There are so many things playing into the USFL’s favor in 2022. The revived United States Football League has a sound financial plan, thanks to the partnership of a host city in Birmingham, and the league has a strong television package, with NBC sports also along for the ride. Still, the journey for success begins and ends with the football presented on the field. The quality of the USFL’s play will determine whether the league will win over skeptics and football fans.
To that end, the USFL’s head coaches will play a big part. All eight coaches in the new league will have a unique and challenging task in front of them moving forward. With a little over two months until the season begins on Saturday, April 16th. Each USFL head coach will need to assemble a staff, scout, identify and select players, and then try to get those players ready within a limited timeframe, from when camp starts on March 21st until the season begins.
The difficulties in hiring eight USFL head coaches
There’s a certain level of expectation attached to the types of head coaches that alternative pro football leagues attract. Typically, the coaches who take the plunge have been ignored or have found themselves out of the loop for some time in the NFL or the college ranks.
In many ways, the coaches’ alternate pro leagues attract mirrors the types of players that ultimately play for them. Overlooked, off the radar, and the long since forgotten in some cases.
The USFL’s group of head coaches all match that criteria, in one way or another.
From a league-building perspective, it’s difficult to entice and convince head coaches to take a chance on an upstart pro football league, and it’s the same dilemma the USFL will have with mainstream sports fans.
The USFL, like many of the spring leagues that have come before, has had difficulties getting head coaches to commit. The final list of the USFL’s eight is different from their initial wish list. The situation was fluid, leading into the final reveal of their last two names. The USFL’s brain trust reached out to several coaches with name recognition, who opted to pass on the opportunity for one reason or another.
There are several reasons for the struggles involved in getting credible coaches to buy into a new league. And it goes beyond the financial aspects. Although, that always plays a factor. Some big names like Marvin Lewis were rumored to be “under consideration” for the USFL. But to get an NFL lifer like Lewis on board, you need to do the hard sell and sweeten the pot considerably.
The time frame involved in hiring potential coaches is also challenging at this time of the year. While it is true that the winter in college and the NFL is firing season. On the other hand, it’s also hiring season.
Many of the coaches that the USFL attempted to lure into the fold were waiting to see if other opportunities became available. Some found it, like Gene Chizik, who passed on Birmingham to go coach at North Carolina. At the same time, others are still waiting to see what transpires.
As of press time, there are currently seven head coach openings in the NFL, and that number will start to dwindle rapidly in the coming days. But along with the new HC hires, will be the complete restocking of each NFL team’s coaching staff.
The USFL also has a unique dynamic in play when it comes to its setup. It’s not your traditional league structure. The coaches will be working for four months from one location with no travel involved.
Often with new pro leagues, these head coaches must take residence in a new market, get their families situated, and then become a salesman selling their team locally. There’s none of that with the USFL. Taking the Michigan job doesn’t require you to live there in this league, and it’s just in name only, until the league eventually journey’s into separate markets.
So with all these different details and factors in mind. Let’s get to the process of ranking the coaches; the USFL eventually landed to head up their teams in Birmingham.
Keep in mind, when it comes to grading coaches for new leagues, such as this, there’s a different criterion involved. It goes beyond X’s and O’s and team compatibility. Because all these teams are starting from scratch, the coaches, in many respects, serve as selling points for the entire league. Not just a specific team or market.
USFL Head Coach Rankings
#1. Michigan Panthers Head Coach Jeff Fisher
The USFL needed to make some headlines in their head coaching announcements, and they certainly got that at the final hour with their hiring of Jeff Fisher to head up the Michigan Panthers. No matter what the perception of the world’s most famous seven-win coach is, there’s no denying that the football lifer Jeff Fisher has strong name recognition.
As evidenced by the amount of attention Fisher’s hire received all across social media. This is especially in comparison to the USFL’s other coaching hires, which have gone largely unnoticed.
The truth is that despite all the jokes reserved at Fisher’s expense. He’s a well-respected figure in the football world who not only brings great experience and notoriety to the USFL. But also credibility to the entire league.
