How to Hire (and Fire) an NFL Coach

Rex Ryan speaks at a press conference announcing his arrival as head coach of the Buffalo Bills. Credit: Brett Carlsen / Getty Images

John Fox — gone from the Broncos, hired days later by the Bears. Jim Harbaugh took the 49ers to the Super Bowl, but now he's coaching at the University of Michigan, his alma mater. One day, the Buffalo Bills looked like a playoff team under Doug Marrone; now ex-Jets coach Rex Ryan is in charge. So with the news that Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is set to take over the Atlanta Falcons after next weekend's Super Bowl, it looks as if the final piece in the big-time coaching puzzle has been slotted. All told, seven NFL teams turned over their top job in less than a month. The Game of Thrones-style intrigue was such that we enlisted experts in hiring, firing and recruiting coaches to shed some light on the process that's been boiling since Thanksgiving.

Does a team need to hire a general manager before hiring a head coach?
Yes, says Bill Polian, the retired general manager turned ESPN analyst who assembled both the Buffalo Bills team that advanced to four consecutive Super Bowls in the 1990s and won the 2007 championship with the Indianapolis Colts. But there's one caveat: "sometimes you really don't have a choice," says Polian, whose recent memoir The Game Plan: The Art of Building a Winning Football Team, details his rise to becoming one of the NFL's most respected executives. "If Tony Dungy were available, you wouldn't wait for the GM."

Korn Ferry, an executive search firm with a department that handles college and pro head coaches, was hired by both the Falcons and the University of Michigan. Are these kinds of firms really necessary?
"Not every one of those [top] coaches will fit for every program," says Chad Chatlos, a former football player at the U.S. Naval Academy and a Korn Ferry principal. "A lot has to do with culture within an organization. There are times a client comes to us and says 'we want this guy,' but there are [still] a lot of things that need to be done. It's not as easy as calling an agent and getting the negotiations started. [Sometimes] we go through our process and find out it's not the best guy for the organization."


Is it possible that big-time college jobs are more desirable than those in the NFL?
"As long as you are young enough and excited enough about recruiting to be able to handle that part of it, there are a lot of reasons to think about the college game," says Polian. "The resources at the collegiate level are in many cases better than what you have at the NFL level. And the salaries for the top programs are similar and the assistant salaries are getting there."

What important skills are college and pro teams looking for from their head coaches?
"Back in the day, the players feared the coaches, but we don't have that world anymore," says Chatlos. "The ability of these coaches to be able to relate, motivate, coach and invest in these players is a skill that's different than it was back in the day." 

Why do some coaches get a long leash, while others are fired if results don't come instantly?
"If you get embarrassed on national television as the Bears did (three consecutive losses beginning with Thanksgiving Day), you have to stem the tide. If you can do it you can survive, if you can't you won't. Bill Walsh pointed out that the second half of a game in his second year in San Francisco — the difference of one or two plays that took a losing effort to a winning effort — made the difference in him surviving in San Francisco to go on and have the Hall of Fame career he did. He would not have made it if they had not survived that second half," says Polian. "Your career hangs on a thread. One or two instances can make or break you."

How important is it to hire a coach with previous NFL head coaching experience?
In his book, Polian explains his first choice is always a coach with prior NFL head coaching experience. "Marv Levy [coming from Kansas City] was an example," he says. "When I became the general manager in Buffalo, I said, 'Here's a guy who took a team from 2-14 to a winning season on the brink of going to the playoffs’. The team was destroyed by outside events (including the 1982 strike and the accidental death of a star player), and I'm convinced he's a great head coach. Not only did he prove that, he also told me right at the outset 'we made some mistakes in Kansas City we're not going to repeat here,'" says Polian, whose preference would then be for a coach [either from college or the pros] with experience in the NFL. "You know how to deal with men who are doing this for a living. If you haven't done that before, there is an adjustment. [You've also] learned how to deal with the higher skill level of these players. It's a magnitude of 100. Third, you've dealt with the grind of pro football. A 20-game grind, followed, hopefully, by the playoffs."

Can you give up on a coach halfway through the season?
"You cannot build a team in 40 games. I assure you, you cannot build a winning football team in two years. Not a championship team,' says Polian. "It was five years to the day that we signed Jim Kelly that we won our first AFC championship. It was eight years before we won our championship in Indianapolis [with Peyton Manning]. It takes time. People get injured (Cleveland star LeBron James missed two weeks with various injuries, and the Cavs went 1-7). Rosters change (the Cavs traded Dion Waiters to Oklahoma City and received a package of players from the New York Knicks in a three-team deal). Constant flux is the nature of the business. The other issue is team chemistry. It is real. If you upset it, you almost never get it back. There are times when you have to make a change. But be very careful what you wish for."