Listening to Larry Johnson: How Good Was Your Head Coach as a Player?

By Jonathan Adler

Jim Zorn, NFL QB & future Head Coach (

Former Kansas City Chiefs RB Larry Johnson was frustrated with his head coach, Todd Haley, and decided to vent via his Twitter account. The former Chief announced to the online community that, “my father got more credentials than most of these pro coaches. … google my father!!!!!!!

Unfortunately, my Google search of “Mr. Johnson” returned over 43 million results, so I’m still looking for information on Larry’s father.

But in the meantime, I decided to examine one aspect of a coach’s “credentials” that is generally overlooked: playing experience. At the start of the 2009 season, the NFL coaching ranks boasted a diverse field of former players – from a Hall of Fame linebacker to a Division III sack artist.

I compiled information for each of this season’s 32 coaches (Including the freshly canned ex-Yalie Dick Jauron) and marked each coach’s highest playing level. Of the 32, only 9 played in the NFL (And 2 of them were scabs during player strikes, Sean Payton and Tom Cable) while 11 played D-I ball in college. Another 11 played at a level below D-I in college, and Todd Haley played golf.

I also noted each coach’s on-field position during their playing days. Precisely half (16) of current coaches played offense, while 15 lined up on defense. Todd Haley was known for his short game

With these categorizations in mind, we can take a look at whether a coach’s playing history says anything about his coaching success. First, it’s important to keep in mind that only the most successful coaches remain in the league (survivor bias), so their pasts weigh more heavily on this data (i.e. all of Jeff Fisher’s wins make the “NFL” veteran coaches appear more successful).

Coaches who suited up in the NFL have performed slightly worse than those who only made it to college ball. And there appears to be a minor edge for coaches that topped out in D-1 ball compared to those who ended their playing careers in lesser divisions. It appears that coaches with a playing background on offense have had more success than those who played defense, but this discrepancy doesn’t hold any significant statistical value. And 10 weeks into the season, it’s just too soon to say whether college golf is the best route for aspiring coaches.

There is much, much more to explore with this information, and with coach backgrounds in general. In the coming weeks, I hope to post more detailed analyses on this subject, delving deeper into the past and including historical coaches in my research.

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  • Johnson’s father is the Defensive Line coach at Penn State, serving under the guy who has the most interceptions in Brown’s history.

  • LJ Sr. is also, to quote wikipedia: A legendary prep coach in the state of Maryland, Johnson was a six-time coach-of-the-year, and architect of one of the winningest football programs in the Maryland public school system. From 1983-91, Johnson’s teams at Maurice J. McDonough High School in Pomfret, Maryland were annually ranked among the top squads in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. In his final eight years, his teams amassed an 82-10 record, made eight consecutive appearances in the state playoffs, were 8-2 in championship games and captured three Division 3A state championships (1983, 1985, and 1990). His overall record as head coach was 139-36.

    From 1992-93, Johnson was head coach at T. C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia (made famous by the film Remember the Titans), hired by his brother AK Johnson, the school’s Athletic Director.

  • It should be fairly obvious why people who were low-tier(and probably low talent) players make good coaches: They had to understand the game that much better to make up for their physical deficiencies. It is the reason you don’t hire someone with a 150 IQ to tutor your son in High School Math.

    Sometimes there are anomalies(Dikta, Dungy), but its hard to imagine Randy Moss explaining routes to a 6th round draft pick, or Adrian Peterson teaching proper running mechanics(Heck he can’t even hold the ball the right way himself).

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