Inside a coaching hunt – How an NFL GM embarks on the process, from firing to hiring

The Carolina Panthers let go of their head coach, Ron Rivera, after nearly nine full seasons on Tuesday amid a four-game slide. Secondary coach Perry Fewell took over in Rivera’s stead with interim duties. That was the easy part for Carolina.

Now the Panthers embark on one of the most important — and difficult — procedures in running a sports franchise: finding the right coach.

I was part of that process on four occasions as an NFL executive with the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins (eventual hires included Herm Edwards, Eric Mangini, Rex Ryan and Adam Gase). It isn’t as easy as it might seem.

Don’t believe me? Let’s pull back the curtain.

How it all begins

The 2015 season was my first as the executive vice president of football operations with the Dolphins. Joe Philbin was entering his fourth year as the head coach of the team and was coming off back-to-back 8-8 seasons. His status was tenuous entering the campaign, and after an opening week win over the Washington Redskins, the team dropped two in a row. The offense didn’t surpass 20 points in any of the three games, and the defense allowed 41 to the Buffalo Bills at home in Week 3.

In Week 4, we went overseas to play the Jets in London. Jets running back Chris Ivory punched in a 3-yard touchdown rush less than five minutes into the game for a lead the Jets never relinquished, and we suffered our third loss in what had begun as a promising season. Then we had a decision to make — and not one too different from the decision the Panthers made.

Dolphins owner Steve Ross and I had multiple conversations about whether to move on from Philbin during the losing streak, and our final conversation was the following Monday morning, after I returned to Florida from the long overnight trip. It was the beginning of the bye week, and I remember sitting alone in my office after getting off the phone, physically and mentally exhausted. Competing emotions began to set in: sadness about what our decision meant for Joe and excitement about what the future could hold. We had the responsibility of being the stewards of the organization and deciding what was the right decision for the team. But that doesn’t mean those decisions don’t bother you.

Simply put, letting a head coach go and finding his replacement are the biggest decisions a front office has to make. At the end of the day, if you no longer believe your coach can get you to where you want to go and you’ve tried every reasonable method to improve the program, then you have to make that tough, sobering choice for the betterment of the organization. When Ross — who ultimately had final say — and I made that decision in 2015, it was based on the totality of the program, our current season yet to be played and the unique leadership we thought our interim choice, Dan Campbell, could bring to the table.

Dan was under the radar and somewhat inexperienced as the tight ends coach, but he had leadership abilities, and that was an area we thought needed to improve. We told him that he would be a candidate for the permanent position but we’d be doing extensive research on others as well.

The decision to fire a head coach in the NFL is a really difficult one, and it’s the first step of a multilayered process. The real work, though, comes in finding the replacement, someone who will take your franchise to another level.

Building the list

Before you make the final decision to move on from a coach, you begin constructing a list of potential replacements and candidates of interest. Your list evolves over time. It’s an iterative process, and while I was assembling my lists, I asked other members of the front office to do the same.

Names come from everywhere in the organization. I would remind our college scouts that although their primary responsibility was to evaluate the college players who can play at the next level, they should also be acquiring names and assessing staff members. I always told them they were in the business of collecting information on people, not just players, who can help the franchise. I would ask everyone to send their lists independently to ascertain everyone’s best thinking.

Some general managers turn to search firms, but I never quite understood why you would delegate the biggest decision you have to make elsewhere. As a GM, one of your principal responsibilities is to know and understand the coaching marketplace. Some use firms to a degree, but I always thought it was important to use them in the proper context — as a check and balance but not as part of the final decision-making.

The names on the lists ranged all over the map. Most teams in a coach hunt are first and foremost looking for a shift in leadership and culture. If ownership sees a loose, player-friendly culture, it might be looking to hire a disciplinarian. Alternatively, you might see an older coach replaced by a younger voice. Some might be chasing the “hot coordinator” or a coach from one of the league’s top units, but that phenomenon never resonated with me. We were looking for program leaders who could make difficult decisions and manifest a growth mindset.

What does growth mindset mean? When NBA head coach Steve Kerr, whom I represented at the time, finalized his contract with the Golden State Warriors in 2014, he wanted to go coach the summer league team in Las Vegas so he could “make mistakes” before the regular season started. Having the humility, temperament and ambition to go work with the equivalent of a minor league team to refine coaching prowess shows desire to learn, grow and evolve. That mindset is much more paramount than having an association to any one coach.

There’s also an interesting dynamic in the NFL that plays out league-wide in the notion of “winning the news conference.” But any hire based in public relations is simply setting your organization up to have another news conference in 18-24 months relieving that same coach of his duties.

In my opinion, the most productive way to approach a search is as if you are hiring a CEO and program leader. Consider the greatest coaches of our time. In their own ways and styles, they all demand excellence, communicate effectively and delegate leadership in being productive skippers of their franchises.

When Andy Reid was chosen to be the Philadelphia Eagles coach in 1999, he was just a quarterbacks coach with the Green Bay Packers, he had only seven years of NFL coaching experience, and he had never held a coordinator job. Joe Banner, a former president of the Eagles organization, explained, “People often make the mistake of thinking of a head coach hire as if it is situational. Like, ‘We have a young QB, so we need to find a head coach who can develop him.’ We rejected that thinking.”

