Grading the Success of Coaches Jumping from College Ranks to the NFL
Philadelphia Eagles fans should be cautiously optimistic about Chip Kelly's arrival as the team's new head coach, because history shows us that college coaches fail in the NFL more than they succeed.
I'm a huge fan of Kelly's work at Oregon, and I'm of the opinion that his style of coaching and his scheme on offense will translate well to the pros. That said, the Nick Sabans and Lou Holtzs of the world have shown us that what works in theory doesn't always work well in practice.
As a quick lesson in history, we've compiled a list of 10 notable college coaches who made the jump to the NFL. Judging by their records and impact on the professional ranks, we'll assign grades to each one.
Bobby Petrino, 2007 Atlanta Falcons
Bobby Petrino took over as coach the Louisville Cardinals in 2003, taking the team from mediocrity into a golden age of dominance until he left for the NFL in 2007.
He left Louisville to coach the Atlanta Falcons, and more specifically, Michael Vick, who was one of the league's most dynamic stars, but who needed to refine his game. Petrino was a noted offensive guru who worked under Nevada legend Chris Ault earlier in his career, and it was expected that he'd help Vick take the next step.
Unfortunately for him and the Falcons, right before the 2007 season began, Vick was indicted by the federal government on illegal dog-fighting charges.
The rest is history.
Petrino's Falcons went 3-13 before he infamously left to coach at the University of Arkansas, leaving a laminated note behind in each individual locker of the Falcons players he abandoned (h/t ESPN.com).
His team ranked No. 29 in scoring in both offense and defense, and it seems he never got along with the players on that team.
Per SI's Pete Thamel:
Ex-Falcon Lawyer Milloy on Petrino: "That's karma." "Just because he knows Xs and Os that doesn’t mean he’s a nice person."— Pete Thamel(@SIPeteThamel) April 6, 2012
Petrino definitely didn't leave the NFL a better place than when he arrived.
Lou Holtz, 1976 New York Jets
Most people don't remember that Lou Holtz spent most of one season as the head coach of the New York Jets.
For good reason, too. It's a season most Jets fans and Holtz would love to forget.
The legendary college coach didn't last the season, leaving after 13 games with a record of 3-10 and one game remaining on the schedule. Upon leaving, he famously said, ''God did not put Lou Holtz on this earth to coach in the pros,'' (h/t NewYorkTimes.com).
His team ranked No. 26 in scoring on offense and defense...out of 28 teams.
1976 was also the last year Joe Namath wore Gang Green.
Steve Spurrier, 2002-2003 Washington Redskins
Steve Spurrier was one of the hottest coaching names out there in 2002 when Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder went looking for an upgrade over Marty Schottenheimer, who led the team to an 8-8 record in 2001.
Spurrier had revitalized a devastated program at the University of Florida, taking over a team that was under investigation by the NCAA for the second time in five years (h/t NewYorkTimes.com) and turning it into a national powerhouse that won a championship and multiple SEC titles.
Snyder gave Spurrier a five-year contract worth $25 million to come over and coach in the NFL—the highest contract any head coach had received at that point in league history (h/t ESPN.com).
It turned out to be one of Snyder's biggest mistakes.
Spurrier's Redskins went 12-20 before Snyder fired him after two seasons, and the team got worse in 2003 instead of improving upon its 7-9 record in 2002.
According to Pro Football Insider's Fred Edelstein, via DailyPress.com, a Redskins player source had this to say about Spurrier in April of 2002:
Either Spurrier is the greatest thing to happen to the NFL in 30 years, or we are screwed. Royally. I have never seen anything like it. This is the most disorganized head coach and the most disorganized coaching staff I've ever seen in the NFL.
Turns out, they were screwed.
Dennis Ericson, 1995-1998 Seattle Seahawks & 2003-2003 San Francisco 49ers
Dennis Erickson entered the NFL with high hopes, after leading the Miami Hurricanes to two national championships in 1989 and 1991.
He took over for head coach Tom Flores in 1994 to lead the Seattle Seahawks to four mediocre seasons, winning no more than eight games in all four years. Granted, Erickson never had elite talent to work with, but after four dismal seasons, he left the professional ranks to coach in college once again.
From there, Erickson coached the Oregon State Beavers for four seasons, resurrecting the school from a record of 5-6 in 1998 to become the No. 4-ranked team in the nation at the end of the 2000 season.
His success gave him another opportunity in the pros, and in 2003 Erickson took over for Steve Mariucci. who had led the San Francisco 49ers to playoff appearances in 2001 and 2002.
Thus began the dark years for the storied franchise that had won five Super Bowls in the 1980s and 1990s.
Erickson led the 49ers to a record of 9-23 during his two years in San Francisco.
He hasn't been seen in the NFL since, and it's no wonder why.
Nick Saban, 2005-2006 Miami Dolphins
Perhaps no coach in recent history has proven that success in college doesn't translate to success in the NFL more than Nick Saban.
Saban led the LSU Tigers to a national championship in 2003, and he spent one more year in Louisiana before trying his luck at the next level.
Then, in 2005, Saban became the head coach of the Miami Dolphins. His first year in Miami portended good things to come, as the Dolphins compiled a 9-7 record and narrowly missed the playoffs.
2006 wasn't the next step the Dolphins or Saban had hoped for, though, as the team descended to the cellar of the AFC East with a record of 6-10.
