Under the Coaching Tree: Ranking the Top 10 Coaching Trees in NFL history

Under the Coaching Tree: Ranking the Top 10 Coaching Trees in NFL history

You could tell these coaches were on Santa's nice list year after year

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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.

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Honorable Mention: Andy Reid

Honorable Mention: Andy Reid

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Seasons: 65 — sixth among the other HCs on this list

Record: 512-508 (.502 — 11th)

Postseason Appearances: 26 — sixth

Postseason Record: 22-24 (.478 — 10th)

Conference Championships: 3 — 11th

Super Bowl Wins: 2 — T-seventh

Given all the great coaches currently in the NFL who fell from the Reid tree, I’d assume most of you believed he’d be somewhere in the top 10, but no. While it’s true he has a multitude of great disciples — John Harbaugh, Sean McDermott, Ron Rivera, Doug Pederson — who are still making an impact in the NFL today, he’s also created a multitude of duds.

For every Reid wunderkind there comes a troubled child. Sticking with the tree theme, for every gorgeous ornament, there’s a flickering light that absolutely shouldn’t be flickering. While the star on top may draw attention away from the light, that flicker will always be in the back of the viewers’ minds, nagging at them, reminding them that the tree isn’t perfect. You can try to hide the light all you want — putting it out of sight, out of mind — but the thorough tree examiners will find it.

Reid has had 11 assistants become head coaches during his career. That number should be 12, but for some reason, teams refuse to hire Eric Bieniemy (pictured above with Reid). Six have records over .500. The other five all have records under .400. The worst of which is Steve Spagnuolo who, across three-plus seasons as a head coach for the Rams and Giants, went an abysmal 11-41 (.212).

Furthermore, although the Reid tree has consistently reached the postseason (26 appearances), they struggle mightily against other playoff competition. Their three conference championships rank dead last among coaches on this list and although their two Super Bowl wins make up for the lack of pennants, Reid disciples still average 32.5 years of coaching for every Super Bowl title, which ranks pretty low among all other head coaches on this list. That said, the Reid tree is still going strong in the NFL, and maybe in a few years, its branches will have earned their way up this list.

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10) Tony Dungy

10) Tony Dungy

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Seasons: 54 — T-ninth

Record: 437-419 (.511 — 10th)

Postseason Appearances: 24 — T-seventh

Postseason Record: 16-23 (.410 — 11th)

Conference Championships: 4 — T-eighth

Super Bowl Wins: 1 — T-10th

I debated for a while on whether Dungy or Reid deserved this spot. Dungy’s tree has a better regular season record though, and despite coaching for eleven fewer seasons than Reid’s tree, they also have one more conference championship. That’s what gave the edge to Dungy.

Dungy’s tree is undoubtedly carried by Steelers’ head coach Mike Tomlin. His .632 win percentage across 16 seasons is incredible and undoubtedly makes up for Rod Marinelli’s abysmal 10-38 (.208) record. Tomlin makes up nearly half of all Dungy descendant playoff appearances (10 of 24), half of all their postseason wins (8 of 16) half of all their conference championships (2 of 4), and all of their Super Bowl wins.

Tomlin is undoubtedly the shining star atop the tree, but there are some other solid decorative pieces between Lovie Smith, Jim Caldwell, and even Frank Reich. Thankfully for Dungy, all of his subpar disciples didn’t last too long as head coaches. Leslie Frazier and Marinelli only lasted a combined six seasons. While Herm Edwards did bring this group down a bit with only 54 wins across eight seasons, it wasn’t enough to leave Dungy off the list entirely.

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9) Tom Landry

9) Tom Landry

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Seasons: 71 – fourth

Record: 535-499 (.517 — ninth)

Postseason Appearances: 24 — T-seventh

Postseason Record: 22-23 (.489 — eighth)

Conference Championships: 6 — T-fourth

Super Bowl Wins: 1 — T-10th

Yes, he’s a legendary head coach, but his children didn’t do very much with their incredible favor. Despite coaching for 71 seasons, Landry’s disciples only amassed one Super Bowl. Yes, Mike Ditka put together arguably the greatest team in NFL history, but that was his only conference championship...across seven playoff appearances. Dan Reeves reached the playoffs nine times! Had a solid 11-9 postseason record and reached the Super Bowl on four separate occasions between time with the Broncos and Falcons. He couldn’t win a single Super Bowl.

When the going got tough, Landry’s children, more often than not, crumbled under the pressure. Aside from the two I’ve already mentioned, only one other head coach managed to reach a Super Bowl: Raymond Berry. Unfortunately, Berry’s Patriots had to go up against Ditka’s Bears — losing 46-10, the second-most lopsided Super Bowl in history.

