Is Coordinator Experience Important for a Head Coach?

I never felt this was a critical bar in terms of being qualified to be a head coach. Of course I am scared by Rod. Marinelli all those years ago like many here. But there are lots of ways to win in the NFL and being a coordinator is not the only viable path to becoming a head coach. It is the most common path though.

In terms of great/good coaches who were never coordinators you are looking at a lot of guys…here is my quick list mostly from memory:

  1. Jim Caldwell with the Colts. After the Colts fired him Jim became an OC with the Ravens before he came here but he wasn’t good at being an OC. But he has always been a pretty good HC.
  2. John Harbaugh from the Ravens. Jim was the Eagles secondary coach and special teams coordinator. That was a damn good hire.
  3. Andy Reid. Andy was the HC in Philly before KC but before that, Packers QB coach/assistant head coach before he went to Philly. That was a GREAT hire for the Eagles and an even better hire for the Chiefs.
  4. Tom Coughlin was never a coordinator in the NFL. From 1976-1980 he was the OC at Syracuse though but that was 15 years before he became an NFL head coach. He was a college head coach at two different stops but never a coordinator in the NFL.
  5. Jim Harbaugh. Weird that neither Harbaugh was ever a coordinator.
  6. Mike Ditka was never a coordinator.
  7. Bill Walsh was a head coach before he was a coordinator in college. Bill only ever had one year as an OC and that was with the Chargers but Bill was a head coach before he was a coordinator.
  8. Bobby Ross was never a coordinator and he took the Chargers to the Super Bowl. To be fair he may have been DC for William and Mary in 1969-1970 but that is unclear. He was mostly a head coach.
  9. Marv Levy was never a coordinator.
  10. The 'Fins Brian Flores…never a coordinator.
  11. The Giants Joe Judge

This list could be expanded to guys who were coordinators for only one seasons too. Mike Tomlin and Mike Vrabel. The Browns Kevin Stefanski noting he was an OC one year and an interim OC the year before that. Anthony Lynn with the Chargers. The Cardinals Kliff Kingsbury…and that season was as an OC with a college team. Dennis Green. Mike Sherman…technically he had one year as a college OC at Holy Cross a decade before the Seahawks gave him a shot at OC before the Packers turned everything over to him as HC AND GM.

Point is head coaches in the NFL do normally get coordinator gigs first. But there are guys coaching right now with no coordinating experience and some are amazing. Some stink. Past that, some had one year experience and at that some only had coordinator experience at the college level for one season.

All of us want the template of a guy who has paid his dues and then gets his shot. Like John Gruden or pick the hundreds of guys who fit this template. But there are guys who do really well in this mold too. They are just not as common. Normally they are NFL players.

Is a Dan Campbell Mike Ditka or John Harbaugh or Mike Singletary? I have no idea. But his resume is unique and rare. It isn’t how it is normally done. Dan has ten years experience as a position coach with two different organizations. One of those years he was made the interim head coach which is also unusual.

Ex-players rarely turn to coaching in the NFL. At least they rarely get this far as coaches. Thoughts?


Very interesting and well researched post. Some good examples of coaches that were never co-ordinators. Success can come from many different paths, and being open minded is extremely important.

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Brady hoke with no headset , look cool

It’s about synergy too… just like the Lions are now talking - they have to all work together with a common goal.

That is about personalities as will as scheme.

It’s why imo Daniels decided to stay at NE… he is better there along side BB as a OC then solo as a HC…

Was Tomlin ever a coordinator? I think we all are ready for a break from “system” guys. I wonder how many coordinators aren’t beholden to the system they are in.

Mike Tomlin was the DC for the Vikings in 2006. The Steelers hired him in 2007 with that inexperience. Mike was an experienced position coach with 8 seasons as a DB coach. Then one year as a DC with the Vikes.

Dan Campbell has more NFL coaching experience than Tomlin. Mike also never played in the NFL so Dan has an edge there.

Mike beat out in house candidate Russ Grimm. Russ is like Dan Campbell in that he retired and started coaching the next season. Grimm was a position coach for well over twenty years and never got another head coaching sniff after that. I think the Steelers choose correctly in that case but Grimm was considered to be a great OL coach.

I like and agree with everything here. Experience is great for a HC, but it doesn’t automatically mean he’s a failure if he has none. Same with GM. There are many examples of first time GM’s and Coaches putting together a winning organization. Off the top of my head,(and I hope I’m remembering correctly) Loomis and Payton were both first timers for a pathetic organization. Now, Loomis had been there a few years longer, so that could be the caveat.
I don’t know how this will pan out. But I appreciated the work that appeared to be put in, and the many names brought in for both spots.
I DO think it’s going to fail, but not because of who we hired. It’ll fail cause it’s the Lions, and that’s just how I view them now. Barry, Calvin, Suh… so many generational talents and barely a playoff win to show.
I get more angry at my decision as a kid, and the fact that I stick by it, then I do at these hirings. We’ll see.

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Sean Payton was a three season OC with the Giants from 2000-2002. Sean was also an OC at Miami Ohio for two seasons. Sean was an arena QB and he played for the NFL during the 1987 strike year. He was terrible. So he was experienced when he was hired.

