Sparano just latest example of overmatched head coach - NBC Sports

Sparano just latest example of overmatched head coach
Many assistants lack communication skills, management abilities and non-football smarts
The Dolphins are among the NFL's worst teams. Does this mean Tony Sparano is just another former assistant who's overmatched as a head coach?
October 19, 2011, 5:10 pm

Todd Haley isn't cutting it. His Chiefs looked like the worst team in professional sports through the first three games, though a two-game winning streak has taken a little heat off. Rumors are swirling that Chiefs president Scott Pioli was ready to fire Haley during the bye, but Pioli stayed his hand. The reprieve may be brief - Haley made disastrous decisions during the preseason, including exposing starters to injury in order to win the final exhibition game, and he is one bad decision away from exciting new employment opportunities elsewhere.

Sparano and Haley are once-promising assistant coaches who are flunking their first trial as head coaches.

They are not alone.

Steve Spagnuolo and Ken Whisenhunt are in the same boat. Recent history is filled with assistants who did not just fail, but failed spectacularly: Josh McDaniels in Denver, Scott Linehan in St. Louis, Eric Mangini in Cleveland. These guys dragged their organizations down with them, dividing locker rooms and, in some cases, embarrassing their franchises with power plays and political intrigues.

A bad coach can waste a few years trying to build his program. A terrible one set a team back for a whole decade. With stakes so high, NFL owners and executives have to ask themselves an important question: How do you tell whether a rising star is the Next Great Coach or a nightmare waiting to tear your franchise apart?

There is no right answer to that question, but there is one absolutely wrong one. You can't determine a coordinator's potential from his stats.

Wrong tools for the job
Chances are, the company you work for has a technical department or a research and development staff. The people who work in those departments are brilliant; they design new products, make important repairs, or know how to network the computers, copiers, and coffee machines together so everything runs smoothly.

These people are the offensive and defensive coordinators of your company. They are creative, innovative, and indispensable. And there is no way in this world they will ever get promoted to Chief Executive Officer, because they lack expertise in sales, marketing, shipping, production, purchasing, and the rest of the enchilada. Plus, their people skills probably aren't great.

The corporate world understands the difference between a prized technician and a leader with real managerial tools and talent. Unfortunately, NFL owners and execs often do not. "As head coach, you are the CEO of a multi-billion dollar operation," said Ted Sundquist, former general manager of the Broncos and editor of "Yet guys are thrust into the job with no training whatsoever because their defense was ranked second in yards allowed last year."

Head coaches have to do much more than draw up gameplans and make locker room speeches. "He must communicate with the business people, communicate with marketing, communicate with the media," Sundquist explained. A head coach's job is filled with meetings, discussions, and compromises. The difference between coordinator and coach is almost as big as the difference between software engineer and Vice President of Production.

The lack of managerial training becomes a bigger problem when coaches like McDaniels get major influence over personnel matters. Scouting is a year-round job, yet some young coaches believe they can dabble in it. Handling the salary cap is also a full-time occupation, and it's the head coach who first learns what is and isn't possible under the constraints of the team budget. When wunderkind coaches fail to grasp the economics and resource allocations that go into finding, developing, and compensating talent, they do nutty things, like trading away star players over personality conflicts or leaving Matt Cassel in the fourth preseason game.

Of course, many successful coaches have made the leap from the assistant ranks. It takes a special kind of person to do so, and where that individual's offense or defense ranked the previous year is not really relevant.

Personality, Maturity, Quality
Sundquist points to Tony Dungy as the ideal example of an assistant who achieved success as a head coach, and the Tampa-2 defense had nothing to do with it. "He's a man of character. Teams need that mature individual."

Maturity was a problem for the petulant McDaniels. It also may be an issue for Haley, whose decision process never seems to extend beyond the next quarter. Character was a major problem for Mangini, who treated bottom-of-the-roster players like indentured servants.

