The Best NFL Coaches of All Time
With the untimely death of Minnesota Vikings offensive line coach Tony Sparano over the weekend, we thought the best way to honor the coaching great was to take a look at some of the best coaches in the sport’s history. But first, a quick glance at the man who passed over the weekend at the age of only 56.
He began his career in the NCAA as an offensive line coach, eventually rising to the rank of head coach for the University of New Haven, during which time the team led the league in offense and was second in defensive production in Division II for 1997. He even led the squad to the championship that year, ultimately losing to the University of Northern Colorado.
In 1999 he joined the NFL, bouncing around from the Browns, Jaguars, and Washington before ending up in Dallas under Bill Parcells in 2003, where he thrived for a few seasons. In 2008, he took the head coaching position in Miami, becoming the first coach in history to turn a 1-15 team into a playoff team the following season with an 11-5 record.
After leaving the Dolphins, he joined the Jets, Raiders and 49ers, before coming on board with the Minnesota Vikings as offensive line coach. His tenure there saw the Vikings turn from an annual also-ran into a perennial contender, falling just short of becoming the first team to host a home Super Bowl. A fan and player favorite, Sparano will be fondly remembered by all those he crossed paths with.
In honor of Coach Sparano, here are the best coaches in NFL history.
Bill Walsh – San Francisco 49ers
Bill Walsh is an interesting case. Despite winning three Super Bowls and inventing the West Coast Offense, he rarely appears at the top of most lists. With a winning record of 102-63-1 over his career, and serving as the coaching forebear to most of the most productive leaders of the past 30 years, he deserves top five consideration on any list.
Vince Lombardi – Green Bay Packers
If Walsh invented the West Coast Offense, he was only enhancing the legacy left by Vince Lombardi. Lombardi was one of the first to take the position that would eventually become offensive coordinator way back in the 1940s, and he completely changed the way offensive lines do their jobs, inventing the idea of “rule blocking,” blocking an area rather than a player. His real greatness began later, however, when he joined the then struggling, both financially and competitively, Green Bay Packers.
He took the 1-10 -1 team and instituted heavy discipline, turning them into a winning squad the following season. He didn’t stop there, winning six NFL Championships, followed by the first two Super Bowls. His final record in the NFL was 96-34-6, and his playoff record was an astounding 9-1. Hey, there’s a reason they call it the Lombardi Trophy.
Bill Belichick – New England Patriots
Yeah yeah, we know, the guy is kind of a jerk. But he’s darn good at his job. He spent much of his early years revitalizing such teams as the Giants and the Jets, and even the Browns managed limited success under him — the Browns! But really, he didn’t gain legendary status until he joined up with the New England Patriots, taking the previously unknown and low-end quarterback Tom Brady and making him into one of the best QBs of all time. Belichick is known for his gruff demeanor, his overbearing approach, and his occasional forays into questionable tactics, but he has shown some serious results. He has five Super Bowl wins as head coach, two as defensive coordinator, and he boasts an overall record of 279-129. The scary thing is that the dude is still rolling, and with a winning record against every team in the league everybody should fear him.
Don Shula – Miami Dolphins
While some of the other coaches on this list have more Super Bowls than Shula, He has two records that seem untouchable. Having coached the only perfect season, including postseason, in 1972, he also has a mind-boggling 347 wins. You read that right. Homeboy dropped enough wins to fill more than 21 full seasons of 16 games each — and he did most of it when there were fewer games. His back-to-back Super Bowl wins in the 70s are still the gold standard by which all teams’ seasons are still judged, and he took five different quarterbacks to the big game, three of whom (Dan Marino, Johnny Unitas, and Bob Griese) he turned into Hall of Fame members. Needless to say, Shula is and likely will be the best coach in NFL history, unless somebody manages to topple his two most significant records.