Sean Payton was the Assistant Head Coach for the Cowboys between 2003-2005. He was also the QB coach in that stretch. That means Sean was the assistant coach for Bill Parcells.

Dan Campbell played for Bill Parcells between 2003-2005 in Dallas. The Parcells connection does not end there though. Campbell started as an intern for the Miami Dolphins in 2010 and Bill Parcells was an executive VP of football operations for the Dolphins in 2010. Dan lands a TE position coaching job between 2011-2015 and then Dan goes to Sean Payton again in 2016 and stays through now. Remember, Sean signed Dan Campbell as a player in 2009. I find that interesting.

Dan starts in coaching likely with the blessing of Bill Parcells (after playing with Bill for three seasons) and ends up with Sean Payton who was Bill’s assistant HC in Dallas for three seasons. Interesting.


We might want to consider hiring Bill Parcells as a special assistant to help advise Campbell.

I look at it like this. If you hire a Cd., especially one that is running the show on that side of the ball, you don’t need to hit on 2 Cds. Just the law of averages. If you can’t implement a top level offense or defense as the HC, then you are delegating two systems essentially.

I’m not saying you are wrong but it seems like a lot of coordinators appear in over their heads as head coaches and their side of the ball struggles. Look at Patricia’s defense, Marinelli’s defense and then we can look league wide. MANY coordinators struggle as head coaches. In the time Schwartz was here we normally fielded bad defenses.

Would I feel better if our head coach had coordinator experience? Yes I would. But history tells me that SHOULDN’T make me feel better at all.

I would also feel better if our coach had been a head coach already. But i shouldn’t feel better about that either as those guys got fired for a reason.

Marvin Lewis is still my #1 choice as I think the guy is simply a really good head coach. He worked for a close to awful organization and they won a lot of games. But never a playoff game. So red flags there too.

The best head coach the Lions have had since Fontes (who was a DC before a HC here) is Jim Caldwell and Jim was a head coach before he was a coordinator. Frankly Jim stunk in Baltimore as an OC but he was a pretty good head coach here.



Yes it is important but it’s not necessary to success.

There’s a reason for this. As a coordinator your responsible to lead, teach, scheme and call plays. You hone these skills as a coordinator. That is why it’s highly preferred that a HC has coordinator experience.

Let’s talk about your examples for a minute.
Jim Caldwell and Andy Reid were fired from their first head coaching gigs mainly for their in game management mistakes. Neither was able to hone these skills as a coordinator so they were forced to learn them on the job as a HC. These mistakes cost them games. As many of you recall this was one of the biggest knocks on Caldwell when he was here. Reid actually got to call some plays in GB under Holmgren which helped to groom him to be a HC.

Jim Harbaugh had 6 years of HC experience at the collegiate level before getting his shot in the NFL. Those 6 years is where he got to hone the skills (listed above) that are required to be HC. Bad example.

Bobby Ross also had 10 years of HC experience in the college ranks before becoming a HC in the NFL. Not to mention he had been coaching a very long time. Another bad example.

Ditka, Coughlin, Walsh etc are from way back when the game was nothing like it is today. Honestly they’re not good examples in my opinion. But Ditka was St Coord/Ass HC. Coughlin was a HC in College and had 25 years of coaching experience before becoming a HC. Walsh was also a HC in college and had 29 years of coaching experience.

John H… Harbaugh was a coordinator. He was a special teams coordinator. So he learned some of those skills needed in this leadership role. He also had a strong coaching back ground where he coached both sides of the ball for 24 years before becoming a HC.

Joe Judge background is similar to John H above. He has 5 years of experience as a ST coordinator and 15 years of coaching on both sides of the ball.

Brian Flores - Is the one real exception in my book. His team appears well coached. He’s a current coach with 11 years of experience. One thing that I think helps him is the fact he worked 5 years as a scout. The jury is still out on him but his early success suggests he’s going to be a good HC.

If you look at all your examples you’ll notice a common theme. They all had lengthy coaching careers, had been either a St coordinator or a HC in college ranks. Many of them had multiple failed collegiate HC gigs before they exceeded in the NFL. Several of them failed in their first and second HC gigs in the NFL.

Lets look at Dan Campbell for a second. He’s been coaching 10 years in the NFL. He’s been an assistant HC and 12 games as an interim HC. As an interim HC he made a lot of game management mistakes and fired his OC mid season because his offense had stalled out. He claims he learned a lot from that experience. That’s the key that guys like Walsh, Ross, Harbaugh, Coughlin, Reid, all had in common. They failed as HC (most of them twice or more) before hey saw success.

Make no mistake. Having coordinator experience is important to learning how to be a good HC. Having a lengthy coaching career and prior HC experience helps

None of us know if Dan will be successful or not but his lack of experience suggests he will have struggles and growing pains. Let’s hope his time in Mia and experience as an Ass HC is enough.

This is why I think it’s very important that Dan hires an experienced OC and DC so that he can lean on them. If he plugs in first time coordinators then I doubt he succeeds.


Interview from Bill Parcells (6 years ago). Could this be prophetic? Very forthright observations straight from Parcell’s mouth.