Jeff Fisher, a head coach for 22 seasons, has coached in 350 NFL games, regular and postseason combined, amassing a career record of 178–171–1, with a Super Bowl appearance on his lengthy resume.
Landing Fisher is a great get for the USFL, and his reputation and relationship in coaching circles should help him land a pretty strong support staff with the Panthers.
At this late stage of his football life, Jeff Fisher will no doubt enjoy the prospects of coaching young pro football players in the USFL. As a matter of fact, it’s something that he is currently preparing to do this weekend. Fisher is scheduled to be the head coach for the American team at the NFL PA Collegiate Bowl. Perhaps a few veteran coaches on his staff could join him in the USFL.
Call it putting the cart before the horse, but the big question with a veteran coach like Fisher is his long-term commitment. Fisher hasn’t been a head coach since 2016, and he’s been under the radar, enjoying life away from the sidelines after several decades of dedicating himself to the sport. Is he joining the USFL to help the league get its footing in year one before moving on? Or will Fisher stick it out and commit himself long-term when the Panthers presumably set up shop in Michigan down the line.
One step at a time. But the hire of Fisher in 2022 by the USFL is a positive step forward for the league.
#2. New Jersey Generals Head Coach Mike Riley
Ill-fitted photoshops aside, Mike Riley’s resume is tailor-made for a league like the USFL. And there’s no doubt that his ties to USFL EVP of Football Ops Daryl ‘Moose’ Johnston helped land him a gig in the league. After the two teamed up together in the AAF with the wildly successful San Antonio Commanders.
Rumor has it that the Washington NFL team may adopt San Antonio’s team name on Groundhog Day. But that’s a story for another time and place.
Mike Riley is no stranger to adopting different leagues. And he’s had success in each one. Winning two Grey Cups in the CFL and having winning records in the AAF and the World League of American Football. As TSN’s own and Football Canada President Jim Mullin recently noted on social media. Riley is worthy of being a charter inductee in the alternative football league Hall of Fame.
USFL head coaches will have a tough time fielding quality teams right out the starting gate. With the player selection process taking place in late February, coaches like Riley will have a small window to get their players and coaching staff up to speed.
Alt league coaches are used to shouldering a heavier load than their NFL and College counterparts. Shoe-string budgets and limited resources come with the territory in first-year leagues. Teams in these outfits tend to have a smaller coaching staff, and everyone is required to multi-task and assume several roles at once. The USFL roster construction of having only 38 active players on game day will also present several hurdles for all coaches in the league.
But if anyone within the USFL is up for that harrowing challenge. It’s Mike Riley, and because he’s already lived it a hundred times over.
The knock against Riley by some is that he falls into being another retread. It’s unfortunate, but there is a belief that leagues like this should look for new fresh faces. And while there is certainly an argument for that, Riley is the ideal coach for this type of setting and league.
Mike Riley is not only respected and well-liked, but he’s always had a good rapport with young players. And he’s always had a good eye for emerging young talent.
As legend would have it, Once upon a time, Riley, while at USC as offensive coordinator, pounded the table for a scrawny high school quarterback in San Mateo California named Tom Brady. Riley, from the start, saw something special in him.
Long story short, Brady was set to choose USC over Michigan. But right before Riley could land Brady after recruiting Tom for years. Trojans head coach John Robinson told Riley that the Trojans had landed a commitment from a quarterback out of Chicago named Quincy Woods. “We don’t have room for Brady,” Robinson said.
Riley was crushed, and when he got in the NFL, as head coach of the Chargers. He vowed not to relive the same mistake again in the 2000 Draft. Riley heavily pushed Bobby Beathard, San Diego’s GM at the time to draft Brady. Beathard eventually caved into Riley’s wishes and agreed to use one of the team’s three sixth-round picks on Brady but then did an about-face at the final hour and changed his mind, selecting LB Shannon Taylor instead. Riley would later suggest that a piece of him died at that moment.
Mike Riley is reborn and has a new life once again in the coaching world. The USFL is lucky to have him. Except for Bart Andrus on a lesser scale, none of the other USFL head coaches have experience in this type of setting.
#3. Pittsburgh Maulers Head Coach Kirby Wilson
The best hires in spring pro football leagues are often lesser-known coaches who have something to prove.
