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NFL Coaching Families

Unfair? A talent breeding ground? Both?

Washington Redskins Training Camp Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

There are two main paths to becoming an NFL coach (meaning assistant coach, for most of them).

The first is to be a player, perhaps of marginal talent, perhaps on the higher end of the talent scale, who stays in the game through mastering technique and strategy, studying film, and hustling. When your career ends, you impress a coach enough for them to bring you on as an offensive or defensive quality assistant, and work your way up. (e.g. 49ers linebacker coach DeMeco Ryan, or perhaps, later, Richard Sherman.)

The easier path is to have a dad (or maybe a brother) who’s a coach. A large number of NFL coaches were born into it; Jim and John Harbaugh, Rob and Rex Ryan, Chris and Lane Kiffin, Bobby Petrino, Wade Phillips, Mike Shula (his brother Dave coaches in college ball).

Bill Belichick’s dad Stephen was a longtime assistant college coach, and the Patriots’ coach has hired both of his sons as assistants in New England.

Most recently, the Carolina Panthers hired Norv Turner to serve as their offensive coordinator. His staff now includes his son (QBs coach), his brother (offensive consultant), and his nephew (assistant QBs coach).

It’s understandable that a coach might want his son to have the opportunity to follow in the family business; football certainly isn’t the only industry where that happens. You can argue that coaches’ sons grow up learning football, and know and hang out with players from a young age, and those are sort of qualifications. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have a close connection to an experience NFL coach who can give you advice at any time.

But it’s hard to ignore how much this practice creates a closed circle that excludes both minorities and original thinkers from the coaching ranks. Football is notorious for strategic conservatism, and there’s no doubt that second and third generation coaches are a major reason for that.

While some legacy coaches have been very successful, others are problematic (Lane Kiffen) or have long careers despite being mediocre at best (Rex and Rob Ryan). On the other hand, the most relentlessly mediocre coach in recent history (Jeff Fisher) had a painfully long career without any nepotism at all.

Kyle Shanahan followed both paths into coaching, as a wide receiver for two years at Texas whose father Mike was a longtime, successful NFL coach.

To his credit, the 49ers coach worked his way up as methodically as any grinder; he coached for one year in college and six in the NFL before he went to Washington to work for his father. (His four years at Houston, though, were working for his father’s former offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak.)

Clearly Shanahan earned his head coaching job honestly, leading Atlanta’s offense to the Super Bowl with what many felt was the most innovative offense in the NFL. But if a coach dad is the main path to coaching on Sundays, how will people of color ever get a shot?

Does Kyle Shanahan show that coaching nepotism isn’t that bad? Or is he the talented and hard working exception who shows how weak the others are, by comparison? What do you think?