The only area where Landry’s tree was in the upper half of coaches on this list was conference championships, but based on how many seasons Landry’s children coached, they were still in the bottom half in seasons per conference championship (11.83). Landry’s tree has also amassed the most seasons coached with only one Super Bowl, and since Super Bowls are the ultimate goal for a head coach, it’s hard to look past that low figure.

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8) Mike Holmgren

8) Mike Holmgren

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Seasons: 72 – third

Record: 604-527 (.534 — seventh)

Postseason Appearances: 35 — third

Postseason Record: 30-32 (.484 — ninth)

Conference Championships: 4 — T-eighth

Super Bowl Wins: 2 — T-seventh

Much like Dungy was carried by Mike Tomlin, Holmgren’s tree is carried by Andy Reid. If you’re now thinking to yourself, “Okay, well why isn’t Reid up here then?” you clearly didn’t read the intro to this whole article. Reid is part of Holmgren’s tree, not a part of his own.

On a per-season basis, Holmgren’s tree hasn’t done too well in the conference championship or Super Bowl departments, but they’re actually near the middle of the pack when looking at their total numbers. Sometimes it pays to have a large tree with a lot of longevity. As I said, the tree is absolutely carried by Reid, who leads all Holmgren disciples in wins, win percentage, postseason appearances, postseason win percentage, and conference championships. Reid makes up one-third of all Holmgren disciples in seasons coached (24 of 72), over half of all postseason appearances (18 of 35 – this is counting this year since the Chiefs have clinched a playoff spot), and nearly two-thirds of their playoff wins (19 of 30).

Yes, Jon Gruden also adds a title to Holmgren’s tree, but six playoff appearances across 15 seasons as a head coach isn’t as great as you’d like your second-best disciple to be. Mike Sherman and Steve Mariucci were both reliable coaches you could bank on reaching the postseason, but neither did much in the playoffs, going a combined 5-8 in the games that mattered most. Neither ever earned a conference championship.

If not for Reid, this tree would be down in the doldrums alongside the lawn chair tree from the 2008 classic film Merry Christmas, Drake & Josh. As bright as Reid is, he doesn’t eradicate Marty Mornhinweg, who went 5-27 (.156) across two seasons as Detroit’s head coach. That .156 win percentage is tied for the third-worst of any coach on any tree in this list with Chris Palmer, ahead of only Bill Conkright (1-8; .111) and Cam Cameron (1-15; .063). Yikes!

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7) Bill Walsh

7) Bill Walsh

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Seasons: 69 — fifth

Record: 571-510 (.528 — eighth)

Postseason Appearances: 32 — fourth

Postseason Record: 31-29 (.517 — sixth)

Conference Championships: 6 – T-fourth

Super Bowl Wins: 3 — sixth

Great coach. Solid tree, but not enough to crack the top five. Furthermore, although Walsh’s disciples won three Super Bowls, two of them were from George Seifert, who didn’t really have to do much. He was given a Super Bowl-ready 49ers roster and led them to two more championships after Walsh left. The only other Super Bowl came from...yup, Mike Holmgren, who also earned three conference championships.

Walsh’s tree was full of solid head coaches, but nobody who really carries the tree like others on this list has. Conversely, nobody really drags this tree down. It’s just a solid, jolly centerpiece that embodies the Christmas spirit. On a per-season basis, Walsh’s tree is pretty middle of the pack, ranking sixth among all trees on this list in seasons per conference championship (11.5), and seventh in seasons per Super Bowl title (23).

The only real sore spot on the tree is Bruce Coslet, who managed to coach for nine years despite never managing better than a .500 record and reaching the playoffs only once. How he held onto his job for so long, I don’t know. That said, even with his presence, Walsh’s tree ranks eighth in regular season win percentage and sixth in postseason win percentage. That’s good enough for seventh on this list, but I can’t help but think it’d be much lower if Seifert wasn’t handed the incredible roster Walsh built for him.

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6) Mike Shanahan

6) Mike Shanahan

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Seasons: 38 — 11th

Record: 332-265 (.556 — second)

Postseason Appearances: 18 — 11th

Postseason Record: 21-14 (.600 — third)

Conference Championships: 4 — T-eighth

Super Bowl Wins: 2 — T-seventh

Longevity? No. Success? Yes, and lots of it! Despite only having coached for 38 seasons, Shanahan’s tree has already cemented itself as one of the best on the block. It doesn’t have any of the total accolades you’d want from an elite tree, but on a per-season basis, you could argue Shanahan’s tree deserves to be top-three. They rank second in regular season win percentage, third in postseason win percentage, fourth in seasons per postseason appearance (2.11), fourth in seasons per conference championship (9.5), and fifth in seasons per Super Bowl (19).

