There are two primary reasons coaches become legends: they won or they influenced. Some coaches are known for winning championships. Others are famous for their innovations. A few have the distinction of falling in both categories. How we perceive head coaches often depends not just on what they did but how they did what they did. Don Coryell is rightly regarded as one of the league’s greatest offensive minds – but he didn’t win enough. Marty Schottenheimer is one of just seven coaches with more than 200 wins – but he never won a championship. George Seifert won two Super Bowls, both in dominating fashion – but he inherited a steamroller of a team. Jimmy Johnson took over a team in the doldrums, won two Super Bowls, and laid the foundation for his successor to win another – but he didn’t coach for long enough. Because of the sometimes arbitrary qualifications we expect coaches to meet, or because we unconsciously have the unrealistic expectation of every good coach to be the next Paul Brown in order to meet the definition of greatness, it can be difficult for any but the best and brightest to stand out. The GridFe Hall of Fame voting committee did our best to weigh all the information available to us in order to recognize the most deserving coaches. Ultimately, we inducted twelve into the inaugural class.1
Hall of Fame Coaches
George Halas (1920-1967)
Decatur Staleys/Chicago Bears
318-148-31 Record; 6 Title Wins; 3 Title Losses; 5 GridFe Genius Awards
Papa Bear was the founder and principle owner of the Chicago Bears (erstwhile Decatur Staleys) and was their head coach for 40 seasons and over 500 games.2 His squads won NFL championships in four different decades, with his first and last titles coming 42 years apart. In the days before the league cared about parity, Halas’s Monsters of the Midway experienced sustained dominance, with six titles, three more title losses, and 34 winning seasons and rosters stacked with the legends of yesteryear. He presided over dominant defenses and innovative offenses. In particular, his work with Clark Shaughnessey to bring the potent T Formation offense to the NFL marked a sea change in the way teams viewed quarterbacks. Halas introduced the offense in style in a 73-0 trouncing of Washington in the 1940 title game. His legacy includes a coaching tree with successful head coaches George Allen, Dick Vermeil, and Marv Levy, as well as offensive mastermind Ted Marchibroda.
Paul Brown (1946-1975)
Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals
213-104-9 Record; 7 Title Wins (4 AAFC/3 NFL); 4 Title Losses; 10 GridFe Genius Awards (4 AAFC/6 NFL)
It is not an overstatement to call Paul Brown the most innovative coach of all time, or to say he had more influence on modern football than any other individual. He pioneered scouting and testing players for baseline athleticism and football acumen, reintegrated professional football before Jackie Robinson played his first Major League Baseball game, took control of play calling responsibility away from the quarterback, integrated classroom film study into practices, and installed an embryonic version of the West Coast Offense that is part of every playbook in the modern NFL. In his 17 years in Cleveland, the Browns fielded 14 top five scoring offenses and 17 top five scoring defenses. He later went on to lead the expansion Cincinnati Bengals to respectability, despite the lack of championship success he found in Cleveland. Through his coaching tree of Bill Walsh, Chuck Noll, Don Shula, Weeb Ewbank, Bill Belichick, and Tony Dungy (to name but a few), Brown’s influence lives on.
Vince Lombardi (1959-1969)
Green Bay Packers, Washington
96-34-6 Record; 5 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 3 GridFe Genius Awards
Lombardi took over a moribund Green Bay franchise and immediately transformed it into a winner. In just nine seasons with the Packers, he guided the team to five triumphs in six championship games, including the first two Super Bowls. Even though he stepped into his role for a downtrodden Green Bay team and a lackluster Washington squad, he never coached a team to a losing record. The coach was famous for the Lombardi Sweep, an effective toss play subsequently romanticized in popular media, but he was far more than that. Despite his love of the running game, the success of his teams was predicated on efficient passing and stout defense, with a power rushing component to control the tempo of the game. Adept at finding talent in his role as a general manager, Lombardi stacked his rosters with legendary players and found roles for them to succeed.3
Tom Landry (1960-1988)
250-162-6 Record; 2 Title Wins; 3 Title Losses; 3 GridFe Genius Awards
The man in the funny hat coached the New York Giants defense to six consecutive top five finishes before getting his shot as the head coach of the upstart Dallas Cowboys. Landry’s expansion squad started slowly, posting five straight losing seasons, but ownership was patient with the promising coach. That patience paid off, as Landry led the team to twenty straight winning seasons, five Super Bowl appearances, and two Super Bowl wins. Under Landry, Dallas won more games than any other team in the 1970s, and it had much to do with the coach who had complete control over the product on the field. Landry’s wizardry included honing the flex defense and multiple offense in order to field incredible units, seemingly regardless of which players were plugged in. He was ahead of his time in the regular use of the shotgun formation to keep star passer Roger Staubach upright.4 His coaching tree includes successful head coaches Mike Ditka and Dan Reeves.5
Sid Gillman (1955-1974)
Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers, Los Angeles Rams, Houston Oilers
122-99-7 Record; 1 Title Win (AFL); 5 Title Losses (4 AFL/1 NFL); 1 GridFe Genius Award
Gillman isn’t as well-known to modern fans, but he was a true giant in the profession. He was an offensive innovator who was an outspoken proponent of attacking defenses with the pass. “The big play comes from the pass,” he’d say, and he designed offenses that would lead his Southern California teams to six championship appearances, including one win. Gillman was also ahead of his time with his focus on strength and conditioning training, and his work with Alvin Roy changed the landscape of professional football permanently. The AFL was a league full of personalities, and Gillman may have been the most influential of them all. He wasn’t just a passing guru; he was a talented organizational strategist. Similar to the way Paul Brown changed the game, Gillman’s attention to detail at the training, scouting, practicing, and gameplanning levels forced both his AFL contemporaries and the established NFL to adapt. Many legendary coaches have impressive coaching trees. Gillman has a forest that includes Bill Walsh, Joe Gibbs, Don Coryell, Chuck Noll, George Allen, Al Davis, and John Madden.
