In Tampa Bay, Bill Parcells could have had everything an NFL coach would ever want: as much authority in running his team as any coach in the league; as much money (an average salary of $1.3 million a year) as any coach has ever made; and the resources ($2.5 million a year) to assemble the best staff of assistants money could buy. Fantastic offer, he told Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse on Dec. 28, but I'm not comfortable with it.
In Green Bay, Parcells could have had everything an NFL coach would ever want: a huge salary; the chance to work closely with an old friend, the Packers' new director of football operations, Ron Wolf; five picks in the top 62 in the 1992 college draft; and the honorable challenge of chasing the legend of Vince Lombardi. Easy decision, right? Last Friday night Parcells told a stunned Wolf, Thanks, but no thanks.
'Tis the season to be jilted in the NFL—eight coaches have been fired or have resigned since the end of the regular season, another hangs by a thread, and Parcells, who stepped down as coach of the Super Bowl champion New York Giants last May 15, has turned his back on two of the most lucrative coaching opportunities in pro football history for reasons that, as of Monday, he still hadn't made clear.
Asked about his future employment as an NFL coach, Parcells said on Saturday, "I'm not ruling anything out." But it's a virtual certainty that every team with a vacancy sign hanging outside its coach's office has ruled him out this year. It seems Parcells will spend a second season with NBC as an analyst.
His decisions unsettled a leaguewide hiring process that otherwise was proceeding in an orderly fashion and set off the Parcells Domino Effect. Tampa Bay and Green Bay were back in the hunt and had their sights on men already considered leading candidates with other teams.
The epidemic of coaching changes, the biggest turnover in the league since 10 vacancies were filled before the 1978 season, has become a story that is being watched with almost as much interest as the NFL playoffs. But this is merely the culmination of a weird two years in the pro football coaching business. How tenuous is an NFL coach's job these days? Including the positions to be filled in the coming weeks, there will have been 21 new coaches hired since January 1990. When training camps open this summer, only six of the 28 NFL coaches will have been with their clubs longer than three seasons. And the AFC Central coach currently with the longest tenure is the Houston Oilers' Jack Pardee, who has been on the job 24 months.
"It's a much more treacherous job than it was when I came into the league," says San Diego linebacker Billy Ray Smith, who, with the hiring last week of Georgia Tech coach Bobby Ross, will have his fourth coach in his 10 seasons with the Chargers. "Ownership everywhere seems more demanding over the short term."
And beyond the demands of owners and general managers that coaches produce winners right away in this era of soaring expenses, the bosses more than ever want their coaches to be on the same page with them, to fit into the front office's economic and strategic approach to the game. A coach's past success and marquee value don't count as much as they used to. The courting of Parcells notwithstanding, fewer owners are willing to flag down a big name and turn over the reins to him carte blanche. Why, for example, has Buddy Ryan, who got fired a year ago after going 31-17 and making the playoffs in each of his last three seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, had a tough time getting back into the fraternity? He alienates people. "Not every successful team has perfect harmony," Smith says, "but it might give you a little edge."
And in today's NFL the slightest edge can lift a team out of the pack and into the playoffs. Within the last three weeks, these teams parted company with their coaches and went searching for that edge: Minnesota Vikings (Jerry Burns), Los Angeles Rams (John Robinson), Green Bay (Lindy Infante), San Diego (Dan Henning), Cincinnati Bengals (Sam Wyche), Pittsburgh Steelers (Chuck Noll), Tampa Bay (Richard Williamson) and Seattle Seahawks (Chuck Knox). Indianapolis has not fired interim coach Rick Venturi, who replaced the dismissed Ron Meyer five games into the season, but the Colts have been actively interviewing candidates.
