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Ranking the Top Coaching Trees in NFL History

Who has the best coaching trees in NFL history? While coaches like Mike Shanahan and Bill Parcells made the list, you might be surprised by our choice at No. 1.

Published on June 12, 2024 | 1:00 PM EDT

While an NFL head coach’s primary job is winning games, they are often responsible for developing other members of their staff in addition to working with their team’s players.

Head coaches create opportunities for their coordinators and position coaches, many hoping to ascend the NFL coaching ranks. With so many teams changing HCs every offseason, the league is quickly populated by new coaching trees — the tangled web of schemes, principles, and connections that bind coaches to one another.

Which NFL head coaches created the best coaching trees? Here are the top 10 in league history.

Ranking the Best NFL Coaching Trees in League History

Honorable mention: Tony Dungy, Tom Landry, Chuck Noll, Andy Reid, Jon Gruden

8) Mike Holmgren

Notable Protégés: Andy Reid, Jon Gruden, Steve Mariucci, Mike Sherman

Eleven of Holmgren’s assistants eventually became NFL or NCAA head coaches, but Reid was the star pupil.

He’ll enter the 2024 campaign fourth on the NFL’s all-time win list, has three Super Bowl trophies under his belt, and is the only NFL HC to win 100 games with multiple franchises.

Gruden also has a Lombardi Trophy and posted a winning record over 14 seasons at the helm. Mariucci and Sherman add four postseason appearances each to Holmgren’s tree, which also includes former HCs like Ray Rhodes, Dick Jauron, and Todd Bowles.

7) Mike Shanahan

Notable Protégés: Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay, Gary Kubiak, Matt LaFleur, Mike McDaniel

Mike Shanahan’s offensive scheme has taken the league by storm over the past decade, and his influence is evident throughout the league. He’s also the only coach on our list with a pupil who’s part of both his coaching and family tree.

Kyle Shanahan has continued his father’s success as the San Francisco 49ers’ head coach, although he’s come up just short in multiple Super Bowl appearances.

McVay, a member of the Washington staff alongside the younger Shanahan, LaFleur, and McDaniel, boasts a Super Bowl title. So does Kubiak, who became the first Denver Broncos head coach to win a Lombardi since the elder Shanahan.

6) Bill Walsh

Notable Protégés: George Seifert, Mike Holmgren, Dennis Green, Sam Wyche

Walsh’s coaching tree is unique. Seifert won two Super Bowls after succeeding Walsh in San Francisco, but how much credit he deserves for the 49ers’ post-Walsh success is up for debate. Still, Seifert finished 9-30 in San Francisco and 114-62 overall as an NFL head coach.

Holmgren, who worked under Walsh as the Niners’ quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, eventually won a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers, appeared in another with the Seattle Seahawks, and posted a .592 winning percentage as an HC.

Green, Wyche, and Rhodes also saw success as former Walsh underlings while adding more branches and twigs to the ex-49ers HC’s tree. Coaches like Reid, Sean Payton, John Harbaugh, and Mike McCarthy were all influenced by Walsh, even if they didn’t work directly with him.

5) Paul Brown

Notable Protégés: Bill Walsh, Weeb Ewbank, Blanton Collier, Bill Johnson

While Walsh is doing a lot of the heavy lifting for Paul Brown’s coaching tree, he’s not the only branch to find success as an NFL head coach.

Ewbank won NFL championships with the Baltimore Colts in 1958 and 1959, then coached the 1969 New York Jets to Super Bowl 3. He remains the only coach to win titles in the NFL and AFL.

Collier guided the Cleveland Browns to an NFL championship in 1964 and made the playoffs in five of his eight seasons as a head coach. Even Johnson, Brown’s successor as the Cincinnati Bengals’ head coach, went 18-15 before resigning.

But Walsh is undoubtedly the crown jewel of Brown’s coaching tree. A true innovator, Walsh won three Super Bowls with the 49ers and posted a 92-59-1 record over 10 seasons in charge.

4) Marty Schottenheimer

Notable Protégés: Tony Dungy, Bill Cowher, Mike McCarthy, Bruce Arians, Herm Edwards

While Marty Schottenheimer never secured a Super Bowl title as an NFL head coach, he forged a lasting identity in the league while fostering the development of numerous future HCs — several of whom won the Lombardi that Schottenheimer never did.

Dungy, Cowher, McCarthy, and Arians each have one Super Bowl trophy under their belt. Each of those four coaches won at least 62% of their games (and counting, in McCarthy’s case). Combined, they guided their respective teams to the playoffs in 39 of a possible 56 seasons.

Other Schottenheimer branches, such as Hue Jackson and Cam Cameron, were far less successful as NFL head coaches. However, few HCs can boast a quartet of former students like Dungy, Cowher, McCarthy, and Arians.

3) Sid Gillman

Notable Protégés: Chuck Noll, George Allen, Dick Vermeil, Don Coryell, Chuck Knox

Gillman would’ve made the Pro Football Hall of Fame solely based on his own NFL accomplishments and innovations, but Gillman’s coaching tree was so robust that his influence might’ve been enough by itself to get him into Canton, too.

Noll helped construct the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers fantasy, winning four titles in six years. Allen never won a Super Bowl, but he’s in the Hall of Fame after managing a 116-47 record as an NFL head coach.

Vermeil grabbed a Super Bowl with the “Greatest Show on Turf” with the St. Louis Rams. Coryell’s impact on passing attacks remains essential to this day, and he also won 57% of his games as a head coach. Knox made 11 playoff appearances with the Los Angeles Rams, Buffalo Bills, and Seattle Seahawks.

2) Bill Parcells

Notable Protégés: Bill Belichick, Tom Coughlin, Sean Payton, Todd Bowles, Mike Zimmer

Although Parcells’ coaching tree might not boast the breadth of other lineages, he tutored arguably the greatest head coach of all time while mentoring two other eventual Super Bowl winners.

Belichick’s feats as the New England Patriots head coach almost defy logic. He won six Super Bowl rings, 17 AFC East titles (including 11 in a row), and appeared in 14 AFC Championship Games. Belichick might also be the league’s best all-time general manager and defensive coordinator.

Coughlin adds two more Super Bowls to Parcells’ ledger — and both of his SB victories came against Belichick. Payton is 160-98 as an NFL head coach, owns a Super Bowl, and is still writing his story as the Broncos’ HC.

1) Jim Lee Howell

Notable Protégés: Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry, Allie Sherman

Jim Lee Howell isn’t a household name. He won an NFL championship as the New York Giants’ head coach in 1956, but he’s not in the Hall of Fame and isn’t considered part of the NFL’s legendary heritage.

But Howell’s coaching tree is unparalleled. While many other coaches on our list had one significant underling who went on to attain massive success, Howell had two: Lombardi and Landry, each of whom ranks among the NFL’s all-time greats.

Lombardi, Howell’s offensive coordinator with the Giants, won five titles (three NFL championships, two Super Bowls) in 10 years as the Packers’ head coach. He finished 96-34-6 during his run in Green Bay, including a 9-1 mark in the postseason.

Landry was the Dallas Cowboys’ head coach for 29 consecutive years. He’s fifth all-time in wins and won two Super Bowls. Landry also developed the 3-4 and Flex defenses, solidifying his status as a creative thinker.

Plenty of NFL coaches have authored historic coaching trees, but Howell’s prescient hirings of Lombardi and Landry give him the No. 1 slot on our list.