The Education of the Coach's Son
Explaining his central purpose as a young coach in 2006, Kyle Shanahan matter-of-factly outlined why being across the fundamentals was essential for him as the son of a top coach looking to establish himself; “I studied every potential Xs and Os play and issue possible. I spent my whole life working on that. My goal was that any question a player could have about anything on the field, I'd be able to answer it.”
Some of the biggest names in football have followed their fathers into the profession. I’ll look at how the NFL has produced a burgeoning number of coaches that come from this route, and how their education can give them an advantage if they’re good enough. Born Into The Game If you grow up in a house where one of your parents is a coach you’ll be familiar with the following. The phone never stops ringing and it's never for you. Their schedule on week nights and at the weekend is at the whim of a rugby game at home or hundreds of miles away. You embrace this and one day in your teens after competing, you think you’d like to follow them. My Dad coached Skerries, an amateur seaside rugby club in Dublin all through the nineties. I would live for Saturday afternoons, whether it was watching a big league game or being a ball boy on the sideline during it. Going to away games all over Ireland was an intimate way to experience the game with players, coaches and the fans. I’d see my Dad brief his favorite local reporter after games and I would sneak into the front room to watch tape on upcoming teams or of the most recent Skerries game. It was a ringside seat into all facets of the game and gave my teenage years a happy hue, especially with the club enjoying unprecedented success. One memorable away game entailed being smuggled into a nightclub at 15 by the players in Derry in the north of Ireland. I loved it, and loved the deep bond I developed with my Dad as a result of it. It formed part of the best education I received growing up. When I came back after a decade living overseas to work as assistant coach with Skerries, it meant so much to be involved with him watching in the crowd. Can you imagine what the equivalent experience is like in the house of a professional football coach for a child hoping to go into coaching?
The shortcut might be having the access birth affords. However, there is no substitute in pro football for doing the work at all times, especially when you are the lowest rung on the food chain. When you start out as a coaching assistant, you’re effectively grinding from 5 a.m. to a time a coach doesn’t need a soda or McDonalds run at 2 a.m. You advance up the ladder with camp beds in offices, coffee, 20 minutes on a treadmill, and on field fresh air as your great allies. Glamorous, it really is not. You have to want it more than everyone else. If you’re not up to snuff, people don’t really care who your father is. Do your job or someone else will. You don’t get anywhere in the NFL strictly by name alone. Clearly, the highly personal nature of following a parent into coaching, is an added driver for the young coach throughout their career. Some are born to be coaches, even head coaches. Others not.
The House That Kyle Built While all children have interests, a lot of the sons of coaches have their game film from an early age. As boys they spoke two languages: American English and coach-speak: football version. In the case of the young coaches I’ll feature in this post, Kyle Shanahan and Steve Belichick, when their fathers coached, they started out as ball boys during NFL training camp. During the summers throughout high school and college, they progressively did more, working in the scouting department. Kyle Shanahan, head coach of San Francisco 49ers, was asked by a journalist what was the best part about his time coaching in Washington, where he coached under his father, former NFL head coach Mike. “Being able to work with my dad and be around some other good people.”
And the worst part? “Everything else.” Shanahan has earned everything he’s got and brings an intensity to match his ambition. He embodies the line that it's what you know, not who you know. But even he couldn’t resist firing the above shot at a dysfunctional football organisation many deem treated his family badly. Pride and dignity governed his remark. It was heartfelt and made excellent copy for the assembled media.
Kyle made his name for six years in the NFL and one in college as an offensive whiz, before joining up with Super Bowl winning head coach father Mike in Washington. He put into practice all he had learnt working with coaches such as Jon Gruden and Gary Kubiak, in addition to observing his father. In Washington, he oversaw a highly innovative offensive scheme and a variant on his fathers.
Working as offensive coordinator in Washington, Shanahan brought through other young coaches including Matt LaFleur and Sean McVay, the respective head coaches of the Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams. Coaches who have come through the Shanahan coaching tree are extremely in vogue in the NFL.
Shanahan’s ingenuity, especially his use of pre-snap motion at the line of scrimmage, has lured defenses into showing their intentions. Such is the detail of his play-design that it has also become near impossible to differentiate between the 49ers’ run game and play-action. His grasp of detail, his father Mike acknowledges, is superior. It’s seen Kyle take two teams, one as a coordinator, then as a head coach to play in the Super Bowl.
The Belichick Family Steve Belichick, New England Patriots secondary coach and Bill’s eldest son, coaches with his Dad and younger brother Brian. He described growing up in a football household; “We do a ton of stuff together. We do even more together now that we’re working together. We were kids. We played out in the yard. We played video games. We tried to come to our dad’s work.” Bill Belichick, the multiple Super Bowl winning head coach, was 10 years old when his father would have him break down film of Navy opponents. The elder Belichick, also named Steve, revolutionized football scouting similar to the way his son would revolutionize coaching and game planning. Bill had an intense football education as a young boy and grew up with one thing in mind - eventually being a football coach himself. As he says in The Education of Coach by David Halberstam, a terrific portrait of what shaped one of sports’ all-time great coaches; “What I learned was that it was not just a game but a job.” His son, Steve, has come in and effectively taken over a lot of defensive play calling, having earned his father’s trust and helped build one of the best secondaries in football, featuring NFL Defensive Player of the Year, cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Coaching Lineage Football can be defined by its strategic conservatism. The challenge is to ensure the second and third generation coaches that come through the ‘connected class’ pathway co-exist with the broader pool, consisting of minorities and other original thinkers from pro football and the college ranks. If pro football is a closed circle, culturally everyone loses, and a greatly diminished product would emerge.
The coaches I’ve featured were raised to appreciate the history of the game, the X & Os and football’s evolution. Their fathers have cast long shadows but they’ve established their own identity and made it on the basis of their ability. They've demonstrated there’s a distinction between getting a start because their father is an NFL coach and achieving as a coach because they have what it takes. The appeal for the parents is seeing their children excel at something they’ve been exposed to since childhood. Whether you’re in the business of professional or glory of amateur sports, it really doesn’t matter.