The Roll of Academic Pedigree and Playing Experience in Head Coaching Success

Few probably believe that Jason Garrett’s job is in danger this year, even as he makes costly mistakes. Franchises with high turnover rates at the head coaching position simply aren’t successful (review, for a moment, the recent records of the Oakland Raiders and Washington Redskins…for that matter, review the records of the Dallas Cowboys).

That said, some are finding it puzzling that someone as immensely intelligent and wise as Jason Garrett could make the type of mistakes he has made. I mean, the man froze his own kicker, after all.

Support for the statement that he is immensely intelligent and wise: (1) he went to Princeton and Columbia; and (2) he played in the NFL for many years.

That’s logical. He’s clearly smarter than most of us. And he had professional playing experience that must have taught him a great deal.

The problem is that neither elite academic pedigree nor professional playing experience alone has had much to do with coaching success in the NFL.

Consider this: of the 20 head coaches in NFL history with the most wins, only two attended schools remotely close to Princeton in terms of academic reputation. Those coaches include Bill Belichick (Wesleyan) and Marv Levy (masters degree from Harvard). Other coaches on this list attended such schools as John Carroll University, Pittsburgh, Dayton, Juniata College, Univ. of Illinois, Eastern Illinois, San Diego State, Syracuse, etc. Nothing wrong with these schools, but I don’t know how many people would seriously confuse them for Princeton.

That said, perhaps someone could argue that Belichick’s education helped him to become the mastermind that he is. However, Belichick’s success is more likely based on a long grooming period. He was, after all, a highly successful assistant coach long before he was a head coach. Maybe his superior intelligence told him to seek mentoring as an assistant, but his degree in economics from Wesleyan probably had little to do with his career trajectory.

As for Levy, most remember that he lost four consecutive Super Bowls with Buffalo. However, few would know that after he earned his M.S. from Harvard in 1951, he spent more than 40 years as an assistant or head coach at the high school, college, or professional level. Again, the M.S. in English history probably had little to nothing to do with his later coaching success.

Another coach worth nothing was Vince Lombardi. He attended Fordham University—a fine institution—but he couldn’t find a job after graduating in 1937. He later enrolled at Fordham’s law school, but he dropped out after one semester. Needless to say, I would doubt that Fordham’s academic reputation had much to do with his five NFL titles and two Super Bowl titles.

As for playing experience, the majority of coaches in the top 20 list for wins had some NFL playing experience. However, nine of these 20 had no playing experience. Moreover, in most cases, the playing experience seems to have been more important to these coaching landing assistant jobs than it was to having a direct impact on head coaching success. And in most cases, the experience under a strong mentor seems to have been the most critical aspect of future success.

Back to Garrett. Garrett played in the league for eight years. During one of those seasons, his head coach was Jimmy Johnson. His other head coaches were Barry Switzer, Chan Gailey, and Jim Fassel.  “Great minds” isn’t what comes to mind.

(Of course, Garrett’s father is a longtime assistant coach and scout. He also led Columbia University to an 0-10 record in 1985.)

Garrett also served as quarterbacks coach at Miami when the head coach was Nick Saban. Great college coach. Not so great at the pro level.

His mentor during his time as offensive coordinator in Dallas? Wade Phillips? Jerry Jones?

The bottom line, I think, is that Jerry hired Garrett to mentor himself, with Jerry assuming that a smart guy like the Princeton-educated Garrett could figure this stuff out on his own. It hasn’t been a complete failure by any means, but it’s no wonder Garrett makes mistakes that more seasoned coaches probably wouldn’t make. And I seriously doubt that the Princeton degree ensures that Garrett won’t react poorly to pressure, which seems to have happened a few times this season.

So again, I’m not saying Garrett should be fired. I’m saying that, much like the problems with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, we probably could have seen these limitations in coaching. Here’s to hoping for an injection of wisdom over the next four days.

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Here’s a list of the top 20 coaches in NFL history in terms of wins, along with their colleges and playing experience, if any.

Don Shula, John Carroll University, Case Western Reserve Univ. (M.S.)

George Halas, Illinois

Tom Landry, Univ. of Texas at Austin

Curly Lambeau, Notre Dame

Paul Brown, Miami (Ohio) (did not play professional football)

Marty Schottenheimer, Pittsburgh

Chuck Noll, Dayton

Dan Reeves, South Carolina

Chuck Knox, Juniata (did not play professional football)

Bill Belichick, Wesleyan (did not play professional football)

Bill Parcells, Colgate Univ. and Univ. of Wichita (drafted, but did not play professional football)

Mike Holmgren, USC (drafted, but did not play professional football)

Bud Grant, Minnesota

Mike Shanahan, Eastern Illinois (did not play professional football)

Joe Gibbs, San Diego State (did not play professional football)

Steve Owen, Phillips Univ. (now defunct)

Bill Cowher, North Carolina State

Marv Levy, Coe College, Harvard (M.S.) (did not play professional football)

Jeff Fisher, USC

Tom Coughlin, Syracuse (did not play professional football)

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