Gruden and More: These Coaches Made Surprising Comebacks
The Oakland Raiders surprised a lot of people with the news of their imminent hire of Jon Gruden as head coach. Gruden actually got his start as a coach in the NFL with the Raiders, leading the team from 1998-2001 and compiling a 38-26 regular season record. But the Raiders fatefully traded him to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he won a Super Bowl against his former team the very next season.
Gruden stuck around with the Buccs until 2008, when he was fired following two consecutive 9-7 finishes. His next stop was the broadcasting booth, where Gruden has become a recognized voice by most NFL fans around the world. Suffice it to say, it’s not all that common for coaches to take such long breaks in between stints on the sidelines. We took a look at a bunch of coaches and managers that have come back after several years off in the NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball.
1. Joe Gibbs
Joe Gibbs became the head coach of the Washington Redskins back in 1981, when he was just 41 years old. Over the next 12 years, Gibbs would lead Washington to the Super Bowl four times, winning three times and cementing his legacy in franchise history. But in 1992, Gibbs surprisingly announced his retirement following a 9-7 season.
Gibbs remained out of coaching until 2004, when he came out of retirement to become the head coach in Washington once again. His second stint with the team lasted just four years, but Gibbs had measurable success. After a 6-10 season in ’04, he led the team to their first playoff appearance in six seasons in 2005. Two years later, they made the playoffs once again before he retired for good. In the 12 seasons between his coaching stints, Washington made the playoffs only once.
2. Doug Collins
In 1986, former NBA star Doug Collins was hired by the Chicago Bulls to help take Michael Jordan’s team over the hump and into title contention. He didn’t quite get there, advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1988-89 but losing to a far superior Detroit Pistons team. Collins was let go, not to return to the NBA bench until 1995-96 with those same Pistons.
After three years in Detroit, Collins returned once again after a stint in color commentary to coach Jordan with the Washington Wizards. He went back into television two years later in 2003, and it appeared that this time it was for good. But not so fast. Collins got the itch once more, getting hired by the Philadelphia 76ers after a seven-year layoff. He coached for three seasons and, presumably, is finished as an NBA coach.
3. Dick Vermeil
One of the most famous surprising returns to coaching has to be Dick Vermeil. He was the man on the sidelines for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1976-82, leading the Eagles to the playoffs four times and the Super Bowl once. But after a 3-6 year in a short, nine-game ’82 season, Vermeil retired at the age of 46 and was set to stay away from the game forever.
There were flirtations, including in 1995 when the Eagles approached him about returning to the sidelines. But it wouldn’t be until 1997, 15 years after retiring, that Vermeil would return to the NFL. That was with the St. Louis Rams, who he coached to 5-11 and 4-12 records in his first two seasons. But in his third – and final – year in St. Louis, Kurt Warner burst onto the scene and helped create The Greatest Show on Turf. The Rams went 13-3, won the Super Bowl, and Vermeil again stepped away.
He would return after one season off, coaching five seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs. Vermeil had less success there, making the playoffs one time and failing to win a single playoff game.
4. Pete Carroll
Pete Carroll didn’t retire from the NFL or become a broadcaster, but he did have a massive gap in between coaching jobs in the league. Carroll began his coaching career with the New York Jets, leading the team to a 6-10 finish in 1994. He reappeared with New England Patriots in 1997, leading the reigning AFC Champions to a 10-6 record and failing to get to the Super Bowl. After two more seasons with the Patriots, Carroll was let go at the end of the 1999 season.
At that point, he decided to take the head coaching position at USC, seeing tremendous success. Carroll’s Trojans won back-to-back National Championships in 2003 and 2004, and he compiled an adjusted 83-19 record over nine seasons.
But the NFL came calling once again, and Carroll couldn’t resist. He was hired as the head coach of the Seattle Seahawks in 2010, and that’s where he has remained for the last eight seasons. Carroll has led the Seahawks to the postseason six times, including two trips to the Super Bowl and one championship.
5. Jack McKeon
Jack McKeon began his managerial career in 1973 with the Kansas City Royals. McKeon managed the Royals for three seasons, failing to make the playoffs and being let go in the middle of the 1975 season. After a brief run with the Oakland A’s, McKeon didn’t land another managers position until 1988 with the San Diego Padres. He was there for three years before another long break, and then coached the Cincinnati Reds for four seasons.
Amazingly, to that point in his career McKeon had yet to take a single team to the postseason. Just three years later, he was hired to lead the hapless Florida Marlins – a team that had finished under .500 in five consecutive years. McKeon’s Marlins shocked the world, winning the World Series that season against the New York Yankees.
