A new age in coaching

In latest trend, teams hire coaches who can `relate to the players'

January 26, 2007|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN REPORTER

A new set of criteria for selecting head coaches has spawned a different breed of leader in the NFL. Today's coaching front man is younger and more personable.

Gone from the wish list are the voice of experience, the wrinkles of seniority and the dictatorial profile.

The hiring this week of Mike Tomlin, 34, and Lane Kiffin, 31, as head coaches in Pittsburgh and Oakland underscored the NFL's recent run on youthful coaching talent. Ten of the past 15 head coaching hires have been 45 or younger. The average age of the five new coaches chosen in 2007 is an eye-popping 39.8.

More significant, only three of the past 15 hires - none this year - have held previous NFL head coaching jobs.

"I think there definitely is a younger group [of coaches] that people are looking at," Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, said this week.

"You need people who can relate to the players, but I think what has happened mainly is that age is now not a factor. It's been pushed out of the picture. Sure, you say, `How old is he?' But when you hear the age of 34, it doesn't bother you."

It didn't, at least, when Rooney and his son, Art Rooney II, who is president of the Steelers, interviewed Tomlin last week. After they met Tomlin, the defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings leaped from long shot to front-runner, ahead of two in-house candidates.

It didn't matter, either, that Tomlin had only six years of coaching experience in the NFL, and only one year as a coordinator. His Vikings defense played well last season and he was eloquent in interviews.

Making your point in today's locker room is vital, Art Rooney said at Tomlin's introductory news conference.

"The main thing you think about is when this guy is standing up in front of your team, is he going to get his message across?" Rooney said. "That, more than any one thing, is what convinced us that this was the guy."

Even by those standards, the Raiders' choice of Kiffin sent shock waves through the league. The offensive coordinator at Southern California had just one year of NFL seasoning - as a quality control coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2000 - on his resume. The son of Monte Kiffin, longtime defensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he had been USC's coordinator just two years.

Kiffin is the youngest head coach at his hiring date in the NFL since 1940. Harland Svare, however, was the modern era's youngest coach at the time of his first game. He was 31 years, 11 months when he took over the Los Angeles Rams in November 1962. Kiffin will be 32 when he coaches his first game in September.

Raiders general partner Al Davis has a history of hiring young head coaches, including John Madden (32), Jon Gruden (34) and Mike Shanahan (35). He is forever seeking the next brilliant offensive mind. After striking out with USC quarterbacks coach Steve Sarkisian last week, Davis anointed Kiffin.

"Players don't care about age," Kiffin said at his news conference. "Players want to be coached. ... They want to be talked to; they don't want to be lied to. They want to be told the truth. Whether it's what they want to hear or not, you tell them the truth."

The NFL's recent past, however, shows a preference for age and experience. Even in 2006, when then-35-year-old Eric Mangini was named coach of the New York Jets and then-42-year-old Sean Payton was hired by the New Orleans Saints, five of the 10 coaching hires were 50 or older. The Detroit Lions tapped Rod Marinelli, 57, and the Raiders - going against Davis' history - chose Art Shell, 59.

From 2004 through 2005, seven of 10 new coaches were at least 53 years old, including Joe Gibbs with the Washington Redskins. At 66, Gibbs is the oldest coach in the NFL today, topping a list of four 60-or-older coaches.

In this year's coaching class, the lack of NFL experience by Kiffin, Tomlin and the Atlanta Falcons' Bobby Petrino - with 10 years total among them - indicates a radical change in philosophy.

Although the Steelers interviewed former Cowboys coach Chan Gailey, experience was not high on their priority list.

"It's something you're interested in, but you don't put it down as a negative [if the coach doesn't have much]," Dan Rooney said. "You don't have it there as a necessity."

Dan Reeves was 37 when he was hired to coach the Denver Broncos in 1981. He was a head coach for 23 consecutive seasons before he was fired in the final month of the 2003 season in Atlanta. At 63, he has the itch to coach again, but he insists he won't be disappointed if the chance doesn't come.

"I guess there is a youth movement," Reeves said this week. "Maybe it's because of the success Mangini and Payton had [getting their teams to the playoffs].

"As much as I'd like to get back in it, I'm happy for these young guys."

In Pittsburgh, Tomlin doesn't see age being a problem. When he took his first NFL coaching job with the Buccaneers in 2001, he was a 29-year-old rookie coaching defensive backs. Among those he coached was John Lynch, then a 30-year-old Pro Bowl player.

"I think mutual respect is required," Tomlin said at his news conference. "I have a job to do from a coaching standpoint and they have a job to do from a player's standpoint. My age is my age. I have never had a problem with men."

The Steelers are following a blueprint that worked well for them over the past 38 years. Chuck Noll was 37 when he was hired in 1969, and Bill Cowher was 34 in 1992.

"The bottom line is that you satisfy yourself that this is somebody that can come in and be successful right away as well as in the long haul," Art Rooney said. "Mike had all of those pieces that we were comfortable with."

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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