The New England Patriots have been the NFL’s most successful franchise over the past 15 years, and it’s not even close. But the apples have fallen miles from the tree, as many of the disciples of Patriots head coach Bill Belichick have not come anywhere close to replicating Belichick’s success in other venues.
In fact, only one coach has come close, and he has done so only at the collegiate level. Another coach is beginning to forge his path, but he has a long way to go before he can be lumped into that category. But other than a couple of lush and budding branches, Belichick’s coaching tree is rather barren.
Let’s take a look at some of the more prominent names to have served under Belichick’s tutelage during his coaching career.
There’s no doubt that thus far, Saban has been the most successful coach to have served under Belichick—albeit at the college level. Saban has led Alabama to three National Championships in ‘09, ‘11, and ‘12, and also led LSU to a National Championship in ‘03. Since he came to Alabama, his school has produced 16 first-round picks and 44 overall draft picks.
Basically, Tuscaloosa has been an NFL talent factory since Saban’s arrival. Saban’s branch on Belichick’s coaching tree has flourished for so long that it is beginning to grow into the ground and form its own tree. That tree includes names like Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher, Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio, and even Belichick’s protegé Josh McDaniels served as a graduate assistant under Saban at Michigan State in the ’90’s.
It’s hard to believe I grew up in Maine for 23 years of my life, and managed to leave the state not knowing that Kirk Ferentz was the head coach at the University of Maine from 1990-1992. The local stories are the lead stories up north. Maybe it’s because he finished his career at Maine with a combined 12-21 record, although Chad Finn — who covered the team during Ferentz’s tenure — tells us that Ferentz got a lot out of the talent he had.
That was all before he served under Belichick with the Browns as an offensive line coach from 1993-1995. He stayed with the franchise for three more years after it moved from Cleveland to Baltimore, then went back to the collegiate ranks as head coach of Iowa in 1999, and hasn’t looked back. He turned the Hawkeyes from a 3-8 team in 1998 to a 7-5 team with a victory in the 2001 Alamo Bowl. That would be the first of 12 bowl appearances and the first of six bowl victories.
Ferentz has had plenty of opportunities to leave for the big leagues or to take a job at a bigger school, but he has chosen to stay at Iowa.
If there’s a mesh point between the Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick coaching trees, Al Groh is it; he worked under Parcells for more than 13 years at both the collegiate and pro levels, and he was the linebacker coach for the New York Giants from 1989-1990, when Belichick was defensive coordinator and Parcells was head coach.
After Belichick left New York for Cleveland, Groh spent one year as Parcells’ defensive coordinator before joining Belichick with the Browns as a linebacker coach for a year, at which point he re-joined Parcells in New England, where Belichick re-joined them in 1996. The band all went to the New York Jets for three years before going their separate ways.
Groh moved into what was supposed to be Belichick’s job after the latter resigned as “HC of the NYJ,” leading the Jets to a 9-7 record before pursuing the head coaching vacancy at his alma mater Virginia. He lasted nine seasons, and led the Cavaliers to a 59-54 record with five winning seasons, five bowl appearances, and three bowl victories. Virginia had 13 players drafted into the NFL during his nine-year coaching career.
Unfortunately, most Patriots fans will only remember Bill O’Brien for his sideline altercation with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Few will give him the credit for the Patriots’ success on offense in his time with the team. O’Brien worked his way up the ladder, starting as an assistant in 2007, then coaching wide receivers in 2008 and quarterbacks from 2009-2010. He officially became the offensive coordinator in 2011, but had a big role in the offense in ‘10 as well.
Since leaving the fold, O’Brien has helped turn things around at Penn State from 2012-2013, and with the Houston Texans where he just served his first year as head coach. The Nittany Lions were coming off the scandal of Jerry Sandusky and the death of Joe Paterno, but O’Brien fought through heavy sanctions to lead Penn State to a 15-9 record in two years. He also turned the Texans from a 2-14 team with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft, to a 9-7 team despite missing that No. 1 pick (defensive end Jadeveon Clowney) for most of the season.
McDaniels has already branched off once from the Belichick coaching tree, and with several prominent head coaching vacancies, he could be poised to leave the fold once again. His last foray away from Foxborough did not go as planned; a hot start with the Denver Broncos (6-0 first six games) quickly dissolved (5-17 final 22 games) and was surrounded by controversy around a videotaping scandal. His cup of coffee with the St. Louis Rams did not go down smoothly, either, as the Rams finished the 2011 season (his lone season with the team) with the fewest points per game and second-fewest yards per game in the NFL.