But those weren’t really involved in the long layoff. The 74-year-old McKeon retired after the 2005 season, only to return with the Marlins as an 80-year-old in 2011. After Edwin Rodriguez was let go following a 32-39 start, McKeon stepped in and helped coach the team to a 72-90 finish.
6. Cito Gaston
Cito Gaston is probably best remembered as the manager that led the Toronto Blue Jays to back-to-back World Series championships. He was hired by the team in 1989 after Jimy Williams was let go, leading the Blue Jays to a 77-49 record after their ugly 12-24 start. Gaston got Toronto to the playoffs that year, losing in the ALCS to the A’s.
The Blue Jays were perennial contenders under Gaston, winning the World Series in 1992 and ’93. But things got progressively worse, with Toronto missing the playoffs from 1995-1997, leading to Gaston to leave managing behind at the age of 53. He would make a surprising return 11 years later with, wouldn’t you know it, the Toronto Blue Jays.
Gaston managed the Jays for three more years, leading the franchise to fourth-place finishes each year from 2008-2010. At 66 years old, Gaston retired for good in 2011 and the Blue Jays hired John Farrell as his replacement.
7. Bill Russell
NBA legend Bill Russell is one of the greatest players to ever put on a uniform, playing 13 seasons in the league and winning an absurd 11 championships. Of course, this was back in the 1950’s and ’60s when there were less teams, but still, that’s impressive. Russell became a player-coach of the Boston Celtics during his final three seasons with the team, and five years after his retirement he received another chance at coaching with the Seattle Supersonics.
After Russell and the Sonics parted ways following a 40-42 finish in 1976-77, the 42-year-old disappeared from coaching all together. That is, until he received an offer 11 years later from the Sacramento Kings. Russell coached the Kings in 1987-88 to a 17-41 record before finally giving up on coaching for good, being bumped to team vice president and allowing Jerry Reynolds to finish out the remainder of the schedule as head coach.
8. Bobby Valentine
Baseball fans probably best remember Bobby Valentine for the time he was ejected from a game, only to return to the bench wearing sunglasses and a fake mustache. Chicanery aside, Valentine was the manager of the Texas Rangers from 1985-1992 and then with the New York Mets from 1996-2002. His greatest success came in 2000, when he led the wild card Mets to the World Series against their rival, the New York Yankees.
After being let go in ’02, Valentine was pretty much done. He worked in color commentary a bit, becoming a familiar voice on national broadcasts. But out of nowhere, following the exit of general manager Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona, the Boston Red Sox hired Valentine to manage the team in 2012. As it turns out, there was a reason for his 10-year absence from the game. The Sox were a mess that year, finishing 69-93. They fired Valentine after just one season.
9. Dave Cowens
NBA Hall of Famer Dave Cowens is an interesting case, but he’s definitely worth mentioning on the list. Cowens became a player-coach at the age of 30 with the Boston Celtics, leading the team to a dreary 27-41 record after Tom Sanders was let go in 1978-79. Cowens went back to just being a player the next season, and that was a wise move; the Celtics finished 61-21 in their first season under Bill Fitch.
Cowens retired from the NBA in 1983, and he didn’t even become an assistant coach until 12 years later with the San Antonio Spurs. He became the head coach of the Charlotte Hornets in 1996, 17 years after his stint with the Celtics. Cowens stuck around for two whole seasons in Charlotte and part of a third before being let go, and he got one more shot with the Golden State Warriors just a few seasons later. Cowens presumably has finished his coaching career with a mundane 161-191 record, not including his 4-8 record in 12 playoff games.
10. Hubie Brown
Hubie Brown is most recognized by his voice these days, having spent many years as one of the game’s most prominent color commentators. He got his start in coaching back in the ABA, believe it or not, winning an ABA championship in his first season with the Kentucky Colonels back in 1974-75. Brown later moved to the NBA with the Atlanta Hawks, then with the New York Knicks before being fired in 1986 following a 4-12 start.
He was hired by CBS as a broadcaster the following season, and that’s what Brown did for the next 16 years. But out of nowhere, the Memphis Grizzlies decided that he was the right man to lead their team in 2002. At age 69, Brown went back to the sidelines. He won coach of the year in 2003-04 on the back of a 50-32 season, which was the first winning year in franchise history and the team’s first ever trip to the postseason.
Just 12 games into the next season, however, Brown suddenly resigned from his position due to unexpected health problems. He made his return to broadcasting shortly after, where he remains today as one of the most respected voices in the game. Brown was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a contributor in 2005.
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