The NFL Coaching Tree 2008 (Pt. 2)

Continued from The NFL Coaching Tree 2008 (Pt. 1)


Most of the league's head coaches trace their roots to one of four basic places: Ray Perkins and the 1980s Giants (Bill Parcells Tree), Chuck Noll's Steel Curtain Dynasty (Tony Dungy Tree), Marty Schottenheimer (his own tree and the Bill Cowher Tree), or Bill Walsh and the 1980s 49ers (Mike Holmgren and George Seifert Trees). Is there something bigger, something to tie those trees together? Yes.

Pardon me for stretching the "tree" analogy, but today's most prominent coaching trees grew in two coaching forests: those of Paul Brown and Sid Gillman. I hope you'll understand, though, why I think it's important to include a third "forest" — that of Steve Owen.

The Steve Owen Forest

Steve Owen coached the New York Giants from 1930-53, winning two NFL championships and more than 150 games. Owen is credited with inventing the "Umbrella Defense" — a system that became the basis for today's 4-3 defensive set.

The Jim Lee Howell Coaching Tree

After playing for Owen in the 1930s and '40s, Howell succeeded his old coach in 1954. His own head coaching career, although it yielded a championship in 1956 and a pair of losses to the famous Colts teams of Weeb Ewbank and John Unitas, is most remarkable for the assistants he hired. Howell's defensive coordinator was future Cowboys coach Tom Landry. His offensive coordinator, who would go on to win five NFL Championships as head coach of the Packers, was Vince Lombardi.

Vince Lombardi — I've placed him in the Howell Tree, but Lombardi also has ties to Sleepy Jim Crowley and Frank Leahy (as a player at Fordham University), plus Red Blaik (as a coach for Army). Sid Gillman and Lombardi were both assistants for Blaik in the late 1940s.

Forrest Gregg — His playing career, as a Hall of Fame offensive tackle, included 13 seasons with Lombardi and one with Tom Landry. During his head coaching career with the Bengals, Gregg oversaw the development of fellow Hall of Famer Anthony Muñoz and led the team to an appearance in Super Bowl XVI. Current head coaches Tom Coughlin and Dick Jauron both served as assistants on Gregg's staff in Green Bay.

The Tom Landry Coaching Tree

He played defensive back for both Owen and Howell, later coaching for Howell. Landry, a Hall of Fame coach for Dallas, won two Super Bowls in the 1970s and was one of the most important offensive and defensive innovators of the 1950s and '60s.

Mike Ditka — During his career as a tight end, Ditka played for two Hall of Fame coaches: George Halas in Chicago, and Landry in Dallas. He continued to work with both of them after his retirement as a player, spending nine seasons as an assistant to Landry before Halas hired him as head coach of the Bears. Ditka coached Jeff Fisher for three seasons, and his staff in Chicago included future head coaches Steve Mariucci and Dave McGinnis.

Dick Nolan — He played defensive back for both Howell and Landry, then spent another six seasons as an assistant coach for Landry. He later served as head coach of both the 49ers and Saints. His son, Mike Nolan, coaches the Niners today.

Dan Reeves — Played running back for Landry in Dallas and later served as his offensive coordinator. Reeves has connections to Gary Kubiak, Mike Nolan, Wade Phillips, and Mike Shanahan.

Active Head Coaches in the Steve Owen Coaching Forest — Mike Nolan

Second-Hand ConnectionsTom Coughlin, Jeff Fisher, Dick Jauron, Gary Kubiak, Wade Phillips, Mike Shanahan

Steve Owen Tree
[Click to expand]

The Sid Gillman Forest

Sid Gillman coached the Rams for five years in the late 1950s, the Chargers for their first nine seasons, and the Oilers for two years in the 1970s. Gillman revolutionized coaching tactics and forever changed NFL offenses, emphasizing vertical passing in a way the league had never seen before. Among those who picked up his offense were Don Coryell (future coach of the Cardinals and Chargers), Al Davis (long-time owner of the Raiders), and Chuck Noll (who coached the Steelers to four Super Bowl victories).

