Being an NFL Head Coach is often talked about as one of the hardest jobs in the world. While this is often hyperbole from former players and coaches who possess a limited scope of the world outside their sport, they are right to some degree. The NFL is definitely the hardest league to coach in and being in charge of an NFL team is actually one of the toughest gigs in the entertainment and sports business.
Statistically speaking, anyone entering their first year as the man in charge of a multi-million dollar NFL team is going to have a tough go of it. Most teams hire a new coach because they just fired the last one for being terrible. A terrible Head Coach can leave a mark on a franchise for years, long after they’ve been fired, and it’s the job of the new guy to deal with those mistakes as best he can. Even when someone is replacing a legend and getting a good team, it can still be a difficult job to pick up the reigns.
The NFL is about winning now and, due to its short 16 game schedule, there isn’t much time for on the job training. As a result, a rookie HC’s first year on the job can be pretty disastrous for the whole team. Even a guy with previous Head Coaching experience can find his first year with a new team to be a nightmare.
Seven teams have a new guy in charge this year, and surprisingly four of them (Jack Del Rio, Gary Kubiak, John Fox, Rex Ryan) have previous Head Coaching experience. Perhaps the owners are trying to keep their team off this list, but hiring someone with experience isn’t always a guarantee for success. So, here’s our list of the Top 20 Worst First Year Head Coaches.
20 Bill Belichick – 2000 New England Patriots
He’s a legend, the most hated NFL coach in history, and quite possibly a cheater depending on who you ask. He is however one of the best coaches in NFL history. What is he doing on this list, you ask? Because his first season with the New England Patriots stunk.
Led by QB Drew Bledsoe and future star Tom Brady on the bench, Belichick’s 2000 Patriots went 5-11 and finished in last place in the division, which was 5th place back then.
The whole situation was bizarre. He was originally named Head Coach of the Jets at the end of 1999, but resigned after one day in what was supposed to be his introductory press conference. Days later, he took the rival Patriots job. In that regard, you can say his first time with the New York Jets is the worst in NFL history since he only lasted a day.
After the 2000 season, Tom Brady came in to replace Bledsoe during 2001 and two legends were born. It just goes to show that no matter how bad things might look, it always pays to stick it out. Unless your coach is some of the other guys on this list.
19 Joe Bugel – 1990 Phoenix Cardinals
Chances are, even if you’re a Cardinals fan, you’re not familiar with the name Joe Bugel. Bugel is now retired, but he is greatly loved in Washington where he was a top notch Offensive Line Coach. Nothing against O-Line Coaches, but the title doesn’t carry quite the same prestige as Head Coach, and it does a good job explaining Bugel’s success as an NFL Head Coach.
In his rookie year as HC in 1990 with the Phoenix Cardinals (yes it was that long ago), Bugel went 5-11, finishing 5th place in the division.
Bugel replaced Gene Stallings, another candidate for this article who first took over the job when the Cardinals were still in St. Louis. A lot of the team's problems can be blamed on the team’s move two years prior, but a lot of it falls on Bugel’s shoulders as well, as you’ll soon see again.
Just about the only thing he did achieve is changing the team’s away uniform to having red pants instead of white, because he “wanted to emulate his former employer, the Washington Redskins” according to Wikipedia. Someone could have made that up, quite possibly Bugel himself, but we can at least let him have that one.
18 Jack Pardee – 1975 Chicago Bears
Going even further back in time, Jack Pardee took over the Chicago Bears in 1975 from Abe Gibron, yet another candidate for this article after a 4-9-1 start in 1972 and leading the team to an 11-30-1 record in his tenure.
The Bears needed to rebuild their team and they looked to a strange place to find their new leader. They ended up hiring Pardee straight out of the now long dead World Football League, where Pardee found great success in one year, going 14-6.
It seemed the party was going to continue in the NFL, but the Bears ended the ’75 season going 4-10 and finished 3rd in the division. His first game would come to define the season, as the Bears lost to the Baltimore Colts 35-7 on opening day. The team would go on to lose eight games by 20 points or more, and three of their four wins came against teams with losing records.
Pardee did end up turning the team around, making the playoffs in 1977, however he left the team after just three years to coach Washington and later the Oilers.
17 Joe Bugel – 1997 Oakland Raiders
This guy can’t catch a break, not because he isn’t given one, but because he keeps dropping them. He is an OL Coach after all.
After getting fired by the Cardinals four years earlier, Bugel was given a second chance with the Raiders. Although he was once again taking over a team that had just relocated two years earlier (from LA), it wasn’t quite as nasty a situation as it was with the Cardinals. Bugel was now replacing Mike White, who went 8-8 in his first year and was fired after his second season going 7-9. Not great, but not exactly terrible either.
That’s when Bugel made it terrible and continued the string of Raider coaches begin fired after three years or less.
Bugel’s first year with the Raiders ended in a 4-12 record. Unlike Jack Pardee, most of the Raiders losses were close, usually by 3 points or less. They actually lost three games by one point. The team was led by QB Jeff George who actually had the best year of his career with close to 4,000 yards passing and 29 touchdowns. NFL Hall of Famer Tim Brown also had a career year, catching 1,400 yards and 5 touchdowns. The reason for the team’s failure was their defense, finishing near the bottom in overall defense, giving up nearly 4,000 yards passing and over 2,200 yards rushing.
After the season, Bugel was fired and his days as Head Coach were permanently over.
16 Kevin Gilbride – 1997 San Diego Chargers
While Joe Bugel was destroying one California based team, Gilbride was doing the same to another, the San Diego Chargers. Gilbride replaced Bobby Ross, who in five years as coach of the Chargers never finished worse than 8-8.
Gilbride was hired at the end of the 1996 season as a rookie Head Coach and turned things around immediately, leading the ’97 squad to a 4-12 record. Known for his offense, Gilbride had one of the worst in the league that year, landing 26th place. The defense was worse, giving up the most points in the league. Gilbride lasted just one more year in San Diego, finishing 2-14.
What’s worse, being known as one of the worst coaches in NFL history or the guy Buddy Ryan punched in the face in 1993?
15 Richie Petitbon – 1993 Washington
Richie Pettibon opened his first season as Head Coach with the quote: “a lot of people put too much pressure on themselves. ‘Gotta win. Gotta win.’ What they’re saying really is: ‘I’m afraid to lose.’ I’m not afraid to lose.”
It’s a good thing he wasn’t afraid because his team did it a lot. Twelve times as a matter of fact.
Petitbon was taking over from Joe Gibbs, a legend in Washington after winning three Super Bowls. Petitbon was there as Defensive Coordinator for most of those years and finally got his shot when Gibbs retired after the ’92 season.
In 1993, Petitbon was looking to change things. He threatened starting QB Mark Rypien with a benching, made Hall of Fame WR Art Monk a backup, and replaced several players on defense. As players left during the off-season, he arrogantly boasted that he’d replace them with better players.
They were bold moves for a team that had won the Super Bowl two years before and made the playoffs the previous year. They didn’t pay off either, as Washington went 4-12 in his one year as Head Coach. Petitbon was fired after the season and never held another job in the NFL again on any level.
14 Lou Holtz – 1976 New York Jets
It’s hard to imagine the southern, “golly gee wilikers” Lou Holtz holding an NFL job, much less in New York City. But it did happen back in 1976. Lou Holtz was in for a rude awakening and, after the first 13 games, he resigned with one game left (this was back when there were only 14 games per season).
In one preseason game, Jets rookie linebacker spoke of Holtz’s strange coaching method. Joe Namath had come off the field and Jason Todd was finishing the game. Namath already took his knee braces off when Holtz approached him, whining that “Joe, get in there. Todd's going to cost us the game.” Namath was forced into the game right away, before he got a chance to put his knee braces on. Namath than told the other teams’ defense: “Fellas, I'm just going to go down on one knee. Let's not get anybody hurt.”
After the preseason was over, Holtz could be heard moaning in the locker room: “If I knew the NFL was this tough, I never would have taken the job.”
Holtz even wrote a fight song for the team to sing after victories. “Win the game, fight like men, we're together win or lose, New York Jets go rolling along,” it started. Maybe that’s why the team went 3-10 under his short reign.
13 Les Steckel – 1984 Minnesota Vikings
Les Steckel was the polar opposite of the relaxed and worrisome Lou Holtz. Steckel was a Marine who served in Vietnam and was the personification of every stereotypical movie drill sergeant and Head Coach you’ve ever seen.
"I've led 210 Marines and 80 Vietnamese soldiers into combat, so don't talk to me about being a head coach,” was his famous quote entering the ’84 season. "My involvement in the Marine Corps made a lasting impression on me. So it's immediately a great area to use analogies."
Steckel’s job was supposed to be easy. He was a rookie HC replacing a legend in Bud Grant, but the team was solid, finishing 8-8 the previous year and making the playoffs the year before that.
In his only season in charge, Steckel started three quarterbacks in a desperate attempt to find success, including Archie Manning. In the final six games of the season, the team fell apart,and the defense gave up 40 points per game and finished 3-13. After the season, Steckel was fired and even the owner admitted “Les may not have been ready for a job like this at the time.”
12 Bobby Petrino – 2007 Atlanta Falcons
2007 was one hell of a year for the Atlanta Falcons. Bobby Petrino was hired from the college ranks and was supposed to turn Michael Vick into a more complete quarterback. But not long after being hired, Vick was arrested on charges of running a dog fighting ring and never played for the Falcons again. This left Petrino with a hole at the position that he had little time to fill.
In came Joey Harrington and Byron Leftwitch, two top ten draft pick busts, and Chris Redman, a no-name in the NFL who actually turned out to be the best QB on the roster, to fill the gap.
Petrino could hardly be blamed for all this, and many fans and owner Arthur Blank probably would have been willing to give the rookie HC a pass on the season. However, Petrino clearly didn’t fit in the NFL regardless of who was playing quarterback. DeAngelo Hall blasted Petrino publicly for releasing a key player on the team, Grady Jackson, midway through the season for seemingly no reason. Even fan favorite and relative quiet Alge Crumple publicly complained about Petrino’s offense, ranked 29th in the league in scoring.
The writing was on the wall and with three games still to play in the season, Petrino cut and run. He resigned with a 3-10 record to take a Head Coaching job with the Arkansas Razorbacks, and did it in the worst way possible: he left the team a note in their lockers. The way in which he left got him called a “coward” by Lawyer Malloy and “gutless bastard” by his own Defensive Coordinator, Mike Zimmer.
11 Rich Kotite – 1995 New York Jets
Rich Kotite was previously Head Coach of the Eagles where he had a strong winning record over four years, including winning a playoff game in 1992. But he was fired after 1994 for losing the final seven games of the season and finishing 7-9. This didn’t stop the Jets from picking him up though.
He took over the team after Pete Carroll was fired after one year, going 6-10. Kotite brought in his own coaching staff, which according to former Jets players Keyshawn Johnson and Marvin Washington was pretty terrible.
“I just didn’t feel like that. I felt unprepared,” Washington said. “We were unprepared from the coaching standpoint, from the preparation standpoint, which was on the players.” As usual, Johnson was a little more blunt. “The coaches on the field were piss poor.”
Kotite made the Jets worse and finished the year with a 3-13 record. He stepped down in his second season after going 1-15, and never coached any level of football again.
10 Bill Walsh – 1979 San Francisco 49ers
Relax everyone, remember, this is only a list of the worst first year of Head Coaches, not the worst HCs of all time. The fact of the matter is, after Walsh’s rookie year in charge of the 49ers, it was hard to predict he’d become the legend he is today.
Walsh was hired from Stanford after two successful seasons. He was replacing Pete McCulley and Fred O’Connor who both coached less than a year with the team, finishing the ’78 season with a 2-14 record.
Walsh created the West Coast offense in the NFL years before with the Cincinnati Bengals, but no NFL team wanted to give him a chance until San Francisco came calling. Without the future Hall of Famer Joe Montana, Bill Walsh struggled in his first season to a 2-14 season, the second straight for the franchise.
It’s amazing to think in a league where coaches are fired after only one season, or before that as demonstrated by the very same 49ers the year before, that Walsh could stick around after that kind of start. His second year wasn’t much better either, finishing 6-10.
9 Hank Bullough – 1985 Buffalo Bills
Hank Bullough was kind of an accident. The Bills fired coach Kay Stephenson after the first four games of the ’85 season and put Bullough, then Defensive Coordinator, in charge. Bullough immediately turned things around by winning two games… the entire season. He finished his first year as Head Coach with a record of 2-10.
It might seem unfair to put an interim Head Coach on this list, but keep in mind this Bills team had Frank Reich, Andre Reed, and Bruce Smith. It’s also roughly the same team Marv Levy took to the AFC Championship game just three years later.
Bullough was fired midway through the following season after going 2-7 and was replaced by Levy, former coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, and who, at the time, was viewed as mediocre himself.
8 Hugh Campbell – 1984 Houston Oilers
Perhaps the most forgettable coach on this list, Hugh Campbell replaced both Chuck Studley and Ed Biles in 1984 as coach of the Houston Oilers.
Questions were raised about Campbell’s 25th ranked offense immediately. Campbell, a top coach in the CFL, was brought in to rebuild the offense that had future Hall of Famer Warren Moon under center. Despite this, the offense got nowhere, and the team finished the season 3-13. He was fired part way through the following season and GM Ladd Herzeg did not mince words.
"The single most disappointing aspect of Hugh's tenure was his erratic offensive scheme. [...] After taking into consideration that I traded for Drew Hill and Butch Woolfolk and signed Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier, our ranking of 27th or 28th offensively has been exceptionally perplexing."
Oddly, the team decided to fix its broken offense by putting Defensive Coordinator Jerry Glanville in his place.
7 Marion Campbell – 1974/1987 Atlanta Falcons
Marion Campbell has the third worst winning percentage of an NFL coach who coached at least three seasons. The other two are Dave Shula who didn’t have a bad enough first year to make the cut and Bert Bell who, although went 1-11 his rookie season, it happened so long ago it’s hard to properly quantify his ineptitude.
Mariom, no relation to Hugh Campbell, had a good six year run as Falcons Defensive Coordinator. The team was never good, but his defense consistently finished in the top 15 every year, earning himself the job midway through 1974 with the firing of Norm Van Brocklin. He ended the season going 1-5, but was given the gig full time anyway.
Campbell then drafted Steve Bartkowski with the number one overall pick to be the team’s starting quarterback. Bartkowski wasn’t very good, finishing the season with 13 touchdowns and 15 picks in 11 starts. Led by the rookie quarterback and a failing defense, Campbell’s first full season was an abysmal 4-10.
Campbell was fired after five games in the ’76 season, but for some reason, team owners brought him back in 1987. Again, Campbell did a poor job, going 3-12 in his not so triumphant return.
6 Ken Whisenhunt & Lovie Smith – 2014 Tennessee Titans/Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Ken Whisenhunt and Love Smith must have teamed up at the start of the season and formulated some kind of plan together. They both had previous head coaching experience (Cardinals and Bears respectively) and they had both taken their teams to the Super Bowl. Yet somehow, with their new teams in 2014, they both finished 2-12 in the two weakest divisions in the NFL.
The Titans entered the year without a proven quarterback and the team failed to draft one until they took Zach Mettenberger late in the 6th round. They ended up playing former first round bust Jake Locker, journeyman Charlie Whitehurst, and Mettenberger. The team ranked 30th in offense and 29th in defense, but only ended up with the 2nd overall pick in the draft.
That’s because the 1st pick went to the Bucs. The Bucs drafted Wide Receiver Mike Evans with the 7th overall pick and then Tight End Austin Seferian-Jenkins despite not having a definitive starting quarterback. Smith ended up going with career backup Josh McCown and Mike Glennon en route to their own two win season.
Neither team was any good when these two took over, but their owners and fast must have expected more than two wins. Perhaps 2015 will be the year they turn it around.
5 Marty Mornhinweg – 2001 Detroit Lions
2001 was the first year Matt Millen took over as GM of the Detroit Lions. The man who is already known as the worst GM in history hired Mornhinweg from the 49ers where he was Offensive Coordinator.
The Lions actually had a good draft that year, selecting perennial all-stars Jeff Backus, Dominic Raiola, and Shaun Rogers. However, with Charlie Batch, Ty Detmer, and Mike McMahon all starting games that season, the Lions offense struggled, ranking 26th overall.
