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30 Top Coaches Who Never Played Professionally

David Cutcliffe

David Cutcliffe

David Cutcliffe is probably the most notable for being the head football coach for the University of Duke Blue Devils from 2008 up until 2021. Not only did he never play football beyond his high school years, but he got his start as an assistant coach at a high school. 

He eventually worked his way up to coaching positions at the University of Tennessee and the University of Mississippi, where he coached players like Peyton Manning and Eli Manning, respectively. Cutcliffe has been credited with turning Duke's football program around.  Though he never played professionally, Cutcliffe certainly knew what he was doing.

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Hugh Freeze

Hugh Freeze

Hugh Freeze is a big name in college football coaching. He's been the head coach at Ole Miss, Arkansas State University, and Lambuth University. Currently, he's the head coach at Liberty University where he led the team to qualify for their first bowl game in school history. Talk about movie material!

Oddly enough, he never played football—at all. He was a baseball player in high school and later on in college. He coached high school girls basketball for more than a decade, winning four state championships. He also won two state championships as head coach of the high school football team.

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Gregg Popovich

Gregg Popovich

Gregg Popovich is a legendary National Basketball Association coach with a big personality. But few fans realize he never actually played in the NBA. "Pop" did play basketball for the United States Air Force Academy where he later became an assistant coach. But then, his coaching career really took off.

By 1996, he was the head coach for the San Antonio Spurs where he remains today. He is currently the winningest coach in NBA history, as well as the longest-tenured coach of any professional sport in the U.S. He is a five-time NBA champion, a three-time NBA Coach of the Year, a four-time NBA All-Star Game head coach, and is recognized at one of the top 15 coaches in NBA history.

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Bill Belichick

Bill Belichick

Bill Belichick may be one of the most notable coaches in the National Football League. He has a mind for the game and together with quarterback Tom Brady, he led the New England Patriots to six Super Bowl wins in 2002, 2004, 2005, 2015, 2017, and 2019. This is the record for Super Bowl titles for an NFL head coach.

However, you might be surprised to learn that he's never played in an NFL game himself. Belichick attended Wesleyan University where he did play football, but also played other sports, including lacrosse and squash. He was even captain of the lacrosse team. Looks like these extra experiences might have helped him become the successful coach he is today.

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Jimmy Johnson

Jimmy Johnson

Jimmy Johnson is known for being the first head football coach to win both the college football national championship and the Super Bowl.  He was a head football coach at the collegiate level for nine years and moved up to the NFL where he served for nine seasons.  However, he never played in the pros himself. 

Johnson was a defensive lineman at the University of Arkansas during the 1960s. After he graduated he took an assistant coaching job at Louisiana Tech University.  He jumped different assistant coach positions for the next few years until he became the Oklahoma State head coach in 1977. From there, he became head coach for Miami, the Dallas Cowboys, and the Miami Dolphins. 

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Todd Haley

Todd Haley

Not only has football coach Todd Haley never played professional football, but he's also never played football—at all. In college, he played golf. However, Haley grew up with a father who worked for the Pittsburgh Steelers and he learned enough to start a coaching career. While he started out as a scouting assistant, he quickly moved up the ladder.

He became the Kansas City Chiefs head coach in 2009 and is currently the Tampa Bay Bandits head coach and general manager. Haley is known for his aggressive coaching style but insists it is part of his motivation tactics. He has obviously been successful with this method and is not likely to change it up any time soon. 

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Erik Spoelstra

Erik Spoelstra

Erik Spoelstra has been the head coach of the Miami Heat since 2008, and he has led the team to two NBA championships. Spoelstra played college basketball at the University of Portland but after graduating with a communications degree, he chose to work in a Nike warehouse instead of playing in the NBA. 

He eventually moved to Germany where he planned to play and work as an assistant coach at the same time for the team TuS Herten. Back problems kept him from really playing, and he eventually moved back to the U.S. He took an assistant coaching job with the Heat where he worked his way up. 

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Vince Lombardi

Vince Lombardi

Vince Lombardi is such a notable NFL coach that the league named the Super Bowl trophy after him. However, few football fans realize he never played past the collegiate level. Blame the times. When Lombardi graduated from Fordham University, the Great Depression was in full swing.  He had difficulty even finding a job. 

