The NFL Coaching Tree 2008 (Pt. 1)

Don't miss The NFL Coaching Tree 2008 (Pt. 2)

Three years ago, I wrote The NFL Coaching Tree, examining the roots of every head coach in the league. Since that piece was published, 18 of the NFL's 32 teams have changed head coaches, several of them more than once. In this column, I've updated the original article and taken the roots even deeper. When you read a coach's summary, you can now learn not only his immediate influences, but the less direct ones, as well.

The Bill Parcells Coaching Tree

Parcells, as the new Executive Vice President of Football Operations for the Miami Dolphins — and more importantly, the man at the root of Bill Belichick's coaching tree, has had a lot of influence on the NFL's head coaches.

Tom Coughlin, NYG — The head coach of this year's Super Bowl champ traces his roots to Parcells and the New York Giants. Coughlin was an assistant for Parcells in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including the team that won Super Bowl XXV. Parcells' influence remains clear in how Coughlin runs his team. Coughlin got his start in NFL coaching from Marion Campbell in Philadelphia, later spending two years under Forrest Gregg before working for Parcells.

Sean Payton, NO — The 2006-07 Coach of the Year, Payton's most immediate influence is Parcells, for whom he worked in Dallas. Payton also has roots with Jim Fassel and a connection to the mighty Bill Walsh/Mike Holmgren Tree through Ray Rhodes and Jon Gruden in Philadelphia.

Tony Sparano, MIA — The new head coach of the Dolphins, hand-picked by Parcells, spent five years as an assistant in Dallas while Parcells was the head coach there. It is not apparent that anyone else has had significant influence on his coaching philosophy.

The three coaches already assigned to the Parcells Tree are impressive enough — Coughlin is the reigning Super Bowl champ and Payton was the 2006 Coach of the Year — but we've yet to reach the Tuna's most impressive pupil. So successful has this coach been that he has his own, fairly large, branch on the Parcells Tree.


Bill Belichick, NE — Where to begin? Spygate notwithstanding, Belichick has established himself as a surefire Hall of Famer, and probably one of the five or six best coaches of all-time. Although his father was a football coach, Belichick's primary influence is Parcells, for whom he spent over a decade as defensive coordinator. Like Parcells, he was an assistant to Ray Perkins in the early 1980s.

Romeo Crennel, CLE — Which coaching staff was the greatest ever? I don't think there's a clear answer to that question, but one of the leading candidates is the New York Giants in the 1981 and '82 seasons. Those teams were coached by Perkins, with Parcells, Belichick, and Crennel all on board as assistants. Crennel spent most of his career as an assistant for Parcells before joining Belichick's staff as defensive coordinator from 2001-04.

Eric Mangini, NYJ — These days, no love is lost between Mangini and Belichick, but it's clear whose tree — and in this case, whose branch — he belongs on. Belichick gave Mangini his start in the NFL, brought him to Parcells' staff from 1997-99, and hired him in New England when Belichick became head coach there in 2000. Mangini also spent one year working for Ted Marchibroda.

It is noteworthy that all three coaches on Belichick's branch also worked directly with Parcells at some point.

Rising Star: Josh McDaniels — As a new feature this year, I'm also profiling some of the league's most prominent assistants. McDaniels, who coordinated last year's record-setting offense in New England, is a very hot head coaching prospect. His foremost mentor is Belichick, but he got his start in coaching from Nick Saban at Michigan State. Notably, Saban is also part of the Belichick Branch; he spent four years on Belichick's staff in Cleveland.

Fired or Retired — Former Browns HC Chris Palmer was an offensive assistant for Parcells in New England and Dallas. He also worked for Coughlin in Jacksonville and is currently Coughlin's quarterbacks coach in New York. Former Chargers HC Kevin Gilbride traces his roots to Tom Coughlin, and former Dolphins HC Nick Saban was once an assistant to Belichick.

