Per Chase’s request, we spent some time this offseason researching the coaching influences of NFL head coaches. We compiled this information into coaching trees. There are four dominant trees in the league right now: the Bill Walsh tree, the Tony Dungy tree, the Bill Parcells tree (thanks in part to Bill Belichick), and the Marty Schottenheimer tree (thanks in large part to Bill Cowher). Two other trees connected to Buddy Ryan and Jimmy Johnson are also worth noting.
Let’s dig into each tree to see how it has grown and what the distinguishing characteristics are. One note: While many coaches have apprenticed in several of these trees, we’ve tried to locate them in the area that most describes their coaching styles and philosophies. So, for example, while Herman Edwards could be listed under Dick Vermeil, we’ve put him under Tony Dungy because his defensive approach is more like Dungy’s.
You can see an illustration of all of these trees at the bottom of this post.
THE BILL WALSH TREE
Inspiration: Paul Brown
Distinguishing characteristic: Short, timing-centric passing game a.k.a. the West Coast offense
History: Walsh, who learned under Hall of Fame coach/GM Paul Brown, perfected those lessons in a career that earned him three Super Bowls and spawned at least five other Super Bowl winners — George Seifert, Mike Holmgren, Mike Shanahan, Brian Billick, and Jon Gruden. This coaching tree has spread like wildfire since the early 1990s, when Holmgren, Shanahan, and Dennis Green first got their shots as NFL head coaches. Because those guys are all long-time NFL coaches, they too have “fathered” assistants who went on to get head coaching jobs. Holmgren’s early Green Bay staffs included significant head coaches such as Andy Reid, Gruden, Steve Mariucci, and Mike Sherman. Similiarly, recent head coaches like Billick and Gary Kubiak trace their lineage back to this line.
Current status: As we get further away from Walsh’s fine 49ers tenure, this tree is starting to die off. Of current NFL coaches from this tree, only Brad Childress, Kubiak, Jim Mora, and Jim Zorn truly are true West Coast offense believers. Others — including as John Fox, John Harbaugh, Tom Cable, and Raheem Morris — are defensive guys who coached under Walsh disciples but who haven’t demonstrated the same affinity for the West Coast offense. The fact that West Coast offense stalwarts Gruden, Shanahan, and Holmgren left the coaching ranks after the ’08 season (at least for now) limits the current impact of this tree significantly.
Importance: This coaching tree dominated the league through the 1990s and most of this decade, but it’s now nearing the end of its run unless Kubiak, Childress, Mora, and Zorn produce another generation of coaches who embrace Walsh’s favored West Coast offense.
THE TONY DUNGY TREE
Inspiration: Chuck Noll, Monte Kiffin
Distinguishing characteristic: Zone defense with two deep safeties a.k.a. the Tampa-2
History: Dungy’s temperment reminds us of Chuck Noll, his Steelers head coach, while his strategy owes a debt to Monte Kiffin, his defensive coordinator in Tampa Bay. Dungy is probably the youngest coach to have spawned a coaching tree, but you can trace three current head coaches and two former head men to him. Mike Tomlin and Lovie Smith are the current success stories, and Jim Caldwell gets his shot this year. Two others, Herman Edwards and Rod Marinelli, apprenticed under Dungy before getting their shot. Given that Tomlin has already won a Super Bowl and that Smith has been to one (losing in the game to Dungy’s Colts), this tree has already grown roots throughout the NFL.
Current status: With Dungy’s retirement, it’s left mostly to Smith to continue his style of coaching and style of defense. While Tomlin echoes Dungy when it comes to temperment, he kept the Steelers’ zone-blitz scheme when he took over in Pittsburgh. Caldwell also seems to be moving away from the Tampa-2 defense as he replaces Dungy. That leaves Smith as the best example of a second generation of the Dungy tree. Marinelli is unlikely to get a second head-coaching shot given his failure in Detroit, and Edwards has already had two chances with decent but not eye-popping success.
Importance: This tree might have already seen its peak days. The future depends on whether Smith can continue as Chicago’s head coach and how successful Caldwell is in continuing Dungy’s legacy in Indy. But this tree is significant in that it represents the first three African-American head coaches to make it to the Super Bowl. The fact that Dungy had hired the other two as assistants speaks volumes about his ability to surround himself with the right people.
THE BILL PARCELLS TREE:
Inspiration: Ray Perkins
Distinguishing characteristic: Size over speed and “Parcells guys”
History: Parcells was a college assistant who moved to the NFL under former Giants coach Ray Perkins and ultimately succeeded him. Since then, Parcells has been a success in five stops (New York Giants and Jets, New England, Dallas, and Miami) as head coach, GM, or both. Given his 25-year-plus NFL tenure, he has spawned many head coaches, including current head men Tony Sparano, Tom Coughlin, Todd Haley, Payton, and the most influential, Bill Belichick. Coughlin, a long-time head coach in Jacksonville and the Giants, has seen Dick Jauron and now Steve Spagnuolo branch off from his assistants, while Belichick has mentored Eric Mangini, Josh McDaniels, Nick Saban, Romeo Crennel, and Charlie Weis. Scott Linehan, a former Saban aide, gives this tree its first fourth-generation branch.
