Analyzing Successes and Failures of NFL Coaches Who Switch to College Football

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterApril 10, 2013

SAN FRANCISCO - DECEMBER 26: Head coach Pete Carroll of the USC Trojans celebrates after defeating the Boston College Eagles during the 2009 Emerald Bowl at AT&T Park on December 26, 2009 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Although we often talk about the transition from college football to the NFL, analyzing the reverse move might even be more difficult to predict.

Players, of course, can’t make this retro transition—just imagine the look of the NCAA if they tried—but coaches are a much different story. They’ll gladly go where the money takes them.

There’s no question that the two games are vastly different in style, structure and strategy, but it hasn’t halted these pigskin professors from jumping to and from the various games.

Sometimes these transitions are smooth, with both wins and recruiting success right out of the gate. Other times, things will not come as easily and the changeover is greeted with turbulent early results.

And then there are the colossal failures, where the switch is nothing short of an expensive dumpster fire.

Despite the perception of a coach, success in one league is no guarantee for success in the other. As recent history shows us, you can’t always predict how a hire will pan out. The right situation could create a perfect match, or a coach could find his way back into his preferred football of choice shortly after he made the switch.

It’s not a perfect formula, and the hits and misses in the NFL have helped shape some fascinating college careers. And, given more recent success, we might see more of this move in the future.

A few who have helped shape this move thus far include...


Mike Riley: Finding Solid Ground After NFL Failure

The current Oregon State head coach has a football resume that looks robust in length and landing spots at first glance.

After working at Cal as a graduate assistant, Riley went up north to coach in Canada, led the San Antonio Riders (an American football team) and then had stops at USC and Oregon State before taking over the San Diego Chargers in 1999.

A 14-34 record as an NFL head coach prompted the Chargers to fire him only three years into a five-year deal. After a stint with the Saints as an assistant in 2002, Riley returned to Oregon State—while also in the running for other college jobs at the time—in 2003.

The rest is, well, history. Despite having moving trucks on speed dial early on, Riley has been the ultimate fit in Corvallis.

The results aren’t always spectacular, and the records and accolades don’t always jump off the charts, but Riley’s NFL failures proved to be a small batch of turbulence. The 81-67 record with the Beavers doesn’t wow the masses, but Riley has turned Oregon State into a respected football program.

Seemingly always overlooked, Riley’s game is most certainly college ball.

An offensive genius and certainly a “players' coach,” Riley’s style just seems to fit with the school and city. One of the rare mainstays locked in his destination for the foreseeable future, where success spiraled from NFL failure, Riley's path is unfamiliar but also fascinating.


We Now Return You to Our Regularly Scheduled Program: Nick Saban and Steve Spurrier

We’re combining two of the SEC’s finest, because their stints in the NFL were similar, short and, well, not so sweet.

After having tremendous success at Florida for more than a decade, Spurrier signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the Redskins in 2002. This, at the time, was the largest contract for an NFL head coach.

A 7-9 record in his first season and 5-11 in an encore prompted Spurrier to resign. He returned to the college ranks in 2003 and has built South Carolina into an SEC power after some early struggles. In the past two seasons—playing in the nation’s toughest conference with title contenders surrounding—Spurrier has amassed a 22-4 record.

The defensive-minded Saban spent much of the '80s as the defensive coordinator at various college programs before latching on with the Houston Oilers. He was also the Browns DC for three seasons, the stop that truly sparked his college career.

Saban’s success at Michigan State landed him the head-coach spot at LSU in 1999. A national championship later, Saban took his talents to South Beach for two seasons with the Miami Dolphins. After going 15-17—and vehemently denying interest in the Alabama job—he left the NFL for Tuscaloosa.

The rest is history—and more specifically, history in the making—and it’s still uncertain how many national championships Saban will win at Alabama before hanging ‘em up or heading elsewhere. Although rumors of an NFL return remain constant, don’t hold your breath.

Both Saban and Spurrier have proven their college worth at length. Saban could very well go down as the greatest college football coach of all time, and Spurrier’s legacy at both Florida and now South Carolina is exceptional.

Each tested the NFL waters, but failed in an instant. Although the sample size was limited in nature, both recognized it early on and returned to their preferred football homes. Perhaps it was their coaching styles and personas that clashed with the NFL, or perhaps each situation just unraveled because of injuries and an overall lack talent.

