Brian Billick was holed up in that Mobile, Alabama, hotel suite for the better part of a week back in 1999. Like a young, disheveled Don Corleone, he preferred the solitude to the horde of favor-seeking companions — in this case, assistants from other teams who wanted jobs on his new staff — waiting just a few miles down the road at Senior Bowl practices.
As the freshly minted head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, Billick sent his new employees out to fetch prospective coaches he might want to interview for positions on his staff so he didn’t have to complicate an already maddening process.
“I never left my suite,” Billick told me recently. “The Senior Bowl becomes like a job fair. You just can’t leave. You get inundated with coaches.”
That was Days 2, 3 and 4 on the job. Task No. 1: Get a staff together. Billick was introduced as Baltimore’s head coach on Jan. 19, 1999 — right in the middle of a hectic offseason scouting schedule that ran head on into the NFL Scouting Combine and NFL Draft.
Welcome to life as a first-time head coach in the NFL.
Over the last four weeks, six NFL teams have hired a head coach, with the San Francisco 49ers rounding things off Monday by naming Kyle Shanahan as their man. While the Jaguars’ Doug Marrone is a veteran of the head-coaching ranks, five of the new hires — Shanahan, the Chargers’ Anthony Lynn, the Rams’ Sean McVay, the Bills’ Sean McDermott and the Broncos’ Vance Joseph — have never held the position before. Lynn has not been a coordinator for a full NFL season. McVay just turned 31.
Every team and season presents a unique set of challenges, but there is nothing quite like ascending to the top of the coaching profession. For the first time in your life, everyone has to listen to you. Everyone hangs on your every word. The media picks apart your appearance, parlance and staffing decisions. Days bleed into nights without food, friends or sunlight.
In that spirit, I surveyed a few coaches past and present to gain insight into benchmarks of the process — Day 1, Week 1 and Practice 1 (or the first time the coach addresses his players en masse).
Nearly 20 years after his Day 1, Billick is confident he could do better if he had another chance.
But back then?
“You work your whole life to get that opportunity. You prepare. You study. You lay out just for the interview process itself who is on your staff, what’s the schedule going to be like and this, that or the other. You prepare for that. You go through the interview. You get the job.
“Then, you sit behind your desk for the first time and realize, ‘Holy s—, I don’t know what I’m doing.'”
“It’s a hectic time,” Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett told me. “There’s a lot of balls in the air that you kind of have to work your way through.”
Day 1 and Week 1 bleed together, in the sense that most coaches are still scrambling to put a staff together. Some lower-level assistants are still in the playoffs or the Super Bowl. Some are waiting to see if a friend gets hired elsewhere — like Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who waited out Tom Cable’s head-coaching interview in San Francisco before committing to the Chargers. This is especially hard for someone like Shanahan, who, by virtue of his running the Falcons’ offense through Super Bowl LI, is about a month behind the five other coaches who got new jobs, all of whom are finished (or close to being finished) assembling their coaching staffs.
But on a micro level, Day 1 is about you: The head coach.
“You’re trying to set up a vision for what you want the team to look like,” Garrett said. “So those are daily endeavors, and those are things you continue to do year in and year out as you try and build your football team the right way.”
Before a culture can be established, though, a coach has to develop a keen understanding of himself as a leader.
As Billick noted, he spent seven years as an NFL position coach or coordinator routinely making suggestions that would not be taken seriously. This is no different from any business, where employees’ ideas about streamlining work days or improving office morale can be received with a half-hearted nod from the CEO and placed in a paper shredder.
On Day 1 of being a head coach, there is a small army of football operations staffers there to ensure your directives are fulfilled.
“That was the biggest transition for me,” Billick said. “If you suggest something to someone, all of a sudden, you look up and it’s done. As an assistant coach I was always saying, ‘Ah we should do such and such,’ and everyone was like, ‘Yeah, OK.’
“Now, you say something like, ‘Eh, maybe we should order some new equipment.’ The next day, the equipment manager is there and says, ‘Hey, the equipment is here, coach. What do you want to do with it?’ You have to get used to the fact that people are looking for direction from you. And they’re probably going to act on it. Everyone wants to please the head coach, so you really have to be careful about what you’re asking for.
Also on a personal level, there are a few things both mentally and physically a coach needs to prepare for. Day 1 likely includes the first meeting with the press and conversations, both on and off the record, about plans for the future. This is the first chance to establish the most grandiose version of yourself — the tough guy, the quiet, devious guy, the rah-rah guy, the let’s get to work guy. Every coach wants to be himself, but every owner wants to sell their coach. In that respect, Day 1 usually comes with some plans to pump up the hire.
