The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 1-5 under new head coach Lovie Smith, and two of the five losses have been humiliating blowouts. Smith is in the first year of a four-year deal, and as the Bucs’ third head coach in the six years post-Jon Gruden, was supposed to bring stability to the position, so it’s unlikely he’ll get fired so quickly into his tenure. A handful of others haven’t been so lucky, though.
I wanted to see if any other NFL teams had fired a head coach during the coach’s first season with the team. (There have been several one-and-done guys who have been fired after their first – usually woeful – season, with Rob Chudzinski and Cam Cameron recent examples.)
Turns out you have to go back 36 years – to 1978 – to find instances where an NFL team cut bait with a new coach during his first season. And it happened twice that season.
The first is the all-time record, one that can only be topped in a Wally Backman-like circumstance. Los Angeles Rams owner Carroll Rosenbloom fired George Allen after just two preseason games, saying he had made “a serious error in judgement (sic) in believing George Allen could work within our framework.” Allen’s training camp had been criticized by players for its long workouts and as many as five players had walked out for one reason or another during the preseason.
On November 1, 1978, the San Francisco 49ers fired first-year head coach Pete McCulley – nine games into a three-year contract – after a 38-20 loss at Washington that dropped the Niners’ record to 1-8. Offensive coordinator Fred O’Connor finished out the 2-14 season, and San Francisco hired a guy named Bill Walsh for 1979. That worked out pretty well. McCulley – who kept coaching for another decade – died in 1992 at the age of 61.
I could only find two other instances of a current team firing its coach during his first season. Before McCulley, there was John Whelchel, a former Navy Vice Admiral hired by George Preston Marshall to coach the Washington Redskins in 1949. After a 3-3-1 start, Marshall set Whelchel adrift, despite him actually winning his final game, 27-13 at Pittsburgh on November 6. (Marshall was in a stretch where he went through six head coaches in seven years. In 1954, Marshall got into a hotel lobby argument with Curly Lambeau after the team’s third preseason game and fired Lambeau on the spot, replacing him with Joe Kuharich, who somehow lasted five seasons.)
And in November 1941, the Pittsburgh Steelers fired Aldo “Buff” Donelli, who had only been their coach for just over a month. Donelli had not started the season as the Steelers’ head man (Bert Bell had, but the future NFL commissioner had “resigned” under pressure after an 0-2 start), but had gone 0-5 to run the team’s record to 0-7. As Donelli was concurrently coaching the football team at his alma mater, Duquesne University in Pittsburgh (his Dukes would finish undefeated at 8-0), a weary then-NFL commissioner Elmer Layden forced Donelli to choose between assignments and the Steelers lost. As they would for most of the next three decades.
Besides Bell’s two-game stint at the helm of the Steelers in 1941, a handful of other coaches have resigned during their first seasons in charge of NFL teams:
- LeRoy Andrews quit the Chicago Cardinals’ job after a season-opening 13-3 loss at Portsmouth on September 23, 1931.
- Alvin (Bo) McMillan retired despite a 2-0 record as coach of the Eagles in 1951.
- Sid Gillman, who had led the San Diego Chargers during the 1960s and then retired, lasted 10 games in a 1971 comeback before retiring again.
- Lou Holtz decided 13 games in the pro ranks were enough when he bailed on the New York Jets in 1976 with a 3-10 record. He would surface at Arkansas in 1977…
- …which is where Bobby Petrino high-tailed it to after quitting 13 games into his first season with the Atlanta Falcons in 2007. That’s probably one Petrino wishes he had back, but not the only one.
Given the Bucs gave Greg Schiano two years (11-21) and Raheem Morris three (17-31), and neither of those two had NFL head coaching pedigrees even approaching Smith’s, it’s not likely Smith will be cleaning out his office anytime soon. But if it does happen, it won’t be the first time.