Granted, it didn't help that Daunte Culpepper never made a full recovery from a knee injury that knocked him out of action in 2005, but the Dolphins offense was pitiful, scoring just over 16 points per game.
After Mike Shula's departure from the University of Alabama, Saban left the NFL to go back to the college ranks after just two seasons in the pros, where he's won three national championships in the past four years.
Greg Schiano, 2012 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Greg Schiano took over the program at Rutgers in 2001 after decades of mediocrity following the departure of Frank Burns.
Schiano's early years at Rutgers weren't pretty, but he transformed the program into one that won five of six bowl games between 2005-2011.
A strict disciplinarian, Schiano enforced his will upon the small school's football program and left it in much better shape that it was when he arrived.
Schiano left the college ranks in 2012 to take over for Raheem Morris. His heavy-handed approach was immediately felt, as tight end Kellen Winslow, Jr. can attest, and it seemed to have an immediate positive impact.
The team won its opening game, but then fell to three straight opponents before righting the ship once again. By Week 11, the Bucs had compiled a record of 6-4 and were in the hunt for a wild-card spot in the NFC playoff picture.
Unfortunately, the Buccaneers lost five of their remaining six games and finished the season with a record of 7-9.
There's certainly room for improvement, and it remains to be seen how well Schiano's hardcore disciplinary style flies long term with an NFL team.
Pete Carroll, 2010-2012 Seattle Seahawks
Pete Carroll seems to be having an incredibly positive impact on the Seattle Seahawks, but this is his third go-round with an NFL team, and his first two stops were less than perfect.
But for the sake of this exercise, we'll concentrate on his latest stop, as it's the only one that began on the tail end of a wildly successful college career.
Carroll's time at USC helped the school win two AP national championships and one BCS title, though that title has since been vacated, due to recruiting violations (h/t LATimes.com).
He left USC before the proverbial you-know-what hit the fan, though, landing in Seattle in 2010, where he's transformed the Seahawks into one of the NFL's most feared teams.
Carroll's mantra of competition has settled into the crevices of Seattle's organization, and his willingness to put his money where his mouth is led to the team starting rookie quarterback Russell Wilson over veteran, free-agent quarterback Matt Flynn, who the team signed before the 2012 NFL draft to potentially become the starter.
In his three years with Seattle, the Seahawks have compiled a record of 25-23, have won an NFC West title and two playoff games.
Jim Harbaugh, 2011-2012 San Francisco 49ers
Jim Harbaugh has been a winning head coach wherever he's gone.
His first head-coaching gig came at the University of San Diego in 2004. After his first season, which earned him a 7-4 record, Harbaugh led the Toreros to two straight 11-1 seasons before taking his next step up the ladder.
Then, Harbaugh took his talents to Stanford, where he transformed a broken program that won just one game in 2006 and turned it into a 12-1 team four years later, improving the school's record each and every year he was there.
He took over for Mike Singletary in 2011 to become the new head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.
All he's done since then is compile a record of 24-7-1, win two NFC West titles and take his team to two straight NFC Championship games—not to mention turning Alex Smith into one of the most successful quarterbacks in the NFL before handing over the reins to second-year phenom Colin Kaepernick.
Tom Coughlin, 1995-2002 Jacksonville Jaguars & 2004-2012 New York Giants
Tom Coughlin has been coaching longer than many of you have been breathing.
He started out as the head coach for the Rochester University of Technology for four years before becoming an assistant for the better part of two decades before landing at Boston College, where he spent three years resurrecting a dead program.
Coughlin took over for Jack Bicknell in 1991 at BC, turning a program that had gone 9-24 in its three previous seasons into one that went 17-6-1 in his final two years—including a victory over Virginia in the 1993 Blockbuster Bowl.
From there, Coughlin landed the inaugural head-coaching gig for the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars in 1995—a job he kept for eight years, during which time he led his team to four playoff wins and one AFC Championship appearance.
The Jaguars fell into disrepair in Coughlin's waning years as quarterback Mark Brunell began to age, and so he was let go in 2002.
Coughlin landed on his feet in 2004, though, becoming the head coach of the New York Giants, where he's led them to seven playoff wins, including two Super Bowl victories.
Jimmy Johnson, 1989-1993 Dallas Cowboys & 1996-1999 Miami Dolphins
Jimmy Johnson emerged onto the NFL scene in much the same way as Jim Harbaugh. He had taken the University of Miami to two straight national championship games—winning one of them—before arriving in Dallas to resurrect a dead franchise.
Tom Landry's tenure was at an end, and his final season with the Cowboys led to a dismal 3-13 record. Things didn't look any better during Johnson's first season, as the Cowboys went 1-15 in 1989.
Some savvy decisions by Johnson in the NFL draft helped Dallas quickly rebuild, though, and only two years later the Cowboys won their first playoff game under Johnson's regime.
During his time in Dallas, Johnson's team had a playoff record of 7-1 and won two Super Bowls. His vision created the "Team of the 90s," and if not for owner Jerry Jones' refusal to let Johnson continue to dominate the decision-making process, he would have likely stayed on for much longer.
Johnson took a couple of years off after the 1993 season before landing with the Miami Dolphins in 1996, where he spent four years and won two more playoff games.
One of the true legends of both college and professional football, Johnson was the most successful college coach to make the jump to the NFL, at least in terms of postseason success.
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