Bill Parcells Tree
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The Tony Dungy Coaching Tree

Last season, Dungy's Tree was as hot as can be. The master was fresh off a Super Bowl victory, and his assistants were in high demand. That's only slightly less true in 2008.

Tony Dungy, IND — Dungy himself traces his coaching roots to Chuck Noll, Marty Schottenheimer, and Dennis Green — probably in that order. Dungy worked for Noll as both a player and a coach before joining Schottenheimer's staff in 1989. He was Green's defensive coordinator in Minnesota for four years before becoming head coach of the Buccaneers.

Rod Marinelli, DET — He spent 10 years in Tampa Bay working for either Dungy or Monte Kiffin, who has continued to run Dungy's defense in Tampa. Marinelli spent four of those years with Jon Gruden, and nine seasons as an assistant at the University of California, working under Joe Kapp and Bruce Snyder.

Lovie Smith, CHI — Dungy's most famous disciple, with the possible exception of Kiffin. After five seasons as Dungy's linebackers coach in Tampa, he spent three seasons as defensive coordinator for Mike Martz in St. Louis.

Mike Tomlin, PIT — Hired by Dungy in 2001, he spent another four years working under Gruden and Kiffin before one season as defensive coordinator in Minnesota.

Other Notables — Herman Edwards was Dungy's assistant head coach for five years.

Rising Star: Jim Caldwell — Dungy's successor-in-waiting is very much a product of Dungy himself, but he also spent seven years as an assistant to Joe Paterno at Penn State.


Lane Kiffin, OAK — This is actually kind of complicated: Tony Dungy to Monte Kiffin to Pete Carroll to Lane Kiffin. This isn't even an NFL-based tree, it's from USC, but it's the right answer. But Carroll himself owes his roots to the elder Kiffin (plus Bum Phillips, Jim Mora, Bruce Coslet, and George Seifert). The younger Kiffin also worked for Jeff Tedford at Cal.

Rising Star: Monte Kiffin — Okay, fine, I don't believe Monte Kiffin is really a "rising star" who is about to get a head coaching job. But he is without a doubt the most influential current NFL assistant never to be a head coach in the NFL. I believe Dungy is his primary influence, but Kiffin has also worked with Bud Grant, Tom Osborne, Lou Holtz, and of course, Jon Gruden. Kiffin's own tree includes connections to Edwards, Marinelli, Smith, Tomlin, Lane Kiffin, and USC head coach Pete Carroll.

Tony Dungy Tree
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The Mike Holmgren Coaching Tree

Bill Walsh's Coaching Tree is legendary, but most of the people who worked directly for Walsh have retired by now. With the exception of a nod in Mike Shanahan's direction, Walsh's legacy effectively runs through Holmgren now.

Mike Holmgren, SEA — It doesn't get much easier than this: Holmgren's roots are with Walsh. He was an offensive assistant for San Francisco from 1986-91, serving under Walsh and George Seifert, before bringing Walsh's "West Coast" Offense to Green Bay and then Seattle.

Jon Gruden, TB — He spent three years as Holmgren's wide receiver coach before moving to Philadelphia as offensive coordinator for another Holmgren assistant, Ray Rhodes. Former Raiders coach Bill Callahan, if he were still around, would be on Gruden's branch.

Dick Jauron, BUF — Aside from three years as Holmgren's defensive backs coach in Green Bay, he also worked for Holmgren disciple Steve Mariucci. I nearly listed Jauron under the Bill Parcells Tree, though, because of his four years as Tom Coughlin's defensive coordinator in Jacksonville. Both Coughlin and Jauron worked for Forrest Gregg in the late 1980s.

Jim Zorn, WAS — Washington's new head coach spent the last seven seasons as Holmgren's quarterbacks coach. It's probably fair to say that Jack Patera, Zorn's first coach in the NFL, also deserves some credit.


Andy Reid, PHI — Worked with Holmgren at BYU in the 1980s and again at Green Bay through most of the 1990s before taking Holmgren's version of the West Coast Offense to Philadelphia.

