What Was The NFL Coaching Carousel Like In The 1970s?

Perhaps no other era in the sport of pro football has seen the renewing and regurgitation of head coaches quite as much as what we are witnessing in this current era. It seems that when a head coach gets fired in the 21st century, his next opportunity to wear a headset on the sidelines is just around the corner.

But did you know that during the 1970s, head coaches were moving around from team to team almost as often? It’s true!

This episode of Pro Football in the 1970s does not necessarily contain the best head coaches to go from one team to another during the decade. But it does contain the most noteworthy head coaches who traded one team’s colors for another.


Don Takes Over For Don In Baltimore

Let’s start at the beginning of the 1970s, and at the pinnacle of victory, which was simply put as winning the Super Bowl. In 1970, Don McCafferty took over for Don Shula in Baltimore, and in the span of six months, McCafferty hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy for his Colts’ 16-13 win over Dallas in Super Bowl V.

McCafferty’s good graces in Baltimore did not last long, however. Before the end of the 1972 season, he was fired for not benching future Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas. The following year, McCafferty was hired by the Detroit Lions to be their head coach. Let’s face it: When you win a Super Bowl as a head coach, you practically will have employment for life at least as an assistant coach…at the very least.

Sadly, McCafferty died shortly before the beginning of the 1974 NFL season.

Hank Stram's New Gig

Another Super Bowl-winning head coach also got a second chance in the decade of the 1970s. Hank Stram was the only head coach that the Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs had ever known from their inception in 1960 until his final season with the team in 1974. He also had a victory in Super Bowl IV to his name.

But he was fired after that turbulent season of 1974, then he went to work as a color commentator for CBS football games in 1975. By 1976, however, Stram was named the new head coach for the New Orleans Saints. Now he could not produce a similar winning record for the Saints as he did for the Chiefs, but few people actually thought that he could turn things around on Bourbon Street overnight.

Air Coryell Flies With The Cardinals

One coach who also managed to land on his feet with another team during the 1970s was none other than Don Coryell. Almost immediately that he came on the pro scene for the St. Louis Cardinals, Coryell got a couple of reputations, one as a miracle worker, turning forlorn franchises into successful ones.

His other reputation might be one that will eventually earn him a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, that of being an early proponent of the pro passing game. He used ideas that were seen in Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense, and he blended those strategies with the utilization of the game-breaking talents in his offensive lineup, namely setback Terry Metcalf, and wide receiver Mel Gray.

Almost out of nowhere, his Cardinals went from a mediocre team in 1973 to a 10-4 division champion in 1974. Then in 1975, Coryell’s Cardinals repeated as NFC Eastern Division Champions. Unfortunately for Coryell, his stay in St. Louis was nearing its end when the Cardinals failed to make the playoffs in 1976 and 1977. The Cards were one of those teams where ownership was not very patient, and the result of that impatience usually meant that the head coach was sent packing.

But Coryell did not stay without a team that long. In 1978, he was offered the head coaching job at San Diego during the second half of that season. There with the Chargers, Coryell would take his pass-happy offense to the heights of pro football offenses as the decade drew to a close. The Chargers put up an impressive 4,138 yards through the air in 1979, a statistic that led the league.

Tommy Prothro

The head coach who began the 1978 season for the Chargers was none other than Tommy Prothro, whose very first pro coaching job after many years as a college head coach was with the Los Angeles Rams back in 1971. Prothro was also the victim of an impatient owner or two, or three.

He lasted two years in Los Angeles before he was dismissed “…without cause.” In 1973, Prothro was signed to be the head coach of San Diego. Then in 1979, after five whole months away from the pro game, Prothro was signed by Cleveland to be their Player Personnel Director. It just seemed that there was always a spot available for anyone who used to be a head coach in the NFL.

There are undoubtedly many more former NFL head coaches in the 1970s who were recycled to become a head coach again for another pro football club. Sometimes, an assistant coach for a successful team gets a chance to become a head coach for another team.

Then upon failing as a head coach, he returns to his original team as an assistant coach again. A case in point is former Miami Dolphins assistant coach Bill Arnsparger, who became the head coach of the New York Giants in 1974. Within a few years, he was back in Miami working for his old boss Don Shula once again. This recycling carousel of coaches has been going on for years, and it is still going on in the present day.

I would like to thank you all for tuning in to this episode of Pro Football in the 1970s. Hey Loyal Listeners, please be sure to check out my previous episodes of Pro Football in the 1970s on YouTube.

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Host of Pro Football in the 1970s - Joe Zagorski

Throughout his days, Joe spent some time as a sportswriter and has been a member of the Pro Football Researchers Association since the mid-1980s.  Joe is also a proud member of the Pro Football Writers of America.

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Joe Zagorski
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