Banner remembers the Eagles doing a study of every head coach who had been to at least two Super Bowls, looking for common traits. He said, “It turned out that it was about leadership, attention to detail, the ability to hire and manage great assistant coaches and other such issues. So we weren’t looking for a successful coordinator. We were looking for a great head coach. That’s what led us to Andy, even when his own team was looking for a head coach and didn’t even interview him. It all started with correctly identifying what actually leads to success.”

Asking the right questions

Once you have your list, you start bringing candidates to the facility. The interview is a critical part of the process. At the end of the day, you’re trying to ascertain whether this person can lead your football program.

The key to an honest and candid interview process is keeping the group small and intimate. My best experiences were when it was just four or five of us, including the owner, in a room, though I occasionally had other small groups of team employees interview candidates, too. Getting feedback independently — and anonymously — not only helps make good decisions but also is helpful in crafting questions for a second interview.

Years ago, I remember one candidate giving us an incredibly detailed presentation. In fact, it was so incredibly detailed that one of the people in the room tried to keep the handout binder at the end of the interview, attempting to hide his copy under other papers on the table. After an awkward interlude, the candidate essentially had to pry it away. (We later hired him as a coordinator and had great success with him.)

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Ryan Clark, Jack Del Rio and Dianna Russini break down why Bill Belichick has been so successful as the Patriots’ coach.

By being part of four coaching hunts, I was able to learn things about the process over time. I looked to refine the approach we used and develop protocols that were principally behavioral-based interviewing. Some of the questions we looked to ask had nothing to do with football. They’d include:

  • Tell us something that you worked hard at but were unable to accomplish.

  • If there’s one thing you could change about yourself, what would it be?

  • Whom do you call on a bad day?

Our goal in this line of questioning was to determine if the candidate had a growth mindset. You could learn a lot about someone by asking about previous failures and, more specifically, how they built and learned from those failures. Coaches who were genuine, selfless, insightful and candid always presented well. Not being accountable and blaming others were always red flags.

One time, a candidate stopped the interview in the middle of a line of questioning. He just looked at us and admitted he realized he wasn’t ready to be a head coach. We shook hands, and he walked out of the room, right in the middle of the interview. Years later, after he was hired by another team, I ran into him. He thanked me for helping him realize how much more he had to do to become a head coach in the NFL.

A good interview examines the psyche of a candidate and gives you a good read on how they might respond to adversity and how they would approach building a winning attitude. But it isn’t the final step.

External feedback

In finalizing the decision, I always found peer-to-peer feedback to be by far the most helpful and informative part of the process. Department heads within an organization call their counterparts at other teams to get real and actionable information.

Say you are a GM and you’re considering a coach who was a coordinator for another team the previous season. If you called someone from that team’s, say, video department, the reference accounts would be surface-level and almost entirely positive — and equally useless. But if someone from your video department called someone in that team’s video department, especially someone they were close with, you might be able to get real insight. That’s a practice we used often.

When we hired Rex Ryan at the Jets, the feedback was that he was tough, demanding and likable. Also, that he’d bring an air of confidence that bordered on cockiness. That’s exactly what we got. This practice is a simple concept, but it gives you an inside look at how someone commands an organization.

Finding the right coach

If hiring the right coach were easy, the NFL would be plush with Bill Belichicks. But even Belichicks are sometimes hard to identify early. Consider that before the greatest coach ever was hired by the New England Patriots (and the Cleveland Browns and Jets, for that matter), nearly every team looking for a head coach passed on interviewing the future legend.

My hires show the difficulty of the process, too. We got to a pair of AFC title games with Ryan and made the playoffs in the first season with each of the four coaches — Edwards, Mangini, Ryan and Gase — that I played a part in bringing aboard. All four had 10-win seasons. But all four also had four-win seasons, and all four were moved on from after they failed to meet expectations (they also all immediately found another opportunity with another team). It’s not easy. And most hires won’t be home runs.

One of the tougher decisions a franchise has to make during this process is how long to wait, even once a lead candidate has been identified. We saw what happened two years ago, when Josh McDaniels dropped out of the Indianapolis Colts‘ search late in their process.

In 2009, we had to sweat out a wait with Ryan. The Baltimore Ravens, with which he was the defensive coordinator, were in the playoffs, so we had to wait. As we waited, other candidates were scooped up. The Ravens lost in the AFC Championship Game, and we were finally able to offer Ryan the job. But we had to move quickly.

The morning after Baltimore’s loss, Jets owner Woody Johnson and I flew down to get Ryan, who had clearly not gotten enough sleep. When he walked onto the plane, we had a sizable piece of steak waiting for him as a welcome gesture. Rex said he greatly appreciated it, but if we didn’t mind, he was going to sleep on the hour-long flight to New Jersey. Still, after no steak and a quick nap, we were able to get our guy.

The hiring process is a beginning, and the inevitable bumps in the road for a new head coach will test the patience of ownership. I know firsthand. Although we had immediate success in my first season as general manager of the Jets, winning 10 games and going to the playoffs, I struggled mightily in adjusting to the job. It took me about 18 months to have the day finally slow down. There are countless days when you don’t get to your to-do list, spending time solving other problems and working hard to create the right culture and environment.

But establishing culture is often way more important than other tasks on your list anyway. That’s why the miss rate is so high on head coaches and why often coaches who are great playcallers can’t transition to their new role, which presents a markedly different set of responsibilities and challenges. Forming a culture and bringing in a real leader are the keys to setting your franchise up for success.

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Author: ESPN