Brad Childress, MIN — Reid's offensive coordinator in Philadelphia, he was also part of the legendary Northern Arizona coaching staff that included Childress, Reid, Bill Callahan, and Marty Mornhinweg. He also has spent eight years at Wisconsin as an assistant for Badgers coach Barry Alvarez.

John Harbaugh, BAL — It's more than a little counter-intuitive, but the most dynamic wing of the Walsh Tree seems to run through Andy Reid at this point. Harbaugh spent nine years as an assistant to Reid. He also has roots with the University of Cincinnati, under head coaches Tim Murphy and Rick Minter.

Rising Star: Steve Spagnuolo — The sought-after defensive coordinator for the New York Giants, Spagnuolu spent eight years working for Reid with the Eagles.

Fired or Retired — Former Eagles and Packers HC Ray Rhodes, 49ers and Lions HC Steve Mariucci, Packers HC Mike Sherman, and Lions HC Marty Mornhinweg were all Holmgren disciples. Mornhinweg is Reid's top offensive assistant in Philadelphia. Former Raiders HC Bill Callahan is also in this tree via Jon Gruden, for whom he worked in Philadelphia and Oakland.

Mike Holmgren Tree
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The Marty Schottenheimer Coaching Tree

In my original article three years ago, I named Schottenheimer's Coaching Tree the largest and most impressive in the NFL. It's lost that designation now, because I gave Bill Cowher and Tony Dungy their own trees. I think they've earned them, but both coaches were heavily influenced by Schottenheimer.

Herm Edwards, KC — Spent the early 1990s in Kansas City with Schottenheimer before following Dungy to Tampa Bay. Edwards also has roots with Dick Vermeil, who was his coach during Edwards' playing career with the Eagles.

Mike McCarthy, GB — Served as an assistant to Schottenheimer for six years before joining Jim Haslett's staff in New Orleans as a coordinator. I think Marty — and his top offensive assistant, Al Saunders — had the bigger influence.

Other Notables — Dallas HC Wade Phillips was Schottenheimer's defensive coordinator in San Diego.

Fired or Retired — Former Chiefs HC Gunther Cunningham was Schottenheimer's defensive coordinator in Kansas City. He now holds the same position on Edwards' staff.

The Bill Cowher Coaching Tree

Many of Cowher's assistants have gotten head coaching gigs, but most of those have been short and unsuccessful. Cowher played and coached for Marty Schottenheimer in Cleveland, and he was also on Schottenheimer's staff in Kansas City.

Ken Whisenhunt, ARI — Six years under Cowher make putting him on this branch a no-brainer, but Whisenhunt also worked for Ted Marchibroda, and he played for Joe Gibbs.

Fired or Retired — Former Bengals HC Dick LeBeau, Bills HC Mike Mularkey, Cowboys HC Chan Gailey, Panthers and Texans HC Dom Capers, and Saints HC Jim Haslett all worked for Cowher.

Rising Star: Russ Grimm — How he didn't get hired for Washington's coaching vacancy is still beyond me, but Grimm, Whisenhunt's assistant head coach in Arizona, remains a top candidate. He spent six years on Cowher's staff, but Grimm also has significant connections to Gibbs (who coached Grimm throughout an 11-year playing career) and Norv Turner (for whom Grimm spent seven seasons as an assistant).


Marvin Lewis, CIN — He was Cowher's linebackers coach in Pittsburgh, working with the likes of Kevin Greene, Levon Kirkland, and Greg Lloyd. Lewis also has some ties to Ted Marchibroda and Brian Billick, his superiors in Baltimore.

Jack Del Río, JAC — He worked under Lewis on the Ravens' defensive staff. Del Río got his coaching start from Mike Ditka in New Orleans, but was probably more influenced by coaches for whom he played: Jim Mora, Jimmy Johnson, and Dennis Green.

