When you look at the job history of the head coaches that have made it to the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame, you see that for the most part they have coached a number of different teams. It is rare that a first-time head coach will have immediate success enough to insure that he keeps one job for the entire time he is a head coach. It is also rare that a head coach leaves the coaching ranks (either by retiring or being fired) and doesn’t come back later to take another head coach position with another team.
Even some of the coaches we associate with one team because they were there for so long or were very successful with that team sometimes have head coaching experience with other teams. Hank Stram is known as the longtime coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, but he also coached two forgettable seasons in New Orleans. Don Shula, one of the most successful coaches of all-time, is known more for his years with the Dolphins than his younger coaching days with the Colts. Marv Levy is remembered as the mastermind behind the Jim Kelly led Buffalo Bills team, but he coached the Chiefs for a couple years in the 1970’s. Even the great Vince Lombardi who the Super Bowl Trophy is named after because of his amazing success in Green Bay also coached the Giants and the Redskins.
But, let’s look at the only head coaches (through 2007) that have made it to the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame and only coached for one team in their entire career:
Joe Gibbs coached the Washington Redskins from 1981 to 1992 and won three Super Bowls in the process. One thing that contributed to his reputation as a great coach is that he was able to win those three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks (Joe Theismann, Doug Williams, and Mark Rypien). Gibbs came out of retirement to coach again in 2004, twelve years after leaving the game of football, and the team he chose to make his comeback with was the very same Washington Redskins.
Bud Grant had a long and successful run as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings from 1967 to 1983. He coached players the likes of Chuck Foreman, Fran Tarkenton, Jim Marshall, and Carl Eller. The Purple People Eater Defense rose to prominence under Bud Grant’s watch and although he never won a Super Bowl with the Vikings, his teams made numerous playoff appearances and were a force to be reckoned with. Grant retired following the 1983 season, but came back and coached the Vikings for one more year in 1985 after one year away.
One way to make sure that you keep your head coaching job for an extended time is to also own the team. George Halas’ only coaching experience was for his beloved Chicago Bears organization. Halas led them for many years and at many different times from the 1920’s to the 1960’s. During his long run he would often times resign his coaching position or turn it over to someone else, usually returning to it after taking one to three years away from the team. George Halas was not someone who only coached because he owned the team; he also had a large amount of success and is remembered as a great football mind.
In 1960, the Dallas Cowboys came into existence as a football team and hired Tom Landry as their head coach. Landry coached the team for 29 consecutive years before leaving in 1988. The amount of great players that came through the Dallas Cowboys during his tenure is astonishing; Roger Staubach, Bob Lilly, Drew Pearson, Tony Dorsett, Randy White, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, and more. It is safe to say that the Dallas Cowboys would never have become “America’s Team” if they would’ve never taken a chance on a young assistant coach with the New York Giants named Tom Landry.
Known more today for his football announcing and an incredibly successful football video game that bears his name, many young people either don’t know or easily forget that John Madden made it into the Hall-of-Fame as a coach – and he did it at a fairly young age too. Al Davis, the longtime owner of the Oakland Raiders, hired a young little heard of John Madden to be the head coach in 1969. Ten years later Madden retired after the 1978 season as one of the more successful coaches in history. Nearly always having a winning record and making numerous playoff game and Super Bowl appearances (and winning some too), Madden could have gone on to coach almost any team he wanted and instead went into broadcasting.
Earl “Greasy” Neal
During the 1940’s one of the most dominant teams in the NFL was the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles played for numerous championships and were always one of the best teams in the league during that era. Their accomplishments were widely known to be mainly attributed to the coaching ability of their head coach Earl “Greasy” Neal. Neal coached the team through a difficult time for the NFL and the United States as a whole. Many football players in their prime, as well as graduating college players, were either drafted or volunteered to serve for their country during World War II. Using players left out of the war for a number of reasons and with an ever-changing roster, Neal was still able to continually field one of the more competitive teams in the league.
Chuck Noll was soft spoken when it came to his public persona but he sure knew how to get the most out of his teams. The Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970’s won four Super Bowls in six years and were one of the more dominant teams even in years they didn’t win it all. With players coming through Pittsburgh like Jack Lambert, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, Jack Ham, Donnie Shell, Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier, Mike Webster, Mean Joe Greene, and more it would almost be more amazing if the team was not as successful as they were. When great coaches of the NFL are mentioned, Noll is often overlooked and not mentioned, but the list is incomplete without including him.
It is safe to say that when Bill Walsh retired from the San Francisco 49ers at the end of the 1988 season that he could have written his ticket and gone on to coach any team he wanted. Other than a brief stint coaching at Stanford University, Walsh was content to be an adviser to the 49ers and at times dabble in broadcasting. Walsh is credited with, if not inventing, at least popularizing and mastering what has become known as the West Coast Offense. With the help of all-time great players like Joe Montana, Roger Craig, Ronnie Lott, Jerry Rice, John Taylor, Dwight Clark, Jack Reynolds, and more; Bill Walsh turned a perennial bottom-of-the-league San Francisco 49ers team into the team of the 1980’s. In the process he revolutionized football and, measured by the amount of assistant coaches of his who have gone on to be head coaches themselves, left his mark on the league for years to come.
It is rare that someone has enough success as a head football coach to be voted into the Hall-of-Fame and still confine their career to just one team, especially in the hire and fire world of pro football. For this to happen many things need to be in place; talented players, great coaching ability, patient ownership, and like anything else in life a certain amount of luck.