May 28, 2024

Legendary NFL coach Bum Phillips once said, “There’s two kinds of coaches, them that’s fired and them that’s gonna be fired.”

The vast majority of pro football head coaches have been fired. Even legendary coaches like Tom Landry and Mike Ditka were eventually fired.

Well, after the NFL 2022 season, several head coaches were added to the ranks of “them that’s fired.” In 2023, the Broncos, Cardinals, Colts, Panthers, and Texans will all have new head coaches.

Each year, NFL teams with head coaching vacancies pursue the new “hot” names. Typically, these are guys who were successful coordinators or college coaches, and are now rumored to be interested in taking the next step in their coaching careers.

However, in every head coaching hiring cycle, there’s also the “retreads” (guys with previous head coaching experience). In most cases, the retread coaching candidates were fired by their previous teams.

Two of the five teams in spring 2023 filled their vacancies by hiring men with previous head coaching experience, including one coach that was previously fired (the Panthers hired Frank Reich).

So, this provokes the question: Is it better to hire a guy who has never coached or better to hire a retread coach? Which is the better route?

Let’s allow history to give us some wisdom. Let’s do some research!

 

What Do the Numbers Say?

For this research project, I looked at every NFL/AFL coach since 1960 that was fired from one team and then later hired by another team.

Typically, studies like this will use the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 as their starting point. However, I found several coaches in the AFL (before the merger) with coaching records that seemed applicable to this study, so I backed up to 1960 (the year the AFL began).

Also, this study is primarily focused on coaches that were fired. This study does not focus on coaches that retired (or left their first team voluntarily) and then later returned to coaching (e.g., Don Shula, Bill Parcells, Dick Vermeil, and Bruce Arians).

For this research project, I examined 469 of the instances when an NFL/AFL team hired a new head coach. There have been some additional head coach hirings other than just these 469 instances, but I’m only examining the NFL/AFL hirings that are directly related to this study. This project only includes the NFL/AFL hirings when a team hired a first-time head coach as well as all of the hirings when a team hired a retread head coach that had previously been fired.

Of the 469 hires that I examined, 328 of those hirings involved a first-time head coach. 129 of those 328 coaches would eventually be hired by other teams to be head coaches again.

Those 129 coaches were hired a collective 141 times. That means, of the 469 hirings that we’re considering for this study, 141 of them were retread hirings (specifically, they were coaches that had previously been fired).

That 141 number includes the 129 instances where the team was bringing in a coach for his second stint as a head coach after having been fired from his first stint, but it also includes 11 instances where the team was bringing in the coach for his third stint (e.g., Dan Reeves, Forrest Gregg, John Fox, Jon Gruden, Lovie Smith, Marion Campbell, Marty Schottenheimer, Mike Shanahan, Norv Turner, Pete Carroll, and Wade Philips) and that also includes one instance where the team was bringing in a previously fired coach for his fourth stint (e.g., Marty Schottenheimer).

Of those 141 hirings of retread coaches, only 18 of them ever won at least one playoff game after having been previously fired. More importantly, only 8 of those retread coaches ever won a championship after having been fired.

 

First Timers vs. Retreads

The overarching trend that these stats prove is that winning in the NFL is really hard.

Only 110 of 328 (33.5%) of NFL/AFL head coaches since 1960 have a career coaching record of .500 or better. Most pro football coaches (more than 60%) never win even one playoff game in their career. And only 46 of the 328 coaches since 1960 have won a title.

However, when you examine the playoff record of coaches AFTER they’ve been fired, you see that it’s noticeably worse than first time head coaches.

 

Hirings  Won a Playoff Game  Won a Championship
First-Timers 328 100 38
Previously Fired
(2nd stint)
129 15 7
Previously Fired
(3rd stint)
11 3 1
Previously Fired
(4th stint)
1 0 0
Total
469 118 46

 

Only 18 of the retread coaches eventually won at least one playoff win. Nearly 87% of retread coaches get fired or retire without ever seeing any level of success after getting fired—even the coaches that were successful with their first team rarely see any real success with their subsequent teams.

