MIAMI – This was January of 1999, and Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie was looking for his third head coach in five years.
He had canned Rich Kotite a year after buying the team from Norman Braman, and had just shown the door to Ray Rhodes after four seasons, following an embarrassing 3-13 finish in ’98.
Lurie and his executive vice president, Joe Banner, badly wanted to hit a home run with their next hire. With Rhodes’ fate sealed long before he was officially fired, they had begun the search for Mr. Right weeks earlier.
They did a study of every NFL head coach who had been to more than one Super Bowl to see whether there were any traits that all of those coaches had in common.
“As it related to football, there really was nothing that was indicative of what you should be looking for,’’ Banner said this week. “By that, I mean there were offensive guys, defensive guys, younger guys, older guys, guys that passed, guys that ran, guys that blitzed, guys that didn’t blitz. There was nothing there that connected them to each other.
“On the other hand, we almost kind of accidentally realized that they had a series of traits that were essentially the same in all of them. There were things as obvious as being exceptionally good leaders to things maybe not quite as obvious, like being obsessed with an attention to detail in a way that often frustrated the people around them because it was so extreme.’’
They used those common traits to create a Mr. Right profile, then began to look around for coaches who fit that profile. They talked to agents, players, media members, executives on other teams that they trusted, anybody they thought could help.
“We’d hypothetically ask an agent if they had any players who really liked their coach and thought he was a good leader, but found him really annoying with his obsession to every little tiny detail about things,’’ Banner said. ‘’We started assembling a list that was much different than the list other teams were using at the time.
“That’s how we got to Andy.’’
Getting it right
We can argue until the cows come home about whether Andy Reid needs a victory Sunday in Super Bowl LIV to be “Hall of Fame worthy.’’ But there’s no disputing that the Eagles got it right 21 years ago, when they hired him to be their coach.
Reid’s 207 regular-season wins are the seventh most in NFL history behind only Paul Brown (213), Curly Lambeau (226), Tom Landry (250), Bill Belichick (273), George Halas (318), and Don Shula (328). Five of those people are in the Hall of Fame. Belichick obviously will be one day.
In his 14 seasons in Philly, the Eagles went to the playoffs nine times, won six division titles, and made five conference championship-game appearances.
In seven years with Kansas City, the Chiefs have been to the playoffs six times, won four division titles, and been to the conference championship twice.
On Sunday, Reid will coach in the Super Bowl for the first time since the Eagles’ 24-21 loss to the Patriots 15 years ago.
What was very clear following the ’98 season was that no one else had Reid on their head-coaching radar at the time but the Eagles. Eight other teams also were looking for new head coaches that year. None of those eight bothered to interview Reid.
He was just 40 years old in an era when it wasn’t yet fashionable to hire kid geniuses, although Raiders owner Al Davis had hired 34-year-old Jon Gruden the year before.
More significantly, Reid wasn’t a coordinator. He had spent the previous two years as the quarterbacks coach on Mike Holmgren’s staff in Green Bay. Before that, he had coached the Packers’ tight ends.
Even Packers general manager Ron Wolf didn’t bother to interview Reid after Holmgren left to become the Seattle Seahawks’ head coach and GM. Wolf, who went into the Hall of Fame last year, ended up hiring the man Lurie had just fired – Rhodes. Rhodes lasted just one season in Green Bay before Wolf fired him.
“To this day, almost every coach that’s been hired in this league has either previously been a head coach at some level or was an NFL coordinator,’’ Banner said. “Organizations were so stuck in the traditional way of defining the next group of potential coaches that they missed him. We were the beneficiaries of that.’’
Modrak wanted Haslett
There wasn’t even unanimity over Reid in the Eagles’ building. Tom Modrak, who was hired as the team’s director of football operations the previous spring, wanted to hire Jim Haslett, who was the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive coordinator.