He eventually began coaching and led his teams to several NFL Championships and Super Bowls. He was named NFL Coach of the Year twice and was inducted into the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame. He once told the Packers franchise committee, "I want it understood that I am in complete command here." He never had a losing season as a head coach in the NFL.

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Paul Brown

Paul Brown

Paul Brown is a legend in Ohio. He played football for Ohio State University and was the head coach of the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals. He even owned a stake in both teams at one point. But he never played in the pros. After college, Brown joined the military instead. 

He became the head coach of the Browns in 1946 and coached them to three NFL championships—1950, 1954, and 1955. He later co-founded and was the first coach of the Bengals. The current home stadium of the Bengals is named after him.  He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967. 

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Urban Meyer

Urban Meyer

Urban Meyer wasn't too successful when he was the head coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2021, but he has had a great career as a college football head coach. He led the University of Florida Gators and Ohio State Buckeyes to college footballs championships as well as to several Big Ten and Southeastern Conference championship games.

Ironically, Meyer was drafted in 1982 by the Atlanta Braves to play baseball and spent two years in the minors as a shortstop. He also played defensive back at the University of Cincinnati—but he never played pro football.  That didn't hold him back in his coaching career in which he earned many Coach of the Year awards. 

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Barry Switzer

Barry Switzer

Famed football coach Barry Switzer played football at the University of Arkansas, but instead of going pro immediately afterward, he decided to join the U.S. Army. After a couple of years of serving his country, Switzer came back to football, but as an assistant coach, not as a player. 

He was the head coach for the University of Oklahoma for 15 years (1973-1988) before joining the Dallas Cowboys in 1994. He led the Cowboys to a thrilling Super Bowl win in 1995, making Switzer one of only three coaches to win a college national championship and a Super Bowl. 

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Chip Kelly

Chip Kelly

College and NFL head coach Chip Kelly was quite an athlete as a teenager. He played football, ice hockey, and basketball. However, he never went pro with any of them. Instead, he majored in physical education at the University of New Hampshire and went on to become an assistant football coach at Columbia University. 

After eventually becoming head coach of the University of Oregon, Kelly worked his way up to the pros and spent a few years leading the Philadelphia Eagles (2013-2015) and San Fransisco 49ers (2016). He has racked up multiple Coach of the Year awards throughout his career. He currently serves as the head coach at UCLA.

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Lou Holtz

Lou Holtz

Lou Holtz is another big name who never played in the pros. After graduating from Kent State University with a degree in history, he began a career as an assistant coach at the College of William and Mary from 1961-1963. After being an assistant coach at other universities, he accepted a head coach position at the College of William and Mary.

He accepted his first and only NFL head coach position with the New York Jets in 1976 where he resigned within the year. He went on to be a head coach at Arkansas, Minnesota, Note Dame, and South Carolina. He is the only college football coach to lead six different programs to bowl games. 

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Dennis Erickson

Dennis Erickson

Dennis Erickson grew up in a football world. His dad coached high school football in his town as did his next-door neighbor. Erickson himself was a quarterback in high school and saw some success, even though he was a bit too small for the position. But that didn't slow him down. 

Erickson went on to coach for multiple college football teams, winning two national championships with the University of Miami Hurricanes. He also spent a season with the San Francisco 49ers.  He earned a few Coach of the Year awards and was inducted into the State of Washington Sports Hall of Fame in 2017.

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Don Coryell

Don Coryell

The late Dan Coryell is proof that you don't have to be a pro player to be an extremely successful coach. He was the first coach ever to win more than 100 games in both college and the pros. Coryell served as a paratrooper in the U.S. Army before coming home and playing football at the University of Washington.

He went on to coach high school football and eventually spent time as head coach at San Diego State University (1961-1972) as well as becoming the head coach for the St. Louis Cardinals (1973-1977) and San Diego Chargers (1978-1986). He was inducted into the San Diego Chargers Hall of Fame in 1986.

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John McKay

John McKay

The late coach John McKay fought in World War II before coming home and playing college football. He played at both Purdue and at the University of Oregon. Upon finishing school, he spent a decade as an assistant coach at the University of Oregon and the University of Southern California.

