10 College Football Coaches Who Are Destined to Leave for the NFL
Given Oregon’s Chip Kelly’s surprise move to the NFL Philadelphia Eagles, it’s interesting to discuss which college football coach will be the next guy to give the pro game a try.
Yes, while many have gone, relatively few college football coaches have enjoyed the kind of success in the pro ranks that they did on the institutional gridiron.
Recent examples of this phenomenon include Nick Saban and Steve Spurrier, both championship-level college coaches who flopped in the NFL.
At the end of the day, this scarcity of positive results makes a conversation of who will get called up for their crack at the NFL all the more intriguing.
The following slideshow starts the ball rolling by scanning the long list of current head coaches in FBS ball and highlights 10 guys who are the most likely to be destined to leave for the NFL.
These coaches have all the right stuff to be next Greg Schiano, Pete Carroll or Jim Harbaugh, joining the age-old rotation of college guys giving the NFL a whirl.
Al Golden, Miami (Fla.)
Even though Miami’s Al Golden has never coached a down in the NFL, he’s the perfect candidate to eventually ascend to the professional ranks of football coaching.
What Golden’s got going for him begins with his age. He’s 43 years young with means. If he stays in coaching he could have up to 30 years left ticking on his career clock.
If you think this number is off-base then consider K-State’s Bill Snyder, who is 73 this year and just got a five-year contract extension.
The second element that makes Golden an NFL prospect is the fact that at his young age he’s already landed one of the middle-tier coaching roles in college ball.
The Miami job is not Alabama, Texas or USC but it’s also not Maryland, Oklahoma State or Cal.
Really, the discussion comes down to this: Where does Golden go next in his career?
Indeed, if, and that’s a big “IF”, he wins at Miami, a program that hasn’t won a title of any kind since coming to the ACC in 2004, where does he go next?
The truth is, Golden is young enough to score big with the Hurricanes and stay on for a while, take a top-crust college job and then still have enough time remaining to nab an NFL job later in his career.
You’ve got to figure that if Golden can add to his winning resume he’ll begin to show up on the short lists of NFL franchises looking for coaches.
This guy already looks and acts like a pro. If he keeps winning it will likely be his choice as to whether or not he wants to take a crack at the NFL.
Bob Stoops, Oklahoma
After 14 seasons as the head guy at Oklahoma, Bob Stoops’ career is likely to take one of two paths.
First, Stoops could reinvigorate both his program and career by actually ascending to another BCS title game (or starting in 2014 earning a playoff berth) or, he could begin to fizzle out at his current role and start considering what to do next.
Only a few guys over the course of history have been able to stay at the same major college football coaching post and pump out consistent wins and championships past the 15-to-20 year mark. And in the modern world of college football, complete with sky-high expectations, media over-saturation and focus on money versus results, this situation is severely exacerbated.
So, if Oklahoma becomes weary of Stoops and eager to taste from the chalice of national championship sooner rather than later, or, alternatively if Stoops tires of his role with the Sooners, what happens next?
Does Stoops make a lateral move within the college game to Ohio State, Florida or Oregon or does he shock the world and take one of the top spots at USC, Alabama or even Texas?
Or, does he pull a Bret Bielema and flee to the SEC?
The other path to connect to a hugely successful run in major college football is for Stoops to be lured from the institutional ranks to the glitz and glamour of the pros.
Honestly, it's easy to imagine Stoops’ ever-present visor, which currently has an “OU” emblazoned upon it, magically morphing into one with a big blue star on it.
Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
The truth of the matter is, if Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz had wanted to become a head coach in the NFL, he would have already been there.
Furthermore, you could make a solid argument that Ferentz’s heyday at Iowa may be a thing of the past and that he should have cashed in on a pro job while his star was at its highest point.
Throughout his career at Iowa, Ferentz has remained loyal to the Hawkeyes despite a slew of offers from NFL franchises.
Suitors over the years have included Kansas City, Minnesota, Green Bay, Cleveland and Pittsburgh.
If you’re wondering what makes Ferentz so attractive to the pro ranks, other than the fact that he’s led Iowa to two Big Ten titles and three double-digit win seasons, don’t forget that he’s got his fair share of NFL experience.
Before taking over the Hawkeyes job in 1999, Ferentz made two stops at NFL franchises as an OC; he was at Cleveland from 1993-95 and then at Baltimore from 1996-98.
After 14 years at Iowa, Ferentz’s win total has begun to drop significantly, meaning either he’ll right the ship, once again, or, as harsh and unbelievable as it sounds, he’ll be out.
If he does go, even on his own accord, it’s difficult to believe that at 57 years old it will be over for him in terms of coaching.