Regardless, their NFL “stints” proved to be a blip on the radar; a sign that the grass was indeed greener on the other side.


Football’s Great Utility Man: Pete Carroll

He doesn’t look or act like a 61-year-old, but Pete Carroll has been around the football block. A college assistant out of the gate, Carroll coached in the NFL from 1984 to 1999. He was head coach of both the New York Jets and the New England Patriots, making the playoffs twice out of four years. He was fired after an 8-8 season in 1999, finishing with a 33-31 NFL record during this time.

Although he wasn’t the Trojans’ first choice and he hadn’t coached in college since 1983, Carroll accepted the USC job in late December of 2000.

His college legacy in Southern California is somewhat perplexing, in large part because of the NCAA sanctions that came to light, most of which centered on running back Reggie Bush.

The results and wins, however, were anything but.

Yes, about a season’s worth of wins have been vacated, but Carroll finished 97-19 as the head coach of USC. Two national championships, incredible talent and seven out of nine seasons with no greater than two losses are some of the highlights of Carroll’s tenure, much of which is now hard to summarize given the NCAA’s involvement.

At about the time when the sanctions were becoming a reality, Carroll went back to the NFL as the Seattle Seahawks cracked open the vault—to the tune of five years and $33 million—and Carroll accepted. Although the first few years were a struggle, the Seahawks' 11-5 season in 2012 could very well be just the beginning of another long, successful run.

Carroll has his quarterback in Russell Wilson, a terrifying defense at every level and an offense that should be more explosive.

He’s always had an eye for talent, whether he’s recruiting the best high school players in California or stockpiling pass-rushers in the NFL draft. His laid-back style has worked wonders with walk-ons and millionaires, and in a lot of ways, he’s one of a kind.

Despite the sanctions that took place under his watch at USC, Carroll appears to be a rare breed capable of succeeding at the highest of levels in both brands.


The Future of the Switch: Jim L. Mora and What’s Next

After bouncing around as a defensive assistant in the '80s and '90s, Jim L. Mora was named head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. After an impressive 11-5 season in 2004, his team struggled the following two years.

He was fired after three seasons—shortly after joking he would love to have the University of Washington head-coaching spot—and soon latched on with the Seahawks. After two seasons as an assistant, Mora was given the keys to the head-coaching car yet again in Seattle. The engine did not hold up, and Mora was fired after one 5-11 season.

He was replaced by none other than Pete Carroll.

In late 2011, however, UCLA surprised pretty much the entire football world by announcing that Mora would be their next head coach despite practically zero college background. Although this hire was greeted with skepticism by everyone—including myself—thus far, it’s proving to be nothing short of brilliant.

The book is still out on the long-term results at UCLA under Mora, although the outlook is very positive. There’s buzz and energy back in the program following a 9-5 season, and Mora parlayed this into landing one of the best recruiting classes in the country on national signing day this year.

With USC struggling and Chip Kelly off to try his luck at the NFL, everyone’s curious as to what’s next for UCLA and the rest of the Pac-12.

Mora’s personality certainly fits the college game: young, energetic and a football pedigree upbringing thanks in large part to his father. So far, this has translated into success on and off the field. If he can build a defense in the coming years, look out.

But as Mora’s early success shows, there really is no proven formula when it comes to making the switch from the NFL to college; no step-by-step guide that will provide a road map to success or failure.

Success or failure in one doesn’t guarantee anything at all. More so than the coach, much of this potential success is about the fit and overall comfort level on a campus. This can be specific to a certain city, but that college lifestyle works with some.

For others, not so much.

As both games continue to embrace tempo and offense more and more each and every year, this will undoubtedly become a focus for coaches who try and make a similar switch. And, as always, recruiting will continue to be a focus—if not the focus.

The athletic directors tasked with hiring such coaches will continue to take on such risks, much like general managers who dip into the college ranks hoping to find a future Super Bowl winner.

There are no guarantees attempting either crossover, but the nuances of each require unique skill sets and coaching methods particular to that game. Being a master at both in today’s age appears unlikely—unless, of course, you’re Pete Carroll.

Mastering one is hard enough.


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