His own mentor was Francis "Close the Gates of Mercy" Schmidt, for whom he played at Ohio State.

Bum Phillips — He was a defensive assistant to Gillman in the 1960s and '70s, with both the Chargers and Oilers. Unsurprisingly, this puts his son Wade Phillips in Gillman's forest.

Dick Vermeil — This is a bit weird. Gillman was an assistant to Vermeil, rather than the other way around. Clearly, though, it was Gillman's offensive philosophy that Vermeil adopted, consistently hiring those who ran Gillman's offense, such as Mike Martz and Al Saunders. Sealing the deal, Vermeil didn't spend much time working for anyone else. He spent one season as an assistant to George Allen, another with Chuck Knox, and worked for Tommy Prothro for two years. Gillman's influence is clear, even if their working relationship was a bit unusual.

The George Allen Coaching Tree

It's misleading to put him here. Allen's primary influence was undoubtedly George Halas, the legendary coach and owner of the Bears, for whom he worked from 1958-65, including several years as Chicago's defensive coordinator. But Gillman gave Allen his first NFL coaching job — with the Rams in 1957 — and I don't have a Halas Tree (yes, I feel bad about this), so Allen is here.

Marv Levy — Allen emphasized special teams more than any other coach the game has seen, to the point that he hired the first special teams coach in NFL history (Dick Vermeil). Levy was the second, working for Allen in both Los Angeles and Washington. Among Levy's own legacies is that Wade Phillips was his defensive coordinator in Buffalo, and former Chargers coach Bobby Ross was on his staff in Kansas City. Bill Walsh was an assistant to Levy at Cal in the early 1960s.

Ted Marchibroda — A long-time assistant to Allen, he was also Levy's offensive coordinator in Buffalo. Active head coaches with ties to Marchibroda include Marvin Lewis, Eric Mangini, and Ken Whisenhunt.

Jack Pardee — After playing for Allen in both Los Angeles and Washington, he spent more than a decade as an NFL head coach with the Bears, Washington, and finally the Houston Oilers, where his defensive coordinator was current Titans HC Jeff Fisher.

The Don Coryell Coaching Tree

Don Coryell coached both the Cardinals and the Chargers, and it is telling that despite a 42-27-1 record in St. Louis (.607 winning percentage), he is more famous for his work in San Diego. Coaching future Hall of Famers like Dan Fouts, Charlie Joiner, and Kellen Winslow, Coryell coordinated an offense that no one could seem to stop. The Chargers led the NFL in total yards four seasons in a row and in passing offense five seasons in a row; those accomplishments are unequaled in the Modern Era.

Joe Gibbs — He played and coached for Coryell at San Diego State, then served as Coryell's assistant with both the Cardinals and Chargers. Gibbs himself mentored former head coach Joe Bugel.

Al Saunders — His three-year head-coaching career was not productive, but Saunders has been one of the most influential offensive coaches of the last 30 years. He was an assistant to Coryell at San Diego State and with the Chargers, then went on to serve as either offensive coordinator or assistant head coach to Marty Schottenheimer, Mike Martz, Dick Vermeil, and Joe Gibbs. He is also the new offensive coordinator in St. Louis.

Ernie Zampese — The only person listed here who has never been an NFL head coach, Zampese is too important to ignore. He was an assistant to Coryell (1967-75, 1979-86) and John Robinson (1987-91), a mentor to Norv Turner, and an offensive consultant to Joe Gibbs and Mike Martz.

The Al Davis Coaching Tree

Al Davis is a unique figure in the history of professional football. During his career in football, Davis has been a personnel assistant, scout, assistant coach, head coach, general manager, league commissioner, and principal owner and chief executive officer of a team. Davis won AFL Coach of the Year in 1963, was one of the driving forces behind the AFL-NFL merger that created the modern league, and has owned and run the Raiders for more than 30 years. He was an offensive assistant to Gillman with the Chargers, and he has consistently shaped the Raiders as a down-the-field passing offense, like Gillman's.