Obviously, I can’t in good conscience rank Shanahan’s tree any higher than six though because although the branches have done incredible work in the early goings, there’s still a lot of time for them to fall apart. Just look at Sean McVay and Matt LaFleur this season. A couple more years like this and Shanahan’s tree might start looking pretty ugly. That said, there’s also lots of time for them to amass more Super Bowl titles. Kyle Shanahan and Mike McDaniel are both on track to make the postseason this year, and who knows what will happen then.

Shanahan’s tree is the only tree to not have a single coach with a sub-.500 record. Unfortunately, many of his children could start experiencing darker days as their coaching careers progress. The Los Angeles Rams put themselves in cap and draft pick hell in order to win a Super Bowl win McVay. Unless McVay retires, which was rumored ahead of this season, before the inevitable toll calls, he might drop below the .500 threshold within three or four years.

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5) Sid Gillman

5) Sid Gillman

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Seasons: 62 — seventh

Record: 468-393 (.544 — third)

Postseason Appearances: 23 — ninth

Postseason Record: 23-18 (.561 — fifth)

Conference Championships: 6 – T-fourth

Super Bowl Wins: 4 — T-second

Here we get to the first coach whose tree coached before Super Bowls existed. Still, Gillman’s tree did a phenomenal job of winning Super Bowls once they came around. They coached 64 seasons in total, but only 52 in the Super Bowl era, earning four titles in that span, or one every 13 years (fourth-best).

Gillman’s tree checks every box it possibly could except for postseason appearances, which is difficult considering the fact that prior to the Super Bowl era, there wasn’t really a postseason at all. I’m willing to look past that discrepancy.

This tree is carried by Chuck Noll and George Allen. Noll did all the heavy lifting on the postseason end, winning every Super Bowl title on Gillman’s tree and accounting for four of the six conference championships. Allen, on the other hand, despite consistently failing to meet expectations in the postseason, did work in the regular season department, going 116-47 (.712) across 12 seasons as head coach for the Rams and then-Redskins. That’s the second-best win percentage of any coach on any tree, behind only the great Vince Lombardi (.738).

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4) Marty Schottenheimer

4) Marty Schottenheimer

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Seasons: 81 — second

Record: 688-584 (.541 — fifth)

Postseason Appearances: 41 – second

Postseason Record: 39-37 (.513 — seventh)

Conference Championships: 5 — seventh

Super Bowl Wins: 4 — T-second

Bill Cowher, Tony Dungy, Bruce Arians, and Mike McCarthy make up everything great about this tree. They’re the tinsel, lights, holly, star, and ornaments all wrapped in one. But even they can’t hide the cracked branches, off-color pedestal, and broken ornaments littered throughout the rest of the tree.

Not one other coach has above a .500 record. This tree contains three coaches with records of .250 or worse, including Cam Cameron, whose 1-15 record (.063) is the worst of any coach on any tree in this list. Hue Jackson orchestrated the second-ever 0-16 season in NFL history. Rob Chudzinski also fell victim to the dumpster fire that was the 2010 Cleveland Browns, but each of these stains on Schottenheimer’s tree didn’t last very long. The only coaches with worse than a .500 record who managed to stick around for more than five seasons were Lindy Infante and Herm Edwards, and even Edwards still managed to reach the postseason in half of his seasons as a head coach.

This tree has some very high highs and some very low lows, but the former drastically outweighs the latter. On average, Schottenheimer’s tree reached the playoffs every 1.98 seasons, the best mark of any tree on this list. Couple that fact with their four Super Bowl wins and it’s easy to understand why this tree ranks so high.

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3) Paul Brown

3) Paul Brown

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Seasons: 62 — eighth

Record: 429-369 (.538 — sixth)

Postseason Appearances: 20 — 10th

Postseason Record: 19-11 (.633 — first)

Conference Championships: 9 — third

Super Bowl Wins: 4 — T-second

Nobody knew how to win like Paul Brown’s tree in the playoffs (I counted AFL/NFL championship games as postseason games because why not). 19-11? Sheesh! That’s damn near untouchable. Even more awesome is the fact that despite over 20 percent of all Brown’s tree’s seasons being played before the Super Bowl era, they still managed to win four Super Bowls. Three were courtesy of Bill Walsh of course, but Weeb Ewbank, who was a head coach for 12 years before the first Super Bowl managed to win one as well during the 1969 season as the head coach of the New York Jets.

