Coaching in the NFL is a clear-cut case of “Do as I say, not as I do.” Or did.
It’s one thing to have played professional football at its highest level. It’s another altogether to teach it, and attempting to do the latter after having done the former can be tricky.
“I think you have to really be careful when you look at that because oftentimes great players don’t make good coaches, because the players that they are coaching are not like they are,” Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher said. “You can’t go in there and say, ‘This is how I did this,’ and so forth.”
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
Fisher, for example, played in the NFL, although he does not classify himself as a great player. He participated in 49 games over a five-year career as a defensive back with the Chicago Bears, and as soon as he retired as a player he was tapped by Buddy Ryan to be an assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles.
His staff includes offensive line coach Mike Munchak, a Hall of Fame guard, as well as defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil and secondary coach Marcus Robertson, both of whom were Pro Bowl safeties in the league.
Most of the rest of the Titans’ current assistants never made it to the NFL, although all played college football — some at a high level — with varying degrees of distinction.
“Teaching is the most important part about it, being able to communicate to different types of guys that hear things differently, being able to say the same thing five different ways,” offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, once a wide receiver at Eastern Illinois, said. “Obviously, it’s like any job. Some doors have to open up for you. Somebody has to recognize what you’ve done, if you’re working your way up the ladder.”
In his case, the first rung of the ladder was five years in the Illinois high school ranks, the last two as head coach at Johnsburgh High. He moved to coaching in college when he was hired as a graduate assistant at the University of Florida under then-offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan. It took 15 more years before he got a spot on an NFL staff.
Another former Titans safety, Rayna Stewart, worked for six years at a local high school and two years as a graduate assistant in college, much the way Heimerdinger started. He, however, jumped right from his graduate assistant spot to his current role as defensive assistant/quality control with Tennessee.
Fisher, who has been in his position longer than any other current NFL head coach, said however different their playing backgrounds, all coaches share certain traits.
“You have to be flexible,” he said. “You have to adjust. The players have different needs, and they have different skill sets and strengths and weaknesses. A good coach is one who can get a player to improve and help develop a player. That’s a good coach.”
The breakdown of the Tennessee Titans’ assistant coaches based on their respective playing careers:
The Hall of Famer: Mike Munchak, offensive line: Inducted with the Class of 2001 following a career that included nine Pro Bowl appearances and led to his number being retired by the Titans/Oilers franchise.
Quality NFL players: Chuck Cecil, defensive coordinator: Had 400 career tackles and 16 interceptions with three different teams. Crafted a well-earned reputation as one of the most ferocious hitters in the game during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Tim Hauck, assistant secondary: Undrafted out of college, he played 13 seasons with six different franchises, topped by 1999 when he started 15 games for Philadelphia.
Marcus Robertson, secondary: Had 22 interceptions and was named first-team All-Pro twice in 10 years with the Titans/Oilers and then capped his career with two years at Seattle.
Rayna Stewart, defensive assistant/quality control: Spent five years in the league with three different franchises and earned a reputation as a reliable special teams performer.
Big-time college stars: Dave McGinnis, assistant head coach/linebackers: Started for three years as a defensive back with TCU.
Fred Graves, wide receivers: Was a halfback and a wide receiver at the University of Utah. Led the team in receptions as a senior.
Craig Johnson, assistant head coach/running backs: Was a quarterback at the University of Wyoming, where he earned three letters and passed for seven touchdowns and more than 1,100 yards as a senior.
Alan Lowry, special teams: Was a two-way player (quarterback, defensive back) and earned All-Southwest Conference honors at the University of Texas.
John Zernhelt, tight ends: An offensive lineman at Maryland who was part of three ACC championship teams and played in three bowl games.
Small-school studs: Mike Heimerdinger, offensive coordinator: A two-sport star at Eastern Illinois, where he probably was a better baseball player. He finished his career as that school’s all-time leader in stolen bases and played in the 1974 NCAA Division II College World Series.
Marty Galbraith, special teams assistant: Played defensive back at Missouri Southern and was captain of the 1972 team, which won the NAIA national championship.
Jim Washburn, defensive line: A four-year letterman at Gardner Webb College.
Role players: Dowell Loggains, quarterbacks: Earned four letters as a quarterback and saw a lot of time as the holder for placekicks at the University of Arkansas.
Richie Wessman, offensive assistant/quality control: Spent two years on the roster at USC as part of a quarterbacks group that included Carson Palmer, Matt Cassel and Matt Leinart.