However, of the 328 times when a team hired a first-time head coach, 100 times the team won at least one playoff game during that new coach’s tenure (30.5%). Also, more importantly, 38 of the 328 first-time hires won a championship (11.6%).

It’s valuable to note that 198 of those 328 first-time head coaching hires were never rehired by another team after leaving their first team. More than 60% of first-time head coaches will get fired and never get a second shot at being a head coach in the NFL.

However, even with the high failure rate of NFL/AFL coaches, it’s important to highlight that championships are heavily in favor of first-time hires. Since 1960, 46 different NFL/AFL coaches have won a championship. 38 of 46 (82.6%) of those championship coaches were with their first team.

There are likely additional caveats and datapoints to consider with this topic but, overall, it seems that the probability of success with a retread coach is lower than what a team would have with a first-time head coach.

 

Who Were the Outliers?

In the spirit of being exhaustive, who were the only eight to ever do it? Who were the eight men to win a title after being fired? Let’s examine:

Weeb Ewbank: He was a very successful coach in the NFL with Baltimore Colts in 1950s and 1960s with Johnny Unitas at QB. They won two NFL championships. He was later fired by the Colts and then went on to the AFL to coach the NY Jets. The Jets later beat the heavily favored Colts in Super Bowl III with Joe Namath at QB (that must have been sweet for Ewbank).

Mike Shanahan: He was fired four games into his second season with L.A. Raiders after having a major squabble with owner Al Davis. Shanahan was later hired by the Broncos. He had several successful seasons including winning two Super Bowls with John Elway at QB. He was eventually fired in Denver for several lackluster seasons. He was hired by the Redskins and had limited success, so was eventually fired from there too.

Bill Belichick: He’s most known for having led the Patriots to nine Super Bowl appearances and six championships. But before that, he coached the Browns for five seasons. They only won one playoff game in his time there. He was considered to be a great defensive innovator (he had been the defensive coordinator for the great 1980s Giants teams that won two Super Bowls), but the Browns were mostly mediocre with Belichick as his head coach. Assistant coaches who knew him from both Cleveland and New England have stated that he changed significantly for the better when he went to the Patriots. And, oh by the way, he has this guy named Tom Brady. That probably helped a lot too.

Tony Dungy: When he took over the Tampa Bay Bucs, they had been the laughing stock of the NFL for 15+ seasons. In a short time, Dungy turned them into a quality team. He had limited playoff success there, but there was evidence that Dungy was a very good coach. He was fired after the 2002 season, after yet another underwhelming playoff performance where his team underachieved. He was then hired by the Colts and eventually won a Super Bowl in Indy with Peyton Manning at QB.

Tom Coughlin: Overall, Coughlin was successful in eight years with Jacksonville. They were an expansion team but became very competitive quickly. He took them to the AFC championship game twice. He was fired after a few lackluster seasons, but quickly rehired by the Giants. He won two Super Bowl titles with Eli Manning at QB. I think this speaks to Tom Coughlin being an even better coach than what most of us probably realize because Manning was mostly a mediocre QB for most of his career. In 2011, the former Jags owner admitted it was a mistake to fire Coughlin.

Pete Carroll: He was fired by the Jets after just one season. Later hired by the Pats a few years later. He was mediocre with the Pats, including a 1-2 record in the playoffs. He left the NFL for USC and presided over one of the best college football programs in recent collegiate history (scandals aside). Proved to be a great motivator and good coach. Hired by Seahawks in 2010 and had great success with Russell Wilson including two Super Bowl appearances, winning one. Carroll is the only guy to win a title in his third stint as a head coach.

Gary Kubiak: He spent eight seasons as the head coach of the Texans, but was mostly mediocre and was eventually fired. Kubiak was later hired by the Broncos in 2015. They had a great “win now” roster, including having Peyton Manning at QB and several all-pro caliber players on defense. They won a Super Bowl in Kubiak’s first year as coach in Denver, but most commentators give most of the credit to the defense, which was one of the greatest defenses in NFL history, led by renowned defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.

