Enjoying dinner Friday night at a suburban Denver steak restaurant, Vic Fangio was unaware that he soon will hold a unique distinction.
On Monday night, Sept. 9 in Oakland, Victory Vic will become the oldest rookie coach without any head-coaching experience to lead an NFL team in an opening game. Fangio, who starts his first Broncos training camp Thursday, will turn 61 Aug. 22.
Fangio has told me that serving 10 years as a head coach here to end his career would be acceptable.
Good luck, old man.
Fangio has the weathered appearance, knowhow, determination, intelligence and perseverance of Ernest Hemingway’s Santiago, who fought the fish. “It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then the luck comes when you are ready,’’ the old man of the sea said.
Fangio fights the football. He has been an assistant coach for 40 seasons in high school, college, the USFL and the NFL. The closest he got previously to a head coaching position was in 1997 with the Chargers. After being passed over, at 39, for Kevin Gilbride (who lasted only two seasons), Fangio became resigned to, and content with, being a defensive assistant.
Along, finally, came the Broncos. This one didn’t get away.
In a world of young coaches and their fancy, elaborate offensive schemes, egos and analytics, Fangio is a plodder, a plotter, a planner and a defensive sorcerer on who can beat the young high-tekkies.
However, can someone from the 1960s and in his 60s prosper into the 2020s?
Pete Carroll, Bill Belichick and Bruce Arians, who has come back to the game, have coached extremely effectively as the oldest coaches in the NFL. They’ve managed 20 combined winning seasons in this decade, and Belichick is the best above the rest.
However, the men who took over teams at Fangio’s age haven’t always flourished.
Just eight men 60 or older have been named NFL head coaches for the first time in their careers. Four — Arians, Ernie Hefferle, Emmitt Thomas and Dick LeBeau — were interim coaches. Arians, then 60, assumed control in 2012 when coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with cancer. The Colts went 9-3 before Pagano returned. The following season the Cardinals hired Arians, a longtime coordinator and a short-term college head coach, and he won 49 games in five seasons before retiring. He has returned at 66 to coach the Buccaneers.
Hefferle, an ex-Boston College head coach, was chosen on an interim basis by the Saints in ’75. He compiled a 1-7 record and was dismissed. Thomas, a Hall of Fame Chiefs defensive back and veteran assistant, received the temporary title with the Falcons in 2007. He was 1-3 and gone at season’s end.
LeBeau, a Hall of Fame cornerback and an all-timer as defensive coordinator, had no college or pro head coaching positions until the Bengals elevated him during the 2000 season. He was 63. Even though Cincinnati won only four games with LeBeau at the helm, he was the “permanent’’ coach for two more years, winning eight games. Fired, LeBeau returned to working as a defensive coordinator.
The others who received their first, and only, head coaching posts in the league in their 60s were Rod Rust, Dick MacPherson and legendary college coach Bud Wilkinson.
Rust, who had been the head coach at North Texas State, was selected the Patriots’ coach in 1990. New England was 1-15, and Rust was dust. MacPherson, a Broncos assistant for four seasons, was lured from Syracuse, where he was head coach for 10 seasons, to replace Rust. The Patriots’ record in two seasons was 8-24, and MacPherson also was dumped.
Wilkinson was one of the most triumphant coaches in college football at Oklahoma from 1947-63. His Sooners had a sensational 145-29-4 record with 14 conference titles, three national championships and a 47-game winning streak that still stands as the record.
He retired to become involved in broadcasting and politics until, at 61, Wilkinson was begged by the St. Louis Cardinals to try the NFL in ’78. With a 9-20 mark amid his second season, Wilkinson was unceremoniously fired.
Fangio would prefer to follow the path of Arians, a two-time coach of the year, or, say, Belichick or Carroll.
The 60s are in again.
Let the Broncos’ new Big Dog eat steak.