When playing careers are over, athletes are forced to find a second life. While many find new careers in new fields, some can’t scratch the sports itch and start again from the bottom as coaches. The path from player to coach is a long one, and a few, like Jim Harbaugh, have shown how rewarding that struggle can be. The best of these coaches go on to win championships, creating new legacies to leave behind. These are the greatest coaches who began their careers as players!
Jim Harbaugh Took The Long Road
Drafted in the first round of the 1987 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears, Jim Harbaugh had a fruitful playing career. After leaving the Bears, he spent time in Indianapolis, San Diego, and Baltimore before retiring.
As a head coach, he took his first gig with the University of San Diego before moving onto Stanford. After reviving the football program at the NCAA school, he was hired to right the ship of the San Francisco 49ers. He was an instant success, leading the team to the NFC Championship game in his first season, and the Super Bowl in his second. Today, he’s the head coach of the Michigan Wolverines.
Larry Bird Went From Boston To Indiana
Larry Bird never had to become a head coach to cement his legacy. As an NBA player, he was a Boston sports legend, three-time NBA champion, and three-time league MVP. When he retired, however, he just couldn’t leave the game behind.
After spending a few years as an assistant coach in Boston, Bird was offered the head coaching job for the Indiana Pacers. He continued to excel, leading the Pacers to three winning seasons and one Eastern Conference Championship appearance.
Mike Ditka Is More Than A Mustache
Known for his signature look as the head coach of the Super Bowl winning Chicago Bears, it’s easy to forget Mike Ditka was also a player. He wasn’t just any player either, he revolutionized the tight end position as a rookie, catching 56 passes for 1,076 yards.
When he was done playing, he spent 11 seasons as the head coach of the Bears, leading the team to a 168-106 record. Ditka ended his coaching career with the Saints, where he famously traded away nearly his entire draft one year to move up to the top spot and take Reggie Bush.
Jerry Sloan Never Quit
Jerry Sloan spent his entire Hall of Fame career trying to win a ring. As a player with the Chicago Bulls from 1966-76 he never won. Then he spent another 26 seasons as a head coach never finding that winning touch.
That doesn’t mean he was bad at his job though. As the head coach of Utah for 23 years, years that included John Stockton and Karl Malone, he had 21 winning seasons. Sloan’s overall coaching record when he retired was 1221-803.
Doc Rivers Is Still Going Strong
When his playing career was over with, Doc Rivers averaged 10.6 points per game and only made one All-Star appearance. As a coach, he has rejuvenated two major franchises and won on NBA Championship.
In 2000, Rivers was named the Coach of the Years for the Boston Celtics. Eight seasons later he won his first ring. When his time in Boston came to an end, he took up the throne for the Los Angeles Clippers and has turned the once-moribund franchise into perennial contenders.
Tom Flores Will Always Be Remembered As A Trailblazer
Tom Flores broke boundaries in the NFL when he became the first starting quarterback of Hispanic descent in league history. He started his career with the Raiders, and when it came time to become a head coach, his story came full circle.
In 1980, Flores led the Oakland Raiders to the Super Bowl and became the first minority head coach to win a ring. Then, in 1983, he won it all again with the Los Angeles Raiders.
Mike Scioscia Is A SoCal Icon
Mike Scioscia’s best playing days came as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers. He won two World Series rings with the ballclub – first in 1981 and then again in 1988. Turning to coaching kept the catcher in LA, where he became the manager of the Angels.
Taking the job with Anaheim in 2000, it didn’t take long for Scioscia to find success. He led the team to the 2002 World Series, where they beat the San Francisco Giants in dramatic fashion. After the 2018 season, he stepped down as the team’s manager.
Bill Russell Started Coaching While He Played
Bill Russell is one of the greatest NBA players of all-time. With the Boston Celtics he won 11 NBA Championships and was named the league MVP five times. Most incredibly, when the team’s head coach, Red Auerbach, retired in 1966, Russell was given the job even though he was still a player.
The move made Russell the first African American head coach in NBA history. He stayed with Boston until 1969, then took over for the Seattle Supersonics in 1973. He retired as a head coach in 1988 after spending one season with the Sacramento Kings.
Joe Torre Blossomed With The Yankees
Joe Torre was named the MVP of Major League Baseball in 1971 when he recorded 230 hits and drove in 137 runs. He made nine All-Star games during his career, as well as winning one batting title and one Gold Glove.
Unfortunately, managing didn’t come as naturally to Torre as playing. He managed the Mets and the Braves before heading to the Bronx with very little success. Once he stepped into the Yankees’ dugout though everything changed. Torre won the World Series in his first season and was the leader of the dynasty that followed.
