It’s not always a bad or good thing when a child follows in their parent’s footsteps career-wise, but it’s not an uncommon thing. All over America and for all different reasons, sons and daughters follow their parents into the same profession. Everywhere that is, except the NFL.
By my unscientific count, there have been exactly four father/son combos that can proudly proclaim that each man had made it to the mountain top and served as an NFL head coach.
The four families (that sounds vaguely like a mob reference, right?) are the Shulas, the Moras, the Nolans and the Phillips. Each man and each family had a different story and differing rates of success.
Here’s how Full Contact ranks them on their COMBINED body of work from worst to first:
#4 – THE NOLANS – Dick (Dad) and Mike (Son)
Three Division titles total. All from Dick’s San Francisco tenure (68-75). Dick Nolan was about a .500 coach for San Fran, but he did manage to capture 3 straight division crowns. After that, he had three straight losing seasons and was let go. Next stop for Dick was New Orleans in 1978, which of course is a death sentence for any coach. And actually, in context Dick did pretty well, going 7-9 and then 8-8 in his second year (which must have been a minor miracle). Unfortunately, in Nolan’s third year, the Saints got off to an 0-12 start and Dick Nolan was finished as a head coach. Interesting side note, Nolan was a master of the tie game. During his eight years in SF, his teams tied FIVE times. Tying that much, even Donovan McNabb would know the overtime rules!
Mike Nolan has the unique pleasure of actually having coached the same NFL team as his dad. Not only that, but Nolan, coached San Francisco in a suit much like the coaches of his dads’ generation did. Unfortunately for Mike Nolan, his three and a half years with the Niners much more closely resembled his Dad’s last three years in Frisco rather than Dick’s glory days. Mike finished with nothing but losing records and a .327 winning percentage. In fairness to Mike Nolan, he is still young and he may yet coach again in the NFL as a top man. If he does, perhaps he can improve the Nolans standing on this list.
#3 THE PHILLIPS – Bum (Dad) and Wade (Son)
Two Division titles. One by Bum and one from Wade. Both coached multiple teams and both sport over .500 records during their combined TWENTY years in the head spot (yes, I know two of those years Wade was a head coach for only a few games on an interim basis).
Bum Phillips was a charismatic character who in the late ’70s built his Houston Oilers into a serious threat to Chuck Noll’s Steeler Dynasty. The Oilers never quite managed to “kick the door down” as Phillips insisted they would, but they did have good success. The Oilers won 10 or more games in four of Phillips’ six years in Houston with only one losing season. In ’78 and ’79, they won two playoff games each year before ultimately being booted from the tournament. Plus, the Oilers had Earl Campbell and Phillips has to get some points for that alone. I’ve never enjoyed watching anyone else run as much as Campbell.
Anyway, in ’81, Bum Phillips left Houston after ’80’s 11 win campaign, to take over… New Orleans. I think you know how the rest of this story goes. After two four win seasons, Phillips got the Saints to mediocrity by going 8-8 in ’83 and 7-9 in ’84. But, it didn’t last. In ’85, Phillips left with the Saints at 4-8. He too, like Dick Nolan, never coached in the NFL again after handling the ‘Aints. It’s a pity cause the guy could coach. He won at a .611 clip in Houston and still managed to end his career about .500 (82-77) despite coaching the Saints.
While it took his dad some time to get his first top job, Wade got his first opportunity at a much younger age and it was courtesy of his father. He went 1-3 in 1985 finishing up for Bum in New Orleans. Wade’s first real opportunity wouldn’t come around until ’97 in Denver. A respected coordinator, the move to the top spot was a bit bumpy, but he did manage to go .500 in his two seasons in Denver. In, ’98, Wade took over in Buffalo and went 10-6. He followed that up with an 11-5 campaign the next year. In 2000, he went 8-8 and was gone. Not a bad run, but he’s probably still most remembered in Buffalo for needlessly pulling a successful Doug Flutie out of the starting QB role come playoff time for Rob Johnson, who flopped. In ’03, Wade was the interim guy again in Atlanta and went 2-1. Then, came Dallas and we all know how that’s working out. His great first regular season (13-3) in ’07 ended in crushing playoff underachievement. And this past season, the Cowboys who were favored by many to reach the Super Bowl, went 9-7 and didn’t even make the playoffs. Yet, Jerry Jones still has back.