Given his past, Ferentz might be, in a very covert way, the best candidate for a destiny in the NFL.
Bo Pelini, Nebraska
Though Bo Pelini is yet to take Nebraska to a BCS appearance, he’s never dipped below nine wins and he’s earned the Huskers divisional titles in four of his five seasons at the helm.
At only 45, Pelini is likely on the verge of taking Nebraska to the next level, an achievement that would open the flood gates of opportunity for the zealous coach from Youngstown, Ohio.
This leads us to the next question, the same one we’re asking about each of the guys on our list. If he does win a championship, what does he do next?
In Pelini’s case, staying at Nebraska might be attractive. But so might be an opportunity to coach at his alma mater (Ohio State), or make a move to an even bigger college football spot in the SEC or at Texas or USC.
Beyond that, and even if Pelini makes a move to another college post, it’s easy to see him becoming a very attractive option for an NFL opening.
And this even becomes more realistic when you realize that from 1994 to 2002 Pelini did time as an NFL defensive assistant at San Francisco, New England and Green Bay.
With passion and fervor reminiscent of ex-NFL coach Jon Gruden it isn’t at all difficult to imagine an NFL fanbase falling in love with Pelini, especially if the popping veins signaled a winning franchise.
Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern
You’ve got to figure that at some point, the football community will begin to stand up and take notice of what Pat Fitzgerald is doing at Northwestern. In 2012 Fitzgerald guided the Wildcats to their first 10-win season since Gary Barnett pulled off a similar feat in 1995.
It’s important to quantify this achievement by noting that these two 10-win seasons represent the apex of Northwestern’s 138-year football history.
2012 was also the year that Fitzgerald finally led Northwestern to its first bowl victory since beating Cal in the 1949 Rose Bowl. It also marked its first finish in the Top 25 since 1996.
At 38 years old, Fitzgerald is literally just getting started as a head football coach.
Though Fitzgerald is a Northwestern alumnus, it’s difficult to imagine him spending his entire career there and easy to argue that he’ll have bigger fish to fry.
Fitzgerald’s next step is likely a higher post in the college ranks, but seeing him on the sidelines at the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers or Dallas Cowboys (where he spent a single season as a player) also seems very logical.
Urban Meyer, Ohio State
At only 48 years old, Urban Meyer is already on his fourth successful stop as a head college football coach.
Meyer’s first head job came at Bowling Green where he went 17-6 from 2001-02, which led to the stop at Utah where he managed a 22-2 mark from 2003-04 including two Mountain West titles, a BCS win and a top-five finish.
Next came the long run at Florida, from 2005-10, where Meyer went 65-15, won two national titles, two SEC championships, three SEC East crowns and finished in the top five three times.
After pausing ever so briefly in 2011, Meyer took over at Ohio State in 2012 and ran the table, going 12-0 in a bowl-ban season that had the Buckeyes all dressed up with nowhere to go.
Though it’s easy to imagine Meyer sticking around at Ohio State for the next several years, who’s to say that this just isn’t another stop on his whistle-stop tour?
Indeed, would Meyer be tempted by a return to the SEC or an offer to coach Notre Dame?
And when you ask those sorts of questions the next obvious step is an NFL post.
Meyer’s case is pretty simple: If he continues to be ultra-successful at the collegiate level it’s natural that his name will begin, at some point, to be associated with NFL openings.
It’s also easy to get the feeling that Meyer’s ego might be suited for a step up to the bigger time where Super Bowl Sunday trumps National Championship Monday.
Bill O’Brien, Penn State
Perhaps the most overtly destined to leave the college ranks for the NFL, Penn State’s Bill O’Brien looks ordained to go pro on a staggering number of levels.
First and foremost, O’Brien, who actually got his start in coaching at the college level, is fresh off a very successful five-year run as an assistant in the NFL.
O’Brien got his first crack at coaching as a TE coach at his alma mater Brown in 1993. But after stops at Georgia Tech, Maryland and Duke he made a real name for himself as an offensive assistant and then OC at the New England Patriots from 2007-11.
So, you’ve got to ask yourself not so much if he’ll return to the NFL but when he’ll return to the NFL.
However, O’Brien is saddled with what may be the most precarious coaching position in major college football, the Penn State job.
Yes, O’Brien knew what he was getting in to when he took the Penn State job, but on the other hand is this guy really committed to sticking around through three more years of a postseason ban and numerous scholarship restrictions?
This already fraught situation is amped up another notch by the media attention the program receives that has nothing to do with the program’s actual on-field product.