Mike Smith, ATL — At what point does a branch get so small, or at least so far removed from the original tree, that we call it a leaf? Smith was Del Río's defensive coordinator in Jacksonville. For those of you playing along at home, here's how we got from Cowher to Smith: Mike Smith coached for Jack Del Río, who coached for Marvin Lewis, who coached for Bill Cowher. Atlanta's new head coach also spent a lot of time with Jim Ragland at Tennessee Tech.

Marty Schottenheimer Tree
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Smaller Trees

That's it. I'm out of the major trees. But you can trace 24 of the NFL's current head coaches to one of the major trees we've already examined: Bill Parcells, Tony Dungy, Mike Holmgren, Marty Schottenheimer, and Bill Cowher.


Jeff Fisher, TEN — He played for Ryan (and Mike Ditka) in Chicago, and he was on Ryan's staff in Philadelphia. He also worked for George Seifert in San Francisco, and in college he was coached by John Robinson and Norv Turner.

Rising Star: Rex Ryan — I'll assume I don't need to explain why he would be part of his father's coaching tree, but Baltimore's defensive coordinator also has roots with Marvin Lewis and Brian Billick.

Rising Star: Jim Schwartz— Tennessee's defensive coordinator was interviewed for several head coaching vacancies this January. His main influence is Fisher, but he also coached for Ted Marchibroda in Baltimore and Bill Belichick in Cleveland.

Fired or Retired — Former Cardinals HC Dave McGinnis was a defensive assistant for the Bears in the 1980s and '90s, and is now Fisher's assistant head coach in Tennessee. Former Bills HC and new Jacksonville defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was also a Fisher assistant.


Mike Shanahan, DEN — He's first and foremost a member of the Bill Walsh Coaching Tree, via three seasons with Seifert, but he also has strong ties with Dan Reeves, and some connection to both Barry Switzer, with whom he worked at Oklahoma, and Charley Pell, who coached the Florida Gators. Shanahan does not share Pell's and Switzer's reputations for NCAA rule-breaking.

Gary Kubiak, HOU — He spent 11 seasons as an assistant to Shanahan, and one year as Seifert's quarterbacks coach. Like Shanahan, Kubiak has connections to both Seifert and Dan Reeves, the latter having coached Kubiak during his playing career in Denver.

Other Notables — Jeff Fisher and Mike Holmgren were both assistants for Seifert in the early 1990s.

Other Coaches

John Fox, CAR — His first NFL coaching job was for Chuck Noll in Pittsburgh, so I'm putting him with Dungy on the Chuck Noll Coaching Tree. Fox also worked with Jim Fassel and Art Shell.

Scott Linehan, STL — I desperately tried not to do this, but there's no way around it. Linehan is part of the Dennis Green Coaching Tree, and he's on the Mike Tice Branch. Linehan is also connected to Dennis Erickson, Jim Lambright,and John L. Smith, via college playing and coaching ties.

Mike Nolan, SF — I hate to keep assigning coaches to their father's trees, but I don't see any way around planting a Dick Nolan Coaching Tree, so Mike can be on it. This guy has been everywhere, but most notably, he has roots with Dan Reeves and Norv Turner.

Wade Phillips, DAL — Where to put this guy? Phillips was an assistant to Buddy Ryan in Philadelphia. He spent three seasons as Marty Schottenheimer's defensive coordinator in San Diego. He worked for Marv Levy in Buffalo and was promoted to succeed him when Levy retired. Phillips was also a defensive coordinator for Dan Reeves in both Denver and Atlanta. Ultimately, I went in another direction, and I put Phillips on the tree of the man who gave him his first NFL coaching job: Bum Phillips. Wade worked for his dad in both Houston and New Orleans before moving to Denver as an assistant with Reeves.