Character alone does not guarantee success. Sparano is a peach. "I hate that the Dolphins' terrible 0-5 start is roosting directly in the doorstep of Sparano, a good man and a good coach." wrote Armondo Salguero in the Miami Herald this week. Sparano is also no young whippersnapper with a cocky attitude. He has a long r‚sum‚ as an NFL assistant and a college head coach.

Part of Sparano's problem may be his personality. Some coaches are all bluster and brimstone speeches. Others, like Sparano, are lower-key. The tough guys, like Mike Singletary, produce short-term results but can grind players and co-workers down if they do not sometimes dial it down. Alex Smith looks like a better quarterback now that there is no perma-fire under his rear end. The low-key guys, like Wade Phillips, can exasperate both fans and superiors when they don't display any rage after a tough loss. Salguero's column makes it clear that Ross has tired of his head coach, perhaps because the stay-the-course approach isn't reaching troublesome stars like Brandon Marshall.

The most successful coaches can modulate their personalities, which is another trait coordinators don't need to master (the head coach has the emotions, the coordinator has a dry erase board). An Andy Reid can be soft-spoken, like Dungy, but wield authority behind the scenes. A Tom Coughlin or Mike Tomlin can come across as gruff and angry in press conferences but approachable and fair-minded in the locker room or staff meetings. "A coach has to know when to kick butt and when to take his foot off the pedal," Sundquist said. Many assistants only know one or the other, or neither.

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On the job training
So instead of looking for strategic masterminds, teams should seek out master communicators with delegation skills and charismatic personalities. Easier said than done. Coordinators become head coaches through a whirlwind interview process that usually takes place over the course of a week or two in January. A hot assistant comes to town, meets the owner and/or general manager for a few hours, then flies to the next city.

And here's the kicker - these coaches get coached on how to perform in interviews, so they know how to tell executives just what they want to hear.

Sundquist recommends promoting from within the organization whenever possible: team executives have a handle on how an in-house assistant works with his own staff and players, and how he handled interactions (if he had any) with scouts or the personnel department. Jim Caldwell, for example, quickly brought the Colts back to the Super Bowl after replacing Dungy, this season's woes notwithstanding.

If there are no suitable replacements on staff, look for coaches with some college experience. Many coordinators, like McDaniels, worked their way through the NFL's "quality control assistant" ranks, meaning they started out as film slicers and data entry techs. College coaching involves more teaching, more communication with prep coaches and the families of recruits, and a greater need to get inside the head of a younger athlete. Mike Tomlin, for example, spent five years coaching at various colleges. "In college, it's less about the game of chess and more what you know about the pieces," Sundquist said.

The next best thing to college coaching experience may be a varied NFL r‚sum‚. John Harbaugh made his reputation as a special teams coordinator, a job that involves combing the bottom of the roster for talent, teaching young players unfamiliar roles (superstar NCAA receiver, you are now a kick gunner), and making sudden changes on the fly, skills that serve him well as a head coach. Herm Edwards had both scouting and coaching experience, and his greatest flaw was that he was good at everything except strategy, making him the opposite of today's stereotypical wunderkinds. Packers assistant Edgar Bennett has spent time in the personnel department and as a running backs and receivers coach, so he is learning the football business from a variety of angles. A team looking for the "Packers method" may be well served by Bennett.

The smartest move for a team hiring an up-and-coming assistant is to avoid the "keys to the kingdom" mentality. Personnel decisions have long-range consequences and must be made by a staff, not an individual. Bill Parcells may have earned the right to "buy the groceries," but Parcells did not call plays or design gameplans. He always had a Bill Belichick or Sean Payton around for that. Parcells understood the "CEO" part of his job. The 40-year old fast-tracker who will be flying across the country come January probably does not.

Parcells, of course, was the man who selected Sparano in Miami. Even the smartest executives make mistakes. The trick is to avoid the obvious ones.

Mike Tanier writes for and and is a senior writer for Football Outsiders.

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