Don Shula (1963-1995)
Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Colts
328-156-6 Record; 2 Title Wins; 5 Title Losses; 3 GridFe Genius Awards
Don Shula had a reputation as a man who could take any group of players and turn them into contenders. As rival coach Bum Phillips once said of Shula, “He can take his’n and beat your’n and take your’n and beat his’n,” meaning he could beat your team with his players or his team with your players. His career record suggest that may not have been hyperbole. He won more games than any coach in history. In his 33 years as a head coach, he only had a losing record twice, he failed to break .500 just six times, and he won at least ten games 20 times.6 Shula guided a perennially strong team in Baltimore before taking over a fledgling Miami team. In both locations, he was able to build squads that were able to dominate opponents with a backup quarterback seeing significant action, including the 1972 Dolphins who remain the NFL’s only perfect team. Among Shula’s proteges are defensive genius Bill Arnsparger, offensive innovator Ray Perkins, and, more distantly, Marty Schottenheimer.
Hank Stram (1960-1977)
Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints
131-97-10 Record; 2 Title Wins (1 AFL/1 NFL); 1 Title Loss; 3 GridFe Genius Awards (AFL)
As the head coach of the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs (former Dallas Texans), Stram built the most consistently spectacular team of the decade and helped bring respectability to the upstart league. His work as an innovator cannot be understated. On offense, he pioneered the moving pocket to take advantage of quarterback Len Dawson‘s mobility and provide him with a better look at passing lanes. He also made frequent use of two tight end sets that augmented blocking power while maintaining the threat of the pass. On defense, Stram’s odd front hybrid schemes gave offensive lines nightmares and set the tone for the defenses of the 1970s. He used massive Buck Buchanan and Curley Culp to dominate the interior line while Bobby Bell and Willie Lanier had their way with blockers at the next level, and the secondary feasted on what was left. Those defenses famously derailed the offense of the juggernaut Vikings in Super Bowl IV, helped further legitimize the AFL, and set the blueprint for future roster construction. As a team builder, Stram actively sought out players from small schools and HBCUs to gain a competitive advantage over the establishment.
John Madden (1969-1978)
103-32-7 Record; 1 Title Win; 1 GridFe Genius Award
The vibrant coach Madden only coached for ten years, but he averaged a remarkable 7.1 games over .500 per season on his way to becoming to youngest coach ever to win 100 games. He presided over one of the most unique and individualistic rosters in history, and his ability to coach with an open mind and let the players be themselves and emphasize their strengths seemed to give his Raiders a rare advantage. Madden led his team to a Super Bowl victory in 1976 and conference championship games in six other seasons. His .759 regular season winning percentage is the top mark among any coach with 100 or more career victories.7 His coaching record isn’t all that got him into the GridFe Hall of Fame. He became the influential voice of Monday Night Football, easily relating complex concepts in a palatable format to the general viewing audience. Later, he brought the NFL into people’s homes and reached a new generation of fans with his influential Madden video game franchise. Few in modern history have done as much for the popularity of the sport.
Chuck Noll (1969-1991)
193-148-1 Record; 4 Title Wins; 2 GridFe Genius Awards
Prior to Noll’s arrival, the Steelers were at the bottom of the barrel, with only a handful of winning seasons in the previous quarter century. With his incredible ability to find talent through the draft, he turned the franchise around within four years and eventually created a dynasty. Noll became the first coach with four Super Bowl wins, and he did it by building a dynamic team with an imposing defense and a versatile offense. The Steel Curtain was the driving force of Pittsburgh’s success and was a major factor in all four title runs. Offensively, Noll won championship gold first with a run-oriented attack that didn’t put too much pressure on young quarterback Terry Bradshaw, before winning more gold with a dangerous passing attack once Bradshaw matured as a passer. His work with Bud Carson on Cover 2 defense was vital and showed that having linebackers who are strong in coverage was the way of the future. Noll’s former safety Tony Dungy gleaned knowledge from the scheme and worked with Monte Kiffin to cater it to modern offenses as the repackaged Tampa 2 that dominated the early 2000s.
