As Jack Del Rio strolls the Raiders’ practice fields, it is easy to see in his confident stride and calm demeanor that he has tapped into something that’s been around almost forever, at least in football time.
The Raiders’ new head coach walks on a path worn by a handful of men who helped shape his career, men who were connected to luminaries from the earliest days of the NFL.
He played under Jimmy Johnson in Dallas and Tony Dungy in Minnesota. Mike Ditka gave him his first coaching job in New Orleans. Brian Billick in Baltimore and John Fox in Carolina also hired him. Four of the coaches won Super Bowls. The fifth took his team to the NFL’s biggest game twice.
Through their influence and the influences bestowed upon them, Del Rio’s coaching pedigree bears the imprint of history. In the diagrammatic football coaching tree, his branch connects to football founding fathers like Paul Brown and George Halas, to innovators such as Sid Gillman, to champions along the lines of Tom Landry and Bill Walsh.
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This year, Del Rio celebrates his 30th anniversary in the NFL as a player and coach, including nine years as the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Across those three decades, he credits Dungy, Ditka and Billick especially for helping him become another tree in the forest of NFL coaches.
30Years in the NFL as a player or coach for Jack Del Rio
“They all had an impact; they all were instrumental in the coach I am today, the person I am today,” Del Rio said. “I played for or coached with all those guys, and they all brought something different.”
Del Rio classified Dungy as his mentor. A 13-year head coach in Tampa Bay and Indianapolis, Dungy won the Super Bowl with the 2006 Colts and a total of 208 games between the two franchises. Dungy was the defensive coordinator on the Minnesota Vikings during the four years Del Rio played linebacker in the Twin Cities. Through Chuck Noll, under whom he played and coached with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dungy links Del Rio to Sid Gillman, the Rams and Chargers coach who helped turn pro football toward the passing game.
“Tony was the best because he was the first coach that ever admitted he was wrong,” Del Rio said. “He was the guy who said, ‘Yeah, we put you in a bad spot. You did exactly what we asked for, and it didn’t work.’ It’s usually, ‘Well, if you had just done this, we could have stopped that play,’ and of course it would be completely opposite of what they taught all week. So Tony realized that as players, we really appreciated the honesty.”
Dungy said Del Rio “was a joy to coach.”
“He understood the game; he knew what you were talking about, why you were doing things as well as what you were doing,” said Dungy, an NFL analyst for NBC. “He could come off the field and describe to you exactly what was taking place. He had suggestions of how we could make things easier, of what we could do to be more effective.”
Del Rio averaged 136 tackles from 1992 to 1994 and intercepted nine passes over those three playoff seasons with the Vikings. It was evident, Dungy said, that some day Del Rio would become a coach.
“In fact, when I got the head job in Tampa (in 1996), I called Jack and asked him if he would come and coach with me,” Dungy said. “At that point, he thought he had a chance to play one more year, and he had a chance to get reunited with Jimmy Johnson. Jimmy had just taken the Miami job. But I knew he would be a very good coach, and I wanted him to be on my staff.”
At age 33, Del Rio went to camp as a player with Johnson, who in 1996 took over the Dolphins, but he retired before the season got under way. Ditka latched onto him, and Del Rio said he will be “forever grateful” to the icon who gave him his first coaching job in 1997 with the Saints.
Ditka coached the Chicago Bears’ 1985 Super Bowl team that ranks with the greatest in NFL history. Ditka’s background connects Del Rio to Halas and Landry, Ditka’s coaches with the Bears and Cowboys.
“It’s very simple,” said Ditka, who works for ESPN as an NFL analyst, on what he saw in Del Rio and why he hired him. “He’s a hell of a football player. He’s a hell of a guy, and he had a great passion to coach. He wanted to teach people. He was a perfect fit. He worked hard, he knew what he was doing, and he could relate to players because he was not out of the game that long.”
And Del Rio never held his success over the players’ heads, or over the people who hired him.
“A lot of guys get bent out of shape, get high strung on who they are and what they accomplished,” Ditka said. “But he never did that. He played the game, and when he had the opportunity to get into the game as a coach, he did it the right way. He learned from everybody, he kept his nose clean, and when the opportunity came for him to get a coordinator’s job and then a head-coaching job, he was ready for it.”
Del Rio turned in two years with Ditka before Billick, now an analyst for the NFL Network, lured him to Baltimore, where the 2000 Ravens won a Super Bowl.
“(Billick) taught me the game from a cerebral standpoint of organizing and planning and really understanding the need to be efficient and not overworking your team,” Del Rio said.
Billick was the offensive coordinator with the Vikings under Dennis Green, who had a three-year history with Walsh, who worked in Cincinnati for seven years as an assistant under Brown, who won seven championships in two leagues with the Cleveland Browns.
“You saw right away the football intelligence,” Billick said of Del Rio. “Not that he wasn’t a great athlete and player. But his strength was his mental approach to the game, his discipline.”
You saw right away the football intelligence. Not that he wasn’t a great athlete and player. But his strength was his mental approach to the game, his discipline.
Former Ravens coach Brian Billick, on Raiders coach Jack Del Rio
His credibility as a former player, work ethic and “intellectual capacity” made Del Rio “the perfect fit” to work with the Ravens’ emerging superstar linebacker, Ray Lewis, Billick said. A two-time Pro Bowl player by the time Del Rio arrived, Lewis made first-team All-Pro all three years he played under his new position coach.
Now, Billick said, Del Rio is well positioned in Oakland to make his own mark on the coaching craft.
“He now has a body of work,” Billick said. “To use the Malcolm Gladwell term, ‘Where are your 10,000 hours of experience?’ He’s been on a Super Bowl team with phenomenal talent, and he was also part of the team we gutted in the next couple of years and became a very young team, so he knows what that looks like.
“The experience he’s had as a head coach (in Jacksonville) – he’d be the first to tell you like any head coach, ‘Yeah, there were mistakes that I made, I could have done better, but now I can apply that going forward.’”
Del Rio went 68-71 in in Jacksonville (2003-11), taking the Jaguars to the playoffs twice (1-2 record). He has called the experience a time of “tremendous growth.” He served three seasons as the defensive coordinator in Denver that he said “adds to the learning and hopefully some of the wisdom I can bring (to Oakland) and share.”
With a good young quarterback and a front office that is making solid moves in the draft and free agency in Oakland, people someday could talk about Jack Del Rio’s coaching tree.
We’ll know in about five months whether its roots take hold with the Raiders.