFL coaches is just how are they alike and how they differ.  Author Patrick McCaskey talked about how all the great coaches were dedicated  and they worked very  hard to recruit good players and apply themselves to preparation.  In this way, McCaskey suggested that the great coaches who practiced their craft in the early days of professional football would likely be successful today.

Yet, the differences in the great coaches are many.

For example, Paul Brown was a man who had great confidence in his ability to organize and run an organization.  He believed very strongly that players needed intelligence to play at a high level and they needed to focus on learning--whether it was developing skills, learning his play book (he was an early proponent of such books at every level of play), or operating with precision on a highly disciplined team.  He also wanted men of character and he famously said:

“If you are a bum, a boozer or a chaser, I have no interest in you making our team.” 

Brown accomplished these things in his own style.  He laid out his program in a long lecture at the beginning of each year. Much of his approach, he used when coaching at every level: high school, college, military, and the pros.  He stayed away from attempting to motivate players so much with emotional talks.  Few of the greatest NFL coaches were good at it.  He kept to tight schedules and respected everyone's time in the organization.  He demanded excellent behavior on and off the field.  He maintained an emotional distance from his players.  Essentially, his program was highly organized and disciplined to an extend that had not been seen in professional football before his entry into it.  


When the great Doug Atkins rebelled against Brown's authoritarian ways and parted company with the great disciplinarian, he was signed by George Halas, another of the greatest coaches in NFL history.  Halas was able to essentially manage the big man very well and they worked together for many years.


Weeb Ewbank was an assistant under Brown who learned a great deal about organization and coaching from Brown.  But, Ewbank, another one of the greatest coaches in NFL history,  was an extremely patient man and his management of two very different quarterbacks, Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath, demonstrated his desire to coach and manage under a very flexible approach.  

Chuck Noll who played for Paul Brown was exposed to his methods and he certainly applied many of them albeit in his own way.  Yet, Noll's approach was very different. When Noll began his work with the Steelers, he insisted that they draft Joe Greene first.  Greene had a temper, he could get frustrated with teammates early on, and he did not bring a calming influence to the Steelers.  But Noll knew that Greene was a player who would make everyone better--he would insist on it.  Noll was willing to have  Greene act as a catalyst for change--as a coaching assistant in some ways. Noll was also a lineman and linebacker--more of a physical presence to the team, where Brown had played quarterback in college and was small.  Brown could intimidate, but it was in what he said. 

Joe Gibbs was another great coach, but he was very different from Paul Brown.  Gibbs's assistants would say that when they went to work for Gibbs, their nights were like nights in LasVegas--no clocks because the time didn't matter.  Gibbs was so intense that his staff needed to dedicate themselves entirely for months at a time.  Brown and his staff were in bed and fast asleep about the time Gibb's staff was just warming up.

Bill Walsh was cerebral like Brown and his military background along with certain hardships in his early life helped make him a very tough coach.  However, he was also prone to doubts about his own abilities, certainly early in his professional head coaching career.  Walsh had worked with Brown in Cincinnati when Brown had started up the Bengals.  Walsh had earned a reputation there as a good coach with quarterbacks. Temperamentally, the men were so different in fact that according to some sources, Brown would not recommend Walsh as a head coach.  

Lombardi is an excellent coach to compare with Brown.  Lombardi motivated his men with emotion.  Lombardi, like Brown, was a successful coach at the high school and college levels before entering he pros.  And like Brown, he insisted on a high level of discipline.  Lombardi believed he could take players with the right attitude and character and mold them into a high-achieving team.  This seems common enough for great coaches, but in Lombardi's case, talent was secondary.  You have to wonder whether anyone other than Lombardi would have had the patience and confidence in Bart Starr to keep him leading the team in the early days. 

Similarly, Lambeau approached the game as more of an athletic exercise of will at times.  He was hard driving and made frequent changes to his roster, but he did not appear to view it so much as a mental exercise.  But like Brown, Lambeau was in control of his team--at least for most of his tenure in Green Bay.

Perhaps most similar to Brown is Bill Belichick who was raised in a kind of military environment at the Naval Academy at Annapolis where his dad taught PE while coaching and scouting for the football team.  Belichick is in some ways a throwback to Brown in his super disciplined "just do your job" organization.  Yet in some ways, Belichick calls for a kind of 360 degrees constant evaluation of team and organization that would probably seem odd to Brown.   

And perhaps least like Brown was Guy Chamberlin who won four championships in the first decade of the NFL.  Chamberlin was more of a purest in his athletic interests.  Chamberlin was tall and tough--the kind of player who loved playing hard on both defense and offense.  He was a player coach for almost his entire career and each win had stains, bruises, and blood that recorded his efforts.  Within a year of when  Chamberlin could no longer play football any longer, he ended his football career.  He did not see professional football as a viable career choice.  Brown on the other hand was at  home with coaching as a long term career choice.  Most all of Ohio paid homage to Paul Brown as the greatest of coaches in what was the capital of football. Chamberlin returned to his family farm in Nebraska and for the most part, lived out his life in relative obscurity.

You can look at any one of the top ten coaches in Pillars of the NFL and compare their coaching approach to the other nine and you would see certain basic shared fundamentals, but there are very many working variations on just how the job got done.  Perhaps that's one of those things that makes sports very interesting and engaging. In the end, each coach took his own approach and was true to his own personal beliefs in what it takes to win.  

Copyright 2014, Sporting Chance Press

Pillars of the NFL: Coaches Who Have Won Three or More Championships by Patrick McCaskey, grandson of Papa Bear George Halas. More information.