In 1998, myself and one other member of the Philadelphia Eagles front office were given the assignment to come up with the top couple of candidates for our Special Teams Coordinator. The goal was to evaluate those who weren’t already special teams coaches in the NFL, but who we thought could be very effective in the role. After a significant amount of very thorough work (on what was a much more difficult assignment than it sounds), we came back and recommended two names: John Harbaugh and Rich Bisaccia.
At that point, some other people got involved in the interview process. They also extensively interviewed both John and Rich, and the outcome was as close to a true tie as you could ever come. Everybody loved both candidates. They thought we had done a great job of narrowing the field but found it almost impossible to decide between the two.
As you probably know by now, we ended up deciding that John Harbaugh was the better of the two outstanding candidates. Coach Harbaugh proceeded to have a great career with the Eagles; he was there for ten years.
After about the eighth year, I had become very close with John. He began asking questions about how the special teams coach could become an NFL head coach, as that was his career goal and dream.
My initial advice was to give it more time. I thought he was establishing the reputation, beyond being a special teams coach, that he needed to become a head coach.
A few years later, when that progress seemed to have stalled, we started to have annual conversations about what else he could do in the NFL to further that goal. We also discussed whether he should go and become a college head coach at a big program, which he had been offered multiple times.
These conversations led to an internal discussion which resulted in John becoming the DBs coach, working under Jim Johnson on our defensive staff. This move succeeded in exposing him to the league in a way that led to him becoming the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens.
I was one of John’s references, and I remember speaking to the Ravens about why I was so confident that he’d be a successful head coach. The Ravens indicated that my explanation regarding why he could make the transition was instrumental in the decision they made to hire him.
At the same time, I watched with great interest as Coach Bisaccia got hired by different NFL teams to be their special teams coordinator. Due to the effectiveness of his units, it became clear that Rich was an outstanding special teams coach. Likewise, it demonstrated that we had identified the right two candidates for the job in 1998. And as we thought, picking between them was a no-lose situation.
Rich seemed not only to be an outstanding special teams coach but someone who could potentially be more. He had a presence, a likability, and an ability to communicate. His units also played as if they had been coached up on not only the big and obvious things but every single lesser detail that contributes to success.
As a result, when I found myself in Cleveland in 2013, I had put Rich on our list of candidates to be interviewed. We soon thereafter became the first team in the NFL to interview Rich as a potential head coach. Yet, to say that the other people involved in the process were skeptical would be a significant understatement.
The interview went well. It wasn’t one of those interviews where you were just blown away. But you saw the leadership, emotional IQ, communication skills, determination, and passion you would be looking for.
After the interview, however, I realized that I was alone in perceiving the interview that way. I still don’t know if it was because others were so skeptical of promoting somebody who had been a special teams coach or if they actually saw the interview that differently. In any case, to my surprise, nine more years have gone by and no other team has interviewed Rich. He only got his chance with the Las Vegas Raiders this season due to one of the most unusual ways one can become an interim coach.
Under the circumstances, I can’t think of any other interim coach who did a better job. He’s demonstrated the skills necessary to be a quality NFL head coach. Like most candidates, Rich has strengths and weaknesses. His background also does make him a little bit more of a projection than most. But as I thought in 2013, he is clearly a qualified candidate. He deserved consideration then and deserves it even more now.
Those of you that read The 33rd Team know that I’ve encouraged teams looking for coaches to try to put away any preconceived notions that could bias them. Watching Rich’s career and success this year in Las Vegas is a perfect example of that advice. The fact he has only been interviewed for a Head Coaching position once in Cleveland demonstrates the flaws in the way most teams approach head coaching searches.
I personally will be rooting for the Raiders to realize that Rich Bisaccia has proven that he deserves an opportunity. He deserves a chance to put together his own staff, to be the leader of the organization, and to be the man that the players look up to and respond to. We will know soon whether the Raiders agree with that or not.