The Cardinals have had many head coaches throughout their 100-year history, and this article will explore the greatest leaders to ever roam the sidelines for the franchise.
Who Are the Greatest Head Coaches in Cardinals History?
The success or failure of an NFL franchise often rests on the shoulders of the team’s head coach. The ultimate goal for any franchise’s front office is to hire a head coach who can balance on-field and off-field responsibilities, and build a winning roster and playbook. The Cardinals have been in business for 100 years and have bounced around cities. They began as the Chicago Cardinals from 1920–59, then the St. Louis Cardinals from 1960–87, then the Phoenix Cardinals from 1988–93, and finally as the Arizona Cardinals since 1994. While their success has been limited, the team has hired several prominent head coaches.
The Cardinals won NFL championships in 1925 and ’47, but playoff success was all but nonexistent again until the late 2000s. It was in 2008 that the Cardinals made the only Super Bowl appearance in franchise history, narrowly losing to the Steelers. In the mid-2010s, the Cardinals had another resurgence and had the greatest regular seasons in team history in both ’14 and ’15, and made the NFC championship game in ’15. Naturally, the coaches from these great moments are among the best ever in franchise history.
Selection Criteria for This List
There were some difficult choices when it came to ranking the best head coaches in Cardinals history, as many of the top coaches have similar credentials. To help narrow things down, criteria used to make this list included:
- Legacy Honors (Hall of Fame, Ring of Honor, etc.)
- Coaching success (winning percentage, postseason appearances, etc.)
- Longevity (years spent with the Cardinals)
Only games coached with the Cardinals are factored into this list, so while Hall of Famer Curly Lambeau won six championships with the Packers, his 7–15 mark over two seasons with the Cardinals won’t make the cut here. Let’s count down my picks for the five best head coaches in Cardinals history!
5. John (Paddy) Driscoll
- Years Coached With the Cardinals: 1920–22
- Record: 17-8-4
- Legacy Honors: Cardinals Ring of Honor
In September of 1920, Driscoll signed with the Racine Cardinals, where he became head coach and quarterback. He lead the Cardinals through three successful seasons before focusing exclusively on being their quarterback.
In 1920, which is widely considered the inaugural season of the NFL, Driscoll became the first, first-team All-Pro quarterback, while leading the Cardinals to a 6-2-2 record and a fourth-place finish in the standings. After two more winning seasons, Driscoll surrendered coaching duties to his teammate, Arnie Horween. By helping establish the franchise as a contender, however, he put together the foundation that was needed for the Cardinals to claim the 1925 NFL championship.
Paddy Driscoll’s Coaching Record With the Cardinals
4. Bruce Arians
- Years Coached With the Cardinals: 2013–17
- Record: 49-30-1
- Playoff Appearances: 2014–15
- Awards: AP Head Coach of the Year (2014)
After a successful tenure as the interim head coach of the Colts in 2012, the Cardinals signed Bruce Arians to a four-year contract for the 2013 season. Arians became the most successful first-year head coach in team history and then led the Cardinals to the postseason the following two seasons. He was just 1–2 in the playoffs but holds the franchise record with 49 career victories.
In 2012, the Cardinals finished last in the NFL in total offense. Bringing in Arians to turn around that performance was an easy decision. Arians was a long-time offensive coordinator who won a Super Bowl while coaching for the Steelers. By his third season, Arizona gained more offensive yards than any team in the league and was No. 2 in scoring offense. The team’s 13–3 mark that year established a new franchise record, but for the second season in a row, the Cardinals failed to win the conference championship. That was the third year in a row that Arians had led the Cardinals to at least 10 victories, and made him the fourth head coach in franchise history to post three straight winning seasons. However, in the two seasons that followed, the Cardinals toiled around the .500 mark, and Arians retired after the 2017 season—though he came out of retirement to join Tampa Bay in 2019.
Bruce Arians’ Coaching Record With the Cardinals
3. Ken Whisenhunt
- Years Coached With the Cardinals: 2007–12
- Record: 45–51
- Playoff Appearances: 2008–09
No one has coached more games for the Cardinals than Ken Whisenhunt—and he’s also the only man to lead the Cardinals to the Super Bowl. Whisenhunt was at the helm for 96 games over six seasons with Arizona, and in 2008, led his team to Super Bowl XLIII. Though the Cardinals lost that game to the Steelers, the season is remembered as one of the best for the franchise. Arizona finished just 9–7 that season, sneaking into the playoffs as a division champion before reeling off three straight wins to claim the NFC championship. Whisenhunt finished his tenure with more victories than any other coach in franchise history (Bruce Arians surpassed him in 2017) and has coached more playoff games than anyone in team history (6).
The Cardinals gave Whisenhunt his first head coaching job. Whisenhunt had found success as an assistant coach, winning Super Bowl XL as Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator. Arizona hoped Whisenhunt would establish some success for the franchise, which had just one winning season since coming to Phoenix in 1988, and one playoff victory since winning the 1947 NFL championship. The Cardinals came into the 2007 season after back-to-back 5–11 finishes, and Whisenhunt immediately boosted the team to a .500 record.
After getting Arizona into the Super Bowl the next season, Whisenhunt engineered another division championship in 2009 but took a loss in the second round of the postseason. Whisenhunt was unable to push the Cardinals back over .500 in each of the next three seasons, and he was fired after the 2012 season.
