Once upon a time, just a few years ago, the NFL was flooded with Baby Belichicks.
Eric Mangini was the genius behind the Jets, then the Browns. Josh McDaniels was Denver's wunderkind. Romeo Crennel had just finished a four-year stint in Cleveland. Charlie Weis was not in the NFL, but as Notre Dame's head coach, he was very much on the radar.
The Bill Belichick coaching Family Tree was in full bloom, but it entered dormancy swiftly. McDaniels and Mangini proved to have too many of Belichick's faults (dictatorial attitude, risk-taking personnel style) and not enough of his virtues (the credibility and long-range vision that make being a risk-taking dictator pay off). Crennel and Weis slinked back to Coordinatorville.
The Belichick Family Tree may soon start sprouting again, but its sudden rise and fall serves as a reminder that analyzing "coaching trees" is hardly an exact science.
More web than tree
Neat flowcharts like this one make coaching trees seem easy: Bill Walsh begets Mike Holmgren, who begets Andy Reid, who begets John Harbaugh. But many of the branches bear tenuous relationship with reality.
Who really thinks of Norv Turner as a Mike Nolan disciple? Who had more influence on Rex Ryan: Brian Billick or Ryan's father, Buddy? (Listen to six seconds of a Rex Ryan press conference before answering). Many coaches can claim membership to multiple families. Raiders coach Hue Jackson worked under Marty Schottenheimer, Marvin Lewis, and John Harbaugh, among others, at various times in his long career. These trees are more like English hedgerows - tightly knotted, complicated, and bustling with alarming interrelationships that are not easily untangled.
So the following countdown of the most important coaching families in the NFL is freshness dated to October, 2011. It is also based on some dead reckoning about who can be considered an influence over whom. Come January, there will be a fresh set of hires, and we may be talking about a new family tree (the Mike McCarthy branch?) or distancing ourselves from an assumption we are making now (that Jim Schwartz has officially turned the Lions around, for instance).
Despite the guesswork and the speculation, there are still some things we can learn by doing a little coaching genealogy: some trees are healthy, some are sickly, and some are just producing better fruit right now.
1. Bill Parcells Family
Two direct descendants of the Tuna, Belichick and Sean Payton, are among the league's most respected and successful coaches. Another recent Super Bowl winner, Tom Coughlin, served under Parcells with the Giants from 1988 to 1990, and his Parcells connections helped him land his current job as a the Giants coach (his Mara family-pleasing Boston College connections also had a little to do with it.) Two struggling coaches, Tony Sporano and Steve Spagnuolo, also have Tuna ties, Spags as a second-generation family member through Coughlin.
Ironically, while Parcells is often characterized as an iron-fisted despot, he was really a master delegator who assigned a great deal of responsibility to his subordinates. Both Belichick and Payton had almost free reign to develop their offensive and defensive schemes, and they enjoyed a degree of autonomy that served them well once they took on more responsibilities, though Belichick needed two tries to work the kinks out.
2. Tony Dungy Family
Mike Tomlin of the Steelers, Jim Caldwell of the Colts, and Lovie Smith of the Bears can all thank Tony Dungy for their head coaching jobs, in more ways than one. Dungy created a market for his Tampa-2 trained defensive assistants while blazing new trails for black head coaches. In addition to Tomlin, Caldwell, and Smith, Raheem Morris of the Buccaneers has strong Dungy ties, and Ron Rivera can be considered a second-generation Dungy scion, through his seasons with Lovie in Chicago.
Members of the Dungy Family Tree are all defensive coaches, and all run some variation on the Tampa-2 defense except Tomlin. Dungy could well be remembered a decade from now as the Bill Walsh of Defense, the Johnny Appleseed of both a defensive principal and a personal demeanor (authoritative, yet soft-spoken) that took over the whole league.
3. The Holmgren Family
The photograph of Mike Holmgren's 1992 Packers staff is remarkable: Andy Reid, Steve Mariucci, Jon Gruden, and a bunch of other future head coaches standing around a staircase. The photograph was a staple of television broadcasts for so long that it is hard to believe how few first-generation Holmgren spawn are still in the league. There's Reid, and there's Pat Shurmur, whom Holmgren just hired in Cleveland, who was also a Reid assistant. Everyone else (Gruden, Dick Jauron and Ray Rhodes) is in a broadcast booth or the coordinator pool.
