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What happens in NFL coaching interviews?

By Zac

Depending on whom and what you believe, seven (at least) NFL teams are set to interview all sorts of candidates for their vacant (or soon-to-be) head coaching positions.

What, exactly, do those interviews entail?

I was curious, too. So I started asking around, reaching out to people who currently work in the league and a couple who used to work in or directly in conjunction with the league for insights on how these interviews go, what teams and candidates hope to accomplish and how the process both takes shape and eventually evolves from the information-gathering stage to making a hire. They spoke (or e-mailed) mostly in generalities, and for obvious reasons the people with whom I spoke will remain anonymous.

Below is a little of what I learned and how it may apply to what’s ahead for the Browns, other teams and the candidates that may be interviewing in the days that follow…

*The interview will almost always start like any other job interview, with the candidate sharing his background and influences and how those things lead to his vision for the job — and his two or three-year vision for the franchise. The interviewers will know about the candidate’s football and coaching-specific roots; they’ll want to hear why he believes in his schemes, what shaped his philosophies and what attributes he likes/prioritizes in his players and assistant coaches.

*The essential elements of the interview seem to be discussion of the coach’s core football beliefs, how the staff would implement those, how the staff would be built/structured and who that’s already in the building — from players, to current assistants, to support and player personnel staff — the new coach would be interested in keeping or working with. It might go deeper and reach into things like how the coach prefers to run training camp and team travel operations, as well as what he knows/thinks about the players currently on the roster.

*Regardless of whether the interview takes place at the interviewing team’s headquarters or at a neutral site, a solid estimate for how long it lasts is 4-6 hours. Who actually does the interviewing depends on the team, but will always include the owner, the general manager (if one is in place) and high-ranking staffers, sometimes from both the football side of the operation and from the business side.

*I don’t know for sure, but I can guess the Browns’ interview team will include owner Jimmy Haslam, CEO Joe Banner and new team president Alec Scheiner. That might not be the full list, but it’s hard to imagine any true “football” people being in on the interviews because all remaining personnel department employees are tied directly to recently-departed GM Tom Heckert.

*”Lots of coaches will have practice schedules prepared for every day of the year,” one person told me, including detailed plans and schedules for all 12 months. In many cases, this process starts long before the interview process with the candidate’s agent and/or confidantes in or around the business helping to prepare a detailed outline of operations matters based on past experience. This is one area where an interview with a longtime college coach like Chip Kelly would differ greatly from one with a longtime NFL assistant or former NFL head coach. Kelly would be new to much of this, while longtime NFL people would be able to explain why they prefer certain methods or feel strongly about needing to hire a certain strength coach or player development director.

*Any team that potentially gets to interview Chip Kelly would have to ask — and probably in multiple ways — how he sees his offensive structure and beliefs translating not just to the NFL, but to that specific team and its roster. Any team that potentially gets to interview Nick Saban would probably have just one question: “Why will the return we get from this mountain of money we’re willing to throw at you be better than the return the Dolphins got in your first NFL job?”

*See? It all comes down to buying what the guy on the other side of the table is selling.

*The candidate’s agent will almost always be involved in setting up the interview, and will certainly be involved if the process reaches a negotiation stage. But the actual interview will just be the candidate and the interviewers, with the agent outside the room waiting like everyone else to hear how it went.

*Give and take doesn’t just mean two-way conversation across the table or one side making concessions in negotiating a contract. One person bluntly told me that a coaching candidate assessing a team’s current roster is just as likely to be “free information” as it would be a jumpstart on that coach actually shaping that roster.

*If it’s a true interview process and not just a team going through the motions with other candidates after having one selected, a comprehensive research approach can come in handy and include insight from a lot of different people. A lot of work is being done and a lot of phone calls and text messages are being exchanged this week, but in almost every case folks on both sides of the table have been doing some level of research and investigation for weeks — or even months. It’s entirely possible that the experience of interviewing now will help a candidate a year or two down the road. It’s also entirely possible that a team will interview a candidate tomorrow despite having decided yesterday on its guy.

*There’s obviously a lot to cover, but if it’s a legitimately open process and more than one candidate makes a positive impression, follow-up interviews can be scheduled. In those meetings, it’s likely the sides will dive more into detail on matters of operations, calendar and the current state of the franchise and roster. The NFL’s 32 franchises are structured in many different ways and differ in who technically and actually wields power and final say in roster decisions. Any head coach is going to want as much say and as many of his people in place as he can get, and often the most important part of these face-to-face interviews is the people on the interviewing side seeing eye-to-eye on football philosophies with the person on the other side, the person who is about to become the new face of the franchise.

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