When word got out that the XFL would have a team in St. Louis a few years back, any player or coach who had ties to the Rams was put on a wish list for the job by local fans. Isaac Bruce was one of the names thrown around. Some people even mentioned Jim Haslett as a possibility because of his experience in the market. But the consensus, especially when the AAF folded, was that the XFL had to hire Mike Martz.
When the XFL landed on long-time NFL assistant Jonathan Hayes, there was a level of disappointment. A TE’s coach with no head coaching experience didn’t exactly ignite the fire amongst people in St. Louis. But Hayes did a great job and won everyone over. And to this day, he is beloved and considered one of that league’s best hires.
Former longtime NFL position coach Kirby Wilson fits the same bill that Jonathan Hayes did.
After years of being a successful position coach in the National Football League, Kirby Wilson found himself without a job this past season. He was left on the outside looking in, and perhaps it’s the best thing that ever happened to him. Quite frankly, the USFL is giving Wilson a shot that no one else was going to. Not in the NFL or College.
Coaches like Kirby Wilson are pigeonholed and typecast. Respected for their expertise in coaching one position, in Wilson’s case, running backs, but never receiving a promotion to do more. The NFL is filled with assistants like Wilson, who toil in obscurity for years, nameless and faceless, without ever getting a chance to do more.
As an unknown at the position of head coach. One of the potential pitfalls for Wilson is his ability to put together a quality staff. Veteran coaches like Jeff Fisher will have an advantage over other coaches in the league like Wilson because of his connections. Can Kirby Wilson put together a competent staff in such a short amount of time?
These leagues are all about giving discarded and ignored players a chance they never received in the NFL. Why not have the same sentiment towards coaches? Kirby Wilson is going to get his shot to lead a team finally, and it could be his only chance, but what if it leads to something more.
#4. Birmingham Stallions Head Coach Skip Holtz
The Skip Holtz hire isn’t a sexy one. But overall, he’s a decent pickup for the league. He just spent nine years at Louisiana Tech, and his overall record in college is 160-125. He’s 8-4 in Bowl games. A former two-time coach of the year at Conference USA. This is Holtz’s first coaching job in pro football.
The USFL would like to lean towards potentially recruiting college players in the future. And Holtz does have modern-day recruiting experience. So, in theory, that can prove to be an asset down the line. During the league’s press conference in Birmingham, Holtz jokingly attempted to recruit Reggie Bush to play with the Stallions. The USFL plans on targeting college sophomores and transfer portal players to turn pro early and play in their league. And they are trying to entice them by providing free education. Then, maybe Holtz can go after some Reggie Bush types in the south.
By now, everyone knows that Skip Holtz wasn’t the USFL’s primary choice to head up Birmingham. According to several sources close to the process, he wasn’t their secondary choice either. No matter, The Stallions are the league’s most important team and the only local one at that. So hiring someone with respectable credentials was a must. But Holtz has fewer ties to the region than Alabama-born Kevin Sumlin or former Bear Bryant player and Bama grad Mike Riley.
The question is, did the USFL pick the right coach for Birmingham. The team must be competent to draw interest in year one and beyond. You want equality and fairness in the USFL. But the Stallions need to be for the United States Football League, what the BattleHawks were for the XFL. Holtz has to be successful and win games. The novelty of having a pro football team again in Birmingham will wear off fast if the Stallions are 1-9. Birmingham residents won’t have the same rooting interest for the Stars and Maulers.
#5. Houston Gamblers Head Coach Kevin Sumlin
You could very easily swap Sumlin with Skip Holtz at four and not bat an eye. Both are very similar in that they have been head coaches in college fairly recently. And both have never coached on the pro level.
In Kevin Sumlin’s first ten years as a head coach in the college ranks for the University of Houston and Texas A & M, he had only one losing season. His teams went to seven bowl games (4-3). The former SEC coach of the year has a solid overall resume at 99-67. But his last three years at Arizona with the Wildcats were a disaster. A 9-20 mark from 2018-2020. A 70-7 in-state loss to Arizona State two December’s ago did him in as Sumlin was fired immediately afterward.
