Gas up the private jets.
Starting next week, the NFL head-coaching hiring cycle will get cranked up, with anywhere from three to seven teams expected to be in the market. (The Jacksonville Jaguars have already started after firing Urban Meyer in December.) Candidates will pack their best suits and crisscross the country, meeting in mahogany conference rooms and private airports while trying to convince billionaire team owners that hiring them will be the greatest thing since their first shout-out in the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans.
Needy teams often will make franchise-altering decisions based on the outcome of these interviews, which “is like saying, ‘I’m going to marry the prettiest girl in the room,'” former Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said.
For the candidates: Win the interview, land the job of your dreams and get paid millions to coach football.
Talk about high stakes.
In the coming weeks, alerts will pop up on your Twitter feeds, as an increasingly voracious media tracks and chronicles the traveling itineraries of top candidates. A year ago, seven teams submitted 59 interview requests for 27 individuals (not including college coaches), according to NFL data.
Who’s ready for another round of musical candidates?
Better question: What really happens in the room where it happens?
ESPN spoke to a half-dozen people involved in the interview process to formulate a picture, and there were two prevailing takeaways: The coaching candidates, already known for fastidious game preparation, apply the same obsessiveness to interview prep. And teams recognize the importance of building relationships throughout the organization and in the locker room and value leadership as much as football acumen. Some believe it’s more important.
“It’s not about the X’s and O’s, it’s about the CEOs,” said agent Bob LaMonte, who has represented 53 head coaches over a career that has spanned more than 30 years.
With that, let’s pull back the curtain and take a peek into head-coaching interviews.
Doug Pederson, Byron Leftwich and Eric Bieniemy are expected to be busy head-coaching candidates. Illustration by ESPN
A typical first interview is three to five hours, although some have been known to go eight hours. When that happens, it usually means dinner, too.
Where do they occur? Short answer: Wherever is convenient.
Many happen at the team facility, but sometimes teams have to go on the road if they’re meeting with a candidate still involved in the playoffs. In many cases, that means a conference room at a five-star hotel.
Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy once met with a team at a … well, let’s call it a less-than-swanky hotel, inside a room with limited seating. Seems that all the good hotels in the area were booked, so the interested team had to settle for a middle-of-the-road property.
When Rex Ryan interviewed for the New York Jets’ head-coaching vacancy in 2009, he met team officials at a small airport near the Baltimore Ravens’ facility in Owings Mills, Maryland. Ryan, the Ravens’ defensive coordinator, was preparing for a playoff game. That same offseason, the Jets met with Arizona Cardinals assistant Russ Grimm in an airplane hangar in Arizona.
Fitting, right? Jets for the Jets.
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Because of COVID-19 restrictions, teams relied on virtual interviews last offseason, especially for the first round of interviews. It was cost- and time-effective for teams, but the downside was the impersonal nature of having to talk through laptops.
“It was so absurd last year with Zoom interviews,” said LaMonte, whose clients include the Kansas City Chiefs’ Andy Reid and the Los Angeles Rams’ Sean McVay. “You don’t feel a person in a Zoom interview. It’s like watching a Netflix show. If you don’t like it, you turn it off and get another one.”
Don’t be surprised if they remain part of the process to some degree. Teams this season were allowed to interview candidates virtually during the final two weeks of the regular season with the consent of a candidate’s club — as long as the head-coaching job was vacant.
In a normal setting, a candidate is interviewed by the owner, general manager, team president and sometimes the general counsel. Some teams employ a head-hunting firm or a consultant, bringing more people into the room. Ryan said there were nine people at his interview for the Atlanta Falcons’ vacancy in 2015.
Teams are armed with questions, lots of questions. Angelo always tried to be proactive, emailing 10 questions to candidates ahead of time. That way, they could give serious thought to important philosophical issues before discussing them in the interview. How do you see your role — and the role of your assistants — in personnel, free agency and the draft? How are we going to make major decisions?
“You want to make sure you see things the same way,” Angelo said. “Otherwise, things can get testy.”
Once the interview starts, teams have a few hours to figure out if the person across the conference table can lead a billion-dollar corporation. So they probe. Some typical questions, according to those who have participated in the process:
What is your discipline policy?
Do you want to have final say on personnel?
What happens if your star player is skipping voluntary offseason workouts?
What is your evaluation of our quarterbacks?
Former Jets and Miami Dolphins executive Mike Tannenbaum always tried to dig a little deeper, asking offbeat questions to gauge the candidate’s mindset and ability as a problem solver. In fact, he hired professional firms that supplied questions and interviewing advice. Some of his questions were doozies:
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Tannenbaum was so thorough that he sometimes questioned the limo drivers who transported the candidates, with the hope of picking up a useful nugget. He had a knack for it; he hired three head coaches who made the playoffs in their first season.