George Karl Was A Seattle Dream Come True
George Karl was nothing special as an NBA player with the San Antonio Spurs. He averaged 6.5 points per game to go along with three assists. Luckily for Karl, he turned out to be a much better coach than a player.
In 1991 he was hired as the head coach of the Seattle Supersonics. He stayed there for 25 seasons, cementing his place in Seattle sports history. In that time he was named Coach of the Year once and won the Western Conference Finals in 1996.
Phil Jackson Won Six Titles In A Row
For as legendary of a player as Phil Jackson was, he was an even better head coach. Playing for New York Knicks in 1973, he brought one title to the city. As a head coach for the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, he won 11 more.
Out of those 11 NBA Championships, six came in consecutive seasons from 1996 through 2002. The first three came with the Bulls, followed by three in his first years with the Lakers. In 1997 he was named one of the top ten coaches in NBA history.
Bruce Bochy Was A Player’s Coach
Bruce Bochy lived through a lot in his MLB coaching career. The former backup catcher started his managing career with the Padres before moving north to take over the San Francisco Giants. He changed the culture in San Diego and pushed the team to reach the World Series in 1998.
While he lost that World Series, he eventually made it to San Francisco, where he won three World Series titles in five years, putting himself in rarefied air.
Ron Rivera Gave Carolina A Home Field Advantage
Ron Rivera was a hard-nosed linebacker during his playing heyday. As a coach, he softened his edges and transformed into a builder of young men. It was perhaps this quality that the Carolina Panthers found the most tantalizing about him.
Eight and a half seasons later, Rivera has quite the resume, including one Super Bowl appearance. A down season in 2019 forced the Panthers to fire the long-time leader, but it won’t be the last we see of him on the sidelines.
Doug Pederson Took Down Tom Brady
Doug Pederson played quarterback in the NFL for 12 seasons. In that time, he backed up franchise players including Brett Favre, Dan Marino, and Donavan McNabb. As a coach, he didn’t stay on the bench for very long.
Pederson studied his craft under Andy Reid before being hired by the Philadelphia Eagles. In his second season, the team went to the Super Bowl where they beat the Tom Brady led New England Patriots. That feat alone makes him a great head coach.
Pat Riley Just Couldn’t Lose
Pat Riley is a winner. Throughout the course of his playing and coaching career, he always found a way to win. With the Lakers as a player in 1972, he won his first of nine NBA titles. In 1976 he retired as a player and became a coach.
Riley’s first head coaching gig came with the Lakers in 1981. In his time there he led the team to four championships. After leaving the Lakers, he moved onto the Heat, where he won his final championship in 2006.
Dave Roberts Has Navigated A New Landscape
When Dave Roberts retired from his playing days, MLB was in a transition phase. Thanks to Moneyball, the league was turning to analytics, so when Roberts became a full-blown manager, he had to buy into the system entirely with the Dodgers.
Diving into the deep end, Roberts has put up stellar results in Los Angeles, even appearing in back-to-back World Series. Overall, he’s won over 650 games since 2016, and that hefty number will only keep rising.
Steve Kerr Refuses To Lose
Steve Kerr won five NBA titles during his NBA career. He was a stout three-point shooter, which helped him immensely in 2014 when he became the head coach of the Golden State Warriors. The team was known for their back-court shooting duo of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
Kerr was an instant success, winning the NBA Championship in his first season. In his first five seasons, Kerr led the Warriors to five straight NBA Finals appearances, winning three of them, and revolutionizing how the game of basketball is played.
Tony Dungey Holds A Dubious NFL Record
Tony Dungy’s NFL career isn’t the most notable. He played for several years bouncing around from team to team until the ’80s. In that time he played in several games and is one of the only players in NFL history to intercept a pass and throw an interception in the same game.
Dungy then transitioned to coaching, where he was hired as the Buccaneers head coach in 1996. In 2002 he became the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, where he won a Super Bowl and appeared in another with Peyton Manning as his QB.
Gary Kubiak Won It All
Gary Kubiak had the distinction as an NFL player of being John Elway’s career backup. He started five games, throwing 14 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. One year after retiring, he became the running backs coach at Texas A&M. In 2005, the Houston Texans gave him his first head coaching job.
Kubiak found his greatest success as a head coach, though, with the Denver Broncos. With Peyton Manning as his QB, Kubiak won the Super Bowl, then retired a season later citing health issues.
Terry Francona Is A Franchise Saver
Terry Francona bounced around MLB for ten seasons as a player before finding a home as a manager. In his first stint with the Boston Red Sox, he broke the famed “Curse of the Bambino.” Before being fired, he won one more World Series.
When the Red Sox let him go, the Cleveland Indians picked him up. While he hasn’t won a World Series yet in Cleveland, he has turned them from the joke of the league to a perennial powerhouse and playoff threat.