It’s been nearly a decade since Bill Cowher stopped coaching, but that hasn’t done much to keep his name out of the rumor mill every December and January. After all, Cowher was both very successful and very young when he retired, and NFL folks believe those dots can be connected to mean he won’t stay retired forever.
That made me wonder: how much of an outlier is Cowher with respect to his age and how successful he was? In particular, Cowher was successful at the end of his stint, which differentiates him from someone like Jon Gruden. Defining “success” is challenging when it comes to coaches, but I want to just generate a set of comparable modern coaches and see how they fared at the ends of their careers and when they retired. I don’t need a particularly precise coaching formula, just something that gets the job done.
As it turns out, six years ago, I created a rudimentary formula to rank head coaching records. Let’s use Cowher’s last three years as an example. This formula gives credit for wins above losses, so Cowher gets a 0 for his work in 2006, his final year, when Pittsburgh went 8-8. The prior year, the Steelers went 11-5, so that’s +6, but I also gave a 12-point bonus for winning the Super Bowl, so he gets a +18 for that season. And in ’04, Pittsburgh went 15-1, so that’s +14. Add it up, and Cowher has a +32 score over his last 3 years. And he was just 49 years old during his final season.
How much of an outlier do those numbers — +32, age 49 — make Cowher? I cooked up a sample of 45 head coaches whose (1) last year was between 1967 and 2013, and (2) had a score in this methodology of at least 10 over their careers. That basically means they won at least 10 more games than they lost, or were on the border and were bumped up by a championship appearance or victory. Then, I saw how those coaches did in their final 3 years — for example, someone like Hank Stram was a great coach who was done coaching at the young age of 53… but he was also 12-30 during his last three years, so it isn’t quite as surprising that he didn’t coach again.
But Cowher? He’s a pretty significant outlier, although not the biggest outlier of the group. In the graph below, I have plotted the 45 coaches referenced above. On the X-Axis is the age at which they last coached; for Cowher, that’s 49 years. On the Y-Axis is their coaching “grade” over their last 3 seasons. So a great coach who retired early would be in the upper left of the graph. And that’s where Cowher is, but he’s not exactly John Madden.
Madden’s early retirement remains as much an outlier today as it when in the ’70s. In his last three years, the Raiders went 33-11 with a Super Bowl title, and he was finished coaching at age 42. But immediately after he retired, Madden went into broadcasting. That, along with the iconic video game franchise that bears his name, turned him into one of the faces of pro football.
If we ignore Madden, There’s an outer hull formed of Cowher and three other coaches, with three very different stories.
Joe Schmidt was a Hall of Fame player for the Lions in the ’50s and early ’60s, and one of the most beloved players during the franchise’s best years. He took over as head coach in 1967, and went 43-34-7 in six seasons as the Lions top man. The team made the playoffs just once during his tenure — remember, there was no wild card back then — losing 5-0 to Dallas. But Schmidt retired after the ’72 season, saying that his heart simply wasn’t in coaching.
We all know the story of Vince Lombardi. His last three years included two Super Bowl titles and a respectable 7-5-2 mark in his lone season was the Washington head coach in 1969. Lombardi died of colon cancer in 1970.
The other coach in that outer hull is a contemporary of Cowher and often featured with him in the rumor mill at the end of every NFL season: Tony Dungy. One of the best coaches ever at beating regression to the mean, Dungy went 37-11 during his final three seasons with a Super Bowl. That’s even better than Cowher, although perhaps mitigated by the fact that Dungy was 53 when he last coached the Colts.
Cowher certainly is unique, even if his exact circumstances aren’t exactly unprecedented. For what it’s worth, only five of the coaches in this study (career value of at least +10, last year during the Super Bowl era, not-active) last coached in their 40s: Schmidt (40), Madden (42), another Raiders coach in John Rauch (43), a, uh, third Raiders coach in Jon Gruden (45), and Cowher (49). In my view, Cowher doesn’t seem all that interested in returning to active duty: the one thing that might change that is if the Indianapolis job opened up in 2016.
One other note: there’s an interesting thing about this chart that (if you noticed it) might strike you as kind of “weird” – there appears to be a negative correlation between coaching age and last 3 years record. By that I mean the general slope of the graph is slightly down as we go from left to right. One could interpret this as meaning that older coaches stick around too long, which would be consistent with these results. My hunch, though, is that this is just an artifact of old coaches not getting rehired. In other words, you may just coach until you’re not very successful anymore, with obviously a few Cowher-like exceptions.