9 College Football Coaches Who Are Destined for the NFL
Barring a surprising development, the 2015-16 college football coaching carousel has ground to a halt. Twenty-eight FBS programs changed their head coaches, with the last move perhaps the most surprising. Just before national signing day, Southern Miss lost Todd Monken to the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Not as their head coach, but as their offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach.
It was a reminder that the NFL is always a threat to poach college football coaches. Some coaches feel the pro game is a more comfortable fit. Others are just looking for their next challenge.
Some coaches have more success than others with the transition. Tom Coughlin went from Boston College to the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars and eventually won two Super Bowl championships with the New York Giants. More recently, Oregon’s Chip Kelly made a splash by heading to the Philadelphia Eagles, but he didn’t even last three full seasons before flaming out in a culture clash.
He rebounded by taking the San Francisco 49ers' head coaching job.
Kelly’s failure in Philly won’t scare off the next NFL owner who is looking for a great college leader. Monken won’t be the last college coach to jump to the pro ranks. Who will join him? The game has a number of excellent candidates. Here are nine college coaches who are destined to wind up in the NFL sooner or later.
Florida State Coach Jimbo Fisher
Jimbo Fisher has built something special at Florida State. The Nick Saban disciple has done an excellent job with “the process,” rebuilding the Seminoles into a national power following the ugly end of Bobby Bowden’s tenure.
In six seasons at FSU, Fisher is 68-14 with five seasons of at least 10 victories, a national championship, three ACC titles and a College Football Playoff berth. Under Fisher, FSU runs pro-style offense and has fielded excellent defenses. It has attracted the NFL’s attention.
"I never say never," he said. "I'm not one of those guys that that's my end-all ambition. But in this business, you never say never."
That’s not exactly an iron-clad denial. Fisher has had tremendous success at FSU, and the Seminoles will be a talented bunch again in 2016 and beyond. But wondering what you can do with a tougher challenge is natural. Would he say no again if the NFL called with a Brinks truck of cash? Never say never, right, Jimbo?
Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald
Pat Fitzgerald has grown with the job at Northwestern. In July 2006, the then-31-year-old Northwestern linebackers coach was thrown into the head role after Randy Walker’s sudden death following a heart attack.
At the time, Fitzgerald was the youngest head coach in FBS by five years, and after going 10-14 in his first two seasons, he’s found a groove. He led Northwestern to its first bowl win in 64 years following the 2012 season and has a 70-56 record. He’s ensconced with the Wildcats program, but his name has been a not-infrequent presence on the coaching carousel.
With Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan State and Penn State in the Big Ten, bringing a league title might be tough. Would he consider an NFL job? Fitzgerald runs pro-style systems, and his no-nonsense attitude would be a great fit at the next level.
Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh
2015 was a special season for Michigan football. Jim Harbaugh has a history of prompting quick turnarounds, and he did nothing to dispel that reputation in his first season at the Wolverines’ helm. Michigan went from 5-7 in 2014, Brady Hoke’s final season, to 10-3 with a Citrus Bowl clubbing of Florida.
Harbaugh generated serious buzz following his hiring and lived up to it. He’s doing the same as his second year begins, proposing to take the Wolverines to Florida for a portion of spring practice.
Michigan is on an excellent trajectory, particularly after Harbaugh signed a talented recruiting class highlighted by the nation’s top overall recruit in defensive tackle Rashan Gary. But Wolverines fans should worry about Harbaugh’s wanderlust. He has won everywhere he’s been (San Diego, Stanford, San Francisco 49ers) but has never spent more than four seasons at one stop.
Harbaugh wins and wins big, but his candle has a tendency to burn hard and fast. What if he looks up in three years and decides he wants another shot at the NFL after taking the 49ers to three NFC title games and a Super Bowl in a four-year span? NFL owners would jump at the chance to hire him.
Is being home enough for Harbaugh to put down roots? We’ll see.
Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly
Notre Dame can be a pressure cooker for coaches, but Brian Kelly has survived and thrived. He made a steady climb from Grand Valley State to Central Michigan to Cincinnati, and he’s been excellent under the Golden Dome. Following a 10-3 mark this season, Kelly is 55-23 in six seasons at Notre Dame.
That includes a national title-game berth and a 12-1 mark in 2012, and the Irish have won at least eight games in all six seasons. Notre Dame fans have higher standards than eight-win seasons, of course, and the university’s rigid academic standards can cause stress as well. Kelly interviewed with the Philadelphia Eagles before they hired Chip Kelly in 2012, and he said before the Fiesta Bowl that he isn’t chasing a job, per Mike Vorel of the South Bend Tribune:
When you’ve coached for 25 years and you have a sense and feel of how you want your locker room to look and the type of player you want to put in that locker room and you want your signature on it, it’s a very difficult thing to give up. I think I made it pretty clear that it’s not a dream (of mine to coach in the NFL). It’s not a dream. I’m not chasing anything, really.
