Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Sleek Shall Inherit the Turf

Football head coaches are strict disciplinarians. It’s their task to ready 50-plus players to smash the opponent each weekend, and they do it by getting their players to adhere to their rules, conduct, and strategies. Head coaches often look upon themselves as father figures, trying to instill their boys with the desire and discipline needed for success.

Yet how many of football’s head coaches are undisciplined messes? Sidelines throughout the country are prowled very slowly by head coaches who clearly have no self-discipline when it comes to food. What kind of example is being set by such butterballs as Andy Reid, Rex Ryan, Tom Cable, Eric Mangini, Notre Dame’s Charlie Weis, and Kansas University's Mark Mangino?

Wade Phillips may be a nice guy, but his Dallas Cowboys haven’t won a playoff game under his chunky command and have instead acquired the reputation as an undisciplined bunch that crumbles like cornbread at crunch time. Well, it’s Wade Phillips’ crunch time that’s the problem. Hearing him wolf down a rack of babybacks in his office can’t be imbuing his players with respect for him. I wouldn’t be listening too closely to a guy with a Michelin Man midsection who’s yelling at me about dedication and discipline. The fact is that, in seven years as a head coach, none of Phillips’ teams have ever won a playoff game.

Contrast the fortunes of "America's Team" under trim Tom Landry: The spartan Landry and his 195-lb frame earned the respect of every one of his players by putting his money, rather than food, where his mouth is. In not being mistaken for the blimp sent to cover every game, Landry led by example and guided the Cowboys to five Super Bowls, winning two of them.

Sure, portly head coaches occasionally steer their teams to the championship: turducken connoisseur John Madden won a Super Bowl, as did roly-poly Hank Stram. Even the great Vince Lombardi won NFL titles between meals. But as the chart below clearly demonstrates, the scales of success tip strongly in favor of the lighter-weighted. Paul Brown—slim, slender, and seven (AAFC and NFL) championships. Fit even into old age, Curly Lambeau won six NFL titles. Guy Chamberlin, 6-foot-two and 196 lb, collected four NFL crowns. Trim Bill Walsh took the 49ers to a trio of Super Bowl titles, and his successor, the even leaner George Seifert, followed with a pair. Rock-solid Chuck Noll—four Super Bowl trophies. And the all-time leader in coaching victories, svelte Don Shula—a record six trips to the Super Bowl, winning two, before he grew doughier with age and the Dolphins fell out of regular contention.

“What about the pudgy Bill Belichick,” you say? “He’s the greatest head coach of his generation, forging a dynasty in the era of the salary cap while pacing the gridiron with a jelly belly.” Yes, but Belichick is smart enough to wear loose-fitting sweatshirts and track pants. He knows better than to let his players see the spare tire he’s gained from clam chowdah, lest they lose respect and tune him out. Forget X’s and O’s—baggy clothing may be the secret of Belichick’s genius.

But most football coaches don't possess such smarts. Really, what Notre Dame player is going to be inspired by Charlie Weis? His utter lack of physical discipline can't help but negatively influence his players. It was under Weis's corpulent helm that the Fighting Irish suffered its worst season in school history—the first of two consecutive unranked seasons during Weis's tenure. Previously, Notre Dame had lost consective Fiesta and Sugar Bowl appearances under the blubbery head coach. (Sure, Weis led Notre Dame to victory in the 2008 Hawai’i Bowl...but that's really the Pity Bowl and nothing for the Fighting Irish to hang its buckled hat on.)

Former Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks head coach Mike Holmgren provides the perfect empirical model: He began his head-coaching career with the Packers in excellent shape. Green Bay won the Super Bowl in 1996. He put on enough weight over the ensuing off-season that the Packers couldn’t repeat, and then grew to full rotundity as head coach of the Seahawks, who were unable to win a championship during his ten hefty seasons in Seattle.

While the Jerry Glanvilles and Rich Kotites wheeze and gasp their way to mediocrity, championships are seized by head coaches whose hunger for victory runs deeper than their hunger for Big Macs and cookie dough. Joe Gibbs, Mike Shanahan, Tom Flores, Tony Dungy, Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin, Dick Vermeil, Brian Billick, Tom Coughlin, Jon Gruden—all well within their recommended weight range. All respected for practicing what they preach. All Super Bowl winners.

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