Watching the San Francisco 49ers and New Orlean Saints putting together one of the NFL's classics last night, one was struck by the relative youth of the two opposing head coaches, patrolling the sidelines as an armada of assistant coaches and players milled around behind them. Both 48 years of age, animated, in control, challenging referees, haranguing players to do better. A 49ers team managed to stop Drew Brees and the Saints inexorable scoring machine by forcing five turnovers and scoring two sensational touchdowns in an unforgettable last quarter comeback. Vernon Davis caught Alex Smith's throw in the last minute for the winning touchdown. At the end an emotionally overcome Davis rushes to Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers head coach and embraces him.
Age apparently had nothing to do with Harbaugh being considered a leader of men. All over the NFL, a wave of young, bright minded coaches, is changing the look of the league, evidence of the continued revitalization of America's most watched sport. A sport buoyed by the financial success through revenue sharing and costs brought under control by salary cups is taking risks with coaches who have new ideas and leadership qualities rather than just the requisite experience.
The elixir of youth animates this year's playoffs. Harbaugh, a first year head coach led the 49ers to their first NFC Championship title game in 13 years. Payton, the Saints coach for five years already has a Super Bowl ring won in 2010. If this script is being written as planned there is a good chance the 49ers will advance to the Super Bowl where they could meet the Baltimore Ravens, whose head coach John Harbaugh is Jim's younger brother, by a year. The Ravens have gone 12-4 and will play today against the Texans in their divisional playoff game.
The Steelers, a playoff perennial under Mike Tomlin, who at 39 years of age, has already tasted success becoming the youngest coach to win the Super Bowl in 2009. Tomlin was on the vanguard of the NFL's youth revolution when he was hired by Dan Rooney in an open call to became Steelers head coach in 2007 at the age of 34 years, the third youngest in the American sports. The road to this year's Super Bowl will pass through Lambeau Field, where the current NFL champions, the Green Bay Packers and their 48 year old head coach Mike McCarthy await the NY Giants. At 65 years, Tom Coughlin, the Giants coach bucks the trend but he remains with 59 years old Bill Belichik, of the New England Patriots, the senior citizens of the crop of NFL coaches.
Lets track back to the Premiership, the most capitalistic of sporting endeavours, where the laissez faire of high priced transfers, is not matched by the moribund coaching hierarchy at the top. Sir Alex Ferguson just celebrated his 70th year of existence and his 16th year as Man Utd's head coach. Look for no change any time soon because Sir Alex has stated his desire to coach for the next three years.
The streak of longevity is preserved by arch rivals Liverpool, who turned to 60 year old Kenny Dalglish, last summer in his second return to reverse their sliding fortunes. Arsenal despite all the divided fans last summer refused to even second guess 62 year old Arsene Wenger who in his 14th year stubbornly clings to power and will probably retire from that club. Before Chelsea reposed faith in 34 year old Andre Villas- Boas, the club had gone through Carlo Ancelotti, Guus Hiddink, Phil Scolari and Avram Grant, a pantheon of greybeards. City has done better turning to Roberto Mancini since their Abu Dhabi takeover. However, this cannot be construed as some injection of risk taking. The influx of international talent opened up by paying top prices would have to be matched by a top coach.
Mike Tomlin embodies the Steelers penchant for hiring 30s something coaches as well as the progressive values of their owners, the Rooneys, who instituted the Rooney Rule. The Steelers have maintained their status as one of the most consistent performers in league history over the years.
That however was not the case with Payton and Harbaugh, brought on board to rejuvenate two struggling franchises. Payton, the Dallas Cowboys quarterback coach, not exactly in their glory years, was hired by the Saints in 2006. He was able to reverse a 3-13 record the year and led them to the playoffs. The 49ers gave their vote of confidence to Harbaugh, who spent 7 years coaching varsity teams, first at University of California, San Diego, and then Stanford. Success at college level is no prognosticator of a successful transition to the NFL with Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban as leading examples. The Lions, long held as the poster boys of sporting futility turned to 45 year old Jim Schwartz, who spent many years as the Titans defensive coordinator and under him made steady improvement capping this season with a playoff appearance, their first since 1999. Their future looks quite bullish.
There are of course exceptions to the ageism in soccer. La Liga is consumed by the presence of two young, two very successful coaches who have earned every title under the sun but in the process created neither the animation nor the resurgence in the rest of the league which lives in a existential void created by Real and Barcelona. Jose Mourinho has never created a team and Pep Guardiola has no experience playing in a system that was not Barca. These are not exactly risk takers.
In the Premiership when there is a vacancy the usual roster of names are circulated. Sunderland turned to Martin O' Neill who has had a long track record with Celtic and Aston Villa. And QPR snapped up Mark Hughes, the former Blackburn and City coach. Today, a bright refreshing Swans side under Brendan Rogers beat Arsenal. But do not look to City or United to snap up the 38 year old should Mancini fail to get them the Premiership or Sir Alex retire tomorrow. The bottom line remains with all the money in professional soccer increasing the mountains of debt, there is less chances of clubs thinking outside the box when it comes to hiring new coaching talent.