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New head coaches learn every step of the way

by | The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com
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By his count, Ron Rivera interviewed for head coach jobs with eight different teams before landing the Carolina Panthers' gig two months ago.

"Most of those [interviews] came after 2006 and the Super Bowl," said Rivera, the defensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears' team that lost to Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLI. "I guess I was kind of the so-called 'hot guy' back then. And then the calls pretty much slowed down for a while, and you wondered, 'Wow, is this ever going to happen?' But you just keep working hard, and doing things the way you do them ... and, when your time comes, you believe it's going to work."

Speaking last week in New Orleans at the annual head coaches' breakfast that is one of the most popular components of the league's annual meetings, Rivera is a prime example that one can, indeed, make an impressive second impression.

Or third, or fourth, or even fifth.

Assuming there is a 2011 season, eight teams will have head coaches other than the ones who opened 2010. Seven of the eight will have men who are beginning their first full seasons as head coaches in the league. Two of those, Jason Garrett of Dallas and Minnesota's Leslie Frazier, actually inherited their respective franchises last season in interim roles, and subsequently were rewarded the jobs full-time.

But if the league has clearly "greened up" in recent seasons -- over the past five firing-and-hiring cycles, 32 of the 43 head coach vacancies have gone to men who were first-time head coaches in the league -- it's not as if the NFL is being run from the sidelines by a callow bunch of rookies.

Said Frazier: "Most of us have been around for a while."

Respected for his work as a defensive coordinator for two teams before he was hired in the same capacity at Minnesota in 2007, and before that as a heady player who shared time with Rivera on the Chicago roster, Frazier interviewed for at least three head coach spots in recent years. Garrett rejected two previous head-coaching offers to stay with the Cowboys as offensive coordinator, and then supplanted Wade Phillips in-season in '10. San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh played 14 seasons in the NFL, was an assistant at Oakland 2002-03, and earned one a Pro Bowl berth.

Of the seven first-time head coaches for 2011, at least four of them were candidates twice previously.

"We're not talking about any 'Johnny-come-lately' guys here," said John Fox of the Denver Broncos, the lone man with previous NFL head coach experience to fill one of the league's eight vacancies for 2011. "Everybody pays their dues. It isn't really a 'who do you know?' kind of league, you know?"

Sometimes it isn't even a "what have you done for me?" league as much as it is one constructed around the perceptions of what a coach can do in the future. And often, as Rivera noted, those perceptions can change, then change back again.

From a coaching standpoint, said Rivera, the defensive coordinator at San Diego the past three seasons, after being inexplicably dismissed following the '06 Super Bowl season in Chicago, a guy doesn't change. Nor do his core values, he said. What might change is the manner in which a man interviews, presents himself, emphasizes his strengths and positives.

That was the consensus of the other first-time head coaches, as well, during last week's breakfast with the assembled media.

"You're not trying to fool anybody, but you do learn something every time you interview for a job," said Hue Jackson of Oakland. "You make it into a learning experience, whether you get [the job] or not ... and you make sure that you take something positive away from it. Eventually, you hope it [resonates]."

There are a lot of reasons, as noted in past The Sports Xchange columns on the subject of the approach to "fresher" head coaches in the league, to explain the recent trend toward hiring first-time sideline bosses.

It would be naive to suggest finances didn't play some part in a league where average salaries for head coaches have been dramatically reduced in recent seasons, with pricey, experienced guys like Bill Cowher, John Gruden, Brian Billick, Herm Edwards, and others, sitting (not standing) on the sidelines. Certainly the successes of men such as Atlanta's Mike Smith or John Harbaugh of Baltimore and two-time Super Bowl coach Mike Tomlin, has been a factor.

And as one owner last week pointed out, fans in some cities have become both weary from and wary of the league's onetime good ol' boy network.

Even Fox characterized himself as a "retread," a term this columnist tried mightily to avoid with the Broncos' new, old coach.

"No matter how many times you've made the trip," Fox said, "sometimes it's still hard to find your way home."

The new guys have knocked on a lot of front doors with different addresses. And for many of them, someone finally answered. Hopefully, it doesn't mean they won't know how to act now that they've been granted entry.

"It's not like we just started planning for this, like, yesterday," said Pat Shurmur of Cleveland. "Just because we're 'new' head coaches, doesn't mean that we're new coaches, you know?"

Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange.

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