Norv Turner, SD — The lone remaining head coach who runs the original "West Coast Offense" developed by Sid Gillman and Don Coryell, Turner is part of that esteemed coaching tree through John Robinson and Ernie Zampese. Turner was an assistant to Robinson for seven years at USC and another six with the Los Angeles Rams. More famously, Turner was Jimmy Johnson's offensive coordinator in Dallas from 1991-93.

Rising Star: Jason Garrett — The hotshot offensive coordinator in Dallas, if he becomes a head coach next year, will probably do so as part of the Jim Fassel Coaching Tree. He also has connections to Nick Saban and Barry Switzer.

Rising Star: Jim Mora, Jr. — Yes, he's part of the Jim Mora, Sr. Tree. Little Mora also has connections to Steve Mariucci (Holmgren Tree), Al Saunders, and Don Coryell. He is expected to take over for Mike Holmgren in Seattle, probably at the end of the 2008 season.


Every major coaching tree in list format. Secondary and indirect connections are italicized. Note that some coaches may appear on more than one list, and "rising stars" are not listed.

The Bill Parcells Coaching Tree — Bill Belichick, Tom Coughlin, Sean Payton, Tony Sparano, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Dick Jauron

Gone, but not forgotten: Al Groh, Ray Handley, Chris Palmer, Nick Saban

The Tony Dungy Coaching Tree — Tony Dungy, Rod Marinelli, Lovie Smith, Mike Tomlin, Herman Edwards, Lane Kiffin

The Mike Holmgren Coaching Tree — Mike Holmgren, Jon Gruden, Dick Jauron, Andy Reid, Jim Zorn, Brad Childress, John Harbaugh, Mike McCarthy

Gone, but not forgotten: Steve Mariucci, Marty Mornhinweg, Ray Rhodes, Mike Sherman, Bill Callahan

The Marty Schottenheimer Coaching Tree — Herman Edwards, Mike McCarthy, Wade Phillips, everyone on the Bill Cowher and Tony Dungy Trees

Gone, but not forgotten: Cowher, Gunther Cunningham, Cam Cameron

The Bill Cowher Coaching Tree — Marvin Lewis, Ken Whisenhunt, Jack Del Río, Mike Smith, Mike McCarthy

Gone, but not forgotten: Dom Capers, Chan Gailey, Jim Haslett, Dick LeBeau, Mike Mularkey

Those are the big five. Smaller ones are listed below:

The Buddy Ryan Coaching Tree — Jeff Fisher

Gone, but not forgotten: Dave McGinnis, Gregg Williams

The George Seifert Coaching Tree — Mike Shanahan, Jeff Fisher, Mike Holmgren, Gary Kubiak

Gone, but not forgotten: Ray Rhodes

The Jim Fassel Coaching TreeJohn Fox, Sean Payton

The Jimmy Johnson Coaching TreeJack Del Río, everyone on Norv Turner's tree

Gone, but not forgotten: Dave Campo, Butch Davis, Dave Wannstedt

The Ted Marchibroda Coaching TreeMarvin Lewis, Ken Whisenhunt, Eric Mangini

The Jim Mora Coaching TreeJack Del Río

Gone, but not forgotten: Dom Capers, Jim Haslett, Jim Mora, Jr.

The Chuck Noll Coaching Tree — Tony Dungy, John Fox

The Dan Reeves Coaching TreeGary Kubiak, Mike Nolan, Wade Phillips, Mike Shanahan

The Norv Turner Coaching TreeMike Nolan

Gone, but not forgotten: Cam Cameron, Mike Martz

All diagrams and illustrations of coaching trees that accompany this study were created by Brad Oremland and Lisa Fuller.

Part two of "The NFL Coaching Tree 2008" will be available Friday, Feb. 29 and looks at the Coaching Forests; Brad reveals how most of the league's head coaches can trace their roots to one of four basic places.

