The path to becoming a head coach in the NFL is rarely a straight path. This makes it all the more impressive that Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay managed to get there at the ripe old age of 30 years old.
The 2019 Super Bowl exemplified how unique — if not unprecedented — a young head coach is. There, McVay butted heads with New England Patriots legend Bill Belichick. The gap between the two was nearly as old as McVay himself.
McVay lost that game. But his career achievements are nonetheless impressive. Let’s take a closer look at what it’s like to be a member of the very small club of NFL coaches under 40.
How Sean McVay became the youngest head coach in the modern NFL
First things first: We have to name-check the guy who did it before McVay did. According to West Virginia University, Art “Pappy” Lewis became the interim head coach of the Rams — the Cleveland version — back in 1938. He went 4-4, including beating the then-fearsome Chicago Bears twice.
When McVay ascended to the Rams’ top coaching spot in 2017, the context of the modern game was very different. Most head coaches have winding careers jumping from title to title. McVay did the same, just on a compressed timeline.
His leg up came from his family’s history. Sean’s grandfather John McVay coached the New York Giants for a time before becoming a major front-office presence with the San Francisco 49ers. Sean’s granddad passed down a great deal of knowledge, crucial for fast-tracking his grandson’s career.
Sean impressed then-Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden, who hired him as an assistant. Not the coaching kind but the coffee run kind. From there, Sean worked his way up to assistant tight end coach under Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan. Shanahan took McVay under his wing, accelerating his development further.
By 2014, McVay landed the offensive coordinator job with Shanahan’s Redskins. His outsized performance there earned him an interview with the Rams in 2017. By 2019, McVay’s Rams were in the Super Bowl.
How the oldest active head coach matched up with McVay
The 2019 Super Bowl saw two age-related twists. With the Patriots, 66-year-old head coach Bill Belichick and 41-year-old QB Tom Brady took on relative newcomers in their respective roles.
On the opposing Rams, 33-year-old Sean was exactly half of Belichick’s age. Rams quarterback Jared Goff, at 24 years old, puts him at just seven years old when Brady made his first run at the Super Bowl in 2002.
Offensive-minded Sean did not fare well against Belichick. To his credit, the Rams held the Patriots to just 13 points. Unfortunately, the Rams offense failed to score a single touchdown, ending the near-stalemate with just three points.
Young head coaches aren’t unprecedented
Lewis was the first exceedingly young head coach in the NFL, and he remains the youngest of all time. But young leaders have coached here and there in the modern era of the game, too.
Lane Kiffin was 31 years old when the Oakland Raiders hired him for the 2007 season. Kiffin quickly went from hyped wunderkind to bust, finding himself out of the NFL by 2008. His pro football record stands at 5-15. The bulk of his career to date is at the college level, where he has a far better looking 61-34 record.
Raheem Morris, at 32, held on a bit longer with his Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He had a disastrous 0-7 start in 2009. By the time he lost the job in 2011, his regular-season NFL record was 17-31. Today he serves as assistant head coach with the Atlanta Falcons.
Those two examples are somewhat cautionary. Now joined by McVay, Mike Tomlin proves that young coaches can get teams to Super Bowls. He managed it at 36 years old — and Tomlin won his. His .645 win percentage likely explains why he’s held onto his job with the Steelers since he was 34, back in 2007.