Skip to main content
Publish date:

If you want to be a head coach, get a job coaching one of these positions...

We got an email over the weekend from a coach riding the bus on the way to a game wondering if we knew which position coaches most often turned into head coaches. We didn't know, but were intrigued enough to find out. So we looked it up.

Our hypothesis was that offensive line coaches most often turned into head coaches.

Our hypothesis was wrong. [insert from Scott - But offensive line coaches certainly are the best story tellers.]

Looking into the bios of 123 currently employed FBS head coaches and 32 NFL head coaches, and three jobs consistently turned up into the background of head coaches: quarterbacks, wide receivers and defensive backs.

We found that 31 current FBS/NFL head coaches were raised as quarterbacks coaches. Among them are Sean Payton, Jason Garrett, Steve Spurrier, Jimbo Fisher, Mark Richt, and plenty more.

On the offensive side, the next closest position was wide receivers coach. We found that 25 former wide receivers coaches (Urban Meyer, Kevin Sumlin, David Shaw, Chris Petersen, Tom Coughlin, Bruce Arians) turned into head coaches. A number of those guys (like Dana Holgorsen, for example) cross-trained at both positions, and the vast majority of quarterbacks coaches were also offensive coordinators.

On the defensive side of the ball, we found that 25 defensive backs coaches turned into head coaches and, quite often, very successful head coaches. Guys like Nick Saban, Will Muschamp, Gary Patterson, Bob Stoops, Pete Carroll and Mike Tomlin, to name six, made their hay has defensive backs coaches. 

A dozen former linebackers coaches (Bret Bielema, Pat Fitzgerald, Al Golden, Marvin Lewis) turned into head coaches, followed closely by 10 defensive line coaches (Brady Hoke, Gary Andersen, Kyle Whittingham, Charlie Strong). 

As to our original guess, 14 current head coaches (Les Miles, Kirk Ferentz, Andy Reid) came up the ranks as offensive line coaches. 

If you're a volunteer assistant with eyes on the big office someday, your best bet is becoming a wide receivers coach, then transitioning to quarterbacks and climbing the ladder from there. If you're a defensive guy, do what you can to coach the secondary. 

On the flip side of the study, we found that career running backs, tight ends and special teams coaches very rarely turned into head coaches. The reigning Super Bowl champion is one of them, as John Harbaugh turned 20 years as a special teams coordinator into the Baltimore Ravens job. He's joined by Brian Polian, Rich Ellerson and Tony Levine at the FBS level. Frank Solich, with 15 years as Nebraska's running backs coach before taking over for Tom Osborne, was the only true running backs coach that transitioned into head coaching. Art Briles, Butch Jones and Mike Shanahan had cups of coffee as running backs coaches, but they were quickly on to other positions.

And we've got to hand it to Cleveland Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski. In our tour of 150-plus head coaches, he's the only coach we found that managed to jump from coaching tight ends to offensive coordinator to head coach.

So if you're a young coach taking a long bus ride to a small college game and day dreaming about your climb to the big time, you now have a roadmap of which positions you should coach and which ones you should avoid.

Or you could follow the path of Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. After seven years as a position coach at two different schools, Kelly took his first head coaching job in 1991 and hasn't given it back since.