Posted by Alex Bonilla on November 18, 2019
With 6 new debuts this season, there have now been exactly 500 people in NFL history to be credited as head coach of a NFL team. Many of those coaches had to work their way up the ranks or prove their success elsewhere before getting their chance at the top position in the NFL. For a while, Pro-Football-Reference had full coaching history on the pages of modern coaches such as Bill Belichick, so you could trace his rise from a special assistant on the 1975 Colts to where he is today. However, we did not include that information for many historical coach profiles until now, as we have now filled in the coaching history of every head coach in NFL history where applicable.
While in today's environment it's more common to hire a coach with NFL assistant experience over a college coach, in the past many great coaches jumped directly from college to the NFL. Paul Brown rose from nearly a decade coaching at Massillon Washington High School to three years at Ohio State, and following two years coaching the Naval Station Great Lakes team got the call to coach the nascent Cleveland franchise. Sid Gillman was a head coach at Miami of Ohio and Cincinnati before getting his first NFL head coaching spot with the Los Angeles Rams.
The addition of this information also helps fill out NFL coaching trees, as displayed by the Employed and Employed By tables on our coach pages. Looking at Brown's Employed table, he employed future Hall of Fame coaches Weeb Ewbank (as a tackles coach) and Bill Walsh (as a QB and WR coach). A common narrative today is how the assistants of Bill Belichick have not gone on to solid head coaching careers, and similar things were said about Vince Lombardi's coaching branches, which included folks like Bill Austin, Norb Hecker and Mike McCormack.
Assistant coaches did not become the norm until around the 1940s, although even in the early days of the NFL there were cases such as Dim Batterson of coaches assisting before rising to the top post. In those days player-coaches were common, and most of them never went on to a different coaching position, which is why those coaching history tables will mostly remain bare. There were exceptions, such as Bob Dove who was a player-coach for the Chicago Rockets and would go on to take assistant positions with the Lions and Bills before becoming a long-time assistant for Youngstown State. College coaches were also common in the early days of the NFL, such as Ed Robinson, who began his coaching career way back in 1896 with Nebraska before eventually coaching the Providence Steam Roller for one season.
We give thanks to the Professional Football Researchers Association and the work of John Maxymuk who had done extensive research on NFL head coaching history, along with additional newspaper verification by Alex Bonilla. In the future we may also fill in the coaching history of offensive and defensive coordinators we are currently lacking that information for. If you have any corrections or additional information to share or suggestions, feel free to contact us through our feedback form or Pro Football Reference's official Twitter account. Thanks for following PFR!