The running joke with Sumlin’s teams has always been, ‘defense need not apply.’
Sumlin’s offenses, especially in his early rise to prominence, were high scoring. He coached several quality players in his spread offense. Most notably, the infamous Johnny Manziel at A & M. Sumlin’s success and experience in Texas seems like a natural fit if the Gamblers were playing in Houston. But maybe if Sumlin can get back to his winning ways when the team does end up back in the lone star state, it will mean more.
#6. Tampa Bay Bandits Head Coach Todd Haley
Of the three former NFL head coaches in the USFL. There is no one more polarizing than Todd Haley. Depending on who you talk to, Haley is either a misunderstood genius whose star faded too quickly or a blowhard who failed to connect with his players and was too stubborn in his ways.
Maybe Todd Haley is all of the above.
Once upon a time, Haley was a rising star in the coaching ranks. The son of one of the NFL’s greatest personnel evaluators ever, Dick Haley. Todd Haley initially followed in his father’s footsteps as a scouting assistant before shifting his focus to coaching. Haley made a strong impression on the legendary Bill Parcells for his attention to detail when he worked under him with the New York Jets in the late nineties, coaching all-pro receivers Keyshawn Johnson and Wayne Chrebet.
Haley would continue to impress as an assistant in his next few coaching stops. First in Chicago, then back with Parcells in Dallas, before ascending to offensive coordinator with the Arizona Cardinals. As OC with the Cards, Haley would help coordinate an explosive attack to the Super Bowl in 2008.
During his time as an assistant in New York, Haley made a strong impression on future three-time super bowl winning and NFL executive of the year Scott Pioli. So much so that when Pioli left New England to lead the Kansas City Chiefs. After working for years with Bill Belichick, Pioli hired Todd Haley to be his head coach.
Things didn’t start very well for Todd in Kansas City. The team struggled, as did Haley, who clashed with star players like RB Larry Johnson. But by year two in KC, Haley would lead the Chiefs to ten wins and a playoff appearance. But things went south fast the following season—many of the issues that plagued Haley in his rookie year as head coach resurfaced. Haley lost the locker room, and after going 5-8, Pioli was forced to let his friend go.
Todd Haley didn’t take long to land another prominent job after going 19-26 in KC. This time for his hometown, Steelers as offensive coordinator. From 2012-to 2017, Pittsburgh had a lot of success with Haley calling plays. Winning many games during that stretch with elite players on offense like Le’Veon Bell. But the Steelers never won the Super Bowl, and Haley, after some clashes with Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, wore out his welcome and was shown the door.
The fall from grace continued for Haley. In 2018, now as Browns coordinator, he was let go after just eight games. Haley swiftly became persona non grata in the NFL, and he hasn’t coached in the league since then. Haley has spent the last two years as offensive coordinator at Riverview High School in Sarasota, Florida.
Alternate pro football leagues can often be a haven for people who are reclamation projects who are seeking redemption or a second chance. But that’s usually reserved for players, not coaches. Todd Haley is looking to redeem himself in pro football, and the USFL gives him that chance. For that reason, Haley should be highly motivated. The question is, can Haley learn from his past mistakes and come out the other side a better coach. Time will tell in the USFL. Being behind the times and having cultural issues is not easy to overcome.
#7. New Orleans Breakers Head Coach Larry Fedora
Like Kevin Sumlin. Larry Fedora is another former success story in college that has struggled mightily in recent years. At one point, Fedora was considered an innovative mind in the college ranks with his spread offense.
Fedora’s overall record as head coach at Southern Miss and North Carolina was 79-62. 3-5 in Bowl games. However, he was 5-18 in his last two seasons with the Tarheels. There was a disconnect between the university and Fedora and between him and his players.
Then after being let go by NC, Fedora, after a brief stint with Texas as an analyst, ended up as offensive coordinator at Baylor in 2020, where his offense finished 125th nationally in yards per play and 99th in scoring before he was fired after just one season.
Fedora has a chance in the USFL to get back to the type of coach he was several years back.
