We are now in an era dominated by just one coach.
While Bill Belichick of the Patriots goes for his sixth Super Bowl ring as a head coach Sunday, only one other coach, Tom Coughlin, has won more than one in this era. The former Giants coach beat Belichick twice in a five year span in the Super Bowl, but after the second one, he missed the playoffs four years in a row and was fired.
Since Mike Shanahan won back-to-back titles in 1997 and 1998 in Denver, 12 coaches – Dick Vermeil, Brian Billick, Jon Gruden Bill Cowher, Tony Dungy, Mike Tomlin Sean Peyton, Mike McCarthy, John Harbaugh, Pete Carroll, Gary Kubiak and Doug Pederson — have won one each. None of them has won a second one.
That is quite a contrast to the 1980s when three coaches dominated the decade and all made the Hall of Fame.
Bill Walsh of the 49ers and Joe Gibbs of the Redskins each won three Super Bowls and Bill Parcells of the Giants won two in the 11-year span from 1981 to 1991. And the 49ers won another one in 1989 with basically his team after Walsh retired and added a fifth in 1994. So only two other teams – the Raiders in 1983 under Tom Flores and the Bears in 1985 under Mike Ditka – won titles in that 11-year span.
Bob Glauber’s book entitled “Guts and Genius — the story of three unlikely coaches who dominated the 1980s” (Grand Central Publishing) — chronicles their success stories. Their rivalries were a memorable part of that decade.
The interesting thing is that all three coaches had to overcome early obstacles. Walsh was passed over for the Cincinnati head job by Paul Brown when Brown stepped down after the 1975 season and the book captures how devastating that was for Walsh. He spent year with the Chargers and was replaced by Gibbs when he was hired by Stanford in 1977. He then got his first head coaching stint with the 49ers in 1979, the first of the three men to get a head coaching job.
And Parcells probably would have been fired after going 3-12-1 in his first year in 1983 if University of Miami coach Howard Schnellenberger had shown an interest in the job when Giants general manager George Young approached him.
Gibbs started out 0-5 in his first season in 1981. He feared he would be fired before he won a game before he junked the Air Coryell offense he ran in San Diego and turned to a power running game built around John Riggins.
I had a front row seat for this saga because I covered the Redskins for the last seven years of Gibbs’ career and saw the games Gibbs coached against the other two. Gibbs coached against Parcells twice every year because they were in the same division Parcells won the only playoff match between the two coaches in the 1986 NFC title game. Gibbs only coached against Walsh six times and won their only playoff match in the 1983 NFC title game. Walsh had a 4-2 edge overall. Walsh and Parcells coached against each other three times in the playoffs with Parcells holding a 2-1 edge although Walsh had a 3-1 edge in regular season games.
I saw how obsessed Gibbs was. He would arrive at the team complex Monday morning after a game and wouldn’t leave until Thursday night. He slept in the office three nights a week. He said if he drove home each night, his wife would be asleep and would be a “lump in the bed.” His wife, naturally, wasn’t thrilled to read that. They even tried making audio tapes to share their thoughts, but that didn’t work and she accepted sleeping in the office was his coaching lifestyle.
The good thing for reporters is that by Wednesday after the first practice of the week, Gibbs hadn’t met a person for three days who didn’t work for the team and seemed to enjoy relaxing and chatting. He sometimes talked for an hour after the cameras were turned off.
In December of 1986, after a regular season loss to the Giants, Gibbs seemed drained and said something like what is going on in the world. I asked, “Have you heard of Oliver North?” Naturally, he hadn’t even though he was living in Washington at the height of the Contra affair. He was oblivious to everything but football. Although we didn’t report it at the time, it later became anecdote in stories about Gibbs single minded focus on football. The postscript is that once he found out who North was, he invited him to practice.
The three coaches departed in a four-year span. Walsh quit after the 1988 season, which was a vindication year for him as he won his final Super Bowl after losing in the first round of the playoffs three years in a row, twice to Parcells. He was stripped of his president’s title by owner Eddie DeBartolo after the third playoff loss to Minnesota. On the way to the 1988 title, the 49ers beat Minnesota. In the book “Blindside,” it was pointed out that in the 1987 loss to the Vikings, they didn’t have a left tackle who could block Chris Doleman. Walsh was always looking for ways to keep the team on top. The next year, he found a left tackle to neutralize Doleman’s pass rush. Walsh was burned out from the stress, but should have waited two or three months to recharge his batteries. He quickly regretted walking away.
Parcells waited a few months in 1990 to retire in May because of heart problems that caused him to need a heart bypass. I happened to be in New York and covered the press conference. He gave no indication he had health problems at the time. Whether Parcells would have stayed if he had been healthy is a matter of conjecture because he never stayed very long at one place and he tried to leave the Giants for Atlanta after his first Super Bowl victory in 1986, but the Giants wouldn’t let him out of his contract. He coached three more teams, never longer than four years and twice accepted the Tampa Bay job under two different owners and backed out both times.
He signed a five year deal with the Patriots in 1993 and after three years, told owner Bob Kraft he wanted to leave after four. Kraft agreed to chop a year off his contract with a proviso that he couldn’t coach another team that fifty year in 1997. Parcells went to the Super Bowl in 1996 and then said he was leaving for the Jets, claiming his contract had expired. But Kraft still had his rights for his fifth year and the Jets gave up four picks to pry him loose.
Co-owner Wellington Mara actually wanted Parcells back in 1997, but Young’s relationship with him had been strained and he told Mara he wasn’t staying if Parcells returned. Co-owner Bob Tisch sided with Young and he got the green light to hire Jim Fassel.Tisch then decided to approve hiring Parcells, but Young had already hired Fassel and Parcells lost his last chance to return to the Giants.
Gibbs quit after the 1991 season as the stress took its toll. He then turned his energy to running a NASCAR team although owner Dan Snyder convinced him to return in 2004, but things weren’t the same. He coached the team to two playoff berths in four years and then quit again and still runs his NASCAR team.
Parcells now is involved in horse racing and Walsh died of leukemia in 2007 after coaching Stanford again and returning to the 49ers in a front office role.
The three men competed in a time in the NFL that is gone forever in the salary cap era.
In the book, Lee Rouson’s wife, Lisa, noted to Parcells how close the players seemed to be at a reunion.
Parcells pointed out the players had a “blood kinship.”
“It’s going to last the rest of their live … they don’t forget,” Parcells said.
All three men and their teams were part of a pro football era that won’t be forgotten.