He eventually became the head coach for USC. In 1976, when the NFL decided to add the Tampa Bay Buccaneers franchise, McKay was chosen for that head coaching job. He spent the next eight years with the team. McKay was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as a coach in 1988. 

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Earl Weaver

Earl Weaver

It's rare for a Major League Baseball manager to have never played in the pros, but there are at least three who have pulled it off—one of them is Earl Weaver. Weaver spent some time in the minors but never stepped foot on a Major League field until he was hired to coach the Baltimore Orioles in 1968.

He'd go on to manage more than 2,540 games, including a World Series win in 1970. He didn't believe in "small ball" tactics. Instead, he focused on "pitching, defense, and the three-run homer." His last MLB appearance was in 1986. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996.

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Frank Selee

Frank Selee

We had to go way back in time for this one, but Frank Selee was an MLB coach from 1890 until 1905. Previously, he'd worked for a watch manufacturer. Back then, the manager was often a guy on the team or one who'd just retired from baseball, which made Selee's career even more unique. 

Selee made his MLB debut in 1890 with the Boston Beaneaters which he managed until 1901. During that time, they won five NL championships. His teams won over 100 games in two separate years, becoming the first teams to ever achieve the mark in baseball history. After that, he managed the Chicago Orphans/Cubs until 1905. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999. 

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Joe McCarthy

Joe McCarthy

The third MLB manager we could find who has never played in the pros was Joe McCarthy. He coached the Cubs, Yankees, and Red Sox between 1926 and 1950. McCarthy did, however, spend 15 years in the minors, so at least he did play baseball—more than we can say for Selee. 

McCarthy made his debut with the Chicago Cubs in 1926.  He guided the team to the NL title in 1929. He managed the Yankees from 1931-1946. During his tenure, the Yankees won seven World Series.  He moved on to the Boston Red Sox from 1948-1950. He never managed a team to a losing record. He was inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1957.

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Stan Van Gundy

Stan Van Gundy

Back to the NBA where it is far more common to have a head coach who didn't play in the league. Stan Van Gundy is the perfect example. He played NCAA Division III basketball in college—his dad was the head coach—and he graduated with degrees in English and physical education. 

In 1981, he followed in his father's footsteps and began a coaching career of his own. Van Gundy coached in the NBA from 2003 until 2021. He was a two-time NBA All-Star Game head coach in both 2005 and 2010. Now he works as a TV and radio analyst. 

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Jeff Van Gundy

Jeff Van Gundy

If his name sounds familiar, that is because Jeff Van Gundy is Stan Van Gundy's brother. Like his brother, Jeff never played in the NBA but, in 1996, he became the head coach of the New York Knicks after being an assistant coach for eight years. From 2003 until 2007, he was with the Houston Rockets.

Van Gundy was the NBA All-Star Game head coach in 2000. In 2017, it was announced that he would be the head coach of the senior United States men's national basketball team at the FIBA AmeriCup tournament and in the qualifiers for the 2019 FIBA World Cup. He went on to guide the US to the goal medal in 2017 and to qualify for the World Cup in 2019. He is now a commentator for ESPN.

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Dwayne Casey

Dwayne Casey

Detroit Pistons head coach Dwayne Casey got his first taste of the job at the age of 13 when he coached a Little League team in his hometown. By high school, he was a standout basketball star who was highly recruited by several colleges.  He ended up playing for the University of Kentucky.

When he wasn't drafted into the NBA, he stayed on at Kentucky as an assistant. He's been an NBA coach in some capacity or another since 1994. Today, he is with the Detriot Pistons. As a head coach, he's won Coach of the Year twice and was the NBA All-Star Game head coach in 2018.

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Mike Dunlap

Mike Dunlap

Mike Dunlap has been the head coach of the Charlotte Hornets and Loyola Marymount University Lions. He also coached basketball in Australia, but the Alaska native has never played himself. Dunlap served three seasons in Australia as head coach of the Adelaide 36ers and was successful in taking the team to the NBL Grand Final.