Current status: This is the dominant tree in the NFL today because of Belichick’s influence, Coughlin’s success, and the fact that three of Parcells’ recent Dallas assistants — Haley, Sparano, and Payton — have recently gotten head coaching jobs and succeeded. This tree looks like it is ready to continue branching out, although some of Belichick’s lieutenants (Crennel and Mangini) whiffed in their first head-coaching tries.
Importance: This is a dominant tree, with Parcells having two Super Bowl rings, Belichick three, and Coughlin one, and there appear to be chances for more rings to come. Plus, Saban has a national championship in the college ranks, adding to the luster. In a decade, we’ll look at this tree in much the same way that we current look at the Walsh tree.
THE MARTY SCHOTTENHEIMER TREE
Inspiration: Joe Collier
Distinguishing characteristic: Smashmouth style
History: Schottenheimer, a longtime AFL player, became a head coach in Cleveland back in 1984, and since then has spent more than 20 years as an NFL head coach in Cleveland, Kansas City, Washington, and San Diego. His coaching tree includes Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy and also its most notable member, Bill Cowher. Cowher’s long run as head coach in Pittsburgh is where this coaching tree gets its depth, as at least five head coaches — Ken Whisenhunt, Mike Mularkey, Dom Capers, Jim Haslett, and Marvin Lewis — served as coordinators under Cowher. Surprisingly, it is Lewis and his time in Baltimore that created the next generations of this tree, as Jack Del Rio learned under him, with Mike Smith took the Schottenheimer approach to Atlanta last year.
Current status: Cowher’s influence is still felt in the league, and the spread of the 3-4 defense throughout the league has a lot to do with the influence of Pittsburgh’s style under Cowher and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Whisenhunt, Del Rio, Smith, and Lewis are current coaches from the Cowher line, while McCarthy is a direct Schottenheimer disciple.
Importance: This tree doesn’t have the breadth of the Walsh or Parcells editions, but the long tenures of Schottenheimer and Cowher have definitely left a mark. If a second coach from this tree can join Cowher as a Super Bowl winner, the tree will be viewed with more historical importance.
THE BUDDY RYAN TREE
Inspiration: Weeb Ewbank/Walt Michaels
Distinguishing characteristic: High-pressure defense a.k.a. the 46 defense
History: Ryan first burst onto the scene as the defensive line coach with the New York Jets in Super Bowl three. He went on to become the coordinator of Minnesota’s Purple People Eaters in the 1970s before bringing the 46 defense to Chicago, where he famously led the crew that won Super Bowl 20. Ryan went on to become the head coach in Philadelphia. He is the mentor to Jeff Fisher, the long-time Titans coach who played for Ryan in Chicago and coached under him in Philadelphia. Ryan also has twin sons — Rex, the new head coach of the Jets, and Rob, a longtime defensive coordinator now in Cleveland. Jim Schwartz, a former Fisher aide who is now the head coach in Detroit. Mike Singletary, like Fisher, is former Ryan player who is bringing the coach’s aggressive defensive attitude to the sidelines.
Current status: This is a tree that might be growing into prominence thanks in large part to the Ryan twins and to Fisher. The longer Fisher coaches and succeeds in Tennessee, the more of his assistants will become head men in the NFL. And if Schwartz turns the Detroit wasteland into football utopia, or if Singletary returns the 49ers to prominence, then this tree will take off.
Importance: It’s growing, but Rex Ryan, Singletary, and Schwartz will determine its future. My father-in-law says this of trees: “The first year they sleep, the next year they creep, and the third year they leap.” This coaching tree is the creep stage, and it remains to be seen whether it will leap in the coming years.
THE JIMMY JOHNSON TREE
Inspiration: Frank Broyles
Distinguishing characteristic: Speed over size
History: Johnson was a successful college head coach at Oklahoma State and Miami before his ex-Arkansas teammate Jerry Jones brought him to the NFL to be head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. There, Johnson created a dynasty by drafting speedy athletes all over the field. He preferred to draft a speedy guy and bulk him up instead of drafting a bigger guy. That college recruiting tactic worked, and Johnson won two Super Bowls (and provided the pieces for a third) in Dallas. Three of his major assistants became high-profile head-coaching hires — Dave Wannstedt in Chicago (then Miami and now the University of Pittsburgh), Butch Davis (at the University of Miami, then the Cleveland Browns, and now the University of North Carolina), and Norv Turner (in Washington, Oakland, and now San Diego). One of Turner’s assistants in Washington and San Diego, Cam Cameron, has had head-coaching stops with the Dolphins and also the University of Indiana.
Current status: This tree is all but dormant now because Wannstedt, Davis, and Turner have all struggled as NFL head coaches. Turner is on his third shot and has had marginal success with the Chargers. Davis and Wannstedt have returned to the college ranks, both with some success.
Importance: This coaching tree never lived up to its potential because Wannstedt, Turner, and Davis weren’t the coaching stars that they appeared to be on Johnson’s staff. While Johnson is an iconic NFL coach, his tree won’t be remembered as all that impactful.
There are three significant recent coaches who don’t fit into these 6 primary coaching trees. Wade Phillips’ primary influence was his father, Bum Phillips. Mike Nolan first established himself under Dan Reeves with the Giants. And Mike Martz wasn’t known until he worked with Dick Vermeil in St. Louis.
As promised, here’s a visual-learner-friendly look at these coaching trees: