The Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh Super Bowl match-up has cast some attention on familial ties in football. The “Brother Bowl” is rare enough to be intriguing in any environment, and especially so in the biggest football game of the year. As good as the season has been for the Harbaughs, it’s been an uneven one for a handful of coaches who followed their legendary fathers into the profession.
Skip Holtz’s run at South Florida ended with a thud. His second straight losing season notched only three wins, and built on none of the ground developed during Jim Leavitt’s long tenure. Expectations were high for Holtz, whose success at ECU included two CUSA championships and a stretch where he nailed consecutive wins over Boise State, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia (all ranked, and with WVU at #8 at the time.) Many thought Florida’s talent base and USF’s strong position in a BCS conference were two ingredients that would elevate both program and coach. It didn’t work out that way.
Holtz landed on his feet, though it seems that keeping the momentum developed by Sonny Dykes and crew will be tough: the team’s roster is built for one of the most unique schemes in the game, while Holtz isn’t known for being a whiz on offense. Then again, his dad survived a disastrous attempt to bring both the veer and the Notre Dame fight song to the NFL’s Jets. And there’s probably thousands of kids out there who think he’s really a doctor, so maybe LT isn’t that great an obstacle.
When I started writing this piece, Derek Dooley was still looking for work following his departure from Tennessee. After three losing seasons (including 3-5, 1-7, and 0-7 conference efforts) the biggest surprise may be that he lasted that long. His tenure will be remembered for Tennessee’s first loss to Kentucky since dinosaurs roamed the earth, on-field coaching gaffes, recruiting failures, a hemorrhaged coaching staff, and the creation of a run-off rule nicknamed in his honor. The last one is probably the only one people will remember; the rule was designed to reverse an odd situation where the Vols lost a bowl game because their opponent penalized themselves at the end of the game. That game capped Dooley’s first season, which unfortunately for the young coach was also his best season in Knoxville. I wouldn’t bet someone else’s money on him coming close to equaling his dad’s national title and six SEC championships, especially since his post-Vols springboard team is the Dallas Cowboys, which has its own running theme of failure in this piece.
For my money, the saddest story actually involves the man Dooley replaced at Tennessee. Lane Kiffin has been a mirror-universe Midas, with every program he touches collapsing into chaos. He was given the benefit of a doubt over his Oakland exit—call it the “Al Davis Clause”—though the shambles Kiffin created in the wake of Phil Fulmer at Knoxville largely erased the goodwill. Bad losses, recruiting and public affairs gaffes, an ill-advised public showdown with Urban Meyer, and a humbling bowl loss that showed his team to be largely unprepared and apathetic—Kiffin achieved all this in just one season, then fled the Tennessee Valley like a deposed dictator. He even left rioting youth in his wake. He established shop at Southern Cal, where he teased Trojan fans with a 10-2 season before becoming the first coach to take a preseason #1 to a 7-6 record ranked outside the top 25. He even echoed his bowl “success” with UT, with his Trojans getting soundly whipped by Georgia Tech at the Sun Bowl.
It’s the saddest story of the three not because of Lane (who still is employed with the Trojans), but because he dragged his father into it. While Lou Holtz entertained audiences across the country with his Dadaist talents, and Vince Dooley enjoyed consulting gigs and writing children’s books, Monte Kiffin spent a fair chunk of his golden years trying to help his son win a few ball games. Monte is recognized as one of the greatest defensive coaches to have worked in the NFL, and he’ll be synonymous with Tampa-2 schemes (and probably Cover-2 schemes in general) for decades to come. So of course his venture into the college game was unrewarding.
The media tale is that the elder Kiffin couldn’t match the schemes of today’s spread squads, though it’s a faulty analysis: it wasn’t the smoothest schematic transition for Monte, though his game plans against Florida (when he was at UT), Oregon, and Georgia Tech had an expert’s wrinkles, and his teams held more than a few potent offenses to respectable scores. An eminent professional, Monte couldn’t overcome the chaos of sanctions, blue-chippers, and his own son’s antics. There are two versions of how his tenure in the college ranks ended. He was either fired by Lane, or he willingly left for the Dallas Cowboys, a team led by the Lane Kiffin of Owner/GMs. If you’re of the mind that he was escaping the college game, he knew going in that two opponents in the NFC East take offensive cues from Baylor and the run-and-shoot (Chip Kelly came along later.)
Rex and Rob Ryan are a mixed bag that seems appropriate for a year of successful brothers and lacking sons of coaching legends: the tantrum-throwing twins flip back and forth between being hailed as geniuses approaching Buddy’s understanding of the game, or being scapegoated (as is their current predicament.) Come to think of it, Rex and Rob have quite a bit in common with their dad.
Buddy Ryan at his peak was a defensive genius, but he was undone by a mercurial temper, stubborn personality, and a professional self-destructive streak that occasionally led to violence. Rob’s work with the Cowboys was likewise volatile and odd. He brought the same strategies that at their best baffled even Tom Brady, though his tenure was marred by injuries to his players and their lingering difficulties in learning his shifting schemes. In the end, his final season was eclipsed by the advertisements gracing his play sheets, and perhaps a bit by the arrival of his replacement, Monte Kiffin.
In New York, Rex seems to be on thin ice with the Jets, though given how much turnover has gone on in the staff and front office, it’s as stable as can be expected. His tabloid coverage and the Tim Tebow trainwreck, unfortunately, have been more consistently newsworthy than his teams; barring some tremendous improvement, Ryan’s departure seems a matter of “when,” not “if.”
None of these examples point to any disadvantage with being a famous coach’s son; if anything, having family roots eases an entry barrier. The stumbles only show how difficult the profession is, where even being raised in the football life doesn’t guarantee regular success.
*The Close But No Cigar Category: In case you’re wondering, Michael Lombardi isn’t related to Vince, and Pat Shurmur is Fritz’s nephew.