Having Fun with the AP’s Coach of the Year Award

February 3, 2011

Bill Belichick won the Associated Press’s Coach of the Year Award yesterday, the third time he has won the award. This led to me taking a Sporcle quiz on the winners of the award since the first time the AP gave it out in 1957. Unfortunately, I only knew 29 of 54 offhand. I tend to know more about the NFL than most, which explains why I knew 51 of 54 MVP Award winners. Instead of admitting defeat, I decided to write this blog post making fun of the AP for some of their Coach of the Year selections.

The AP Coach of the Year Award seems to go back and forth between a Most Improved Team Award and a true Coach of the Year Award. That explains why Marvin Lewis won last year after leading the Bengals from a 4-11-1 season to a 10-6 season and a division title even though Super Bowl coaches Jim Caldwell’s (14-2) and Sean Payton’s (13-3) had far better records. On the other hand, Todd Haley did not win this year after he led the Chiefs to a 10-6 division title after finishing 4-12 in 2009; Belichick did after leading the Patriots to an NFL-best 14-2 record. Neither one of these awards is wrong because Coach of the Year means different things to different voters. At the time, I’m sure many of the winners throughout history made sense. Yet the ambiguous award definition sometimes leads to odd results, at least in retrospect.

The first thing one notices about the list of award winners is the lack of great coaches on the list. Sure, this is probably a little unfair, since we define a great coach as someone who wins the Super Bowl. The award is voted on each year before the Super Bowl takes place. So yeah, I’m being a bit of a jerk by counting eventual Super Bowl victories against the voters. But it is my blog, after all.

Still, fifteen Hall of Fame coaches served as head coaches at some point during the award’s 54 year history. Six Hall coaches (Sid Gillman, Marv Levy, John Madden, Paul Brown, Chuck Noll, and Hank Stram) all came up empty. Stram and Gillman only coached a few years in the post-merger NFL, so that’s somewhat excusable. Paul Brown’s best days were also behind him by the time the AP starting handing out the award. Of course with that said, he won the UPI Award in 1969 and 1970.

Madden twice led the Raiders to the best record in the NFL (1974 and 1976). In 1974, the award went to Don Coryell, who turned around the Cardinals from 4-9-1 in 1973 to 10-4 division winners in 1974. Coryell was deserving – this was only his second year with the team and the division win led to the Cardinals’ first playoff appearance since 1948. The 1976 award went to Cleveland Brown head coach Forrest Gregg, who led the Browns from a fourth place 3-11 division finish to a third place 9-5 finish. The Raiders went 13-1 and won the Super Bowl. That’s called a miss by voters.

Levy somehow never won despite a record-setting four consecutive AFC Championships. Between 1990 and 1993, the AP decided to give the award to coaches who turned a team around. None of the four coaches that won the award (Jimmy Johnson, Wayne Fontes, Bill Cowher, and Dan Reeves) made it to the Super Bowl. The Cowher selection was somewhat bizarre. In his first season with the Steelers, he led the team to an 11-5 record after they finished 7-9 the season before. They were promptly pummeled by the 11-5 Bills in the divisional playoffs.

But the most egregious omission goes to four-time Super Bowl champion Chuck Noll. How Noll never won an NFL Coach of the Year Award is beyond me. The winners during Noll’s four Super Bowl seasons are ridiculously embarrassing in retrospect: Coryell, Ted Marchibroda (Colts), Jack Patera (Seahawks), and Jack Pardee (Redskins). Marchibroda and Patera both ended their careers with losing records. As I mentioned above, Coryell was deserving. So was Marchibroda, who led the Colts to a 10-4 division title in his first season after they finished 2-12 the previous season. But Patera and Pardee didn’t even lead their teams to the playoffs in the seasons they won. Pardee’s selection might have made sense at the time; now it just looks insane. He “turned around” the Redskins from an 8-8 third place 1978 season (when he was also coach) to a 10-6 third place 1979 season.

Several more Hall of Fame coaches won only one award: Vince Lombardi, Weeb Ewbank, Tom Landry, Bud Grant, and Bill Walsh. Only Walsh and Ewbank won their awards during a championship season.

Lombardi is hands down the most famous coach in NFL history. As far as I’m aware, he is the only coach to have a Broadway show based on his life. He won five championships and finished runner-up a sixth time. Amazingly, he won the award only once – his 1959 rookie season, when he led the Packers to a 7-5 record, the worst of his career. Between 1960 and 1967, Allie Sherman, George Halas, and Don Shula each won the award twice.

If you’re wondering who Allie Sherman is, that’s because you’re either a) under the age of 55 or b) not a Giants fan. The Halas and Shula picks don’t look that back in retrospect, until he realize that Halas’ 1963 season was the only one in which either won an NFL title. Halas somehow won the award again in 1965, even though the Bears finished 9-5 (fourth best in the 14-team league) two years after they won the championship. I’ll return to Shula later – he is worthy of his own thoughts.