While there were a few sour apples on Brown’s tree, most of the bad ones were gone fairly early. Bill Conkright only lasted one year. Rick Forzano, just three. Chuck Studley, only one. Even Bill Johnson, who only lasted three years as a head coach, managed an 18-15 record. Somehow he never made the playoffs either, which I find hard to believe with a record like that. I mean, for goodness sake, his Bengals went 10-4 in 1976 and somehow they missed the playoffs. That’s a travesty.

All in all, Paul Brown’s tree may not have been around the longest, but they made the most of what they were given, and always came out on top when games mattered most. If one of Brown’s disciples met your team in the playoffs, you might as well have kissed your season goodbye. The lack of longevity is what keeps them out of the top two though.

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2) Bill Parcells

2) Bill Parcells

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Seasons: 108 — first

Record: 906-765 (.542 — fourth)

Postseason Appearances: 44 — first

Postseason Record: 55-35 (.611 — second)

Conference Championships: 12 — first

Super Bowl Wins: 9 — first

Live and die by Bill Belichick. Of every coach under Parcells’ tree, Belichick isn’t just the decorations on said tree. He decorates the entire damn house. That said, if Belichick was the only successful Parcells pupil, Parcells wouldn’t be so far up this list. In fact, Parcells managed to produce two other elite head coaches Sean Payton and Tom Coughlin. Belichick might be the main course, but the Coughlin appetizer and Payton dessert were icing on the cake that cemented Parcells’ status as the second-best coaching tree of all time.

Despite producing 14 different head coaches (most of any tree on this list), Parcells only produced one that was dreadfully bad: Chris Palmer (5-27; .156). Sure, Romeo Crennell kind of sucked and Freddie Kitchens was underwhelming, but they weren’t so bad that their teams became laughingstocks across the NFL, unlike Palmer.

Parcells’ tree has 218 more wins than any other tree on this list, and as long as Belichick’s around, the gap will keep widening. With so many seasons under their belts, you’d expect a pretty mediocre record, yet Parcells’ tree still managed a .542 win percentage — fourth-best of all coaches on this list — and .611 postseason win percentage (second-best). They average one conference championship every nine seasons, one Super Bowl every 12 seasons, and they have 16 more postseason wins than any other coach on this list. If this list were based entirely on totals, Parcells would be at the top, but on a per-season basis, he falls flat in comparison to the best tree.

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1) Jim Lee Howell

1) Jim Lee Howell

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Seasons: 54 — T-ninth

Record: 424-295 (.590 — first)

Postseason Appearances: 27 – fifth

Postseason Record: 29-20 (.592 — fourth)

Conference Championships: 10 — second

Super Bowl Wins: 4 — T-second

Howell (pictured, middle) only produced four head coaches in the NFL, but two of those head coaches are widely-regarded as two of the greatest coaches in NFL history — Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi. It’s hard to compete with that.

This group coached for 32 seasons in the Super Bowl era and won four Super Bowls. That’s one every eight years — 33 percent faster than Parcells’ tree. They won a conference championship (including pre-Super Bowl AFL/NFL championships) once every 5.4 seasons — nearly twice as often as Parcells’ tree has (once every nine seasons). Sure, Landry and Lombardi may not have the same accolades as Belichick, but they accomplished so much in such a comparatively short amount of time.

Allie Sherman wasn’t a bad addition to the tree either. Taking over the Giants for Howell was likely a very daunting task, yet Sherman took a 6-4-2 squad in Howell’s last year to a combined 33-8-1 record over the next three years. Although he never won an NFL Championship, his Giants were consistently one of the best teams in the NFL prior to the Super Bowl era...where they went 15-26-1 across three seasons. Still, Sherman managed a career 57-51 record as well as three “postseason” appearances (basically just conference championship appearances) in eight seasons as a head coach. That’s not bad at all.

The only dark spot on this tree is Harland Svare, who coached the Rams and Chargers for seven years between 1962 and 1973, going 21-48-5 in the process. Every family has to have their odd man out, right? The one that doesn’t quite fit in, y’know? The Jackson 5 had Tito. The Watts have Derek. My family has me. That’s just how it is. Svare’s presence under Howell’s tree doesn’t diminish Landry’s and Lombardi’s accomplishments enough though to warrant dropping this tree down the list. Jim Lee Howell produced two of the most iconic head coaches of all time. It’s the best tree the NFL has ever seen, perhaps the greatest the league will ever see.

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