NFL: The 10 Head Coaches Who Made It the Longest

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The job of an NFL head coach is fraught with anxiety and little, if any job security. You’re rewarded if the team does well, but you’re the first to fall if the team loses a step. There are few professions that have an entire calendar day devoted exclusively to the firing of one position, but the NFL’s Black Monday — the first Monday after the final week of the regular season — is so widely known and anticipated as the day the coach gets canned that the New York Jets made headlines in 2014 by leaking the fact that they weren’t going to fire head coach Rex Ryan (of course, they rectified that decision a year later).

Of the 473 head coaches in NFL history, just over 50 have lasted for more than 10 seasons. John Madden didn’t do it. Vince Lombardi didn’t do it. Guy Chamberlain, the winningest coach of all time (78.4 percent winning percentage) only coached for 6 years. It’s a demanding, stressful gig that burns most coaches out very quickly, even if they’re leading teams to victory.

The ten longest lasting NFL head coaches don’t feature some of the expected names. Bill Bellichick’s not here. Neither is Mike Shanahan, Jeff Fischer, or Tom Coughlin. For those few coaches who can make the job work, they lock in for a long time. A really, really, long time.

10. [tie] Marty Schottenheimer, Jeff Fischer, Bill Belichick — 21 years

Seasons Active: 1984 – 2006 (Schottenheimer), 1991-2015 (Belichick), 1994-2015 (Fischer)

Fun fact: Marty Schottenheimer has the most wins of any NFL coach to never make it to the Super Bowl. How many wins does he have? A staggering 200, even more impressive considering his loss total — a mere 126.  It’s a shame he’ll eventually get displaced by Belichick and Fischer, assuming those two make it to the 2016 season.

Drafted as a linebacker in 1965 in both the NFL and the AFL (for the Baltimore Colts and the Buffalo Bills, respectively), Schottenheimer took his first head coaching gig with the Cleveland Browns in 1984, promptly leading them to a .500 record. In fact, Coach Marty wouldn’t do any worse with the Browns, finishing 44-27 with the franchise.

The Coach then bailed for the greener pastures promised by the Kansas City Chiefs, whereupon Schottenheimer continued to win. In his first 14 years as a head coach, Marty only finished under .500 once; in 1998, going 7-9. He promptly retired for a season, coming back to coach the Washington Redskins in 2001 and, later, the San Diego Chargers.

9. Chuck Knox — 22 years

Seasons Active: 1973 – 1994

“You know me, I’ve been winning Pro Football games for years.” That’s how Chuck Knox’s talk show promo starts off, and he’s not wrong. Of his 22 straight years of coaching and a career win loss of 186-147, Knox was winning, and he was doing it for years.

Starting off with the Los Angeles Rams (now based in St. Louis), Knox lasted there for five seasons, going 12-2, 10-4, 12-2, 10-3-1, and 10-4 before moving on to the Buffalo Bills where he labored under .500 for two seasons before righting the ship for an additional three. Then, as the coach of a winning Seattle Seahawks team in the ’80s and ’90s, Knox became the first NFL head coach to win division titles with three different teams.

Coming full circle, Knox would leave the Seahawks for the Los Angeles Rams, spending three largely forgettable seasons with the team that had starting his coaching journey. Even with those dismal seasons on the books, Coach Knox would finish his tenure with Los Angeles a winner, going 37-36 with the team and retiring the season before the franchise moved to St. Louis.

8. [tie] Dan Reeves, Chuck Noll, & Steve Owen — 23 years

Seasons Active: 1981 – 2003 (Reeves), ’69 – ’91 (Noll), & ’31 – ’53 (Owen)

Dan Reeves holds the NFL record for most Super Bowls participated in, factoring together his playing years, assistant coaching years, and head coaching years — per his biography, that would be “five with the Dallas Cowboys, three with Denver, and one with Atlanta.” Starting his head coaching off with the Broncos in 1981, Reeves would helm the John Elway offense that went 0-3 in the Super Bowl during the ’80s before moving to the New York Giants and later the Atlanta Falcons with no breaks in between.

Chuck Noll, by contrast, spent his entire career with the Pittsburg Steelers, from 1969 to 1991. That is, as they say, a very long time. Noll, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame  in 1993, finished his career with 4 Super Bowl Wins — the most out of any head coach in the history of the NFL. His lifetime regular season record as a head coach was 193-148-1. The tie occured in 1974.

