February 24, 2023 12:00pm

The NFL and the Greatest Coaches

We asked Power Poll NFL.

Photo of Rick Gosselin
NFL Correspondent

Don Shula won more games than any coach in NFL history and the league’s championship trophy is named after Vince Lombardi.

But neither is considered the greatest coach in NFL history – not according to the weekly NFL Power Poll. We asked our panel of former players, coaches, officials, talent evaluators, writers and broadcasters to identify to greatest coach in history and gave them nine options, including eight Hall of Famers.

But the winner was the only coach without a bust in Canton – and that’s because Bill Belichick is still coaching. Belichick received almost half of the votes – 99 of 201 – to easily outdistance the runnerup Lombardi with 56. The came Paul Brown with 19, Don Shula with 13, Joe Gibbs with 6, Tom Landry with 4 and George Halas and Chuck Noll with two apiece. Curly Lambeau, who won six NFL championships with the Green Bay Packers and ranks sixth on the all-time list with 229 victories, was the only coach who did not receive a vote.

Belichick has won a record six championships and is chasing Shula for the most victories. He needs 19 more to became the game’s all-time leader. Shula has 347, Belichick 329.

“It should be noted that five of Belichick’s championships came when the NFL had its current number of 32 teams and one when it had 31 teams,” said Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “Vince Lombardi’s three NFL titles came when the league had 14 teams … and his two Super Bowl teams came when the NFL and AFL had 24, and then 25 teams.”

Added Gene Frenette of the Florida Times Union: “Picking the greatest coach is difficult as most coached before the advent of free agency, which means they had the benefit of keeping their teams together. Belichick gets the nod because he kept a dynasty together over nearly two decades when roster turnover was greater than before 1993.”

Lombardi won five titles in his 10 season with the Green Bay Packer. Belichick won his six titles over a span of 18 seasons.

“When you speak of coaches in any sport, two coaches are universally revered – Vince Lombardi and John Wooten,” said NBC’s Fred Gaudelli, the producer of Sunday Night Football. “They transcend coaching and are thought of more as generational leaders.”

Seemingly forgotten was Brown, who took the Cleveland Browns to 10 consecutive championship games – four in the AAFC and six in the NFL – and won seven of them. He also introduced the playbook and weight training to football and was the first to hire full-time assistant coaches.”

“George Halas and Paul Brown are on the Mt. Rushmore of coaches,” said former Hall of Fame voter Vito Stellino. “Halas helped invent the game and Brown modernized it. Many of his innovations are still part of the game today.”

Added long-time Associated Press NFL writer Barry Wilner, “No one – NO ONE – comes close to Paul Brown for innovation, pioneering and building franchises.”

Most of those coaches built their legacies around Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Belichick had Tom Brady, Lombardi had Bart Starr, Brown had Otto Graham, Shula had Bon Griese, Halas had Sid Luckman, Landry had Roger Staubach.

Not Joe Gibbs.

“It’s simple,” said NFL historian Bob Moore. “In a game dominated by quarterbacks -- and the fact you now need what is termed a “’franchise quarterback’ -- Joe Gibbs won three times with three different quarterbacks, none of who might be labeled a `franchise quarterback. (Joe Theismann, Doug Williams, Mark Rypien).’

In our second question, we asked the panel to identify the all-time greatest assistant coach with one stipuylation – he couldn’t have a failed head-coaching stint on his resume. That eliminated the Joe Bugels, Jim Hanifans, Dick LeBeaus, Bud Carsons and Richie Petitbons.

Again, we offered up several options – and the winner was defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin with 71 votes, followed by offensive line coach Howard Mudd with 43, offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese with 38, defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur with 18, offensive line coach Bobb McKittrick with 13, running back coach Bobby Turner with 9, defensive line coach John Teerlinck with 6 and special teams coach Scott O’Brien with 3.

Kiffin spent 29 years in the NFL with eight different franchises, serving stints as a coordinator with Minnesota, New Orleans, Tampa Bay and Dallas. He won his lone Super Bowl with the Buccaneers.

There were plenty of write-in candidates, including offensive line coaches Alex Gibbs and Dante Scarnecchia and special teams coach Dave Toub.

But with Don Coryell going into the Hall of Fame this summer, this was an easy call for Stellino.

“Ernie Zampese was Coryell’s right-hand man for eight years,” he said. “The offense could easily have been called Air Zampese.”

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of significant key players in American sports today. It's member list draws on people from media, team management, and league management. It is not a scientific survey, but the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those who know most about the sport.

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