MINNEAPOLIS - The Minnesota Vikings ownership group decided it was time for a change in January.
The Vikings had just finished 8-9 and missed the NFC Playoffs for the second straight season, and third time in four years. The Vikings' ownership team, a day after ending the season with a meaningless win over the Chicago Bears, fired Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer. About three weeks later, the ownership group hired Kwesi Adofo-Mensah as the new general manager. A few weeks after that, Adofo-Mensah and the management team came to a consensus after an exhaustive and thorough search: Kevin O'Connell was their choice to be the next head coach.
The former Rams’ offensive coordinator had just won a Super Bowl. It’s the popular path in the NFL: find a young, successful coordinator and see if they can take the next jump. But it’s not the only path to becoming a head coach.
At 37 years old, O’Connell becomes the second-youngest active head coach in the NFL. Only his former boss, Sean McVay, is younger at 36 years old. They’re two of five NFL head coaches in their 30s, while eight coaches are 40-45 years old and nine coaches are 55 or older. Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick are the oldest active head coaches, each 70 years old.
Here’s a look at where O’Connell sits compared to the NFC North, among other first-time head coaches and the seven others the Vikings interviewed for the position.
NFC NORTH: THE YOUNGEST COACHING TREE IN THE NFL
When you take the four head coaches in each division and get their average age, the NFC North is the youngest (44.25) by about three years. O’Connell, 37, hasn’t coached an NFL game yet. Matt LaFleur, 42 years old, is 41-13 over his first three seasons with the Green Bay Backers. He’s won three straight NFC titles, but despite having a Hall-of-Fame quarterback in Aaron Rodgers, has yet to reach the Super Bowl. He’s been an offensive coach his entire career, entering the NFL with the Houston Texans in 2008.
Matt Eberflus is 52 years old and replacing Matt Nagy, who lasted four seasons with the Chicago Bears. He’s been a defensive coach his entire career, and started in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns in 2009. Dan Campbell is 46 years old and entering his second season with the Detroit Lions. He went 5-7 as an interim head coach with the Miami Dolphins in 2015, and 3-13-1 with the Lions last year. He went viral at his introductory press conference with Detroit for saying, "This team is going to be built on we’re going to kick you in the teeth. When you punch us back, we’re going to smile at you and when you knock us down, we’re going to get up and on the way up, we’re going to bite a kneecap off."
The oldest division? The AFC South. Mike Vrabel (Titans) is 46, Frank Reich (Colts) is 60, Lovie Smith (Texans) is 64 and Doug Pederson (Jaguars) is 54. That makes for an average of 56, the oldest division by nearly five years. The average age of an AFC head coach? 50.18. For the NFC? 47.875.
2022 SEASON WILL FEATURE 7 FIRST-TIME HEAD COACHES
Between firings, retirements and resignations, this year might have as much head coaching turnover as any in the NFL. It resulted in the hiring of seven first-time head coaches. O’Connell is the youngest, followed by Mike McDaniel (Dolphins), who is 39. He’s been in the NFL since 2005, when he was an intern with the Denver Broncos.
Nick Sirianni (Eagles), who started his NFL coaching career with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2009, is 40. Nathaniel Hackett, who the Vikings interviewed before he went to Denver, is 42. Brian Daboll with the New York Giants is 47. Dennis Allen, who is replacing Sean Payton with the New Orleans Saints, is 49. Eberflus is the oldest first-time head coach this year at 58 years old. He was a college coach for 16 years between Toledo and Missouri before joining the Browns in 2009.
The seven first-time head coaches have a 21-year range in age, but they all have one thing in common: They've worked their way up the coaching ranks as position or assistant coaches, and eventually to coordinator positions.
KEVIN O’CONNELL SECOND-YOUNGEST AMONG VIKINGS CANDIDATES
After hiring Adofo-Mensah to run the front office, the Vikings put together a thorough search and interview process to replace Zimmer. They chose O’Connell, but he was not the youngest coach to get an interview. That goes to Kellen Moore, who is 33 years old. He played in the NFL for six seasons with the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys, before moving to quarterbacks coach in Dallas in 2018. He’s now their offensive coordinator, a unit that was No. 1 in the NFL last season.
Hackett is 42. Patrick Graham, who interviewed in Minnesota as the New York Giants’ defensive coordinator and associate head coach, is 43 and now the defensive coordinator for the Las Vegas Raiders. Raheem Morris, the defensive coordinator for the L.A. Rams when Vikings’ management flew west to interview him and O’Connell during their playoff run, is 45 and was a head coach in Tampa Bay for three seasons. Dan Quinn, the defensive coordinator in Dallas, is 51.
The two oldest coaches the Vikings interviewed? Jim Harbaugh and Todd Bowles, who are each 58. Harbaugh nearly won a Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers in 2013-14, and has been the head coach at Michigan since 2015. He’s 61-24 with the Wolverines, 42-17 in Big Ten play and led the Wolverines to the College Football Playoff last season. Bowles has been an NFL coach since 2000, was the head coach of the Jets for four seasons and now replaces Bruce Arians in Tampa Bay.
Graham, Harbaugh, Morris and O’Connell were considered the four finalists for the job. The eight candidates spanned 25 years in age, and included three minority candidates.
There is no perfect formula to find the ideal head coach. That comes down to fit with each organization. But one theme is clear: Pretty much every head coach started at the bottom of a coaching tree, and worked their way up.
O’Connell is getting his chance earlier than many, but after five NFL seasons as a player with six teams, and seven seasons as an offensive coach or coordinator. He’s put in the time, and we’ll find out in September if it translates to running a team.