After a single season at Penn State, O’Brien was already interviewing with the Cleveland Browns, making it no stretch to say that his name is likely to be kicked around as NFL jobs continue to open and close.
Really, even if the Penn State situation wasn’t the mess that it is, O’Brien would more than likely be destined for the NFL at some point.
Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
Given that some folks consider the Notre Dame job one of the three or four elite posts in college football it was at least mildly shocking that Brian Kelly interviewed for the Philadelphia Eagles job after only three years in South Bend.
Yes, if nothing else you’ve got to figure that Notre Dame is the type of job you’d ride for at least a decade, given that you’ve been successful and can stay afloat, before you start turning your head when a pro clipboard and whistle pass you by.
But, this is obviously not the case for Brian Kelly, who is 28-11 through his first three seasons at Notre Dame. Even if he’s not actually actively looking for an NFL job, an interview is never really a good sign.
While some people will contend that the Eagles interview was nothing more than a ploy to enhance his position in contract negotiations with Notre Dame, when a guy has a first meeting with an NFL franchise, it’s suddenly a distinct possibility he’ll do it again.
Brian Kelly is a 51-year-old guy who, like Urban Meyer, has been ultra-successful at each of his four stops as a head college football coach.
Kelly went 118-35-2 from 1991-2003 at Grand Valley State, a run which included six conference crowns and back-to-back D-II national championships.
Next, Kelly moved on to Central Michigan where he went 19-16 from 2004-06, which was enough to propel him to Cincinnati where he guided the Bearcats to a 34-6 mark from 2007-08 including two Big East crowns and back-to-back BCS berths.
This led to his hiring at Notre Dame, which some folks consider the apex of a career as a college football coach.
So, will Kelly really go to the NFL?
You’ve got to figure that based on what we know thus far that the answer has to be a very strong, solid and concrete…maybe.
Jim L. Mora, UCLA
You could argue that Jim Mora the Younger doesn’t belong on this list due to the fact that he’s already been an NFL head coach twice during his career.
But, the fact is Mora is now a college head coach, and a successful one at that (at least in one season), which means that he’s eligible for a second or third destiny with an NFL franchise.
The only college coaching experience Mora had coming into his head role with UCLA in 2012 was a one-year stint at his alma mater, Washington, as a GA in 1984.
Other than that it’s been all NFL for Mora who wound up eventually as the head man at both Atlanta (where he went 26-22 from 2004-06) and Seattle (where he went 5-11 in 2009).
So, what remains to be seen is, can Mora and company build on their 9-5 triumph at UCLA in 2012, a run which included a Pac-12 South crown and the Bruins' best finish since winning 10 games under Karl Dorrell in 2005?
Next, if he does continue to build momentum at UCLA, will he now be branded as a guy who couldn’t get done in the NFL but instead wins at the collegiate level? Or will the pros start calling him again?
If he is successful at UCLA it’s completely logical to think that Mora will regain some traction in the NFL, and if can lead the Bruins to their first Pac-12 title since 1998, he may be in control of his own destiny at both levels.
Les Miles, LSU
The two best recent examples of big-time, successful college football coaches rising to the NFL ranks only to suffer heartache and losses are the SEC’s Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban; so why wouldn’t Les Miles be the next guy to give it a whirl?
Indeed, why wouldn’t the quirky Miles want to go where no SEC coach has gone, successfully at least, and take the NFL by storm and actually come out a winner?
Miles definitely has the successful pedigree and appropriate age bracket to garner a shot atop.
Miles is 84-21 since 2005 at LSU, a number which includes two SEC titles, three SEC West crowns and the 2007-08 national championship.
And, at a very youthful 59 years old you could actually argue that Miles might go to the pros sooner than most of the guys on our list.
The other argument that makes sense about Miles is the fact that he’s quickly approaching the 10-year mark at a high-pressure major program with huge expectations.
Yes, when finishing with 10 wins, second in the scary SEC West and No. 7 in the final AP poll is considered an “off year” (as it was in 2012) you’re verifiably in a pressure-cooker situation.
What this all comes down to is when (if ever) will Les Miles begin to burn out at LSU, and when he does, what’s next?
Though the Michigan job (Miles played LB for the Wolverines from 1974-75) is always on the horizon, wouldn’t it make more sense that Miles follow in the footsteps of Spurrier and Saban, who walked away from similar successful SEC runs to take a crack at the NFL?
And though the example of his predecessors' experiences in the pros might dissuade Miles, what if it instead had the opposite effect and it motivated him?
Either way, Miles is in a perfect position, if he so chooses, to form a Blue Ribbon Committee to investigate a potential opportunity in the NFL.