Bill Walsh (1979-1988)
San Francisco 49ers
92-59-1 Record; 3 Title Wins; 3 GridFe Genius Awards
Walsh inherited a perennial loser and built the foundations of a team that won at least ten games in all but three seasons from 1981 to 2002, including five Super Bowls. He built the San Francisco dynasty on the foundations of offensive innovation and defensive supremacy, with attention to minutia an essential aspect of both. After taking a few years for his schematic and management contributions to take hold, the 49ers became a perennial contender. They ranked in the top ten in points scored from 1981-1998, as well as total yardage from 1982-1996. San Francisco also happened to rank in the top ten in points allowed in all but one season (1993) from 1983-1997. Walsh did not just build a revolutionary offense; he built a juggernaut from top to bottom. His West Coast Offense expanded significantly on Paul Brown‘s concepts, especially after being paired with cerebral passer Virgil Carter after the shocking loss of Greg Cook. He began the WCO in earnest to make the best use of Carter’s combination of a strong mind and weak arm. Walsh took the offense to another level with Ken Anderson, and perfected it with Joe Montana.8 His disciples include George Seifert, Mike Holmgren, Denny Green, Mike Shanahan, Andy Reid, and Sam Wyche.
Joe Gibbs (1981-1992, 2004-2007)
154-94-0 Record; 3 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 3 GridFe Genius Awards
The mild-mannered Gibbs was among the greatest ever at adapting to his personnel. He took a group of mostly unheralded offensive linemen and transformed them into The Hogs, a dominant unit that were the foundation of teams that won three Super Bowls.9 Gibbs didn’t just win three titles, he won three titles with three different starting quarterbacks with different skill sets. His ability to both lead and teach was vital for this achievement, and his steady demeanor was a calming force for his teams that won the Super Bowl during the only two strike-shortened seasons in NFL history. Under Don Coryell, Gibbs had a significant hand in developing the famed Air Coryell offense, and he is credited with creating the trips formation. With a brilliant tactical mind and presence that both gave and commanded respect, it’s no wonder Gibbs guided his teams to the promised land in seasons when the winds were coldest.
Bill Belichick (1991-present)
New England Patriots, Cleveland Browns
250-118-0 Record; 5 Title Wins; 3 Title Losses; 5 GridFe Genius Awards
A hero to some and a hoodie-clad evil genius to others, Belichick is probably the best game planner in history, with the ability to exploit any inefficiency or rule book ambiguity and turn it into an edge for his team. Perhaps the most notable examples of his ability to game plan came in Super Bowls over a decade apart, once as defensive coordinator of the Giants and once as head coach of the Patriots. Facing the powerful K-Gun offense, Belichick knew throwing off Jim Kelly was the key to victory and instructed his defense to all but ignore legendary back Thurman Thomas. Against the high powered Greatest Show on Turf Rams, Belichick figured containing Marshall Faulk was paramount, and his Bull’s Eye plan worked to perfection. He is the only coach to win five Super Bowls, as well as the only coach to appear in eight Super Bowls. Part of his genius is his adaptability, as he fields amorphous teams that can’t be defined by a single identity, year after year. He runs schemes that play to the strengths of his personnel rather than trying to field a team full of talented square pegs. Belichick exercises total control over every aspect of his team. perhaps because of this, members of his coaching tree never come close to reaching his success.10 While they have learned his tactics, they can’t take his creative and flexible mind with them when they leave.
- Others receiving votes: George Allen, Bill Parcells ↩
- He also played from 1920 to 1928 and had the NFL record for the longest fumble return (98 yards) until 1972. ↩
- His coaching tree is rather sparse, with Forrest Gregg and Dick LeBeau serving as its most notable members. ↩
- Also notable was his use of a back next to Staubach in order to maintain the threat of the run. ↩
- Also of note, as a defensive back, Landry had eight interceptions in three different seasons, and thrice led the league in punting yardage as a punter. ↩
- Not including the strike-shortened 1982 season in which he went 7-2. ↩
- He falls behind Lombardi if postseason games are included, and he falls behind Guy Chamberlin if the threshold is lowered to 80 victories. ↩
- The WCO was novel and complex. During the tumultuous 1987 season, tasked with overseeing a squad of replacement players with little preparation time, Walsh simplified the game by running the antediluvian wishbone offense in a blowout victory over the Giants. ↩
- This line was dominant despite having to play Lawrence Taylor, Randy White, and, later, Reggie White twice apiece each season. ↩
- In the NFL. Outside the NFL, Nick Saban has been about as successful as a coach can be in college football. ↩