Bill Belichick has been in the NFL in one capacity or another since 1975 and has been a head coach for more than 25 of those seasons. Over that time, he’s been a mentor to hundreds of coordinators and assistant coaches, many of whom have moved on to be head coaches of their own. You would expect some members of the Belichick coaching tree to be successful head coaches in time, but as a group, they have overwhelmingly been underwhelming.
In the last few days, the two remaining active head coaches in the NFL from the Bill Belichick coaching tree were fired (Brian Flores – Miami, Joe Judge – Giants). As of this moment, that means that there are no longer any Belichick disciples leading NFL teams, which is hard to imagine given his career. While I fully expect Brian Flores will get a head coaching job this offseason and linebackers coach Jerod Mayo has been getting some attention as a candidate, it’s still a bit surprising how mediocre the group of former Belichick coordinators have been as head coaches.
Over the years, 19 members of a Belichick coaching staff have become head coaches in the NFL or college. While the NFL tenures have have been short and uninspiring, there are a few college coaching careers that are noteworthy. The most obvious and clearly the strongest to date is Nick Saban at Alabama. While he lost in the National Championship game to Georgia this week, he is the gold standard of sustained success in college, basically the Bill Belichick of the NCAA. Three other coaches in the tree lasted more than 4 years at a college: Pat Hill (Fresno State 1997-2011), Kirk Ferentz (Iowa 1999-present), and Al Groh (Virginia 2001-2009).
Looking to expand the Belichick tree slightly, there are two former players who are head coaches, both currently in the NFL: Mike Vrabel (Titans) and Kliff Kingsbury (Cardinals). Vrabel is in the running for Coach of the Year and has brought the Titans to the top seed in the AFC this season while Kingsbury led the Cardinals to an 11-6 record and a #5 seed in the NFC, following a strong career at the helm of Texas Tech. While Vrabel played 8 seasons in New England and clearly learned from Belichick, Kingsbury never saw the field in his one season with the Patriots thanks to an arm injury (although he did get a super bowl ring). Both coaches have proven that they know how to coach in the NFL and likely will last longer than basically all members of the “official” tree.
While I don’t have an answer for what is going on with the Belichick coaching tree failures, I have a few thoughts.
- Bill Belichick has a very specific system and style that work for him because of his past successes. He handles the media and dissemination of information unlike any other coach. Most members of the tree either try to copy the persona (to some degree) and fail miserably because it’s not replicable (::cough:: Matt Patricia ::Cough::) or they try to make it clear they are NOT like Bill and struggle to build completely different culture of winning when all they have known is the Patriot way.
- Because Belichick and the Patriots have won a lot, coordinators get opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise. When a team wins the super bowl, the coordinators immediately become hot coaching candidates whether they deserve it or not and it’s impossible to place credit effectively on the head coach vs coordinators. I’m sure several of the coordinators who got opportunities to be head coaches in the tree were not yet ready to lead a franchise and thus didn’t succeed. Unfortunately, most people without a lot of experience don’t get multiple chances to be an NFL head coach.
- There is no question who is in charge in Foxborough. Belichick steers the ship and no doubt has control over the weekly game plan and decisions around personnel groupings. While I don’t know for sure because I’m not in the meetings, I’m guessing his coordinators don’t have as much leeway to be creative and make independent decisions within the system and it takes awhile for Belichick to trust their decision making. As a head coach, you need to be able to be creative with the game plan and adapt on the fly, something that is learned through experience.
Whatever the reason(s), the Bill Belichick coaching tree has continually not lived up the hype and this week’s firings put an exclamation point on it. If I’m a GM, I’m taking a pause before jumping on a former Belichick coordinator as my next hire just because he is a former Belichick coordinator. Although, I may be more willing to take a chance on a former player under Belichick.