Andy Reid: He was a great overall coach in Philly for 14 seasons, including five appearances in NFC titles games and one Super Bowl appearance. But it was clear that Reid had lost his edge in the last few seasons. The Eagles fired him and he was immediately hired by the Chiefs in 2013. Reid has been tremendously successful in KC, including multiple division titles, three Super Bowl appearances, and two championships. Of course, having Patrick Mahomes at the helm is nice.

 

What About Successful Retreads?

There might be a temptation for some teams to hire coaches with previous success. However, that’s not been a proven recipe for success. Half of the outliers mentioned above are guys that did not see great success with their first team.

There’s only been two coaches since 1960 to guide two separate teams to NFL titles, but that happened in the pre-Super Bowl era. The aforementioned Ewbank did it, winning multiple NFL titles in the 1950s and then later winning the Super Bowl. Don Shula also did it. He won the 1968 NFL title with the Colts and then won back-to-back Super Bowls with the Dolphins in the mid-1970s.

No NFL coach has ever coached two separate teams to Super Bowl titles, but two coaches came close. Bill Parcells was the first. He won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants and then retired for two seasons. He returned in 1993 to coach the Patriots. He led the Patriots to Super Bowl XXXI, but lost to the Packers.

The other coach to nearly lead a second team to a Super Bowl title was Mike Holmgren, the man that beat Parcells in Super Bowl XXXI. Holmgren led the Packers to the Super Bowl title in 1997 and then, nearly a decade later, led the Seahawks to the Super Bowl, but they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Neither Parcells or Holmgren were fired by their teams, so even if they had won Super Bowl titles with their second teams, that would not necessarily undermine the thesis and sentiments of this article. However, there are two other two coaches that were fired by their teams that are relevant to this conversation: Dan Reeves and John Fox.

Reeves had twelve successful years in Denver. He lost in three Super Bowls with the Broncos before getting fired (mostly because of his relationship with John Elway). He was later hired by the Giants but saw little success and was fired again. He then coached the Falcons and led them to Super Bowl XXXIII, but they lost to his previous team, the Broncos.

John Fox had nine decent seasons with Carolina, including a lost to the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Fox was fired from Carolina and then hired by the Broncos. His tenure in Denver was mostly good, but it included an embarrassing Super Bowl lost to the Seahawks and a tense relationship with the front office, so Fox was fired. He then had three subpar seasons in Chicago before getting fire from there too.

While these men had some decent success in multiple places in their coaching careers, they collectively prove how rare and difficult it is to really be successful in multiple cities.

The truth remains, the vast majority of retread coaches have never won a playoff game after being fired from their first team.

 

Honorable Mention: Marv Levy

One of the coaches in the retread bunch is Marv Levy. In 1978, Levy was hired to be the head coach of the KC Chiefs. His teams never qualified for the playoffs and he was fired after five mediocre seasons.

In 1986, after stints in the USFL and CFL, Levy was hired to be the head coach of the Buffalo Bills. In twelve seasons they saw tremendous success, but they could never win it all, including their infamous four straight Super Bowl losses (if only Scott Norwood makes that kick in Super Bowl XXV).

Levy’s teams were led by Jim Kelly and multiple Hall of Fame players. Technically speaking, Levy upholds the trend that I have highlighted (fired and never won a title). But Marv had tremendous overall success, so he doesn’t quite uphold the “spirit” of the trend that I’m highlighting here in this article.

Officially, only eight coaches that were ever previously fired eventually won a title, but Levy nearly extended the list to nine names. Levy came pretty dang close, so I think he deserves an “honorable mention” here.

 

Conclusion

My advice to owners and GMs: If your team needs a head coach, don’t hire a guy that was fired by another team, unless there was some strong evidence that he could learn from whatever got him fired and turn into a great coach and leader… and more importantly, unless you’re going to find him a great Hall-of-Fame QB.

Sure, if you ignore my advice, you could very well end up getting the next Bill Belichick, but history suggests that you’re more likely to get the next Wade Phillips or Norv Turner.