Breaking Down the 5 Biggest Differences Between Coaching in College and the NFL

Amy DaughtersFeatured ColumnistMay 7, 2013

Jimmy Johnson coached with Miami (Fla.) from 1984 to 1988 and the Dallas Cowboys from 1989 to 1993.
Jimmy Johnson coached with Miami (Fla.) from 1984 to 1988 and the Dallas Cowboys from 1989 to 1993.

Lurking behind the storyline of how Oregon will fare without Chip Kelly in 2013 is how Kelly will fare as the next super-successful collegiate coach to test the waters in the NFL.

Kelly’s move from star college head coach to hopeful pro coach opens up the age-old argument about whether or not a college guy can translate his success in the NFL and then, to a lesser degree, if a pro guy can “step down” and get it done at the institutional level.

There are loads of recent examples of highly effective college coaches bombing out in the NFL (e.g. Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier, Bobby Petrino). It’s far more difficult to pinpoint guys who have been even mildly successful doing what Chip Kelly is attempting to do with his move to the Philadelphia Eagles this season.

The best example is Jimmy Johnson, who coached at Miami (Fla.) from 1984 through 1988 and captured a national championship in 1987 before moving up to the NFL. With the Dallas Cowboys, he earned Super Bowl rings in 1992 and 1993.

Though some folks will want to add Barry Switzer’s name to the list (he captured three national titles at Oklahoma from 1973 to 1988), his Super Bowl with Dallas in 1995 came with what has to be considered a fully stacked cupboard.

What’s more intriguing is highlighting guys who did even marginally well at the pros and then made their way “down” to the college level to enjoy even more success.

Though not a huge sensation at either level, Al Groh did manage to lead the NY Jets to a 9-7 finish in 2000 (his only campaign as an NFL head coach) before taking over at Virginia in 2001, where he led the Cavaliers to a 59-54 record in nine seasons.

If you think about it, the game of football is basically the same at both the pro and college level, given some rule differences. It uses the same basic equipment, field measurements, ball, etc.

So, why don't head coaches' success rates translate well between the two distinct ranks, especially when a guy moves from institutional ball to the NFL?

To get the ball rolling on what could be an exhaustive, never-ending discussion, here’s five of the biggest differences between coaching in college football and the NFL.

Recruiting vs. Drafting Players

The difference between how talent is procured in the college ranks and in the NFL is probably the biggest distinction between the coaching jobs at each level.

This aspect basically lays the foundation for the rest of the job.

The NFL coach pulls in his talent via the structured draft system that includes an ordered selection system, limitations on the number of picks, yearly positional availability, salary-cap issues and agents.

On the flip side, you’ve got the college coach who has a dedicated staff that is free (under the constraints of the ever-changing NCAA laws) to roam the country to lure the very best talent he can attract to his institution in groups of 20 or so guys per year.  There are no agents, no contracts, no caps and no ordered picks.

One side signs on the dotted line, shakes hands and arranges academic tutors; the other side writes a huge check and hopes that the contract can be negotiated before rookie training camp.

The two worlds couldn’t be more different.

Though the process of recruiting players shouldn’t be made to seem “easy” or “simple” in any way, it is, by its very nature, less difficult and more fruitful than the draft scheme.

Straight from a guy who’s been on both sides of the ball, Nick Saban had this to say regarding his time with the Dolphins in a Jan. 8 article posted on the "You can draft a player that is there when you pick. It may not be the player you need. It might not be the player you want. You have salary cap issues."

Jack of All Trades vs. Pure Coach

The one thing that the college head football coach will never be is a pure, 100-percent football coach.

That’s not to say that he can’t be a great gridiron leader. It means that being a college coach requires more than being just the leader of the football program.

The very nature of a “college” coach is that you are linked to the “college” or university by which you are employed.

This means that you not only report to the athletic department, but that you deal with a university administration, a student body and an alumni base, and that somehow you wind up representing all of these folks.

And one of the reasons you make a whopping load of money in the modern world of big-time institutional athletics is because your sport—football—is often the face of your school. Since you are the face of your team, you are suddenly a face or the face of the school.

Whether you want to be or not.

You are a fundraiser, a cheerleader, a supporter, a speaker, a diplomat, an ambassador and a representative of your team, your university and your profession.

And if that weren’t enough, refer back to point No. 1 when we discussed recruiting versus drafting. You have developed a relationship, via recruiting, with the families of the young men whom you have brought to your program.

These relationships, and the new ones you must continue to develop, need and require your loving attention. Your success depends on it.

For the NFL coach, none of this fluff is necessary.

No, the pro coach's focus is not on alumni, administration, goodwill, fundraising, recruiting relationship-building, etc.; his aim is purely professional football.

This is a sometimes overlooked point of difference between the two coaching ranks.

Some coaches, based on their personalities, actually prefer the pomp and circumstance of the institutional responsibilities, while some guys would rather put on their reading glasses and be lost in the football library, watching film and plotting strategy.

Either way, it’s a tremendous difference between the two roles.