Our conclusion? Dad was the real deal, he just shouldn’t have gone to New Orleans. Wade? He’s a great coordinator, but no more. No matter what Jerry Jones thinks…
#2 – THE SHULAS – Don (Dad) and David (Son)
This one was the pick that was toughest for us. Clearly, by the numbers, the Shulas own this competition. There’s back to back Super Bowl Championships. A perfect season. Several other Super Bowl appearances and about a gazillion wins and division titles. But remember this was about the best father/son combo. We’re looking for a father and son team who both could coach.
Don Shula is clearly the most accomplished head coach on this list. He had success in both his stops – Baltimore and Miami. He got his first shot at the young age of 33 and made the most of the opportunity to coach the Colts from 1963-69. He went 11-1 in ’67 and ’68 saw him go 13-1 before losing Super Bowl III to Joe Willie and the Boys. In Miami, it only got better. The Fins were AFC Champs three years running from ’71-73 including those two back to back Super Bowl titles. Shula coached for 33 years, 26 of them with the Dolphins. He won over 300 games. Won at a .678 clip for his career (surprisingly he was more successful in Baltimore at .725 versus .659 during his longer stint in Miami).
It’s fair to say that Don Shula’s last ten years in Miami where his most mediocre despite the presence of one Dan Marino. It’s perhaps even fairer to point out that at the height of his relative mediocrity, three of Shula’s last ten teams won ten or more games.
Speaking of mediocrity, some hate to fall to that level while others curse that they never managed to attain it. Such is the case with Don’s son David. Like his father, David Shula got his first coaching job at a really early age. Unlike his father, David was clearly not ready. In five years in Cincinnati (92-96), David Shula’s teams went 5-11, 3-13, another 3-13 and then jumped up to 7-9. In his last year, the Bengals started out 1-6 and that was the final nail in the coffin. David Shula never got another shot. My guess is that he never will. The only defense I can give is that Cincinnati in the early 90s was probably as bad for your coaching career as New Orleans was in the 70s and 80s.
Don Shula is one of the great coaches of all time. David Shula, well…. He probably got his first shot too young cause of his family name and was also put into an losing situation in Cincy. No one was going to win in that town with those teams. But that all taken into consideration, the Shulas must go down as the second best father/son duo. David simply did not do enough to merit ranking them number one despite all of his father’s achievements.
So who’s # 1? How about these guys!
#1 THE MORAS – Jim (Dad) and Jim (Son)
Four Division titles. Jim Mora (the Dad) is probably most remembered for his classic line “playoffs?! You’re talking about playoffs?!” that is nicely re-purposed for comedic effect in a current beer commercial. But, Dad Mora could flat out coach. Sure, he had a tendency to overload himself and implode which resulted in self-inflicted wounds to his career, but the guy was a winner (at least in the regular season). AND, he won in places where people just didn’t win.
Going through this post, New Orleans has come up several times as a coaches grave yard. Jim Mora WON in New Orleans. He did so at a .557 rate no less. In Mora’s ten plus years with the Saints, his teams routinely made the playoffs. In fact, by the early ’90s, some viewed the Saints as likely Super Bowl material. This was astounding stuff. No one had ever had that much success in the Big Easy. Mora lead squads won 10 or more games four times between ’87 and ’92. The Saints were actually a force in the NFL. After ’92, the Saints got decidedly mediocre until a 2-6 start in ’96 and Mora’s unbalanced reaction got him removed.
In 1998, Jim Mora took over the Colts and went 3-13. In year two, Indy went 13-3 and won their division. In 2000, Indy went 10-6. They followed that up with a 6-10 season and that was it for Mora’s head coaching career. (Check out the pattern of Mora’s Indy W-L record, it’s oddly dyslexic from year to year: 3-13, 13-3, 10-6, 6-10). He finished up with 125 victories at a .541 winning percentage when you factor in his time in Indy.
Of the sons, Jim Mora is tied with Wade Phillips for the most divison titles: ONE. Jim Mora (the son) took over the Falcons in 2004, another franchise that destroys good coaches, and surprised everyone by going 11-5 and winning their division. That’s as good as it got, year two was 8-8, and 2006 was worse at 7-9. Then, Mora made some noise about other coaching jobs he’d be interested in and Arthur Blank let him go for the very wise choice of Bobby Petrino. Then, Michael Vick, went to jail and the whole think collapsed. (Shockingly the Falcons have recovered very quickly from all this).
Anyway, back to Jim Mora the son. Many people felt he got kind of a raw deal and that he was actually a quality coach. Apparently, the folks in Seattle felt that way and named him the Seahawks coach in waiting. Now that Holmgren is gone, we’ll find out what Jim Mora can do in his second stint at the top. For the sake of the Mora family honor, let’s hope he keeps them at the top of this list…
Hope you enjoyed this post and would LOVE your comments on our rankings!