He served as head coach at Metro State in 1997-2006 where he led the program to two National Championships in 2000 and 2002. He was awarded Coach of the Year those same years. In 2012, Dunlap joined the Charlotte Bobcats and managed to be the only coach in NBA history to triple a team's win total from the previous season. He was hired as an assistant coach for the Milwaukee Bucks in 2020. He won his first championship when the Bucks won the 2021 NBA Finals.

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Tom Thibodeau

Tom Thibodeau

Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau played basketball in college, but he found himself a student of the game as well. Before becoming a coach, he'd attend clinics and watch other successful coaches' practices, looking for inspiration. It must have worked because he's been an NBA head coach for multiple teams since 2010.

In 2010, he became the head coach for the Chicago Bulls, where he was later named Coach of the Year after tying the record for most wins by a rookie head coach. In 2012, Thibodeau became the fastest coach in history to earn 100 career victories. In 2013, he became an assistant coach for the United States men's national basketball team where they won gold in 2014 and 2016. He became head coach of the Timberwolves 2016-2019 and of the New York Knicks 2020-present. He won Coach of the Year again in 2021.

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Chuck Daly

Chuck Daly

Chuck Daly must have learned a lot about basketball somewhere, but it was certainly not by playing in the National Basketball Association. After spending some time in the military, he began coaching at a high school in Pennsylvania in 1955. He then became a college head coach for several years.

He eventually became an assistant coach in the NBA in 1963 and went on to become head coach of the Detroit Pistons, New Jersey Nets, and Orlando Magic. The Pistons won two championships under his leadership. Daly also coached the 1992 men's Olympic basketball team to a gold medal. In 1996, he was voted as one of the Top Ten Coaches in NBA history.

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Lawrence Frank

Lawrence Frank

Lawrence Frank currently works as an executive in the NBA, but he was once the head coach of the Pistons and Nets. As a kid, Frank played recreation center basketball, but he never played in high school or college—and he certainly didn't play in the NBA. However, none of this hindered his coaching career.

He spent four years as a manager for the basketball team at Indiana University and says he wouldn't have had a career without famed Indiana University head coach Bobby Knight's influence. He was named NBA Executive of the Year in 2020 and is currently working as the President of Basketball Operations for the Los Angeles Clippers.

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Mike Brown

Mike Brown

Golden State Warriors associate head coach Mike Brown grew up in Europe and played high school basketball and football there where he excelled. He returned to the U.S. for college and played basketball before graduating with a Bachelor of Business Administration degree in 1992. A few years later, he began his coaching journey.

In 2000, Brown got his big break when Gregg Popovich hired him to become his assistant. Brown went on to become the head coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers. He won Coach of the Year in 2009, the same year he was the NBA All-Star Game head coach. As an assistant coach, he is a three-time NBA champion.

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Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin has been the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers since 2007. He has led them to win one Super Bowl and multiple division titles and playoff games. Tomlin played football in college—he was a wide receiver at William & Mary, but he never made it to the pros.

As a head coach, Tomlin has had many accomplishments. At age 36, Tomlin became the youngest head coach to win the Super Bowl. (XLIII). He was also a Super Bowl champion as an assistant coach (XXXVII). He has the most consecutive non-losing seasons to begin a coaching career with 15 non-losing seasons.

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Arthur Smith

Arthur Smith

In 2021, Arthur Smith got his first head coaching job with the Atlanta Falcons where he is still the head coach. Up until then, he'd been an assistant with the Tennessee Titans and, before that, he had some roles at several colleges including Ole Miss (2010), Washington Redskins (2007-08), and North Carolina (2006).

Smith himself was set to play ball at the University of North Carolina, but a foot injury sidelined him and he saw very little playing time. In his first year as offensive coordinator with the Titans, Smith oversaw the highest-scoring Titans team in 16 years. We are sure to see good things from this new head coach. 

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Adam Gase

Adam Gase

Adam Gase played high school football in Marshall, Michigan, but his career as a player ended there. While attending Michigan State University, he worked as an assistant to the coaching staff of the football team. After graduating, he worked as an assistant at Louisiana State University.

He eventually made his way to the NFL. As the offensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos, Gase was a part of Peyton Manning's record-breaking passing season in 2013. From 2016 until 2018, he was the head coach of the Miami Dolphins. He also spent a season with the Jets. His last appearance was in 2020 with the New York Jets.

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