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NFL Coaching Trees Pt. 1 – Playing Days

Posted by Andrew McKillop on July 19, 2011

Post Highlights

  • Only nine (28%) of the NFL’s current head coaches have NFL playing experience.
  • The Chicago Bears have had four current NFL head coaches play for them.  The most by any team in the NFL.   Subsequently Mike Ditka has also coached the most current NFL head coaches.
  • Chan Gailey is the only current head coach to have been the head coach of a current NFL head coach.  He coached Jason Garrett from 1998 to 1999 when he was the Cowboys coach.
  • Of the 37 colleges that current NFL coaches played at (some transferred), only 17 of them (46%) played at a school classified as a major program (I-A/FBS).
  • Both of the schools that Pete Carroll played college football at no longer have programs (College of Marin & Pacific).



During an off moment in an NFL game, broadcasters will sometimes bring up a head coach’s past as an assistant.  The broadcasters will sometimes bring up a photo from the coaches past, and display a coaching tree.  A coaching tree basically shows how coaches are connected to another coach.  It’s kind of like the NFL’s version of the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

I looked into every current NFL’s head coach’s past as a player and assistant coach.  Most NFL head coaches have very humble beginnings.  In fact the next NFL head coach might in the highlands of New Mexico right now, or coaching at a school where the mascot is an artichoke.

There is a lot of content to examine, so this will be a series.  With the first part being about the playing days of current NFL head coaches.

 

Current NFL Head Coaches Playing Careers

College Playing Careers

A great playing career isn’t a prerequisite for becoming a NFL head coach.  In fact Kansas City head coach Todd Haley didn’t even play football in high school; although his dad Dick Haley was a scout for the Pittsburgh Steelers and taught Todd all the game’s nuances.

Of the 37 colleges that current NFL coaches played at (some transferred), only 17 of them (46%) played at a school classified as a then major program (I-A/FBS).  Check out the chart below.
Note: Some schools were listed as being a member of both the NCAA and NAIA. I only counted the NCAA membership in those cases.

Level of Football Played by Current NFL Head Coaches in College

Level Played At Pct
Major (FBS/I-A) 17 45.9%
Small (FCS/I-AA) 9 24.3%
Junior College 5 13.5%
Division 3 3 8.1%
NAIA 2 5.4%
Division 2 1 2.7%



Three schools have had two future head coaches play for them.  Eastern Illinois (Mike Shanahan & Sean Payton), Glendale (CA) Community College (Andy Reid & Hue Jackson), and the discontinued Pacific program (Pete Carroll & Hue Jackson).

The SEC, the most powerful conference in college football, has had only one current NFL head coach (Chan Gailey-Florida) play in their conference.  The Big Ten (Jim Caldwell, Jim Harbaugh, Pat Shurmur), Big West (John Fox, Pete Carroll, Hue Jackson) and the Pac-12 (Norv Turner, Jack Del Rio, Ron Rivera) have all had three current head coaches play in their conference.

On five occasions current NFL head coaches have played for programs that are now discontinued.  Both of the schools that Pete Carroll played at no longer have programs (College of Marin & Pacific).

Jim Sartoris coached Andy Reid and Hue Jackson at Glendale (CA) Community College.  No other coach has coached more than one of the NFL’s current head coaches.

Pro Playing Careers

Only nine (28%) of the NFL’s current head coaches have NFL playing experience.

Current NFL Head Coaches With NFL Playing Experience

Coach Played Coaches
Jack Del Rio NO (1985-86), KC (87-88). DAL (89-91), MIN (92-95), MIA (96) Jaguars
Leslie Frazier CHI (81-85) Vikings
Jason Garrett NO (1989-90), DAL (93-99), NYG (03), TB (04), MIA (04) Cowboys
Jim Harbaugh CHI (1987-93), IND (94-97), BAL (98), SD (99-00), CAR (01) 49ers
Gary Kubiak DEN (1983-91) Texans
Mike Munchak HOUO (82-93) Titans
Sean Payton CHI (87) Saints
Ron Rivera CHI (84-92) Panthers
Ken Whisenhunt ATL (85-88), WAS (89-90), NYJ (91) Cardinals



Jason Garrett and Mike Munchak are the only current NFL head coaches, to have played for the team they are now coaching.

The Chicago Bears have had four current NFL head coaches play for them.  The most by any team in the NFL.  In 1987 three of the NFL’s current head coaches played for the Bears.  Sean Payton was a replacement player, while Ron Rivera and Jim Harbaugh were on the regular roster.  Leslie Frazier played for the Bears from 1981-85.  Subsequently Mike Ditka has also coached the most current NFL head coaches (four).

Chan Gailey is the only current head coach to have been the head coach of a current NFL head coach.  He coached Jason Garrett from 1998 to 1999 when he was the Cowboys coach.

Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith never made it to the NFL, but he did play for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the CFL in 1982.  Smith is the only current NFL head coach with his only professional experience being outside the NFL.  So only ten of the NFL’s current head coaches have professional playing experience.


Reference: College Football Data Warehouse, Pro-Football-Reference.com, WikipediaClick here for a list of additional resources.

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