Fast forward three years, and McDaniels has refortified his resumé with three strong seasons as offensive coordinator for the Patriots. They have ranked in the top five in points scored each season under his guidance. He hasn’t been shopping for the groceries, but he’s been cooking up some delicious dishes.
His grocery-shopping acumen has also been overlooked. He drafted many of the players who started on the Broncos’ Super Bowl team, including wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, running back Knowshon Moreno, and guard Zane Beadles.
Head coaches often fare better in their second job than their first (see Belichick, Bill), and McDaniels could take some positives from the learning experiences of his first tenure as the leader of a football team.
Schwartz is a unique branch on the coaching tree, in that he never actually coached under Belichick. He was a scout for the Browns from 1993-1995 before he began his foray into life as a coach on an NFL sideline.
After a three-year stint coaching the Baltimore Ravens’ linebackers, he rose through the ranks on the Tennessee Titans coaching staff before being named the defensive coordinator in 2001, a post which he held through 2008. His defense ranked 10th in yards and 11th in points in his second year on the job, and he left on a high note after coaching the Titans to top-10 finishes in points and yards in both 2007 and 2008.
As head coach, he took an 0-16 Detroit Lions team and transformed them into a 10-6 playoff team in a span of three seasons. Ultimately, though, he only had one winning season in his five-year sting with the Lions. He returned to being a defensive coordinator in 2014, and the Buffalo Bills ranked fourth in points and yards under his guidance. Like so many other former disciples of Belichick, Schwartz appears best suited as a coordinator, but he could get another opportunity as a head coach sooner than later.
No one in New England will remember Mangini’s success and failures with the New York Jets, or his failures with the Cleveland Browns. They won’t even remember that he helped coach up the injury-riddled Patriots secondary that featured the likes of Troy Brown and Earthwind Moreland at cornerback in the 2004 season. The only thing they will remember is what happened on September 9, 2007 when Eric Mangini became Fredo Mangini and turned the Patriots into the league for the illegal taping of signals, in what became known as Spygate.
Mangini’s time away from New England had its ups and downs. He started off on the right foot in New York, leading the Jets to a 10-6 record and a playoff berth in his first year as head coach. The Jets appeared destined for another playoff berth in 2008 at 8-3 with five games to go, but finished the season 9-7 and Mangini was fired the next day.
But he had a hand in picking some very talented players in the draft, including cornerback Darrelle Revis, linebacker David Harris, and center Nick Mangold, and so he earned another job just days later when he was hired as the Browns head coach. Two 5-11 seasons later, and Mangini had failed to make an impact, and has spent most of his days watching football from the comfort of ESPN’s headquarters.
We will never know how much influence Crennel had on the Patriots defense that ranked in the top 10 in both points and yards three times in a four-year span from 2001-2004. We’ll only know what we have seen on the field, which is that the Patriots defense regressed without Crennel, and Crennel regressed without the Patriots defense.
In just more than five seasons as a head coach (one three-game stint as interim head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs), Crennel has picked up 28 wins, 55 losses, and one winning season (a 10-6 bid with the 2007 Cleveland Browns that fell short of the playoffs). He has continued to find success on defense, though, and outside of New England, his defense has finished in the top-12 in points on four separate occasions.
On that note, he appears to have found a good home as defensive coordinator with the Houston Texans under O’Brien. The Texans defense ranked seventh in points this season, with defensive end J.J. Watt having an MVP-caliber season. Crennel has established himself as a great defensive coordinator, but may not be cut out to run a team.
Weis has never had a taste of the NFL as a head coach, but he’s had more than his fill of life as a head coach at the collegiate level. He enjoyed some early success at Notre Dame with records of 9-3 and 10-3 in his first two seasons, but he has posted a 41-49 overall record as a college head coach (Notre Dame and Kansas).
He took a couple of brief stops as an offensive coordinator along the way with the Kansas City Chiefs and Florida Gators, and just when it seems like he might have a second chance to make an impression, his team goes 6-22 in two-plus seasons, and 2-2 out of the gate in 2014. The season wasn’t even a month old by the time he’d been fired.
Weis has been the antithesis of Belichick’s tight-lipped media persona, often unafraid to make brash remarks to the media about his team — i.e. calling his team a “pile of crap” and remarking on how high he was on a third-string long-snapper. That has nothing to do with why he’s failed as a head coach. He certainly didn’t help himself with a defeatist approach to scouting, nor did it help that he reportedly fell asleep in team meetings.