A friend and I were talking about the hire of Fangio, and one concerned he expressed, was that Fangio was old and had never been selected as a head coach in his 40-year career. There’s no denying that Fangio is old. Next year, Fangio will be the 5th oldest coach next year, trailing only Mike Zimmer (63), Bill Belichick (67), Pete Carroll (68) and Bruce Arians (67).
This prompted me to do a little research and see how this compared to previous first-time head coaches. I used PFR and looked at the 80 head coaches who started their coaching career in 2001 or after. I ignored coaches who I knew were only Interim Head Coaches, although I could have missed some. The data PFR compiles isn’t great, and I had to manually enter everyone’s birth year, so I was a little limited by what analysis I could do. Note that throughout this article, I’m referring to a coach’s age on December 31st of that year, or essentially their age at the end of the season (it made collecting data much).
Other old first-time Head Coaches
Dating back to 2001 (as far as I wanted to look up data for), Fangio is the oldest first-time head coach, barely nudging out Bruce Arians who turned 61 shortly into his first season as the Cardinal’s Head Coach. Additionally, the average age of a first-time head coach was 46.5, and there have only been eight instances of head coaches who got their start at 55 or above. They are
- Bruce Arians (61)
- Mike Zimmer (58)
- Romeo Crennel (58)
- Rod Marinelli (57)
- Steve Spurrier (57)
- Mar Trestman (57)
- Dirk Koetter (57)
- Jim Zorn (55)
Of those eight, four did have college football or CFL head coaching experience before their first NFL head coaching gig (Arians, Spurrier, Koetter, and Trestman). Two others didn’t get into coaching until much later in life. Fangio started coaching at 21, while Zorn didn’t hold an official position until 35, and Reich didn’t until he was 47. This means Zorn had only about 20 years’ experience before becoming a head coach, and Reich had only 10, while Fangio has had 40. You could argue this puts them in separate categories.
That leaves only three (Zimmer, Crennel, and Marinelli) who started coaching in their 20s and who got their first shot as a head coach when they were past 55.
How did these eight coaches do? Three seemed to work out well or seem promising. Zimmer and Arians have both had successful coaching stays. Both lead their teams to two playoff appearances and one NFC Championship in their 5 seasons. Frank Reich had a tremendous first season, leading the Colts to a 10-6 season and a playoff win against the Texans.
The other five leave much to be desired. All have career winning percentages below 0.400, no playoff appearances, and combine for only two winning seasons.
Other trends among coaching and age
I charted how the age of head coaches affected their levels of success. In general, the stats pointed towards younger coaches having more success, but this came with several caveats. There have only been nine coaches who were 40 or younger when they got their first job. (that doesn’t count this year’s crop, which includes four at 40 or under, and another at 44). Tomlin and McVay are the only two with a career winning percentage above .500. A few others, including McAdoo, Mangini, and Gase have snuck into the playoffs, but I don’t think many would consider their tenures successful. Additionally, Tomlin has been coaching for so long, his numbers pull up the average of the rest of the group. He has been coaching for 12 years, while the rest of the other eight coaches have combined for only 21 seasons. Remove Tomlin’s numbers, and the under 40 group’s stats go from looking slightly favorable, to significantly worse than average.
Overall, 56% of the coaches in this sample ended up going to the playoffs at some point in their career. That compares with only 38% for the over 55 crowd.
Based on the data I’m able to collect, I’m only able to look at a coach’s whole body of work, not how they did at a particular age. If a coach is hired when he’s 40 but doesn’t start winning until he’s in his 50s, these stats would still credit his success to the “40s group”.
While the data I have is limited and is troubled by small sample sizes, this data doesn’t provide much to be optimistic about. I think it’s interesting to look at how a coach’s age at first hiring affects his success, but the trends are so minor, I wouldn’t put much stock into it. It has not changed my opinion of the Fangio hire, and I still think it was the right move, especially compared to chasing the crowd and trying to find the next Sean McVay.
Fangio is the oldest first-time head coach in at least 18 years and will be the fifth oldest coach in the league. It’s very unusual that head coaches bring 40 years of experience to the role because the cream usually rises quicker.