Chiefs’ Haley only NFL coach who never played

Until now, it was like one of those little family secrets that everybody knows about but no one brings up.

Might be embarrassing. People wouldn’t understand. Doesn’t matter anyway, so why say anything?

But then a disgruntled Kansas City running back got on Twitter and blindsided his boss squarely on the rawest of nerves, calling him out on a point he sort of hoped would be ignored.

The Chiefs‘ Todd Haley, for reasons that were not entirely his fault, never actually played the sport that now employs him as a head coach in the National Football League.

An NFL head coach who did not play football? Who hasn’t run a route, made a tackle or thrown a block at any level?

At least Haley, 42, is unique. He is the only head coach in the league who never played at least in high school.

Many of the top coaches did not have distinguished careers as players. But only Haley’s playing resume is bare. Does it matter?

“Unfortunately, some NFL players will look at their coach and if he’s not in that fraternity of ex-players, sometimes they might let it affect the way they look at him,” said Tim Grunhard, a former Chiefs center who coaches at a large area high school. “I think that’s a big mistake. A lot of outstanding NFL coaches never played much at all. From everything I’ve seen of Todd Haley, he’s going to be a great head coach.”

Running back Larry Johnson, who has a troubled history, got the controversy started when he posted a Twitter feed, littered with misspellings, following last Sunday’s 37-7 loss to San Diego:

“My father played for the coach from “rememeber the titans. Our coach played golf. My father played for redskins briefley. Our coach. Nuthn. my father got more creditentials than most of these pro coaches… my father!!!!!!!”

He went on to make a gay slur, then got himself in even deeper trouble by repeating it the next day. An apologetic Johnson is now appealing a two-week suspension that could cost him more than $600,000.

But Haley was left standing in front of microphones and television cameras, forced to talk about something some fans find especially disturbing because the Chiefs, in his first year as a head coach, are 1-6 heading in their bye.

Of course, they were only 2-14 last year under Herm Edwards, a star cornerback for the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl.

Quietly and with a sense of dignity and humility, Haley defended himself.

“I’m very proud of what I’ve done to get to where I am,” he said. “I’m very proud of my results as a position coach, as a coordinator. Right now, am I proud of my head coaching record? No. But I intend to do everything I can to change that.”

For Haley to be taking these hits seems profoundly ironic because he grew up a football gym rat, immersed in the sport like few kids ever were. His father, Dick Haley, has been renowned for decades as one of the NFL’s top personnel men. While Dick Haley was helping build the Pittsburgh dynasty of the 1970s, Todd would spend summers at Steelers training camp. He roomed next to Terry Bradshaw, ran errands for Franco Harris and Jack Lambert, and drank it all in.

In countless quiet hours with the lights in the house turned down, Todd sat there while his dad broke down film of college and pro players. The elder Haley would point out subtle nuances, things that only an expert eye would see, teaching his son, in the words of Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli, “the difference between good and great.”

When August would roll around and Todd’s buddies were starting high school football practice, Dick Haley would pack up everyone and turn three-week scouting trips into a family vacation. He was on the road so much during the school year, he wanted to grab all the family time he could.

“Todd was into football always. The way we lived, it was different, that’s all,” Dick Haley told The Associated Press. “I thought it was more important to come with me than to stay at home and go to high school football practice. And he would be in training camp with me before that. Whether that’s right or wrong, that’s what I thought. That was me dictating. When you’re 14 or 15 years old, you’re going to do what your folks tell you.”

Plus, the athletic youngster had fallen in love with golf, and was good enough to play at Miami and Florida in college.

“Todd was 6-2, about 210 pounds. Certainly, he could have played football,” said his father.

For a while, the younger Haley coached golf. But in 1995, when he was 27, he took an entry-level job with the New York Jets as a scouting assistant and offensive assistant, and four years later was wide receivers coach under Bill Parcells.

Thus began a rapid rise through the ranks, culminating in last year’s Super Bowl, where he served the Arizona Cardinals in his second season as offensive coordinator.

When Pioli was hired by the Chiefs, he chose Haley to be the head coach to help him repair a damaged franchise that hasn’t won a postseason game since the 1993 season and won only six times in Edwards’ final two years.

It may be tough for the talent-starved 2009 Chiefs to win more than a few games. But if the Chiefs do start winning, suggested one former NFL star, Haley’s background will mean nothing.

“Players tend to look for excuses when they mess up,” said former Pro Bowl lineman Conrad Dobler. “If they’re losing, they might say, ‘This guy can’t possibly know how we feel.’

“But if they’re winning, it won’t matter if he never played before. Hell, it won’t matter if he never coached before. I doubt that Todd Haley could have worked for Bill Parcells if he didn’t know what he was doing.”

None of the Chiefs players asked about their coach’s background said it mattered a bit.

“There’s not a man in this locker room who questions his qualifications,” said wide receiver Bobby Wade.

Nevertheless, until his team finds success, it will probably remain a sensitive subject for the only NFL head coach who never played.

“I’m very proud of the route that I took to get to where I am right now,” Haley said. “I’m very proud to have grown up around, in my opinion, one of the best football people there is, and to be around the teams and players that I was around on a daily basis.

“I think I’ve earned what I’ve done in the NFL through hard work and through execution and results. If playing is a prerequisite for being a great coach, you can eliminate some names.”