Interesting that Tomlin is rated in the top 5 coaches players want to play for...


October 26, 2008
Sports of The Times
N.F.L. Players Evaluate Their Coaches

What do N.F.L. players really think about the coaches for whom they play and the franchises for which they work?

Outside of sound bites and manicured postgame comments, the collective thoughts of players about coaches and teams have remained a mystery. Until now.

Last season, the N.F.L. players union commissioned the Wharton Sports Business Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania to conduct an unprecedented survey of players. It was the first time players had been asked about issues related to their coaches. The survey asked players to name names, and the players overwhelmingly obliged.

Asked which active N.F.L. coaches they would most like to play for, the players picked Tony Dungy (Indianapolis Colts) followed by Lovie Smith (Chicago Bears) and Bill Belichick (New England Patriots). Herman Edwards (Kansas City Chiefs) was fourth and Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh Steelers) fifth.

Asked to name the coaches they would least like to play for, the players named Tom Coughlin (Giants), Eric Mangini (Jets), Jon Gruden (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Bobby Petrino (formerly of the Atlanta Falcons) and Belichick.

The naming of Belichick on both lists illustrated how players were willing to make compromises when it comes to winning.

The study is especially relevant at a time of midseason coaching changes, wide swings of performance levels from week to week and periodic episodes of player-coach confrontations.

“I think this survey is historic,” said Tukufu Zuberi, the chairman of the sociology department at Penn, who conducted the study with Camille Z. Charles, an associate sociology and education professor. “Nothing like it has ever been done before.”

Zuberi added: “You always hear sportscasters and analysts ranking teams and ranking the best coaches and what is important about being a good coach. It’s rare that the athletes themselves express their opinion. What this survey does is give the players a voice.”

A total of 1,440 players, or roughly 80 percent of those active in 2007, completed the study by the Wharton Sports Business Initiative, a research and executive think tank that is not a degree-granting program.

The players were asked questions in six major categories, including the most influential coach in their lives and the five most important attributes for a head coach. The players were also asked to identify the worst organizations in the N.F.L. (Oakland — no surprise there; Miami; Arizona; Cleveland; and Cincinnati) and the best (New England, Indianapolis, Dallas, Green Bay and Pittsburgh).

There was overwhelming common ground among the players despite their racial differences; 65 percent are African-American, 29 percent white, 3 percent Asian, 2 percent other and 1 percent Hispanic.

The good news for the N.F.L. is that 90 percent of the players said they respected their head coach, three-quarters said they trusted their head coach and 79 percent said their coach was top quality.

More than 50 percent of the players said their pro coach — not their college or high school coach — was the most influential coach in their lives.

According to the survey, the most desirable attributes in a head coach were good communication skills, followed by motivational skills, approachability, management skills and leading by example.

There were also significant differences between white and black players. For instance, respect and trust were listed by all players as crucial components for successful relationships, but white players expressed more trust and respect for their head coaches than black players.

“Who would have thought that the most important things to players is that the coach respects them?” Zuberi said. “This has a fundamental impact on the players’ attitudes toward the coaches. I didn’t expect that white players would trust and respect their coaches more than black players.”

Another distinction was that African-American players were not entirely race neutral when it came to head coaches. Race matters.

Although all players agreed on the top 10 most desirable head coaches, there were subtle differences between white and black players.

Among all players, Dungy was selected as the top coach. White players ranked Belichick second, Smith third, the Denver Broncos’ Mike Shanahan fourth and the Tennessee Titans’ Jeff Fisher fifth.

Black players ranked Smith second, Belichick third, Edwards fourth and Tomlin fifth.

Edwards was sixth among white players, and Shanahan dropped to ninth among black players. Mike Holmgren of Seattle was ranked seventh among white players and 13th among black players.

“It’s not just a question of winning, it is a question of how the players feel about these coaches,” Zuberi said.

In contrast to the mainstream workplace, black players are an overwhelming majority in the N.F.L.

This can be interpreted as a true meritocracy where the best talent prevails. On the other hand, power is unequally distributed as one moves up the ladder. Six of the 32 head coaches are African-American, and the presence of African-Americans becomes more rare the higher one goes in management.

The black football-playing majority must answer to a predominantly white power structure, which includes team executives and owners.

Given the disparity in trust and respect between blacks and whites, the study suggested a new model is needed for franchises that hope to get the most out of their players. This means going beyond simply relying on a cluster of veteran players to maintain order in the locker room. They must hire and promote respected African-Americans and place them into positions of power and authority.

Communication also requires a franchise to ask itself tough questions: Who can get the most out of players? Who can best understand players? Who has the greatest insight? Who can best speak to the culture?

It was no coincidence that black players listed four African-American coaches among their top five.

“These are just the players’ opinions,” Zuberi said of the study, “but we haven’t been listening to those opinions.

“A coach’s ability to coach should be balanced against his ability to gain the trust and respect of the players. Players are expected to respect and trust the coach. The coach needs to do the same for the players.”

The study was intended to be the first in a series of annual player surveys that will examine a variety of aspects of N.F.L. franchises — including the front office and ownership.

N.F.L. players have long been viewed as parts to be moved about without much consideration given to what they think.

If the survey proves anything, it’s that players have perspectives and opinions. The question is whether management is listening.

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