John Madden — Another coach with multiple ties to Gillman, Madden learned from Norm Van Brocklin — Gillman's old quarterback with the Rams — before joining Coryell at San Diego State. Three years later, Al Davis offered him a job with the Raiders.

Tom Flores — A Davis man through and through, Flores was the Raiders' quarterback during Davis' three years as the team's head coach, then an assistant to John Madden, and finally was hired by Davis to be the Raiders' head coach following Madden's retirement. He coached the team to victories in Super Bowls XV and XVIII. Former Washington and Cleveland coach Terry Robiskie is a Davis/Flores protege.

Art Shell — The Hall of Fame tackle played in the Raider organization for 15 seasons, including all 10 seasons of Madden's head coaching career and another four under Flores. Shell himself coached the Raiders from 1989-94 and again in 2006.


Bill Walsh — Conventional wisdom places Walsh in the legendary Paul Brown Coaching Tree, since Walsh was an assistant to Brown for eight seasons. But everything else, including Walsh's offensive philosophies and personal statements — he hated Brown and has publicly credited Davis as his biggest influence — indicates that this is where he belongs.

Dennis Green — He was an assistant for Walsh both at Stanford and with the 49ers. Green's contribution to this branch of the coaching tree includes former head coaches Brian Billick, Jim Fassel, and Mike Tice, plus current Rams HC Scott Linehan, who is part of the Mike Tice Coaching Twig. Green also has secondary connections to Tony Dungy (his defensive coordinator in Minnesota) and, through Billick, to everyone associated with Marvin Lewis.

Mike Holmgren — Holmgren's coaching tree has considerably diminished in stature recently, but this is still an important addition to the Bill Walsh branch of Gillman's coaching forest.

George Seifert — Walsh's defensive coordinator and successor in San Francisco, he led the 49ers to wins in Super Bowls XXIV and XXIX. Seifert's assistants included Jeff Fisher, Holmgren, Gary Kubiak, Ray Rhodes, and Mike Shanahan.

Bill Walsh Tree
[Click to expand]

The John Robinson Coaching Tree

I'll be honest, I'm not sure where to put Robinson. He was an assistant to Madden in 1975. Robinson hired Norv Turner and Zampese as offensive assistants while he was coach of the Rams. His single biggest influence may have been Len Casanova, but Robinson has so many connections to the Sid Gillman Forest that he needs to be here.

Mike Martz — I haven't gone through exact numbers, but including his college coaching career, Mike Martz may have worked for more head coaches than anyone else in history. He's a student of the true West Coast Offense run by Gillman and Coryell, and his most immediate influence is Norv Turner.

Norv Turner — Some fans are puzzled that Turner keeps getting good coaching jobs, and I suspect many readers will be equally puzzled at the frequency with which Turner's name has appeared in this study (12 times before we even got to this entry). To understand this, you must realize that Turner is now the only major practitioner of the Gillman/Coryell offense remaining in the NFL. This was the most dynamic offense in football for most of the 1960s and '70s, into the early '80s, and although it seems to be dying out now — replaced by Walsh's short-passing offense — you can see the legendary names attached to it (Coryell, Davis, Gibbs, Madden) and understand why some people still have faith in this style of offense. It's also a lot more exciting than a bunch of five-yard passes, and if you've ever been bored out of your mind watching a Walsh-style West Coast Offense, Martz and Turner are your guys.