#8. Philadelphia Stars Head Coach Bart Andrus
There are two schools of argument for longtime coach Bart Andrus.
The first is that his resume pales by comparison among this group of coaches. Andrus doesn’t have many winning seasons throughout his diverse coaching career. Andrus did, however, win a championship in NFL Europe back in 2005 with the Amsterdam Admirals. But his overall pro record is just 40-54, and he is 8-12 in his brief stints in college. Andrus also had a brutal stint in the CFL with the Toronto Argonauts. Things did not go well for him on or off the field in Canada. Andrus clashed with players and lost the locker room while he coached up north.
In defense of Bart Andrus, the other school of thought is that of all the USFL coaches. The league’s structure benefits him the most. Not only does he have a lot of experience coaching in a Brian Woods-style league with limited rosters, as he has for years in the Spring League. But Andrus has recent experience operating in an alternate pro league when he coached Team 9, a reserve unit for the XFL. His experience dealing with young players in this space, and working with restraints, particularly in the USFL, could play to his benefit.
Overall, the hiring of Andrus is an underwhelming one. But you had to figure that Brian Woods would keep one of his guys in this new USFL venture.
USFL Overall Grade: C
This is just my opinion, and like anything else, it’s a subjective thing. The C minus grade is factoring in a couple of different aspects, and part of the grade is about how the process was handled and less about the actual names in question.
However, one of my biggest gripes with this group is the lack of imagination and forward-thinking involved. I am worried, judging by the preliminary game rules that have been released publicly, that the USFL is going to be lacking in the innovation department.
The USFL needed to think outside the box and hire modern coaches who are on the cutting edge of where football is headed in the future. Not just in terms of X’s and O’s and analytics but also from a cultural standpoint. It’s important in 2022 to hire coaches who can connect with the players. I don’t see any Pep Hamilton types in this group.
By the same token, my expectation wasn’t that the league would hire a Jim Caldwell, David Culley, or Joe Brady type. Because of financial constraints and other considerations.
I also realize that as great as it would have been to see an Alabama Sports Hall of Famer like Steelers assistant head coach John Mitchell get his first head coaching job by returning to his roots and coaching with the Birmingham Stallions again. It’s not realistic to expect the USFL to lure assistants away from the NFL.
But if you are going to lean towards veteran coaches with head coaching experience. The USFL missed the boat, not bringing in a Wade Phillips, Steve Spurrier, or Marvin Lewis. These coaches were in play and consideration, but the USFL and the coaches went in a different direction for varying reasons.
Ultimately, you want a nice mix of different types of coaches in your league. Having some legacy-type names is great, but new-age coaches should offset them. Each team should have a different style and personality, and maybe that can come from who these teams hire at the coordinator level.
Comparing the USFL’s head coaches to who the AAF and XFL hired is not an apples to apples comparison. For several reasons, chief among them, that the USFL’s hires are not local based like the XFL and AAF were, because they are only in one market.
The XFL hired Pep Hamilton and Jim Zorn to help sell the teams locally. And say what you will about Zorn as a coach, he is a legend in Seattle and helped the Dragons with their visibility. The Dragons were one of the best drawing teams in the XFL.
You can compare Jeff Fisher favorably to the likes of Bob Stoops and Steve Spurrier, in terms of name recognition. But the collection of USFL choices beyond Fisher, are lacking in the same type of bold and wise choices, the XFL made in hiring great leaders like Winston Moss, Pep Hamilton and Jonathan Hayes. Not only were those three fresh out of the NFL and college ranks. But they were deserving of the opportunities they got and they delivered. In the locker room and off.
The coaches in the USFL will have a hard time with the restraints in place because of time issues and limitations due to roster size. So I respect the fact that they are taking on this challenge. And at the end of the day, an important element is getting coaches who believe in what you are doing and are committed to excellence. So hopefully, the USFL’s initial eight head coaches can meet that obligation.
Because quite frankly, despite having their coaches locked in. There are no guarantees with these leagues that coaches won’t bail at the drop of a hat if a better opportunity presents itself or if they don’t like what they see when they peek behind the curtain. It happened in the Alliance of American Football; it hopefully doesn’t happen again.
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