To illustrate this expectation and to amplify its importance, check out this delicious snippet regarding ex-Oregon head coach Chip Kelly’s reluctance to play nicey-nicey with alumni.  It comes from a piece published in December of 2012 that was originally plucked from Willamette Week:

A number of substantial Oregon football boosters, many of who requested anonymity, expressed a widespread annoyance with Kelly. The coach with the highest winning percentage (45-7, 86.5 percent) among BCS conference coaches is at odds with many of those closest to the Oregon program.  Although most would agree that Kelly s an extraordinary coach, he doesn’t care much for the many other obligations that come with his job.

“Some of the college boosters have gone as far as to say, ‘I hope he does leave so we can get somebody who appreciates the fans,’ says Jack Roberts, a former Oregon labor commissioner and Oregon alumnus.” 


“As revolutionary as Chip has been on the field with the no-huddle offense, he’s been more revolutionary in how he acts towards social functions,” says an Oregon booster who requested anonymity. The source said the relationship between Kelly and the boosters is strained…

Turning Amateurs into Pros vs. Managing Professional Careers

Next is the contrast between the NFL coach and the college coach in terms of how they actually deal with their players.

The college guy is a “builder” and “shaper.”

This coach gets handed a young, 18-year-old kid who wants to be a pro player, presumably, or else wants to go on and be a full-fledged adult in another field.

Either way, he has to motivate this youngster to be a part of his team and his system. He’s basically working with an unmolded lump of clay as opposed to somebody who is more in touch with who he is and what he wants.

So, the college coach must meld all of these younger guys, still trying to find themselves, into a successful, winning football team.

The NFL coach, on the other hand, is dealing with men—big, fast men—who have already “made it” all the way to the pro level.

These athletes have dreamed the dream and are now living the dream.

Mere lumps of clay no more, these guys are off the potter’s wheel and come complete with their own attitudes, sets of ideals and yes, they don’t need some guy to help them make it, they’re already there. So, the NFL guy must manage all these professionals, these dudes with ‘tudes, into a successful, winning football team.

Again, it’s like two totally different worlds being played out on the same field, with the same rules, using the same equipment.

And the two coaches leading the way at each level couldn’t have two more different jobs to do.


Scholarships vs. Contracts

Really, you could categorize this difference between the two coaching levels as a subset of the “managing personnel” point we just hit on.

The idea of college scholarships versus NFL contracts is basically all about control.

The college coach has a huge controlling advantage over the NFL coach due to the way scholarships are set up, and this changes how he manages his players.

The college scholarship basically can allow the coach to control where his player lives, what he eats, etc., while the academic arm of the arrangement gives the program jurisdiction over the athlete’s time outside of the sporting arena.

The professional ranks obviously can’t touch this. The NFL athlete has freedom of choice outside of team travel time, practice and game time.

The bottom line here is that the college coach can control his players in a way that the NFL coach cannot.

The college job operates differently because of the scholarship system, and since this isn’t replicated in the NFL contract, when a coach moves “up” to the pros and it looks like he is losing control, well, in fact he is.

The NFL coach must take control of the football operations but find a way to keep his players focused without the extra strings that a scholarship affords his compatriot at the college level.


The Definition of Success

Even though there are only 32 professional franchises versus 125 teams in the FBS, it could be argued that basic or “pass-rate” success is more difficult in the NFL because of how success is defined.

Though you could argue that making the NFL postseason marks a reasonably triumphant pro campaign, in reality a team has to actually win the extra game to validate the accomplishment.

To illustrate, 12 of the 32 NFL teams make the playoffs each season. But unless you are one of the eight coaches who lead their franchises to Round 2, then your success is questionable.

This means that only 25 percent of the NFL field is “successful” each year.

In college ball, on the other hand, making a bowl game is still seen as the sign of a successful season.

Though you could argue that for mega-powers like Alabama, LSU, Ohio State, USC, Texas and Oklahoma anything short of a BCS bowl is a failure, for 99 percent of the field, a six- or seven-win season means you have succeeded and are on the “right track.”

This means that at the college level, 56 percent of the field (or 70 of the 125 teams) is “successful” each and every year.

So, the difference between the two levels is that the NFL is inherently more difficult by nature in the way that it is formatted and by the way that basic success is viewed.

This means that the pro coach has a hotter seat to sit on than that of the college coach, a situation that is intensified due to the media coverage spread out between 32 NFL head-coaching positions versus 125 FBS positions.

This is true even if we whittle this down to a more realistic comparison of 32 NFL guys to the 68 BCS head-coaching jobs, including the prestigious Notre Dame role.

Think about it this way: How many times do you hear about a head coach or an NFL franchise referred to in terms of how many years it’s been since he or it actually won a playoff game?

In comparison, the same kind of reference is made at the college level to a coach or a program that has had a long bowl drought, not a run of bowl losses.

Success is viewed differently at each level of football. Really, this logic could be applied to conference championships in pro ball versus conference titles in college ball all the way up to the Super Bowl versus the BCS title.

While it may be easier for Texas to win the Big 12 than for the Cowboys to win the NFC, the task of the Longhorns winning a BCS crown is frankly far more daunting than Dallas winning another Super Bowl ring.

This again means that success is viewed differently and produces different expectations for head coaches at each level of football.

This ultimately trickles down to wins and losses, which drive salaries, bonuses and yes, the hirings and firings of head coaches at each level.

And this makes, again, the two levels of coaching, NFL and collegiate, two different animals completely.


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