The Parcells Domino Effect came too late to influence hiring decisions in Cincinnati and San Diego. With shocking swiftness—just 72 hours after Wyche's departure—Bengal general manager Mike Brown elevated Cincy receivers coach David Shula, the 32-year-old son of Miami Dolphin coach Don Shula, to the head job. To replace Henning, Charger general manager Bobby Beathard went after Ross, a coach he has long admired, immediately after Georgia Tech won the Aloha Bowl on Dec. 25. In addition, it had been expected that Seahawk president and general manager Tom Flores would return to the sidelines for the first time since he resigned as coach of the L.A. Raiders after the 1987 season. He was named Seattle's coach on Monday. And Pittsburgh similarly appears unaffected by Parcells's decisions, in that the Steelers, a team that likes to go its own way, are leaning toward low-profile defensive coordinators Bill Cowher of the Kansas City Chiefs and Dave Wannstedt of the Dallas Cowboys.
But for the Bucs, Packers, Colts, Vikings and Rams, all of whom entered this week in deep conversations with a multitude of prospects, Parcells's decisions had a rippling effect. The most coveted individual was San Francisco 49er offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren, 43, who is esteemed for his innovative offensive mind and his rapport with players. As of Monday he had been or was scheduled to be interviewed by all five of those teams, plus the Steelers. "I never thought I was in competition with Bill," Holmgren says. "I haven't been a head coach in this league. But if a coach like Bill Parcells is out of the equation, then there's a few more of us who can enter the equation."
Other elements of the equation:
•Tampa Bay has turned into a pit stop for unemployed former head coaches Infante, Robinson, Ryan and Wyche. They've all been either interviewed or contacted, as have Holmgren and Buc defensive coordinator Floyd Peters.
•Green Bay's new depth chart is topped by Holmgren, followed by Knox.
•Indianapolis general manager Jim Irsay badly wants Holmgren to become quarterback Jeff George's mentor, but now he's in a real fight for Holmgren. Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Ted Marchibroda is the only other serious candidate.
•While Los Angeles and Minnesota both have Holmgren on their short lists, they will probably settle on veteran guys—the Rams on Knox and the Vikings on Louisville coach Howard Schnellenberger.
The Parcells Domino Effect may be felt even by his old team, the Giants, whose coach, Ray Handley, has vowed to remake the club in his own image. Will Handley retain the New York assistants who were thought to be ready to join Parcells in Tampa or Green Bay—Romeo Crennell, Ron Erhardt, Al Groh, Johnny Parker and Mike Sweatman—or will he handpick a new staff?
However the various scenarios play out, it is unlikely that another team will pull a surprise as big as the one in Cincinnati, where Brown is being bombarded with charges that the Bengal front office is too cheap and power-hungry to chase a coach with proven credentials. "It's bizarre," Buffalo assistant general manager Bob Ferguson says. "Shula's very smart and very sharp, and he might do a great job. But I thought it was very unfair to the coaches out there who've proven themselves and who've paid their dues."
Besides being criticized for his age, Shula has been rapped for supposedly having gotten the job because he was born with a silver coaching spoon in his mouth. Shula's father brought him onto the Dolphins' staff as receivers coach in 1982, when David was 23. But the word in Miami was that he couldn't win the respect of some of the wideouts and that later, as quarterback coach, he struggled to bond with Dan Marino.
In December 1985, Eagle owner Norman Braman was heavily criticized when word got out that he was preparing to offer his team's head job to the then 26-year-old Shula. Braman backed away and hired Ryan. By '88, Shula was Miami's assistant head coach. He struck out on his own when he went to Dallas as offensive coordinator in '89. However, he was demoted to Dallas's quarterback coach in '90, replacing Jerry Rhome at that position—a move that upset quarterback Troy Aikman, who liked Rhome. Shula was slated to be the Cowboys' passing game coordinator in '91, but he moved on to the Bengals' staff.
"It's easy for people to criticize the choice," says Brown, who like Shula is a Dartmouth grad, thoughtful and stolid. "But none of that detracts one whit from that fact that he's a good young coach. He's smart, he's forceful, he's someone who's swept up in his football career."
Shula realizes he faces skeptics in his league, his city and, probably, in his locker room. "It's a gutty decision by Mike Brown," he said last Saturday in the midst of assembling his new defensive coaching staff. "I haven't had the experience. I'm not a proven guy. There's nothing I can do about being Don Shula's son and being the age I am. I go by an old Paul Brown phrase: You only worry about the things you can control."
Whatever one might say about Shula, at least the Bengals, unlike so many other NFL teams, have a coach.