Active Head Coaches in the Sid Gillman Coaching Forest — Brad Childress, Jon Gruden, John Harbaugh, Mike Holmgren, Dick Jauron, Gary Kubiak, Scott Linehan, Mike McCarthy, Wade Phillips, Andy Reid, Mike Shanahan, Norv Turner, Jim Zorn

Second-hand ConnectionsJack Del Río, Tony Dungy, Jeff Fisher, John Fox, Lane Kiffin, Marvin Lewis, Rod Marinelli, Mike Nolan, Sean Payton, Lovie Smith, Mike Tomlin

Sid Gilman Tree
[Click to expand]

The Paul Brown Forest

Paul Brown is the father of modern professional football. He was the first Modern Era coach to racially integrate his squad, the first coach to regularly call plays for his offense, and the first to hold classroom practice sessions. The list goes on (modern pass-blocking techniques and the quarterback "pocket") and on (year-round coaching staffs and positional coaches) and on.

Blanton Collier — Most famous for succeeding two of the greatest coaches in history, Paul "Bear" Bryant at the University of Kentucky and Paul Brown in Cleveland. Collier was an assistant to Brown for eight seasons before his own head coaching career began. Collier probably wasn't a formative influence on any major coaching trees, but he has many important secondary connections, and his assistants included Bill Arnsparger, Howard Schnellenberger, Chuck Knox, and Don Shula.

Bud Grant — The coach who took Minnesota to four Super Bowls (and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the CFL to six Grey Cups) played for Brown at Great Lakes Naval Station, and for former Giants coach Allie Sherman in Winnipeg.

Chuck Noll — His seven-year playing career was spent under Brown, and he spent three years as an assistant to Shula. Noll also has significant ties to the Sid Gillman forest, though, based on six seasons as an assistant with the Chargers. Noll was the primary influence on both Tony Dungy and John Fox, as well as current Indianapolis offensive coordinator Tom Moore.

The Weeb Ewbank Coaching Tree

Ewbank was an assistant to Brown at Great Lakes Naval Station, served as his line coach for the Browns, and was a fellow grad of Miami University in Ohio. He coached the Colts to two championships and the Jets to an upset win in Super Bowl III.

Chuck Knox — He worked for Blanton Collier at Kentucky, then got his first professional coaching job from Ewbank. Former head coaches Jim Haslett, Mike Martz, and Mike Tice all have ties to Knox.

Buddy Ryan — Ewbank's defensive line coach in New York, he also worked for Bud Grant in Minnesota and Mike Ditka in Chicago. Ryan's coaching tree includes Titans coach Jeff Fisher and former head coaches Dave McGinnis and Gregg Williams.

The Don Shula Coaching Tree

How many connections to Paul Brown can one man have? Shula played for Brown and Ewbank, and he coached for Collier. Shula's Tree is also the cradle of today's 3-4 defensive coaches.

Bill Arnsparger — Like Shula, he was on Collier's staff at Kentucky before moving to the NFL. Arnsparger was a defensive assistant for Shula in both Baltimore (1964-69) and Miami (1970-73, 76-82). Arnsparger was also defensive coordinator for the Charger team that played in Super Bowl XXIX. Among his most significant contributions to the game — as if coaching on seven teams that played for a championship isn't enough — is that Arnsparger gave Marty Schottenheimer his first NFL coaching job.

Ray Perkins — I don't know how accurate it is to put the Bill Parcells and Marty Schottenheimer Coaching Trees in Paul Brown's forest, but Arnsparger and Perkins belong here. Perkins, who hired Parcells, Bill Belichick, and Romeo Crennel, played for Shula in Baltimore. His other significant influences were Bear Bryant, Chuck Fairbanks, and Don Coryell.

Active Head Coaches in the Paul Brown Coaching Forest — Bill Belichick, Tom Coughlin, Romeo Crennel, Jack Del Río, Tony Dungy, Herm Edwards, Jeff Fisher, John Fox, Lane Kiffin, Marvin Lewis, Eric Mangini, Rod Marinelli, Sean Payton, Tony Sparano, Lovie Smith, Mike Smith, Mike Tomlin, Ken Whisenhunt

Second-hand ConnectionsDick Jauron, Mike McCarthy, Wade Phillips

Paul Brown Tree
[Click to expand]

Bringing It All Together

Sid Gillman and Paul Brown, both of whom began their NFL coaching careers in the 1950s, remain relevant in today's game through the coaches they tutored. Where do these giants — the forests that contain the game's most vibrant coaching trees — intersect?

