Of Fires And Hires, Part 2
No two NFL teams have the same hiring process to bring in a new coach. But the inexact science hasn't stopped teams from trying—again and again—to find the next man who can turn around a franchise and create a brighter future
In Part 1, I discussed the unpleasant side of the hiring/firing process. In today’s conclusion, I’ll tackle the flip side and relate my two hiring experiences in Green Bay.
Every team is different in how they approach the hiring of a head coach. I worked for the one NFL franchise, the Packers, that does not have an owner, so in my experience the general manager—first Ron Wolf and then Ted Thompson—had complete authority and discretion in the process.
Different teams involve different people in their selections, depending on the structure of the organization. Some teams have used executive search firms to assist or even handle coaching searches in a turnkey approach. The search firm model, an extension of a business originally focused on securing corporate CEOs, has now become part of the NFL for both executives and coaches. And it is a lucrative one: fees can range from 20-30% of the selected candidate’s first-year compensation. A leader in this area, Jed Hughes, has traded on his background as a former coach to direct coaching searches in the NFL.
These searches, in my view, should be thorough and cut a wide swath. I understand that some teams focus on one candidate, but I have never understood the rush to hire a coach in early January. Players don’t even return to the team’s facility until April.
There are not enough teams that think outside the box in their search, going beyond the former head coach, offensive or defense coordinator, etc. I have commended the Eagles for their dogged pursuit of Chip Kelly last year, a refreshing change whose coaching, staffing and operational ideas are not just different but effective. I sense some teams will mimic some of Kelly’s preparation methods in the future.
Here are some recollections from the two head coach hiring processes I experienced in Green Bay.
‘He blew my socks off’
Following Ray Rhodes’ termination after the 1999 season, Ron Wolf embarked on a much broader search than performed the previous year when he limited his search to a candidate with proven NFL head coaching experience.
In these interviews Ron went through the team roster by position, and in the ones I was part of I went through the team’s present and future financial outlook. The coach then talked about his plan, his philosophy, his potential staff and his take on the roster.
Upon the recommendation of Mike Holmgren, we interviewed Mike Sherman, who had previously spent one year in Green Bay under Holmgren as the tight ends coach. I vividly remember the day of Sherman’s interview, as I was talking to the agent for another coach when Ron came into my office and gave me the throat-slash sign to stop those discussions; we had our guy.
Sherman, in Ron’s words, “blew his socks off” in the interview. He presented a plan with a detailed schedule of every week from Feb. 1 until the end of the season. He had organized his potential coaching staff, from coordinators to quality control coaches, and had complete and detailed knowledge of our personnel. He had a response on how to handle every potentially difficult situation. Coming in as a long-shot candidate, he had won the job with a sparkling interview.
Bob LaMonte represented Sherman, as he did most coaches from the Holmgren coaching tree. LaMonte prides himself on “bringing forward” a couple of candidates a year and having them meticulously prepared for their moment of truth with copious notes and detail. Interestingly, one of the coaches he is “bringing forward” now is Packers quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo, who is reportedly interviewing with the Cleveland Browns. (Interestingly, the interview would be with president Joe Banner, the same person who plucked Packers quarterbacks coach Andy Reid to be head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles 15 years ago.) The Browns also have plenty of familiarity with LaMonte, having recently had a troika of clients in leadership positions there—Mike Holmgren, Pat Shurmur and Tom Heckert.
LaMonte also is representing the newly-minted coach in Washington, Jay Gruden, having represented his brother, Jon, for many years. Jay Gruden reportedly was set to visit other teams following his interview in Washington, but those meetings were cancelled. My sense is that LaMonte created the impression—real or perceived—that if Washington did not act to secure his services while at the facility, they could potentially lose him. It did not come to that, and Gruden secured a five-year deal.
LaMonte leveraged a similar situation with the Vikings in 2006. Brad Childress had interviewed there and was on his way to interview with us in Green Bay as one of several candidates for that position. LaMonte created the impression with the Vikings that if they were to let Childress board a plane to Green Bay to interview with the Packers, they might lose Childress to their rival. Childress never got on that plane to Green Bay, securing a five-year deal in Minnesota.
No bad choice
Following Sherman’s ouster six years later, general manager Ted Thompson led a broad and comprehensive coaching search, traveling to interview several coaches on his own and bringing several to the office, including Wade Phillips, Sean Payton and Mike McCarthy.
Thompson’s interviews, as one might expect with his strong philosophy of drafting and developing young talent, was heavily weighted in personnel discussions. Primary in the process were personnel directors John Schneider, Reggie McKenzie and John Dorsey. (All are now NFL general managers.) They reviewed our roster in detail, discussed preferences at certain positions for the future and projected which veterans would not be in the team’s long-term plans. The coaching candidates would then give their views on our personnel, talk about their vision for the team and outline potential staffs. I met briefly with the candidates, assessing our financial situation and getting to know them a bit.
The decision came down to Payton and McCarthy, a choice with no unpleasant outcome. Hearing both of them discuss offensive philosophy in attacking the “boundary,” “edge,” and “perimeter” was a treat.
Ted did not reveal much in his decision to hire McCarthy over Payton (he doesn’t reveal much about anything) but familiarity was a factor. McCarthy was quarterbacks coach in Green Bay in 1999 under Ray Rhodes, and he had a long friendship with Schneider from their time together with the Chiefs. (Schneider would later introduce Mike to his wife.) Ted liked Mike’s “Pittsburgh toughness” and humility. The trait that impressed me most about Mike in our two years together was his emotional intelligence with players; he was the same guy after a win or loss, and he judiciously used emotional outbursts to maximize effect.
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The firing and hiring season unfortunately has become a staple of the NFL calendar, occurring simultaneously with the playoffs. With the skyrocketing asset value of these franchises and many proven worst-to-first examples over the years, this trend does not look to be changing. Coaching at the highest level can certainly be rewarding, especially financially, but job security is becoming more tenuous every year.
Andrew Brandt served as vice president of the Packers from 1999 to 2008.