WITH THE DISAPPEARANCE OF LONGEVITY AND JOB SECURITY, THE NFL’S FRATERNITY OF HEAD COACHES IS STARTING TO RESEMBLE AN AGEIST SOCIETY. THE QUESTION IS: WHY SHOULD WE CARE?
By Keysha Hogan
Honestly, there’s something to be said for older men. Wisdom and grit show through on graying temples and calloused hands. The assuredness we all feel when they give their word and look you square in the eye. There are few professional comforts in the world that compare to being led by someone who has tasted victory and still takes the time to drag you through your adolescent angst, so that you can taste it too.
Like most of the western world these qualities are being tossed by the wayside for whatever is newer, faster, and younger. There is a gravitas that comes with time, but over the past decade National Football League owners are turning over the helm to younger and more inexperienced head coaches.
In every industry there is the race to be the best. These days, being the best means energetically embracing innovation and the latest trends to outfox the opponent. Picture yourself as a NFL coach who has wrangled young bucks into winning teams for decades, only to be told there are newer, kinder, gentler ways of team building. There’s only a few ways that this scenario can play out. Either you stick by your tried and true methods, or you will be shown the door and treated as an antique.
As an older coach it’s probably tough to navigate the politics of a head office. Right out of the gate you’re not given the same opportunity for failure that a young coach would have. If an underdeveloped coach loses a few games at the start of the season then all we’d hear about is how he’s learning, growing, and finding his stride. If an older coach starts off with a losing streak, we hear rumblings of “the fossil should have known better,” and “it’s time to put him out to pasture.”
In 2003, Bill Parcells came home to the Cowboys when he was 62 years old. The team went 10-6 that season and lost the NFC Wild Card round. And over the next three seasons, Parcells went 24-24. Admittedly, that was a tough time for all the fans. Now we have Jason Garrett who took over the helm at age 44. He stands with a 29-27 record with three straight 8-8 season finishes and times are feeling decidedly tougher.
But as Garrett enters the last year of his contract, the grumble of discontent has barely reached resonance. Now, a man of 44 is certainly not a babe in the big bad world but he has been afforded the privilege of patience and understanding. It will be interesting to see if Jerry Jones throws down the gauntlet with Garrett or gives him time to turn things around.
We all know that football is a team sport and all faults cannot be laid at the feet of a single man. Basics such as draft position, player ability, and the difficulty of the schedule all contribute to the final outcome. Rebuilding a team through meticulous drafting is a sure way to invest in future success, but as the world demands immediate results, owners and aging coaches are easily criticized for lacking the stamina to see the lengthy process to completion.
If we only look at the numbers, a coach’s regime just lasted longer in the 20th century. Chuck Noll served as head coach for 22 seasons, Tom Landry for 28 seasons, and Don Shula for a record-breaking 33. Nowadays if there is a succession of shaky seasons, there is a good chance a coach will be demoted or let go before they could build their empires. There is no time for a stay-the-course attitude in the modern NFL and few are wise enough to know what strategies should be kept and which should be discarded.
Some teams are quietly learning the age old lesson that with age comes experience. The average age of NFL coaches is 51.5 years old. In the 21st century league the actual daily job of coaching is changing. Working 18 hours-a-day with few days off can be physically and mentally taxing on the most dedicated of men. There is no question that keeping these long and stressful hours can whittle a man down to nothing.
But where most falter there is always a success story. The Arizona Cardinals moved past the failures of their 2012 season by hiring 61-year-old Bruce Arians to guide the franchise forward. He came to the table with 20 years as an assistant and boldly decided to recruit men aged 68 to 78 to serve as his support staff. This group of football’s elder statesmen had become specialists in the mechanics of the game. Arians then paired his senior staff with younger coaches who could handle the rough hours and grunt work.
This overwhelming influx of discernment, wisdom and maturity forced the players to new heights. Last season the Cardinals were in playoff contention with a 10-6 finish after not having a winning season since 2009. And it’s worth mentioning that good ole Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots is 61 and has regularly led his team to the playoffs. Or that New York Giants’ Tom Coughlin who brought home championships for the 2007 and 2011 seasons is still coaching at age 67. I could even drag out this year’s Super Bowl champs the Seattle Seahawks’ 62 year-old coach, Pete Carroll.
Correlation is not causation, but there is something to be said for the lethal effect that a well-seasoned coach can bring to the table. In time, all things will become equal and only winning will guide the choices of owners across the league. A young class of coaches will tout revolutionary ideas, and the more mature coaches will preach that time honored techniques can and will pay off in the end. Eventually everyone gets older and finds themselves on the ropes, but it’s the men who delight in the fight who end up on top, no matter the obstacle.
To quote the great Samuel Ullman, “Nobody grows old merely by living a number of years. We grow old by deserting our ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.”