Bill Walsh — It should be no surprise that the most influential coach of the last 30 years has roots with both Brown (eight years as an assistant with the Bengals) and Gillman (he's on the Al Davis Coaching Tree).

Chuck Noll — The only head coach in history with four Super Bowl victories, Noll worked directly with both Brown (seven years as a player) and Gillman (six years as an assistant coach with the Chargers).

Ray Perkins — The man who hired Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, and Romeo Crennel played for Don Shula (Paul Brown Forest) and coached for Don Coryell (Sid Gillman Forest).

Miami University — Miami of Ohio, as it's usually called today, produced — among many others — Paul Brown, Sid Gillman, and Red Blaik (mentor to both Gillman and Vince Lombardi).

Complete Tree
[Click to expand]

Gross Simplification

The four maxims below are not 100% accurate, but they can serve as a general guide to today's head coaches and their roots.

1. Today's defensive-minded coaches, if they use a 4-3 defensive alignment, are from the Tony Dungy Branch of the Chuck Noll Tree, in the Paul Brown Forest.

2. Today's defensive-minded coaches, if they use a 3-4 defensive alignment, are from the Don Shula Tree in the Paul Brown Forest. This tree includes Bill Parcells, Marty Schottenheimer, Bill Belichick, and Bill Cowher.

3. Today's offensive-minded coaches, unless they are Norv Turner, are from the Bill Walsh Branch of the Al Davis Tree, in the Sid Gillman Forest.

4. Today's offensive-minded coaches, if they do not use Walsh's "West Coast" Offense, are from the Don Coryell Tree, in the Sid Gillman Forest.

More broadly, offensive coaches probably trace their roots to Sid Gillman, while defensive coaches probably trace their roots to Paul Brown or Steve Owen.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame

Fourteen of the former coaches mentioned in this study are in the Hall of Fame. Those coaches are listed here with their coaching trees and Hall of Fame presenters.

George Allen — George Halas Tree, includes Marv Levy, Ted Marchibroda, and Jack Pardee; HOF presenter was Deacon Jones (player)

Marv Levy — George Halas Tree, George Allen Branch, includes Bobby Ross; HOF presenter was Bill Polian (executive)

Steve Owen — Steve Owen Forest, includes Jim Lee Howell Tree and Tom Landry Tree; HOF presenter was Mel Hein (player)

Vince Lombardi — Steve Owen Forest, Jim Lee Howell Tree, includes Forrest Gregg; HOF presenter was Wellington Mara (executive)

Tom Landry — Steve Owen Forest, includes Mike Ditka, Dick Nolan, and Dan Reeves; HOF presenter was Roger Staubach (player)

Sid Gillman — Sid Gillman Forest, includes Don Coryell Tree, Al Davis Tree and Bill Walsh Branch, John Robinson Tree, and Bum Phillips; HOF presenter was Joe Madro (asst. coach)

Joe Gibbs — Sid Gillman Forest, Don Coryell Tree, includes Joe Bugel; HOF presenter was Coryell

John Madden — Sid Gillman Forest, Al Davis Tree; HOF presenter was Davis

Bill Walsh — Sid Gillman Forest, Al Davis Tree, includes Dennis Green, Mike Holmgren, and George Seifert; HOF presenter was Eddie DeBartolo, Jr. (executive)

Paul Brown — Paul Brown Forest, includes Weeb Ewbank Tree, Don Shula Tree, Blanton Collier, Bud Grant, and Chuck Noll; HOF presenter was Otto Graham (player)

Bud Grant — Paul Brown Forest; HOF presenter was Sid Hartman (journalist)

Chuck Noll — Paul Brown Forest, includes Tony Dungy Tree and John Fox; HOF presenter was Dan Rooney (executive)

Weeb Ewbank — Paul Brown Forest, includes Chuck Knox; HOF presenter was Brown

Don Shula — Paul Brown Forest, includes Bill Arnsparger and Ray Perkins; HOF presenters were Dave and Mike Shula (family)

Note: Al Davis is also in the Hall of Fame, but as what the Hall calls a contributor rather than as a coach. His HOF presenter was John Madden. Mike Ditka is in the Hall of Fame as a player rather than as a coach. His HOF presenter was teammate Ed O’Bradovich.

