The 10 Greatest Coaches in the History of Football

By Howie Long, John Czarnecki

Most of the following men were innovators, and all of them were winners. Everyone speaks of playing hard, win or lose. But a football coach is special when he molds 30 to 50 men into a championship team. All these men are champions. And many of these great coaches are connected to one another.

Paul Brown

This man turned football into a science class back in the late 1940s. He graded every player’s performance from game film and sent plays in from the bench. Players were turned off by his classroom approach. However, his revolutionary approach to practice sessions and his demands that players take notes and carry playbooks became commonplace and have remained so for decades, from high school ball to the NFL.

In 1956, Brown wired his quarterback’s helmet in order to transmit instructions. Nearly 60 years later, the NFL allows every team to do so (although those transmitters don’t always work).

The Cleveland Browns are the only team named after a head coach — which proves just how talented Paul Brown was. The Cincinnati Bengals’ Paul Brown Stadium is named after Brown as well. After winning a national championship at Ohio State and coaching Washington High School in Massillon, Ohio, to six consecutive state championships, Brown was paid the princely sum of $20,000 to coach and build a professional team, called the Cleveland Browns, in 1945.

Brown eventually left Cleveland, retiring with a 115–49–5 NFL record. He returned to football in 1968 as the owner and coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, an expansion team.

Joe Gibbs

Although the Raiders beat his Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII, Joe Gibbs always had his team ready to play and exploit weaknesses. His teams always played hard; they were physical as well as daring, and they played together as a team.

Players say that Gibbs was strict but fair. The biggest testament to his abilities is that he won three Super Bowls — and that he won with three different quarterbacks. He didn’t need many stars or dominant players to win. He knew how to build on his players’ strengths and minimize their weaknesses.

Gibbs, who won 17 of 24 playoff games, was a tireless worker and often worked 20-hour days.

George Halas

George Halas is a real old-timer, the father of pro football. When you think of Chicago, the city of broad shoulders, you immediately think of bigger-than-life men like Mayor Richard J. Daley, Al Capone, and “Papa Bear” Halas. I can’t think of another large American city that has a bigger connection with a football team than Chicago, and it’s all due to George Halas.

Halas was associated with the Bears from the team’s inception until his death in 1983. He stepped away from coaching three times, and each time a rejuvenated Halas returned to lead Chicago to an NFL championship. Until Don Shula broke his record, Halas was the number one coach with 324 pro football victories.

Jimmy Johnson

Jimmy Johnson, like Bill Walsh, is a super builder and talent evaluator who also happens to be a great football coach. Nothing ever slips by this man. In his first stint as head coach in the NFL, he totally rebuilt the Dallas Cowboys when that great franchise was on the decline back in 1989. He won two Super Bowls with young, drafted talent (free agency didn’t exist in the NFL when he started).

When he left Dallas, the Cowboys were the most talented team in the NFL. Their second-team players could have been starters on other teams — and eventually that’s what happened. When free agency began in 1993, Dallas wasn’t able to keep all its players, especially the talented reserves.

Vince Lombardi

When pro football first started to become popular on television in the 1960s, Vince Lombardi was in the process of transforming tiny Green Bay, Wisconsin, into the biggest franchise in the NFL. The Packers were as popular as baseball’s Yankees; they were a national team. And Lombardi was the game’s most recognized coach. The Packers appealed to many blue-collar fans because they’re owned by the Wisconsin fans and not by some giant corporation.

Over a seven-year period, the Packers won five championships, including the first two Super Bowls. The only championship game Lombardi lost was his first, 17–13 to the Philadelphia Eagles in 1960.

Lombardi, like George Halas, is one of the game’s legendary heroes, and the Super Bowl trophy honors his accomplishments. After trying his hand at management with the Packers, Lombardi returned to coaching with the Washington Redskins in 1969. He led them to their first winning season in 14 years only to die of cancer the following year at age 57.

John Madden

For nearly 30 years, John Madden was a TV football analyst, but before he became a television star and commercial pitchman, he was one of the game’s best coaches.

Like a lot of famous coaches, Madden began his coaching career at the very bottom, with a small junior college team in rural California. Eventually, Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis hired Madden as an assistant and two years later elevated him to head coach. Madden, only 32, became the youngest head coach in the American Football League.

Madden coached for only ten years, but he won 100 games faster than any other NFL coach at that time and led the Raiders over Minnesota to win Super Bowl XI. He walked away from the game on top, after the 1978 season, at the age of 42. Many coaches don’t even earn their first head-coaching position until they’re older than that!

Bill Parcells

Bill Parcells greatest strength was his talent to relate to his players and figure out the best approach to use their skills and turn them into a winning team. Parcells was a defensive coach, so his focus was on that side of the ball.

Parcells coached the New York Giants to Super Bowl victories in 1987 and 1991. He retired after the second Super Bowl, but returned in 1993 to coach the New England Patriots to the Super Bowl. The 1996 team went 13–6, losing to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII.

A New Jersey guy, Parcells abruptly returned to New York City the next season to coach the New York Jets. The Jets, who’d had eight straight non-winning seasons, finished 9–7 in his first season; the year before, they’d won just 1 of 16 games. Parcells surprised the football world by taking the Patriots to Super Bowl XXXII.

Parcells is the ninth-winningest coach in the NFL, with an overall record of 183–138–1 (a 0.570 winning percentage). He returned to the NFL to become the Executive Vice President of Football Operations for the Miami Dolphins from 2008 to 2010. He was inducted into the Football Hall of Fame in 2013.

Knute Rockne

The University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, is synonymous with college football. And Knute (pronounced Newt) Rockne was college football’s greatest coach.

“The Rock,” as Rockne was affectionately called, guided Notre Dame to six national championships and had a 0.881 winning percentage — the all-time best winning percentage, college or pro. He won 105 games and lost only 12, with 5 ties.

Rockne was an inspirational speaker and traveled the country sharing his thoughts and opinions of life and football. He sold football across the land and made many Americans stand up and take notice of the sport.

Don Shula

Don Shula might not be the best coach who ever walked a sideline, but he certainly is the most successful. After the 1995 season, Shula retired after 33 years of coaching in the NFL with more wins (347, including the postseason) than anybody. He also possesses the league’s only perfect season: 17–0 in 1972, a season the Miami Dolphins capped off by winning Super Bowl VII.

He was the first head coach to cost his owner a first-round draft choice, the price Miami had to pay Baltimore for hiring him away from that team in 1970. Shula built his offensive and defensive systems around his players, not the other way around, which is more common in the coaching fraternity.

Players win championships, and Shula was fortunate to have quarterbacks such as Johnny Unitas, Earl Morrall, Bob Griese, and Marino, all Hall of Famers, guiding his teams.

Bill Walsh

They don’t call Bill Walsh “The Genius” for nothing. He built the San Francisco 49ers out of the ashes and transformed them into the dominant franchise of the 1980s. In Walsh’s third season, the 49ers won their first of his three Super Bowls. Walsh developed one of the game’s best quarterbacks, Joe Montana.

Although Walsh was a huge factor in developing quarterbacks like Dan Fouts, Montana, and Steve Young, he’s also a great judge of talent at other positions.

Walsh believed teams needed a constant infusion of young talent. He always seemed to be ahead of the curve, allowing an experienced veteran to depart while grooming a faster, quicker rookie for the role. Walsh was criticized for being cold and calculating, but he had a soft spot for many of his players and simply was dealing with the extremely high expectations of pro football owners.