A pinch of tobacco bumping his bottom lip, Browns head coach Eric Mangini makes players stand and answer questions during team meetings. Which training facility wall is decorated with a quotation from Sun Tzu? What's our long snapper's name and number? How long has Jeff Fisher coached the Tennessee Titans? Answer correctly and—well, you'd better answer correctly.
This is an article from the Oct. 19, 2009 issue
Just when you thought NFL coaches couldn't get any less likable, a crop of young know-it-alls is taking the league by scowl. In Denver, 33-year-old Josh McDaniels made rookies report to training camp at 5:30 a.m. to practice comedy skits. In Kansas City, Todd Haley, 42, started an argument with a Pro Bowl lineman who had flown in to introduce himself. Mangini, 38, made headlines after asking rookies to take a 10-hour bus ride to work at his summer football camp and, last month, fining a player $1,701 for failing to pay for a $3 bottle of water from a hotel minibar.
Mangini, McDaniels and Haley aren't the first coaches to believe that intimidation, humiliation and a hail of f bombs are the secrets to NFL success. But in a Gen Y league in the age of Obama, vein-popping outbursts and foot-high motivational tropes seem eye-rollingly old school. Players and fans born in the last half century might be tempted to ask a question of their own: Why are these guys such jerks?
The gridiron tyrant has been a stock character for generations. The game's militaristic nature, the thinking goes, demands an ironfisted leader—a field general! In the popular imagination Green Bay legend Vince Lombardi was the founding bully. But although Lombardi had a temper and an ego, "He also had a strong sense of team as family," says David Maraniss, author of the biography When Pride Still Mattered. "He was not afraid to use the word love, and he used it a lot." Today's distant, playbook-obsessed workaholic, Marannis says, flows more directly from Lombardi's fellow 1950s New York Giants assistant Tom Landry, who would win two Super Bowls in Dallas.
The dominant theory is that coaches don't fall far from the tree. So descendants of the late Bill Walsh (Fisher, Tony Dungy) tend to be calm and deliberate. Descendants of Bill Parcells (Haley, Mangini) are punishing and condescending. Descendants of Bill Belichick (McDaniels, Mangini again) are known as secretive and unsmiling. The younger the coach, the more likely he is to emulate his mentor shout for shout, hoodie for hoodie. "These guys have not had time to form a philosophy, so they have to lean on somebody else's," retired coach Dick Vermeil says.
Consider McDaniels, who apprenticed for eight seasons under Belichick. After arriving in Denver, McDaniels alienated—and traded—a Pro Bowl quarterback and cut veterans without even the courtesy of a face-to-face meeting. He replaced efficient operations installed over 14 years by two-time Super Bowl winner Mike Shanahan—an autocrat but no malicious despot—with those he learned from his old boss. He even scrapped a brand-new, $450,000 video system because it wasn't what New England used. Some Broncos employees joke privately that the team should be renamed the Denver Patriots.
Belichick can operate his way—behind closed doors and with a sour public puss—because he has three Super Bowl rings and leaguewide intellectual cachet. McDaniels doesn't. So why not start with a more humble approach? The Psych 101 answer is that new coaches want to appear bold and tough. So Kansas City's Haley explodes in profanity at players. McDaniels berates players and, like Mangini, gives pop quizzes. The idea: Fear and shame produce motivation and improvement. Does it work? "It just makes players miserable," one NFL veteran says.
Bob Mayer, a former Green Beret who writes books about leadership, says coaches get military authority backward, viewing players as infantrymen—interchangeable and replaceable—rather than as Special Forces elites. Mayer says coaches typically demand respect as a condition of employment. Instead, they should award respect up front and challenge players not to lose it. "A lot of these younger coaches are operating off a World War II mind-set," Mayer says. "They're about 60 years out of date."
The system is partly to blame. As they climb the NFL ladder, coaches spend thousands of hours deconstructing video and diagramming plays. They become football experts. But they don't learn how to manage people or navigate the many issues and characters that beg for a head coach's attention. Turf, video, equipment, training, medical and travel operations. Salary caps and contract negotiations. The media onslaught and public relations. A racially, socially and economically diverse workforce. A chief financial officer. A billionaire owner. "A lot of assistant coaches, the only time they deal with the front office is to get their paycheck and make sure their insurance is up to date," says Ted Sundquist, a former Broncos G.M. "The system doesn't create leaders."
Of course, coaches sometimes succeed anyway. Mangini is vilified in Cleveland, but he was Mangenius when he led the Jets to the playoffs in 2006. After a hot start in Denver—including a 20--17 Grumpy Bowl victory over Belichick on Sunday—McDaniels has morphed from arrogant kid to wunderkind. Regardless of record, though, the ends don't necessarily justify the means. The Broncos might be 5--0 even if the coach treated his underlings more humanely. And the Browns might not be 1--4.
Stefan Fatsis wrote A Few Seconds of Panic, in paperback now.
Now on SI.com
Get Hot Clicks, the latest links and videos from around the web, at SI.com/bonus