In his rookie year in charge of the Lions, he finished an abysmal 2-14, but somehow managed to win enough games to fall to third in the draft the following year. Mornhinweg was fired after a 3-13 2002 season, and is generally regarded as one of the worst Head Coaches ever. He and Matt Millen make a fitting duo after all.
4 Chris Palmer – 1999 Cleveland Browns
Chris Palmer deserves a little bit of a break, which is why he isn’t higher on this list than he is. In 1999, he was tasked with not only leading the expansion Browns but rebuilding a once great team in a city that dearly missed its football team.
Palmer did his best, a measly two wins in his first season led by QB Tim Couch and a cast of misfits, journeymen, and late round picks.
In his first game as Head Coach, his team was blown out by the 6-10 Steelers, by a score of 42-0. They lost six games by 15 points or more. Palmer was fired after his second season winning only five games in Cleveland.
Considering the expansion Panthers went 7-9 in their first season, and both they and the Jacksonville Jaguars made the Divisional Conference game their second year, it can’t be too hard to lead an expansion team if you’re good at your job.
3 Mike Mularkey – 2012 Jacksonville Jaguars
Speaking of the Jacksonville Jaguars, their former HC Mike Mularkey makes this list at #3 after a 2-14 record in 2012.
Mularkey was brought in to replace longtime coach Jack Del Rio as just the third Head Coach in franchise history. He had a lot of success as Falcons Offensive Coordinator, but his previous stint as Head Coach with the Buffalo Bills didn’t pan out.
He inherited one of the worst teams in the NFL and instead of drafting a quarterback, they went with WR Justin Blackmon, a receiver whose spending most of his career on the bench due to suspensions. They could have had Ryan Tannehill, Russell Wilson, Nick Foles, Kirk Cousins, or even Case Keenum and Austin Davis. Instead, the Jags went with former first round pick Blaine Gabbert under center, who was receiving criticism from everyone, including his own coaching staff, as being scared.
Mularkey didn’t do anything to help the team and after new GM David Caldwell came in, he was fired after only one season. His successor wouldn’t do much better, but Mularkey didn’t do him any favors by leaving the team in its current state.
2 Cam Cameron – 2007 Miami Dolphins
Cam Cameron only avoided an 0-16 season after a missed 44 yard field goal by the Baltimore Ravens in week 15. As it stands, Cameron’s 1-15 record as an NFL head coach is one of the worst ever.
Cameron was hired to replace Nick Saban, the now legendary college coach who quit halfway through his second season to coach Alabama. Cameron was meant to provide a spark to the offense, as he was one of the top Offensive Coordinators in the league.
Cameron couldn’t find a quarterback. After starting the season with Cleo Lemon and John Beck, he eventually dragged 37 year old Trent Green out of retirement and almost got him killed when he suffered a severe concussion. As a result, the team was 26th in total offense that year, and their defense fell apart, ranking 29th overall.
Bill Parcells was hired by the Dolphins after the 2007 season as Executive Vice President of Football Operations (whatever that means) and immediately fired their GM and Cameron with him. Parcells eventually hired Tony Sparano as Head Coach, who immediately led the team to 11 wins.
1 Rod Rust – 1990 New England Patriots
Like Cameron, Rod Rust has one of the worst records in NFL history at 1-15. Rod Rust makes the list at #1 because he so thoroughly ruined the Patriots, it took four years for them to be good again.
Before Rusty Rod came in, the Patriots were a good team. They made the Super Bowl five years prior and had a great record throughout the ‘80s. Then the Patriots hired Rod Rust, a Defensive Coordinator who was now on his fourth team in as many years. In fact, he was formerly the Patriots Defensive Coordinator but they fired him in 1984.
The team scored 14 points or more only five times all season, and after winning their second game, never won again. Reporter Lisa Olsen was sexual harassed in the locker room, and two of his players were beat up at a nightclub. After losing their third game 41-7, many accused the team of quitting for the rest of the season.
Rust was fired after the season and it seems like he couldn’t have cared less either way.
“I think there are a whole lot of factors that made it a very unusual year,” he said. “I don't consider getting to coach a professional team a birthright. It's something you may have a chance to do and you may not. My term was a brief one, that's all.”