Ewbank’s one award was probably more than he deserved. He won the award in the Colts’ 1958 NFL Championship season. But he’s pretty much the black sheep of the Hall of Fame coaches. His career record stands at 130-129-7…or just slightly worse than the career records of Hall of Fame longshots Jack Del Rio and Steve Mariucci.

Tom Landry won the award in 1966, when the Cowboys won the NFL’s Eastern Conference but lost to the Packers in the NFL Championship Game. The Cowboys finished 10-3-1 for the first winning season in their seven year history. Landry was probably deserving even though he was the coach for all seven of those seasons, so he doesn’t really get credit for a turnaround. He did not win the award any of the five times that he led the Cowboys to the Super Bowl. In 1975 and 1978, the aforementioned Ted Marchibroda and Jack Patera won the award.

In 1970, Landry lost to 49er coach Dick Nolan. The 49ers have had a lot of great coaches in their history. Nolan was not one of them. He finished with a career 54-53-5 record. The record in itself isn’t terrible, but Nolan’s reign of terror continued well into the 2000s, when the 49ers hired his son Mike as head coach. Mike went 18-37 in four seasons, so Dick deserves credit for those as well.

The very next season, Landry won his first Super Bowl but somehow lost out to fellow Hall of Famer George Allen. The Cowboys won the NFC East with an 11-3 record. Allen’s Redskins finished second with a 9-4-1 record. In fairness, the Redskins started 5-0, so the voters that cast their ballots in early October probably picked the right coach.

In 1977, Landry lost out to Broncos coach Red Miller. I like to imagine that upon hearing this, Landry first said “who?” and then took out his frustration on the same Broncos team in Super Bowl XII (the Cowboys won 27-10).

Bud Grant won in 1969, which actually makes sense, because that was the first time that he led the Vikings to the Super Bowl (they lost to the Chiefs 23-7). Of course, the Vikings made it back three more times – 1973, 1974, and 1976 – and Grant came up empty each time. In 1974, Coryell won and in 1976, Gregg won. In 1973, he deservedly lost out to Los Angeles Rams coach Chuck Knox, who led the Rams to a 12-2 record after finishing 6-7-1 the previous season.

And then we get to Bill Walsh. If Lombardi is the most popular head coach in NFL history, Walsh might just be the most innovative. He was the first to run the West Coast offense, which nearly every NFL team has incorporated into its repertoire. He turned the 49ers into a juggernaut in the 1980s, but won only one Coach of the Year Award. That was in his 1981 Super Bowl-winning season, when the voters couldn’t help but give him the award – the 49ers finished with both the best overall and most improved record in the league (6-10 to 13-3).

In 1984, Walsh’s best team won the Super Bowl. That team finished the regular season at 15-1 and is one of three teams (along with the 1972 Dolphins and 1985 Bears) that top the list of best Super Bowl champions ever. The award instead went to Chuck Knox, who improved his Seahawk team from a second-place AFC West finish and AFC Conference Championship appearance to a second-place AFC West finish and AFC Divisional Round appearance. Well done voters.

The only other year that Walsh had an argument for Coach of the Year was the 1987 season. Although the 49ers finished 13-2, he was overshadowed by Jim Mora, who led the Saints to a 12-3 record, back when that didn’t really seem possible.

This leads to the most stunning stat (I think). The Saints have had three Coaches of the Year and the Seahawks have had two. The Cowboys (5 Super Bowls) and Packers (3 Super Bowls) have had two. The Steelers (6 Super Bowls), 49ers (5 Super Bowls), and Broncos (2 Super Bowls) have only had one. The Raiders (3 Super Bowls) have never had one.

George Allen, Joe Gibbs, and George Halas have all won two awards each. This seems about right for a Hall of Fame coach.

That brings us to the one outlier: Don Shula. Shula won the award a record four times. He somehow won the award three times in seven years as coach of the Baltimore Colts in the 1960s…the same decade that Lombardi won zero. In case you’re wondering, the Colts didn’t win a championship until the year after Shula left, when coach Don McCafferty led them to a victory in Super Bowl V.

Shula later won the award when he led the Dolphins to an undefeated season in 1972, but the AP decided that was enough. After four awards in his first ten seasons in the league, he went 0-for-23 to close out his career.

What does all this mean? Not a thing, other than a bunch of answers fun trivia question. No one really cares about the Award, precisely because a guy like Allie Sherman won more awards than all but six of the coaches in the Hall of Fame. Sustained excellence is a lot harder to maintain than one turnaround season, but it’s just not all that sexy to voters.

Still, it’s amusing that Lindy Infante, Dick Jauron, Buck Shaw, George Wilson, Wayne Fontes, Ray Rhodes, Jim Fassel, Dom Capers, Jim Haslett, and Marvin Lewis all have one thing that Chuck Noll doesn’t: an AP Coach of the Year Award.

Although I’m guessing they’d trade it for one of Noll’s four Super Bowl championship rings.