Comments and Conversation

April 4, 2008


Brian Billick deserves his own tree, at least small tree. Lewis, Del Rio, Nolan, Rex Ryan…

January 6, 2009


This is a great article that you have written my friend, and I appreciate it very much, I knew some of them, but not all of them, you did your research and it was well written. I needed to find an article like this, because my Browns are once again in need of a Head Coach, and they are looking for someone with prior HC experience, I wanted to see who was available and who wasn’t, not a lot of choices, but a few. Thanks again for this write up, great job, it needed to be done, now can you help me research GM’s? We need one of those too!!! The Browns are so screwed, I am glad the got rid of Crennel and Savage they screwed everything up this year, whoever we hire can’t be worse than these two, although Browns owner Randy Lerner is thinking about doing the same thing he did when he hired them, he is thinking about hiring Eric Mangini who is a former Pats Asst Coach (so was Crennel) and then hiring Baltimore’s Director of Player Personnel in George Kokini (Savage was Director of Pro Personnel with the Ravens before he came to Cleveland. He is also thinking about hiring a Head Coach before he hires a GM. The guy is a complete idiot and knows nothing about football. I should just say screw the Browns and root for the Bucs like I did when the Browns moved to Baltimore, I’ve lived in Tampa since 94 rooted for the Browns until they lost the team and started rooting for the Bucs, the Bucs were about as bad then as the Browns are now, but McKay and Dungy came in and turned them into playoff contenders, and then they fired Tony D, and brought in my man Jon Gruden who was born in my home town of Sandusky, OH, and they have still been doing good, at least they almost make the playoffs or make the playoffs at least every other year. Sorry, now I am rambling. Later

September 7, 2009

Smoky Shepherd:

I have to second the April 2008 comment about Billick. He certainly deserves a small one of his own. Lewis, Del Rio, Nolan, Rex Ryan are examples.

I don’t know why the media and some players seem to dismiss him. Yes he has an ego, but he is a brilliant strategist. The success of Harbaugh was very much determined by the legacy that Billick and Newsome left behind. It is also well extended into the Jets.

September 15, 2009

Brad Oremland:

The problem is that Billick hasn’t really been the primary influence on anyone. If you want to give him credit for working with so many guys who eventually became head coaches, I don’t have a problem with that.

September 14, 2010

Dennis J. McInerney:

Would you please post the Paul Brown coaching tree,
if you have enough space, Bill Walsh goes back to Paul Brown amoung others.

November 4, 2010

M. Fox:

Great article. Did you ever think to go all the way back to the roots of the NFL, or the roots of professional football in the U.S.? I can imagine the work that would have to go into that would be overwhelming!

November 20, 2010


What about Paul Brown? The following coaches came from his tree and have won a combined 10 Super Bowls…Chuck Noll (4), Don Shula (2), Bill Walsh (3) and Weeb Ewbank (1). Paul Brown was by far the greatest NFL coach ever! His teams won all 4 of the AAFL championships, played in 6 consecutive, winning 3, NFL Championships.

January 14, 2011

Rick Booth:

Did Wade Phillips work for Marty Schottenheimer once, yes, but i dont think he influenced him. Marty needed a good defensive coordinator and Wade filled the bill.

January 15, 2011


I have to agree with JG the greatest coach was Paul Brown who taught really the modern style of football as we know it.

August 13, 2011

Brad Oremland:

Paul Brown enthusiasts: there are links at the top AND bottom of this page to Part 2 of this piece, where pioneers like Steve Owen, Sid Gillman, and Brown are given their due. There’s also a link in my name. Thanks for reading.

August 14, 2011

christ kennedy:

no offense but Monte Kiffen deserves much more credit than he receives in this article and in general. It is correct that chuck noll was his original influence, what is missed here is the fact that he created some of the best defenses in collegiate history at nebraska and arkansas before returning to the pro game. He is the main defensive influence on Pete Carroll, and not to slight Tony Dungy but his tree actually belongs to Kiffen. Monte Kiffens 4-3 under base which eventually became the tampa 2 for several generations has been the base defense for most of collegiate and proffesional football.

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