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Labriola on hiring an NFL head coach

Ready or not, here it comes:

The NFL has no official category or designation or award for the individual who has done the best all-time job of hiring coaches, but history indicates Dan Rooney should be the runaway winner.

Granted, his sample size is small because he only was directly involved in the hiring of three coaches, and those coaches combined to perform their jobs with distinction for 52 seasons and counting. And the reason the sample size is so small is because Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher, and Mike Tomlin are a combined 479-312-3 (.605) in the regular season, plus 36-24 (.667) in the playoffs, with at least one Super Bowl victory apiece.

Before Dan Rooney left for Dublin after accepting President Barack Obama's appointment to be the U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, I was privileged to have the opportunity to talk to him about the procedure he used to identify coaching candidates and then how he separated them to find the right man for the job with the Steelers.

Based on the number of jobs that turn over in the NFL every year, and seeing how the process already has begun in a couple of places, it's interesting to note that what Dan Rooney said over a decade ago about hiring coaches, about how the principles he used to identify and hire a coach in 1969, still have merit today.

LESSON NO. 1: Don't make a coaching change in the middle of a season.
Dan Rooney believed that even if the man currently holding the job of head coach was not working out, even if he had shown enough to indicate he either didn't have the stuff to be a head coach in the NFL or simply wasn't the right man for this particular job, it never was the correct, savvy move to make a change in the middle of a season. And his reasoning had everything to do with practicality.

Firing a coach in the middle of a season requires management to appoint a replacement, to take someone on the current staff and appoint him the interim coach. If the interim coach enjoys a modicum of success, there could be pressure at the end of the season to hire this individual to be the next head coach. Pressure from fans, from media, maybe even from players on the roster who like this guy, or even from players who figure out that this guy likes them and thus see him getting the full-time job as being a form of job security for them.

Preconceived opinions from any or all of those groups could influence the person doing the hiring, which then could prevent him from doing a more thorough search to identify the right man for the job.

While there is nothing necessarily wrong with ultimately hiring the interim coach, that only should be done after putting that individual through the entire interview process and also conducting a thorough outside search to identify who truly is the best candidate. Because settling, bowing to outside pressure, just means you'll have to go through the whole process again relatively soon.

LESSON NO. 2: One man for one job
The coach shouldn't be the general manager. And the general manager shouldn't be the coach. Not only are the jobs too difficult for one man, but the duties of the jobs overlap way too often. It's simply not in the best interest of the team to expect one man to be in two places at once.

As an example, during a typical, non-pandemic NFL season, the scouting process for the next group of prospects – the players who will make up the following April's draft class – begins maybe 10 days after training camp opens in late July. There is no way one man can oversee the process of organizing and overseeing the scouting process while also organizing and managing the evaluation process that will determine the team's roster for the upcoming season. Then once the season starts, the scouting process is ongoing and gradually intensifying over the months of the college season, while the head coach is charged with getting his team ready for a game each week.

And then there is the reality that a coach and a general manager can have a different view of their jobs. A coach operates in the present, i.e., what's in the best interest of the now; and a general manager has to have a longer-term view, i.e., what's in the best interest of the team beyond today.

A coach who also serves as a general manager and thus is in complete control of talent acquisition might choose to select a player who fills an immediate hole in the roster instead of looking at the bigger picture and adding a different player who might not fill an immediate need and might not even be an immediate starter but could turn out to be a generational talent who will make the team a contender for a decade once he matures and develops a bit.

To simplify: If given total authority, a coach might choose to pick an offensive lineman who is perceived to be a plug-and-play guy to fill an immediate need instead of a quarterback with no clear and immediate path to the starting lineup but is in possession of a generational skill-set for the most important position in football.

Sound familiar?

LESSON NO. 3: Make the choice about more than just football.
Both Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin have told stories about the process of being hired to coach the Pittsburgh Steelers, and both have said they were surprised by the approach Dan Rooney took when they talked to him during the hiring process. What he was doing was learning about each of them as people.

In Dan Rooney's mind, the men who made it to the interview stage of the process of becoming a head coach in the National Football League had to have a solid knowledge of the game, of the league, of the sport as it's played on the professional level. For him, the significant part of the interview process was about learning whether the candidate would be a good fit for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Bill Cowher has spoken often of his experiences being interviewed by Dan Rooney and about the follow-up phone calls he would receive at home in the evenings. In the telling, Cowher remembers that the subjects Rooney would broach during the calls never was football. Cowher said he would commiserate with his wife after a call would end, and she always asked, "Didn't you talk about football?" The answer, typically, was, "No."

With Mike Tomlin, Dan Rooney would spend time with him walking the halls of what's now known as the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. Adorning those walls are displays honoring the franchise's Hall of Fame members, photos of the Steelers' all-time great players organized by position, the history of the franchise told in a complete set of team photos dating back to its inaugural season of 1933.

They spent much more time talking about those kinds of things, about the uniqueness of Pittsburgh, about raising a family in this city, than they talked about whether Tomlin was going to implement the Tampa-2 style of defense he had learned under Tony Dungy as an assistant with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"The thing I remember most about the interview itself is that the time when we would take breaks, either to use the bathroom or maybe get a cup of coffee, he and I might be walking down the hall and he'd stop and start telling a story about a picture on the wall," said Tomlin. "He was walking, talking, breathing history, and not just Steelers history but NFL history. If you have a love for the game, or are a historian of the game like I am, the time I got to spend with him that was not related to official business was what I enjoyed the most, because you got that sense of history. How can you not have an appreciation for that?

"I didn't want to rush back from those breaks. And the stories weren't just about football, or about Steelers football. There were aerial shots of Pittsburgh, and he was giving me the history of the city. I'm wired the same way – I'm a history buff. I read history books, biographies, and so I enjoyed that time we had."

LESSON NO. 4: There's a difference between wanting to be an NFL coach and wanting to be the Steelers' head coach.
Two quick anecdotes: Very early in the process of the search for a replacement for Chuck Noll, Dan Rooney was talking to Mike Holmgren. Rooney asked him a question along the lines of, "If I offered you the job right now, would you take it?" When Holmgren's answer came back as something like, "I want to go to Green Bay and hear what the Packers have to offer," Rooney knew he wasn't the man for the Steelers job.

Mike Tomlin on the other hand was of the mind-set that having an NFL head coaching job wasn't a goal of his for the 2007 season.

"I would not have just taken any NFL head coaching job just to get one," said Tomlin. "Some people might think that's a ridiculous statement, but I've always been a guy who enjoyed whatever job I had. I didn't have that mentality of taking any head coaching job, but to be the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, I would have walked here from Minneapolis."

LESSON NO. 5: In doing this job, finishing first isn't the goal.
Another common characteristic in each of Dan Rooney's hirings was that the Steelers' opening never was the first one filled.

"A great boss," said Joe Greene about him. "I'll never forget him saying that when you have big decisions to make, let it soak. Think about it. And he also said that when teams lose, it's not always the head coach's fault, and that good head coaches are hard to come by. Give them time."

The silly season usually doesn't begin in the NFL until the Monday after the final Sunday of the regular season. Black Monday is how it's known in the industry, and what happens is that a lot of coaches lose their jobs. But in 2020, a season like no other in the 100-year history of the National Football League, two coaches already have been fired. There will be more, just not in Pittsburgh.

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