One team, in vetting candidates, assigned its department heads to dig for intel by contacting the corresponding person in the candidate’s home organization. Example: The equipment manager questioned the equipment manager, asking about the candidate’s work ethic, personality, etc.
“You want someone to come in and, in a very meaningful way, be your CEO,” said Tannenbaum, now an ESPN analyst. “They’re coming in as the most important person in your organization. Regardless of the structure of your football team, the most important person you’re going to hire — outside of the QB — is your head coach. They have the most impact on the outcome, and they are by far the most important in terms of how everything is handled.”
So, yes, their answers in the interview are important. How they answer is important, too.
“You have to exhibit the ‘it’ factor,” said longtime agent Brian Levy, whose client list includes Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. “You have to walk in the room and command the room. If you can’t command the room in an interview, you’re certainly not going to be able to do it in front of 53 guys all week, every week for an entire season. That’s a critical thing. You have to go in there and sell your vision. What’s your vision? Be honest about it.”
Staffing is another key component. Teams want to know the names of coordinators and position coaches on the candidate’s potential staff. They want to know if the candidate is willing to retain top coaches from the previous staff. This could become a major obstacle. In 2019, the Jets were interested in hiring Baylor coach Matt Rhule, but they didn’t like his proposed staff.
“The process is thorough,” said Ryan, an ESPN analyst. “You realize this is an important decision because, whether you want to be or not, the head coach a lot of times is the face of the franchise.”
The Jets were interested in then-Baylor coach Matt Rhule in 2019 but weren’t on board with his proposed staff. AP Photo/Mike McCarn
This might surprise some people, but there usually isn’t a lot of X’s-and-O’s talk. They will touch on general philosophy and might get into positional requirements (height, weight, speed), but the candidate isn’t going to use a whiteboard to break down third-down blitz packages. The focus is leadership and whether the candidate has the people skills to galvanize the organization.
The interview isn’t a one-way street; candidates come with their own set of questions. They need to know what they might be getting into.
For instance: In 2009, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired Raheem Morris thinking he was inheriting a veteran team. Shortly thereafter, they dumped most of the veterans and started to rebuild with a rookie quarterback, which wasn’t what Morris envisioned. He lasted three years before he was fired.
Another key question for the candidates to ask: If there’s no proven quarterback in the building, how do you plan to get one? Many promising coaching careers have been ruined by quarterback instability.
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Candidates don’t get surprised too often because they’re so well prepared by their agencies. Levy’s company, Goal Line Football, conducts an offseason workshop for its clients. He hosts about 150 coaches, putting them through various exercises to prepare them for interviews. He actually hires former GMs to run mock interviews. He hires body-language specialists to critique them on-camera. (Careful, no rocking back and forth.)
By the time Levy’s clients get to the actual interview, they will have been furnished with detailed reports that include the team’s cap situation, team needs, scouting reports and an explanation on what went wrong with the previous coaching staff. Levy’s team uses its coach and player connections around the league to cull information for the reports. This is especially helpful for a candidate meeting with multiple teams who doesn’t have time to do all the research on his own.
“You always have to know what’s in the cupboard,” Levy said.
LaMonte’s company, PSR Inc., has a 70-page handbook for its clients that is legendary in the industry. It includes relevant articles and tips, right down to how to handle the media. Some candidates bring a personal binder to the interview, giving team officials reference material. When he first started interviewing for head-coaching jobs, Ryan had one that included a résumé, a day-by-day practice schedule, a plan for analytics, typical scouting reports and testimonials from players he had coached.
This practice, though, is going out of style. Coaches now deem some of that information proprietary, and they don’t want to leave it in enemy hands. Tech-savvy candidates have been known to include that material on computer tablets that are passed out and collected at the end of the interview. You can’t be too careful.
“They’re not leaving a book there with their recipes,” Levy said. “It’s like a chef going for an interview at a restaurant and leaving his recipe book for them to look through. Now, guys are keeping it close to the vest. They’d rather show a PowerPoint that they don’t have to leave there.”
Not every interview is a home run. Sometimes there’s no chemistry. Sometimes it’s just a bad fit. One time, a candidate withdrew in the middle of an interview with the Jets. Apparently not happy with his performance, he politely informed team officials, who declined to identify him for this story, that he wasn’t ready to become an NFL head coach.
Years later, he told friends that his aborted interview with the Jets was a valuable learning experience. He’s now a successful head coach.