It takes more than sheer luck to make it through three or four years of college ball with enough talent to become one of the privileged few to hear your name called in late April. Talent is clearly a must, but preparation is key to convincing coaches and general managers at the next level to take that leap of faith and risk millions of dollars.
With the NFL draft just around the corner, much of the college football world is turning its attention to the now-former players who are about to announce their arrival to the ranks of the professionals. But these studs won't be suiting up on Sundays by accident.
College football head coaches are a big part of that preparation, and over the years we've discovered that there are a select few coaches at a select few programs who stand apart from the crowd when it comes to fostering the next generation of NFL greats.
Brian Kelly starts our list of college coaches who can best prepare their players for the NFL. To be honest, we had reservations about adding Kelly to this list—until we dug beneath the surface of his relatively brief FBS coaching career.
Kelly has just completed his 10th FBS season, and although we don't know how his now-former Irish players will fare in the 2013 draft, we'll take a peek at previous years.
Kelly has sent five Notre Dame players to the NFL via the draft, two of which (Michael Floyd and Harrison Smith) were first-round selections. At Cincinnati, 13 players were drafted while Kelly was coach (which doesn't include the five drafted since that were Kelly recruits), and even Central Michigan managed to send five players to the draft (with one first-round selection).
Kelly even had a pair of players from his Division II Grand Valley State national championship teams drafted.
We probably don't have enough information yet to determine if his players can be long-term successes in the NFL, but there's no reason to believe Kelly's current and former players won't be making an impact in the pros for years to come.
Chris Petersen took over the Boise State program in 2006, and in the six drafts since that time, Boise State players have heard their names called 16 times.
That might not seem a lot when compared to some programs, but considering we're still talking about a small program from a non-power conference, we can't help but be impressed. The inclusion of four first-round picks adds to our belief that Petersen not only belongs on this list but can easily lay claim to being the best college football coach outside of the six BCS Automatic Qualifying Conferences.
Boise State has shown a consistent ability to play at the highest level against top competition from around the FBS. That quality—playing above and beyond your perceived talent level—isn't lost on NFL coaches always looking for that special player who can propel the franchise to the next level.
We've seen some impressive players emerge from Boise State under Petersen, and that trend isn't likely to subside anytime soon.
Say what you will about Mack Brown and his inability to consistently win conference championships (especially when compared to arch-nemesis Oklahoma), but there's no doubting his ability to develop top-notch football players who can seamlessly make the transition to the NFL after their days in Austin.
There have been 55 Longhorns drafted since Brown took over the program. Add in 39 from his days at North Carolina, four from Tulane and one from Appalachian State and it's easy to see why college players flock to Brown even after three decades pacing the sidelines.
Some of Brown's former players have also become superstars at the next level, feeding into the belief many young Texas high school players have that becoming a Longhorn under Brown is a surefire path to fame and fortune in the NFL.
In just one season, Urban Meyer has taken Ohio State from a down-and-out former Big Ten power back to the ranks of preseason favorite. After a 12-0 finish to 2012, a conference title and BCS run is next on the agenda for the Buckeyes with their postseason ban in the rearview mirror.
But even before guiding Ohio State to the top of the Big Ten standings, Meyer was recognized as one of college football's top coaches, and his ability to prepare his players for the next level was nearly unmatched during his tenure at Florida. In his six seasons in Gainesville, Meyer had 30 players drafted, including eight first-round picks. That impressive run is sure to continue at Ohio State, a program that's well known as an NFL talent mill.
Meyer's coaching philosophy is tough, yet flexible enough to incorporate the needs and wishes of his players. From music selections at practice and in the weight room to the order of drills and scrimmage structure, Meyer has shown an ability to respond to his players in a way many coaches won't. That flexibility mirrors the adaptability of many NFL franchises, always keen to keep highly paid talent happy.
In 12 seasons at Georgia, Mark Richt has won 118 games, six SEC East titles and two conference championships. He's also had 65 of his players drafted by NFL teams, eight of which were first-round picks.
The thing that stands out about Georgia players making their way to the NFL under Richt is the fact that they seem to be fairly evenly spread out around the field. While some universities produce top-notch quarterbacks or linebackers or linemen, Georgia manufactures a little bit of everything. From tackles like Cordy Glenn to kickers like Blair Walsh to wide receivers like A.J. Green, there are Bulldogs prowling the NFL today at nearly every position on nearly every team.
Recruiting top talent is one thing, and Richt certainly succeeds there, but molding that raw athleticism into professional caliber talent year after year is not something every coach can do over the long haul.
Bob Stoops took over the Oklahoma program in 1999, and his Sooners have won more Big 12 titles than every other program—combined. Sixty Sooners have been drafted since Stoops has been head coach, a trend that didn't really take shape until the 2005 draft, when 11 Oklahoma players were drafted.
In 2010, Oklahoma players accounted for three of the top four overall selections, and the league is now flush with players who once suited up for Stoops.
Not only is Oklahoma producing a lot of NFL talent, but the level of that talent is undeniably very high. Adrian Peterson, a former Sooner, has become one of the premier backs in the NFL. In 2012, Peterson eclipsed the 2,000-yard mark in rushing and has been a consistent touchdown producer throughout his career with the Vikings.
Oklahoma has also matriculated stars such as former No. 1 overall pick quarterback Sam Bradford and former Dallas Cowboys defensive standout Roy Williams.
Norman, Okla. is a treasure trove of NFL talents for scouts, and with Stoops' NFL-like program, there's no doubt every professional team keeps a close eye on the entire Oklahoma roster each and every season.
There are fewer and fewer things in college football in which Nick Saban's name isn't at the top of the list. Being the best at preparing players for the NFL is just one more in a long list of accolades Saban can add to his resume these days.
Even if we just look at his career at Alabama, Saban is setting quite a mark. Just over the past three drafts, Alabama has sent 20 players to the NFL—tops in the nation. Add in his two dozen or so players from LSU that were drafted plus 17 at Michigan State and one at Toledo, and Saban's legacy at the next level increasingly has less and less to do with his rather embarrassing 15-17 mark as an NFL head coach.
Alabama fans like to puff up their favorite college program by saying the Crimson Tide could beat some of the bottom-feeder NFL teams. Even South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier—a strong candidate for this list—said Alabama might even be favored in a Vegas line (although a Las Vegas odds-maker later put Bama as a 24-point underdog against then-NFL-worst Jacksonville).
The notion that Bama could compete with any pro team is utter nonsense, but that doesn't mean Saban isn't running the closest thing to an NFL franchise outside of Roger Goodell's purview. Is it any wonder NFL teams can't wait to snatch up Saban players?
And before you Saban haters go thinking it has more to do with the program and the name “Alabama” than it does with the guy running the joint, consider this: After Saban's first season at Alabama in 2007, the 7-6 Crimson Tide had zero players drafted in the 2008 NFL Draft. In the four drafts that followed, 24 Alabama players have heard their names called by the commissioner.
That's quite a turnaround, and we didn't even mention the three national titles that followed.