I hope you've found this study both helpful and interesting. If you notice any errors or omissions, please notify me in the comments section. My goal in this study was to create the most comprehensive NFL Coaching Tree ever assembled, and in a project of this scope, mistakes are almost inevitable. Please recognize, though, that my focus remains fixed on today's coaches, as well as a few of the most significant coaches of yesteryear. I know I don't have George Halas or Curly Lambeau or Greasy Neale. But I've tried to include every contemporary head coach (plus a few of the hottest prospects) and all of coaches who influenced them. I welcome your comments, but please don't complain that someone like Harry Gilmer or Ken Meyer isn't included here.

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

Comments and Conversation

May 26, 2008


Great work, very accurate and interesting; a must-read for every football fan.

Thank you both the authors and Sports Central for publishing.

August 19, 2008


Brad. I really enjoyed reading your work! fascinating!
Any idea when “coaching trees” were first recognized by coaches and by fans/media? For example, in the early NFL and AFL did coaches/media/fans refer to connected coaches as part of a tree? The earliest claim that I can find is by Sam Wyche situating himself as a member of Walsh’s coaching tree but I’m far from an expert on NFL history. Today we see a lot of coaches highlighting their ties to others and I’m curious if this is a recent phenomenon or something that has always been done.
Thanks so much for writing a great piece.

November 23, 2008


Awesome content! nice work

February 6, 2009

Brad Oremland:


11 NFL teams changed head coaches this season. Here’s a quick look at the new guys (not including Eric Mangini):

TONY DUNGY TREE: Jim Caldwell (IND), Raheem Morris (TB)
JIM MORA TREE: Jim Mora, Jr. (SEA)
BILL PARCELLS TREE: Todd Haley (KC), Josh McDaniels (DEN)
BUDDY RYAN TREE: Rex Ryan (NYJ), Mike Singletary (SF), Jim Schwartz (DET)

Tom Cable (OAK) is pretty hard to pin down. Dennis Erickson might be his biggest influence, but right now I’m inclined to just put Cable on the Al Davis Tree.

Thanks, everyone, for reading.

Brad Oremland
Sports Central

November 5, 2009

gramma nelson:

(Not to nitpick, but Bud Grant did not coach in ‘84, having retired at the end of the ‘83 season, and returning for ‘85, which is misrepresented on the graphic)
Great article :)

January 13, 2010

Robert McKenzie:

Didn’t Vermeil start as an assistant for George Allen, or did he work for Chuck Knox (only) at the Rams before UCLA?

March 30, 2010

Jafar DelosSantos:

The only comment I would like to make is the following….Your Bill Walsh Offense is in reality Paul Brown’s, many of the play’s that are staples in todays offences were run by the Cleveland Browns and designed initially by Coach Brown. Walsh has been given much credit with the so-called WCO, but as many coaches will attest he cut his teeth with Paul Brown “The Father of Modern Coaching”.

August 16, 2015

Marzio COTTO:

Paul Bryant deserves a chapter in the history of NFL coaches several winners have practiced his philosophy and its strategic principles, without going any further, the dominant team in recent years: The Patriots have demonstrated their success following the ideas of the Bear, to raise matches and training, The Erhardt-Perkins offensse -in the 80’s NY version- it is only adaptation of existing ideas Alabama (and the whole area inside the bible belt). The handoffs and use tight ends and were used 40 years ago in the Atlantic coast. In fact as we speak and the West Coast offense should be talking about the offensive bible belt. Parcells and Bellicick be authentic disciples of the great Bear Bryant.

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