Reid now has his own family: Shurmur, John Harbaugh in Baltimore, Leslie Frazier in Minnesota. But Frazier is a defensive coach, and Harbaugh came up through the special teams ranks, so they are not traditional West Coast Offense gurus who trace their philosophies through Holmgren to Bill Walsh. This is a diffuse coaching tree that has gone a long way from its roots. Still, it left its mark. For about 15 years, the Holmgren-flavored Walsh offense dominated NFL strategy.
4. Old Line Bill Walsh Family
This is where lineages get tangled. Walsh launched the careers of so many assistants in the 1980s and early 1990s that numerous young coaches can claim kinship to Walsh through coaching branches that otherwise appear dead. Jim Harbaugh, for example, apprenticed under Bill Callahan. Mike Shanahan was an assistant under George Seifert, Walsh's successor in San Francisco; Gary Kubiak of the Texans is a Baby Shanahan. Pete Carroll, John Fox, and Mike McCarthy can trace their roots back to Walsh via one branch or another.
This is a successful batch of coaches, but their kinship is more along the lines of third cousins than blood brothers. Shanahan and Kubiak may be able to trace their run-heavy strain of the West Coast Offense back to the Walsh era, but calling Carroll, a defensive coach who developed his current style at USC, a "Walsh disciple" is pretty inaccurate. The fact that so many coaches, with so many styles, can claim Walsh as some sort of influence is a testament to Walsh's unique legacy, but it tells us little about the coaches themselves, or what they may have in common.
5. Brian Billick Family
Rex Ryan, Mike Smith, and Jack Del Rio all made names for themselves as Ravens assistants under Billick, though Del Rio can also claim Coughlin as an influence, and Smith can in turn claim Del Rio (and Ryan his father). Since Billick has Walsh lineage (through Dennis Green) and Coughlin is considered a Parcells protg, Smith and Del Rio can be claimed by two of the major coaching families. Confused yet? I am!
Ryan, Smith and Del Rio are all defensive coaches, and Billick usually handled the (mediocre) Ravens offenses while leaving their (awesome) defenses to his assistants. Billick's influence on these coaches is tangential. This could be called the "Ray Lewis tree," because all of these coaches got as much of a boost from their Hall of Fame linebacker as from Billick.
6. Bill Cowher Tree
This is a surprisingly small group, one that may fizzle out soon. Marvin Lewis is enjoying a renaissance in Cincinnati, but Ken Whisenhunt and Todd Haley probably may not make it past this season. Cowher descendants like Jim Haslett and Mike Mularkey could once again resurface as head coaching candidates. Chan Gailey can technically be considered a Cowher descendant, but he has coached so many different teams that he is best thought of as his own beast.
Cowher's descendants have little in common. Most are offensive coaches, because the Steelers defense was designed by old-guard coordinators like Dom Capers and Dick LeBeau. Steelers assistants are functionaries in a top-down organization, so they rarely enjoy the kind of autonomy that gets them ready for head coaching gigs elsewhere.
7. Jeff Fisher Tree
We end with a tree that is just sprouting. Jim Schwartz of the Lions and Mike Munchack of the Titans are impressive offshoots of the Fisher line, and Fisher himself may well return in 2012. The flowcharts list Fisher as a George Seifert descendant, but Fisher's primary influence early in his career was Buddy Ryan. Schwartz, Fisher, and Rex Ryan could all be classified as part of a Buddy Ryan family tree because they all incorporated 46-defense principles into modern schemes. If Schwartz keeps going buck nutty at the ends of games, he will really hammer home the Buddy influence.
Others: Norv Turner traces his roots back to an old-school version of the Don Coryell-Sid Gillman offense, though he can be claimed by numerous other trees. Jason Garrett of the Cowboys may best be thought of as the lone current member of Turner's family - he was Turner's third-string quarterback in Dallas. Hue Jackson and Chan Gailey are best left unclassified.
Mike Tanier writes for NBCSports.com and Rotoworld.com and is a senior writer for Football Outsiders.