Many hold that the NFL means “not for long.”

That is largely true. Given the cocktail of competition, revenue, and physicality, sustaining employment—much less performance—is a battle many players and coaches have fought and lost. The excitement of “making it” can quickly lead to intoxication if not carefully tempered by humility and discipline. Talent might get you there, but talent alone won’t keep you there.

According to Statista, the average NFL career is 3.3 years. So, by 26, most players are finished with a craft they’ve dedicated most of their lives to.

Coaches are quite similar. Business Insider notes the average career for an NFL coach is 4.3 years. They have more potential for longevity but are equally as susceptible to turnover.

Given the ever-changing landscape of the NFL, it’s remarkable how certain coaches have remained employed (some by one team) so long. Fan expectation, player evolution, rule changes, social media, and mental fatigue all play a part in vying for a coach’s attention, yet there are a few who have risen above all that and established themselves not only as great coaches, but as Hall of Fame-caliber coaches.

For context, consider this: there are just as many 1st-time NFL head coaches this year (5) than there are coaches who’ve been at the helm of their current team for at least 10 years (Belichick, Tomlin, Harbaugh, Carroll, Reid). Think about that. Just as many coaches are doubling the career average as are being hired for the first time.

What’s remarkable about Tomlin and Harbaugh is that their teams comprise the toughest-contested, most physically demanding rivalry in the sport, yet they’re perennial winners and show no signs of slowing down.

How do they do it? First, let’s take quantify how close they really are.

 John HarbaughMike Tomlin
Years as an NFL head coach1516
Years as an NFL coach2522
Years as a football coach3928
Consecutive years with current team1516
Head coaching record137-88 (.609)154-85-2 (.643)
Head coaching playoff record11-8 (.579)8-9 (.471)
Super Bowl record1-0 (1.00)1-1 (.500)
Coach of the Year awards10
Challenge record52/117 (.444)36/84 (.429)
Head-to-head record (playoffs included)14-1717-14
Time with Cincinnati Bearcats *both started there at age 271989-961999-2000

As the numbers bear out, Harbaugh and Tomlin are very alike, which is no surprise seeing as how successful they’ve been. The duration of their first NFL head coaching job has already tripled the league average. They’re two of just 17 coaches ever to be a head coach for at least 200 regular season games and post a minimum winning percentage of .600. To have that quality-laden resume when going against someone just as good at least twice a year and sustaining your success is beyond impressive. It’s Hall of Fame worthy.

Besides numbers, what makes them so great?

In my eyes, they’re both what many coaches aspire to be. They both are coaches of conviction, integrity, and gratitude. If you’re thankful for every day you get to do a job, whatever is asked of you won’t seem like a burden, but an opportunity. Thus, you’re likely to see increasing results over those who foster a negative disposition and are just in it for themselves.

From a stylistic standpoint, these two men aren’t play-callers; they’re true head coaches. They trust their staffs and they empower their players. They’re fair, consistent, and level-headed.

Tomlin won a Super Bowl coaching against an offense with at least two Hall of Famers. Harbaugh won a Super Bowl coaching against his own brother. Any kind of challenge you can think of (talented opposition, PR crisis, supposed coaching staff rift), they’ve seen it, dealt with it, and have come out better for it.

Can they keep this up? That remains to be seen, but you have to think that if they were going to fail, they would’ve failed by now.

It seems like they’re able to coach as long as they want to—an option only reserved for the very best. Tomlin is currently under contract through 2024, while Harbaugh is currently under contract through 2025. If they reach those years and then retire, they both will have been an NFL head coach (of one team) for 18 years (another commonality).

How have these two coaches sustained their success? How have they been so good for so long? How have they avoided pitfalls that have seized the promising careers of so many?

In short, be being themselves. You might think that’s an over-generalization but consider how so many are swayed by the winds of change in the NFL and how really smart and well-intentioned people are wrongly influenced. To be able to say you’ve remained true to yourself for the better part of two decades—in any field, much less as an NFL head coach—is something I’m sure they’re both sincerely proud of.

In addition to all this, don’t forget a core element of what has brought these coaches to the very top: their incessant competitive fire. Not only will that fire drive you, if implemented the right way, it’ll permeate the entire organization. Thus, fans of these two teams have enjoyed years upon years of winning records and playoffs runs.

If you want something, go get it. These two men have “gotten after it” unlike most we’ve ever seen.

Chapter 32 of this classic story will be written on December 11 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Michael Fast
Michael Fast

Born in Baltimore, Mike had long been drawn to sports of all kinds. Growing up watching Cal Ripken play ever day gave him a great example for which to attack every endeavor he undertakes.

When the Ravens came to town, though, that’s when Mike found his passion. Since that time, he’s tried to gain every bit of knowledge he could. Now as a high school coach, Mike is able to take his film study and appreciation of the game to a new level.

To engage with Mike on social media, follow him on Twitter @MikeFastNFL.