“That was his clear first choice,’’ Banner said. “And listen, Tom had really the same reaction that the league did. [He said,] ‘How can you make this guy a head coach. You don’t even know if he can manage that many people or stand up in front of a team and speak effectively. This is just too big of a leap.’
“It was a traditional reaction that everybody, including Ron Wolf, had, in spite of how well he knew Andy," Banner said. "I later talked to Ron about it, and he said he always knew that Andy was going to be a great head coach. He just didn’t think it was his time yet.
“Our attitude was, it’s so hard to find a good head coach. If it’s not quite time yet, but you know he’s going to be a great head coach in a year or two, you grab him. Few head coaches were turning around their teams in their first year on the job back then anyway. So that was no great sacrifice to know that he may not be the best he can be until Year 2 or 3. We didn’t even view that as a sacrifice. As long as we were right that he eventually would be really good, it didn’t really matter to us if it took two or three years.’’
It didn’t take that long. The Eagles finished 5-11 under Reid in ’99, then won 11 games and made the playoffs in 2000. A year later, they won the first of four straight NFC East titles.
“It obviously was a leap of faith, because you never know,’’ Lurie said. “But he exhibited so many wonderful qualities of loving the game and being so curious to advance his own state of knowledge in every way possible and wanting to establish a culture where there was serious dedication and attention to detail.
“He loved game-planning and everything that went into that," Lurie said. "He was respectful of people. All of the things that we wanted to make sure were embedded in the culture of the team and the franchise. And that was just the tip of the iceberg. He really exhibited an obsession for doing things right.’’
Lurie admitted that he had a little bit of “inside information’’ that helped ease his mind about hiring a guy who had never been a coordinator. While Wolf might not have believed Reid was ready, Holmgren did. And he shared that belief with Lurie.
“His title [with the Packers] may not have been coordinator, but he was so involved in game-planning with Mike,’’ Lurie said. “I have a very close relationship with Mike, and he told me nobody was more impactful in the game plans and being a part of their success than Andy. He said it didn’t matter that Andy didn’t have the coordinator title.’’
Reid’s obsession for detail and planning was evident when he showed up at his interview with that now-famous Webster’s Dictionary-sized notebook.
“The book had everything you could possibly imagine if you were preparing yourself to become a head coach in the NFL,’’ Banner said. “He literally had things like notes from speeches that other head coaches had given on opening day.
“The thing that maybe was most impressive to us was he had ranked every coach at every single position one through 10, including college guys. He literally had a draft board of coaches. He would have a wide receiver coach as the sixth-rated guy, and you’d ask him why he was No. 6, and the extent of detail and insight he showed in answering those questions was really stunning. To this day, I’ve seen nothing like it from any other coach.''
The book gave Lurie and Banner confidence that Reid could evaluate coaches and put together a solid staff and manage it, which they felt was critical. They were right.
While Reid might have made a few staff missteps later on in his tenure in Philly, his early coaching hires were generally exceptional, including his first two coordinators – Rod Dowhower and Jim Johnson. Ten of his assistants have gone on to be NFL head coaches.
“Our feeling was if we couldn’t trust him to pick an offensive or defensive coordinator, we shouldn’t be hiring him as head coach,'' Banner said. ''If he has the right thought process and has done the right work and recognizes how important that hire is, then we should trust him and get out of the way and let him do it. And that’s what we did.’’
Lurie and Banner were pretty sure they had the right guy. But when Reid’s hiring was panned by both the media and people around the league, they briefly wondered whether they had made a mistake.
“It was so roundly criticized that we were like, wait a second,’’ Banner said. “We had this great process. It seemed really logical. Could it really have been as good a process as we thought, if everybody thinks we made a mistake? Because everybody did think we made a mistake. But very, very quickly, it was obvious to us that we had hired the right person.’’
Lurie said: “Hiring a coach isn’t a perfect science. You just never know. Even if you thought you had the right man, and he exhibited all of the characteristics you were looking for, you could still be wrong.
“But within that first year, I knew we had the right man.’’