An NFL coach’s success is defined by the answers to two questions: Does he win and does he win championships?
Great coaches answer both questions in the affirmative.
If that is the case, then how does a coach’s “legacy,” those contributions that go beyond simply winning, factor into the measure of his greatness?
This question is directly relevant to the Chuck Noll/Bill Walsh debate.
Both men not only won big, but they won multiple championships. But Bill Walsh’s name is always bandied about when the “greatest ever” discussions heat up, while few rarely bother to suggest Noll’s. This apparent contradiction is explained by Bill Walsh’s “legacy” and Chuck Noll’s perceived lack thereof.
What Constitutes a Coaching Legacy?
Some great coaches leave “legacies.” Men such as George Halas, Paul Brown, and Tom Landry were innovators and mentors to succeeding generations of coaches. Bill Walsh falls into this group.
Even the casual NFL fan knows that Bill Walsh is the father of the “West Coast Offense” and that he started the Bill Walsh coaching tree.
The West Coast Offense is “chink and dink” for true, Smash Mouth Football purists, but it has been used extensively and successful for almost three decades. The Bill Walsh coaching tree goes hand in hand with the West Coast Offense, as it has served as the foundation for the success of Walsh’s disciples.
Other genuinely great coaches left little in the way of a “legacy.” Consider:
- Don Shula had the “No Name Defense” and employed what was simply know as “the system.” (His one alum of note was of course Chuck Noll). Shula won two Super Bowls, appeared in two more, and his the winningest coach in history.
- A true legend in his own right, Vince Lombardi’s greatness was as much a function of his personality as it was anything else. He won two Super Bowls, and 3 NFL titles.
- Joe Gibbs was a superb strategist and almost certainly the greatest coach of the modern era. He was so good at coaxing the most out of his players that he equaled Walsh’s Super Bowl total, with far less talent. Yet, despite Gibbs’ offensive genius, he left the game with nothing comparable to the “West Coast Offense.” Likewise, Gibbs pupils who’ve coached elsewhere have enjoyed nothing close to the success of Walsh’s.
Noll sits in good company with this second cadre of coaches. Noll was neither beholden to sexy schemes nor sought flashy innovations. He excelled by putting the right people in the right places, and having them execute. Likewise, he spawned little in the way coaching off spring, with the notable exception of Tony Dungy.
Perception and the Press (as it relates to Walsh and Noll)
The media’s influence on how we perceive coaching legacies is also critically important. As journalist/college professor Elliot King argues, a public figure’s personal relations with the press greatly impacts the tone of his or her media coverage. King’s argument comes from study of politics, but applies equally to sports.
In his book Double Yoi, Myron Cope recounts how Noll alienated much of the national NFL press corps at his first Super Bowl by “grudgingly [giving] short answers to the questions asked of him…. ‘Condescending’ was the adjective they hung on him. In their stories, they ripped him.”
Even after Noll’s hand was adorned with a few Super Bowl rings, the out of town press continued to mistakenly call him “Chuck Knox.” In fact, after Joe Gilliam’s death, even the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette failed to correct a story it published from a Dallas newspaper which had mistakenly refered to the coaching legend as “Chuck Knoll.”
Bill Walsh not only had excellent relations with the press, he became one of them, working on NBC’s top play-by-play team in his first few years of retirement. This long-standing relationship with the press has certainly served to amplify Walsh’s already tremendous achievements to the benefit of his image and the perception of his legacy.
Legacy vs. Legacy
Chuck Noll’s 209 total wins, 9 Hall of Famers, and four Super Bowls constitute his legacy. The lack of a legion of successful assistant coaches or a scheme tied to his name in no way diminish his accomplishments.
But Bill Walsh does have both of those things to add to his wins, Super Bowls and Hall of Famers. And rightly or wrongly, that fact is always going to be cited when his place among the coaching greats is discussed.
Edge: Bill Walsh.