Ken Whisenhunt’s Coaching Record With the Cardinals
2. Jimmy Conzelman
- Years Coached With the Cardinals: 1940–42, 1946–48
- Record: 31-31-3
- Playoff Appearances: 1947–48
- Championships: 1947
- Awards: Sporting News Coach of the Year (1947)
- Legacy Honors: Hall of Fame (1964), Cardinals Ring of Honor
The last head coach to lead the Cardinals to a championship was Jimmy Conzelman, who led his Chicago squad to the 1947 NFL title in his second stint as the team’s head coach. Sub-par performances marked his first three seasons, and his Cardinals mustered just eight wins in that span. After transitioning to the MLB as a front office executive for the Browns from 1943–45, the Cardinals convinced Conzelman to return for a second stint as head coach. That is when he would inherit the famed “Million-Dollar Backfield” and turned the Cardinals into a serious championship contender.
Conzelman built a bruising offense around Hall of Fame running back Charley Trippi, beating the Eagles 28–21 and claiming the 1947 NFL title. The next season, the Cardinals went 11–1 in the regular season but lost to the Eagles in the championship game. The 7–0 loss is known for being played in a severe snowstorm. In January 1949, Conzelman abruptly resigned to focus on a post-football career in advertising, despite having a year left on his contract. In his resignation letter, Conzelman cited family reasons as a primary driver of his decision. “Jim’s resignation was accepted reluctantly,” team president Ray C. Benningsen said, “accepted only out of respect to his desire to retire to a life which will not make such great demands on him physically.” (Chamberlain, 1949).
Jimmy Conzelman’s Coaching Record With the Cardinals
1. Don Coryell
- Years Coached With the Cardinals: 1973–77
- Record: 42-27-1
- Playoff Appearances: 1974–75
- Awards: AP NFL Coach of the Year (1974)
In the 24 years between the last postseason appearance for the Cardinals in 1948 and another head coaching vacancy for the 1973 season, the franchise had finished with a winning record just eight times and placed last in the division in five seasons. Change was desperately desired by owner Bill Bidwell, and change is what they got by hiring long-time San Diego State head coach, Don Coryell. As an offensive guru, Coryell revitalized the Cardinals, pushing them to three straight 10-win seasons from 1974–76, and a pair of postseason appearances. He repaired a dormant offense that ranked near the bottom of the league in 1971 and ‘72.
At San Diego State, Coryell built a reputation as a winner. When he was hired by the Cardinals, his former player Jeff Staggs was already in St. Louis. “I’m just tickled to death that he’s with the Cardinals,” Staggs said. “I decided to go to San Diego State College because I was so impressed with his honesty. And everything he promised me he fulfilled. He has the players’ best interests foremost in his mind. His approach to the game is so professional” (Meyers, 1973).
After the Cardinals struggled in Coryell’s first season at the helm, he transformed them into a winner known as the “Cardiac Cardinals.” St. Louis won at least 10 games each of the next three seasons but couldn’t find a victory in the playoffs. Still, his offensive philosophy turned players such as quarterback Jim Hart, return man and receiver Mel Gray, running back Jim Otis and offensive lineman Dan Dierdorf, into superstars. Coryell and the franchise had a falling out after a .500 finish in 1977. He became the head coach of the Chargers in 1978 and led them to four postseason appearances. Despite all of his successes, Coryell has not been enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
Don Coryell’s Coaching Record With the Cardinals
The following head coaches left an indelible mark on Cardinals history, but didn’t quite make the top five.
Jim Hanifan (1980–85)
Jim Hanifan is one of just three coaches in franchise history to coach for six seasons, but he only had one playoff appearance to show for it. That came in the strike-shortened 1982 season, but the Cardinals lost to the Packers in the opening round. His team went 8-7-1 the following season, and then just missed a playoff spot with a 9–7 mark in 1984. He was 39-49-1 overall, and those 89 games as head coach served as a franchise record until 2012.
Norman Barry (1925–26)
The architect of the first championship in Cardinals history was Norman Berry, who led Chicago to the best record in the NFL in 1925 (11-2-1). Berry posted a 16-8-2 record in two seasons. Following his career in the NFL, Barry became a lawyer, Illinois state senator and a judge.
Vince Tobin (1996–2000)
It was Vince Tobin who ended the franchise’s 50-year drought without a playoff victory by knocking off the Cowboys in 1998. That was the only winning season of Tobin’s tenure, however, he only put together a meager 28–43 record in 4 1/2 seasons.
How Many Head Coaches Have the Arizona Cardinals Had?
There have been 40 head coaches in the history of the Cardinals franchise, which has also played in Chicago, St. Louis, and Phoenix. There have been several seasons in team history when there were multiple co-coaches instead of one head coach.
Who Is the Current Head Coach of the Arizona Cardinals?
Kliff Kingsbury is currently the head coach of the Cardinals. He was hired on January 8, 2019, taking his first coaching job in the NFL after a lengthy tenure as the head coach of Texas Tech.
Arizona Cardinals Head Coach History
Chamberlain, C. “Jimmy Conzelman Quits as Cards’ Grid Coach.” The Decatur Herald. pp. 6. January 8, 1949. Retrieved from Newspapers.com on March 3, 2020.
Meyers, J. “Coryell Promises Wide-Open Offense.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Pp. 1C-5C. January 19, 1973. Retrieved from Newspapers.com February 17, 2020.