Ho ho ho, folks! Christmas is here, and good ol’ jolly St. Nick is heading down the chimney with exactly what you asked for. If you’re an NFL head coach though, that probably means he’s headed down the chimney with a talented assistant to put on your staff to make you look even better. Until they leave for their own head coaching gig of course, in which case, you wish them the best and hope for a solid replacement.
Great head coaches don’t always create other great head coaches under their wing. Bill Belichick is arguably the greatest head coach of all time, and his coaching tree has produced a myriad of stinkers like Matt Patricia, Josh McDaniels (solid OC, though), Bill O’Brien (turned sour real quick), and Nick Saban (remember, this is considering their accomplishments as an NFL head coach). The only really great head coach Belichick ever had on his coaching staff was Brian Flores, and we all know how that turned out. Belichick was the head coach for 2021 NFL Coach of the Year Mike Vrabel when Vrabel was a player, but I’m not going to count that toward Belichick’s tree — just as how I wouldn’t count the likes of Don Shula and Mac Speedie under Paul Brown’s tree. Those mentorships came as players, not coaches, and thus, should not be considered part of the “coaching tree.”
Belichick hasn’t had the best luck when it comes to assistants turning into great head coaches, but some coaches land hit after hit after hit in the coordinator department. Maybe it’s luck. Maybe it’s an incredible eye for coaching talent. This Christmas I wanted to find the best coaching trees in NFL history, the types of trees that would draw all attention in the living room on Christmas Eve.
“How would I do this though? What are the guidelines?” you might be wondering. Thank you for asking.
For starters, I’m only counting people’s records as head coaches. I don’t care how great an offensive coordinator or defensive genius these people were. If they couldn’t cut it as head coaches, they didn’t get any of the credit. Secondly, everybody under each tree had to serve at least one season on the main head coach’s staff. That doesn’t necessarily mean as an offensive or defensive coordinator. They could’ve been an O-line coach or defensive backs coach, but they had to serve at least one season under the star on top. Third, and I shouldn’t have to say this, but this list is my preference. I’ve looked at each tree’s regular season win percentage, postseason appearances, postseason win percentage, conference championship totals, and Super Bowl wins, and am using those for my credentials to determine the order of this list. It can get confusing at points. For example, one of the stats I use in this list is Seasons per Super Bowl (S/SB — how many seasons between Super Bowls for each tree as a collective whole). Since some of the coaches on these trees coached before the Super Bowl era, I had to only count seasons in which they coached in the Super Bowl era into consideration for that stat, obviously. Also, I understand that as the NFL has worn on, it has become somewhat easier to reach the postseason as postseason brackets have expanded. So, although some trees may have higher postseason percentages than others on this list, that doesn’t necessarily mean they were better at getting to the postseason. Finally, while there are some trees with shining branches that stand out among the rest, I am looking at every branch on every tree. Every assistant who turned into a head coach will be considered for this piece, and a series of bad head coaches could make a great branch look bad.
Furthermore, I will not be including coaches that came in the second generation of coaching trees. I’m looking for direct descendants from each of these coaches only. For example, while Andy Reid can be traced back to Bill Walsh, he only ever worked under Bill Walsh’s disciple Mike Holmgren. Therefore, Reid falls under Holmgren’s tree, not Walsh’s. Got it? Good.
Also, since some coaches on this list still have students currently head coaching in the NFL, I have given certain coaches additional playoff appearances to their totals depending on whether or not their teams would be in the postseason if it started today.
I really hope I covered everything. With all that said, here is our top 10 list of the best coaching trees in NFL history.