Picking coach now fine art NFL: With motivators and communicators seen as more critical than strategists these days, owners and GMs wait for that gut feeling.

November 11, 1998|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

When Jerry Jones chose Chan Gailey to coach the Dallas Cowboys last February, it concluded one of the most exhaustive coaching searches in recent NFL history.

Gailey, offensive coordinator with the Pittsburgh Steelers at the time, came out of the shadows to win the job in the 11th hour of a 34-day process. Still, he was the choice only after former UCLA coach Terry Donahue balked at accepting one of the league's lowest salaries.

Among the candidates left in Gailey's wake were former San Francisco 49ers coach George Seifert, a two-time Super Bowl winner, and Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator Sherm Lewis.

In the end, Jones, the Cowboys' owner, opted for offense over defense (Seifert's specialty). In Gailey, he chose a low-profile career assistant over a high-profile coordinator (Lewis) who had collected four Super Bowl rings with two organizations.

The right choice?

Ten weeks into the season, Gailey has the Cowboys (6-3) sitting in first place in the NFC East with much the same team that was in a 6-10 free fall under Barry Switzer.

Jones' winding path to find a coach is certain to be revisited a number of times before the spring. Headed down the homestretch of the season, no fewer than four coaches -- and perhaps as many as eight -- figure to be fired for various deficiencies.

San Diego's Kevin Gilbride was the first to go, in Week 7 after the Chargers started 2-4. He was replaced by interim coach June Jones, who had coached the quarterbacks.

Those on slippery ice include Washington's Norv Turner, Philadelphia's Ray Rhodes, St. Louis' Dick Vermeil, Seattle's Dennis Erickson, Carolina's Dom Capers and the Ravens' Ted Marchibroda. Pending the second-half finishes of the Kansas City Chiefs and Chicago Bears, the jobs of Marty Schottenheimer and Dave Wannstedt, respectively, might also be in jeopardy.

Selecting a head coach in today's NFL is a tricky business. An owner must lean heavily on instinct, philosophy of the franchise and educated guesswork in the interview process to arrive at a choice.

Managing today's athletes is not as simple as drawing up a power sweep. There is increased emphasis on communication skills and lessened emphasis on tactical insight. One general manager who recently conducted a coaching search of his own wanted a leader who could meet the varied demands of the job, not simply a strategist.

"It didn't make a difference whether my guy was a defensive guy or an offensive guy," the general manager said. "I was looking for someone with leadership, motivation, who was a talent evaluator and a recruiter, and someone with a track record.

"He also had to be able to deal with the media. At the bottom of my list was X's and O's because he can hire those guys."

Another league executive pointed to the need for a coach with communication skills.

"You're looking for somebody who relates to players," he said. "You need somebody with a good background, with a lot of energy who wants a challenge. You want somebody who can control players."

Who makes the best candidate?

Is it a big-name coach with a proven track record, like, say, the Green Bay Packers' Mike Holmgren, who could be available? Or the hot coordinator, like Brian Billick, who directs the NFC's most prolific offense with the Minnesota Vikings?

Does an owner go for a highly successful older assistant like Kansas City defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham, who's 49 and has coached in the NFL for 17 years? Or does he try to find the next Jon Gruden, at 35 the NFL's youngest coach, who has the Oakland Raiders in playoff contention his first season?

Then there's always the college arena.

What follows is a list of prospective candidates -- based on conversations with league executives -- who might join in the interview process in the coming months.

Top-job experience

This group obviously starts with Holmgren, who has a contract clause that will allow him to leave the Packers for a dual title job as general manager/coach after the season at the cost of a second-round draft pick. Holmgren has been connected to possible openings in San Diego, Seattle and San Francisco.

Seifert won 108 games in eight seasons with the 49ers, then was pushed out because he didn't win more than two Super Bowls. It says something, though, that he isn't regarded a candidate for the Cleveland Browns expansion job even though his old boss, Carmen Policy, is in control there.

Of the current coaches on the firing line, Capers and Rhodes appear most likely to get second chances.

Offensive coordinators

The most prominent names are those of Billick, whose Vikings are averaging 32.9 points a game this season; Gary Kubiak of the Denver Broncos; Chris Palmer of the Jacksonville Jaguars; Joe Pendry of the Buffalo Bills, and Lewis.

Kubiak doesn't call plays with the Broncos, but has considerable input into one of the league's most versatile offenses. He has worked on two Super Bowl staffs with Mike Shanahan (49ers in 1994, Broncos in 1997), and was interviewed for the Dallas job last winter.

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