However, if the factors outside his control at Notre Dame become too much, it would be no surprise to see Kelly jump for the NFL.
UCLA Coach Jim Mora Jr.
Over the past four years, UCLA has found something of a football renaissance. With Jim Mora Jr. at the helm, the Bruins have a pair of 10-win seasons and have gone 37-16 overall, including claiming a Pac-12 South title in 2012.
Mora has recruited well and has brought the Bruins back to relevance in Los Angeles, a difficult task in a crowded athletic and cultural landscape. It’s almost enough to make you forget that he has roots in the NFL. Mora spent four seasons as an NFL head coach with the Atlanta Falcons and the Seattle Seahawks, taking the Falcons to the 2004 NFC title game but finishing 31-33 overall.
He pulled something of a “reverse Pete Carroll,” going from the Seahawks to Los Angeles and a Pac-12 head coaching role. Mora seems content at UCLA, but who would blame him if he wanted to take another run at the success that proved fleeting at the professional level?
Alabama Coach Nick Saban
Alabama fans are used to the chatter by now. On a yearly basis, Nick Saban’s name is thrown into the mix for an attractive NFL head coach opening. He rarely comments on job openings, instead responding with his on-field success. And there’s a lot of that. In 2015, Alabama won its fourth national title in nine seasons under Saban’s watch. Combine that with a national title won at LSU, and Saban has five national championship rings.
That’s impressive. Saban has put down roots in Tuscaloosa, but one has to wonder if, at some point, he runs out of challenges at the college level. He spent four seasons as Bill Belichick’s defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns and left LSU for an ill-fated two-year head coaching stint with the Miami Dolphins. He finished 15-17 and endured his only losing season as a head coach before leaving for Alabama.
Saban is an intense competitor, and you have to wonder if he wants a do-over in the NFL. The jobs will certainly be there if he wants to pursue them.
Stanford Coach David Shaw
David Shaw has one of the strongest NFL pedigrees in the college game. The son of former NFL coach Willie Shaw, David was exposed to the game from an early age before his father landed at Stanford, where David ultimately graduated as a receiver.
He spent nine years as an NFL assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles, Oakland Raiders and Baltimore Ravens and has shown plenty of acuity as a college coach. He succeeded Jim Harbaugh as the Cardinal coach and is 54-14 in five seasons, winning at least 11 games in four of five seasons and three of the last four Pac-12 titles.
That success and the fact that he runs a pro-style offense make him naturally attractive to the NFL, per NFL.com's Chase Goodbread, but Shaw appears comfortable at Stanford. Still, he’s only 43 years old, and there’s plenty of time for him to make the move when he feels most comfortable. The San Francisco 49ers just hired Chip Kelly, but if Kelly doesn’t work out, he’d be a natural to make the leap just as his predecessor, Harbaugh, did.
Oklahoma Coach Bob Stoops
This might be surprising, but following Frank Beamer’s retirement at Virginia Tech, Bob Stoops is in an enviable position among college football coaches. Oklahoma’s head coach is now the longest-tenured coach at a single program in the FBS, one day ahead of Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz. Oklahoma is 179-46 in 17 seasons under Stoops.
The Sooners have 13 10-win seasons under Stoops, who has won nine Big 12 titles in Norman. He has a national title and has made three more appearances in the national title game, as well as a College Football Playoff appearance following the 2015 season. Oklahoma does not have a losing season under Stoops’ watch and has won at least eight games in each of the last 16 seasons.
While his national title came in 2000, Stoops has done it all at Oklahoma. Would a fresh challenge at the NFL appeal to him? It’s certainly worth watching. He has nothing left to prove at the college level, and ending his career as an NFL head coach would be fascinating to watch.
Texas A&M Coach Kevin Sumlin
It wasn’t that long ago that Kevin Sumlin was one of the hottest names in college football. Riding the white-hot success of quarterback Johnny Manziel, Sumlin led Texas A&M to 11 wins and a Top Five finish in his first season at the Aggies’ helm.
That feels a lot longer than four years ago. While he hasn’t taken the fall Manziel has, Sumlin’s star has cooled. The Aggies are 25-14 in the last three seasons and haven’t done better than fourth in the SEC West, finishing out of the Top 25 the last two seasons. Following the 2015 season, A&M’s top two quarterbacks, Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray, transferred out, and Sumlin parted ways with offensive coordinator Jake Spavital.
Sumlin could be looking for a change, and NFL.com's Ian Rapoport (h/t Dan Parr of NFL.com) reported that the Philadelphia Eagles were interested in him for their recent vacancy. If pro teams look at A&M’s offensive numbers and not the recent churn, it could be an attractive opportunity for Sumlin.