Welcome to the translation phase.
At large companies, new employees often attend retreats full of training exercises and poorly-branded “games” that are meant to build camaraderie. Everyone leaves verbally recycling the same corporate jargon about “buying in” and “core competency.” Everyone has plans to “see the forest through the trees” and “think big.”
The early days of a coaching staff’s existence feature a version somehow even less sexy than that.
Because new coaching staffs are a patchwork assembly of different philosophies and terminologies, coordinators are busy meeting with their new staffs, figuring out on a micro level what they will call everything and how they plan to teach their players.
“You have to put them on the same page; it’s way bigger than physically publishing the playbook,” Billick said. “By the time the players get there, you have to be on top of it.”
When Billick took over the Ravens in 1999, he retained then-defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis (currently the Bengals’ head coach) but purposely surrounded him with a ridiculously strong set of personalities that would challenge the very core of Lewis’ football terminology, philosophy and beliefs.
Among those Billick brought in: defensive line coach Rex Ryan, linebackers coach Jack Del Rio and defensive assistant Mike Smith.
“I put him with an entirely new group that he had never been with, and that was asking a lot of Marvin,” Billick said. “Normally when you do that, you allow the defensive coordinator to hire this guy or that guy. Well I brought in the entire staff. Marvin had to be consumed with, A) getting them on the same page, and B) holding up, because I brought these guys in to challenge Marvin.
“They all wanted to know, ‘Why can’t we call it this? Why can’t we call it that?’ Marvin knew that, and he had to fend off that onslaught.”
From the head coach’s perspective, this week is about monitoring the way a CEO would during the company retreat. Is everyone calling this blitz the same way? Are we confident in teaching our best pass rushers this technique?
In the moment, because there is so much stress and frustration, incredible amounts of work get done in a short period of time. But as he looked back on it recently, Billick, who sits in on many boardroom meetings as a corporate speaker these days, was stunned by the scale of what his staff produced, given the circumstances.
“These playbooks are voluminous,” Billick said. “And you have your baseline going in. But there is a little bit more to that. When you look back on it, you think, Man, we got all of that done? There really is a lot to that.”
PRACTICE 1 — THE FIRST MEETING WITH PLAYERS
“You gotta make sure that you’re organized enough that the players get the idea you’re organized enough,” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid told me. “So when you present it to them, you’re giving them direction and hope.
“Any time you take on a new job, you have to make sure you over-prepare. Have everything set up so your coaches are dancing the same dance and the players fall in line with that, too.”
Oddly enough, a coach meets with the media in a large setting and a staff in a large setting before he ends up speaking with a fully assembled group of players for the first time.
This ends up being akin to the opening night of a Broadway production.
Behind the scenes, there is stress and dissension. Every actor thinks he or she should be playing the main role, just like every coach on a staff of dozens believes he or she should have a bigger say in the daily operations and philosophy.
But when the curtain goes up and nearly 100 players are present and accounted for, the performance must be flawless. It must convey that you are the right person for the job.
“There’s preparation that goes into that,” Reid said. “You have it worked out. If you’re a brand new coach, remember, they’re walking for the first time. Every day up to that moment they have planned out. Every day for the first month of it.
“I had the first month planned out. Every day, what we were going to do. I really had it planned out through the OTAs. I still go through that exercise now, even as a veteran head coach now.”
Reid, despite coming from a rich Mike Holmgren coaching tree that also produced the likes of Jon Gruden, Ray Rhodes, Sherman Lewis, Steve Mariucci and Dick Jauron, said he did not pick a lot of brains during this time.
While almost every current-day coach has come from a strong mentorship program in the NFL, Reid said he preferred to forge his own path.
“You gotta just go,” Reid said.
While it may seem crazy not to seek out veteran advice, it’s hard to disagree with Reid’s philosophy. The first months of a coaching staff’s reign are a trial by fire. The best new coaches encapsulate the brightest traits of their longtime mentors but shine on their own, displaying an individuality and personality that can only be shaped by this unique experience.
As Reid finished our interview, he jogged off the field following a Pro Bowl practice in Orlando flanked by public relations assistants and players — some of whom he had never met or coached before. Even on Day 1 of an All-Star tenure, in a location meant for leisure and vacation, there was little respite.