The NFL's sad history of interim coaches
Gregg Williams would love to be the next Paul Brown in Cleveland.
But it’s more likely he’ll wind up as the next Dick Modzelewski, Jim Shofner or Terry Robiskie.
Brown, of course, is on the Mount Rushmore of NFL head coaches. He’s the father of modern coaching, having introduced the playbook, weight training, full-time position coaches and scouting staffs to pro football. He took the Browns to 10 consecutive title games from 1946-55 and won seven of them. He has a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Modzelewski, Shofner and Robiskie are at the other end of the Cleveland coaching spectrum. They were assistants promoted to head coach on an interim basis in failed seasons, just as Williams was promoted this week. Williams, the team's defensive coordinator, replaces Hue Jackson after a 2-5-1 start.
The Browns were scuffling along at 6-7 in 1977 when owner Art Modell relieved head coach Forrest Gregg and replaced him with Modzelewski for the season finale. Cleveland lost at Seattle that day, 20-19, to finish 6-8.
The Browns were 2-7 in 1990 when Modell relieved head coach Bud Carson and replaced him with Shofner. There was no turnaround. The Browns went 1-7 under Shofner the rest of the way.
The Browns were 3-8 in 2004 when owner Randy Lerner fired coach Butch Davis and replaced him with Robiskie. The losing continued, with the Browns finishing 1-4 under Robiskie.
In a best-case scenario, Williams would hope to follow in the footsteps of Marty Schottenheimer. He’s the only interim coach to earn an extended stay with the Browns.
When the Browns started 1-7 under Sam Rutigliano in 1984, Modell replaced him with Schottenheimer. Cleveland went 4-4 the rest of the way to earn Schottenheimer the full-time gig. He would coach four more seasons and take the Browns to two AFC title games. Schottenheimer went on to coach Kansas City, Washington and San Diego and win 200 games, seventh most in NFL history.
But otherwise history has not been kind to interim coaches. Since 1960, the start of the game’s modern era, there have been 87 interim coaches in the NFL. Only 16 of them managed to win more games than they lost during their interim stints. Only two of the 87 took teams to the playoffs during those interim seasons.
The most successful interim coach was the first one – Wally Lemm. After the Houston Oilers started 1-3-1 in 1961 in defense of their AFL championship, owner Bud Adams replaced Lou Rymkus with Lemm. The Oilers went 9-0 the rest of the way and added a 10th victory in the AFL title game with a 10-3 victory over the San Diego Chargers. Lemm remains the only interim coach ever to win a championship.
Schottenheimer isn’t the only familiar name who parlayed an interim gig into a highly successful NFL head coaching career. Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy and Hall of Fame finalist Don Coryell both resurrected their coaching careers with interim gigs.
Levy was hired in 1986 to replace Hank Bullough in Buffalo and despite a 2-5 finish to a 4-12 season, he was given the position full-time. Over the next 11 seasons he would take the Bills to five AFC title games and four Super Bowls.
Coryell replaced Tommy Prothro in San Diego after a 1-3 start in 1978 and led the Chargers 8-4 the rest of the way. He would go on to coach the Chargers eight more seasons and take them to two AFC title games. Coryell won 111 career games and his Air Coryell offense changed how NFL teams viewed the passing game. Only Lemm won more games during an interim coaching stint than Coryell.
Three other coaches won seven games apiece during interim stints – Mike Holovak with the Patriots also in 1961, Art Shell with the Raiders in 1989 and Bruce Coslet with the Bengals in 1996. Current NFL head coaches Jason Garrett in Dallas and Doug Marrone in Jacksonville both got their starts following interim gigs.
Now the bad news for Williams. Those 87 interim coaches posted a 28-58-1 record in their debut games. Bad teams that play poorly enough during a season to get their head coaches fired generally remain bad teams under the interim head coach. Worse news, Williams will make his head coaching debut against the best team in the AFC, the 7-1 Kansas City Chiefs.