Steve Owen, like Noll, spent his entire career with one club, the New York Giants. Or, rather, Noll was like Owen, since Owen coached the club from ’31 – ’53 and predates Chuck Noll’s NFL career by 38 years. A two-time Super Bowl Champion, Coach Steve innovated the “A Formation,” which innovated football’s offense throughout the ’30s and the ’40s, although it has been largely abandoned today.

5. Paul Brown — 25 years

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Seasons Active: 1946 – 1975

Back in the day, the Cleveland Browns were a good football team. Really. In the days of yore, the real yore, back in the post-WWII era when Paul Brown was the coach. In Brown’s first six seasons, Cleveland lost 7 games. Total.

Largely credited as the first coach to use game film to scout opposing teams, Brown was at the forefront of the NFL, crafting the modern football  face mask, as well as being the first coach to hire assistants. Under his watch, the Browns won four AAFC Championships (that’s the All-American Football Conference) and three NFL Championships. A lifetime record of 213-104-9 and a Hall of Fame residency speak to Brown’s expertise.

After taking a six year break from 1962, Brown joined up with the Cincinnati Bengals in 1968, although he was unable to replicate his earlier success with Cleveland, which is the first time anyone has ever written that sentence.

4. Tom Landry — 29 years

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Seasons Active: 1960 – 1988

What’s the big deal about Tom Landry? Well, aside from his dedication to the Dallas Cowboys (he spent his entire career, all 29 years, with the Dallas club from age 36 to age 64), he invented the 4-3 offense. That’s pretty big, considering that it’s one of the two most popular defenses in the NFL — the other being the 3-4.

Landry’s 29 years with Dallas is its own NFL record, the longest a team had kept a head coach (or vice versa), and the fact that his contributions to the franchise ran all the way back to it’s inception in 1960, made his abrupt dismissal by new owner Jerry Jones at the end of the ’88 season turn some fans off of the team. Here’s a 1976 short film depicting Landry’s time with the Cowboys. It’s kind of hilarious, and kind of awesome.

3. [tie] Curly Lambeau & Don Shula — 33 years

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Seasons Active: 1921 – 1953 (Lambeau), ’63 – ’95 (Shula)

Curly Lambeau founded the Green Bay Packers. Don Shula is the most recognizable coach in Miami Dolphins history. From humid South Beach to the icy tundra of Wisconsin, it would be hard to find a pair of more divergent coaches. Shula coached through the tumultuous ’60s and the neon ’80s, while Lambeau oversaw his Packers through a pair of World Wars. Shula is the winningest coach of all time, and Lambeau is not. Don is Don Shula’s real first name. Curly is not — that would be Earl.

Lambeau founded the Green Bay Packers, then called the Indian Packers (Curly was working as a shipping clerk for the Indian Packing Company) in 1919, the team would join the NFL in 1921. Lambeau was one of only two players on this list to be the coach as well as a player, suiting up as a halfback for the first ten years of the team’s existence while also acting as the coach (and the owner.)

Shula, in addition to being the most successful coach in terms of bringing in the W’s, also holds a pair of disparate NFL records; he holds the record for scoring the least number of points in a Super Bowl game (3, in Super Bowl VI) one year before winning Super Bowl VII and completing the NFL’s only perfect season in the process.

1. George Halas — 40 years

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Seasons Active: 1920 – 1967

At the top of the mountain is George Halas, the man who coached for 40 years (also the man for whom that trophy above is named). Although he didn’t coach them all straight through, Halas was a professional head coach of a football team from the age of 25 to the age of 72. Guh.

Starting off with the Decatur Staleys — later the controversial Chicago Staleys, and later still the Chicago Bears — in 1920, Halas coached, played, and owned the team for the first ten years, when he retired as a player and, temporarily, as a coach to focus on being an NFL owner in 1929. He would be back coaching by 1933, and after another short break from ’42-’46, Halas would coach all the way through until 1967 (minus a short break in ’55 – ’58.)

Here’s a great, short documentary on Halas and his contributions to the juggernaut that the NFL has become.

All data drawn from Pro Football Reference