Everyone has to start somewhere.
But if the end game is to win a Super Bowl, candidates applying for NFL head-coaching vacancies may want to downplay their college resumes. As Philadelphia’s firing of Chip Kelly reminded us again, past successes are no guarantee of future prosperity — at least in the pros.
Coaches with designs of stepping up have their patron saints, to be sure. Four have won championships at both levels: Pete Carroll (Seattle Seahawks and Southern California); Barry Switzer (Dallas Cowboys and Oklahoma); Jimmy Johnson (Dallas Cowboys and Miami); and Paul Brown (Cleveland Browns and Ohio State). Several more, most notably Bill Walsh and Tom Coughlin, were very good in college but even better in the pros.
But much longer is the list of those who clobbered the competition in college but left the NFL with tails tucked between their legs.
There’s three-time (in a 6-year span) national championship winner Nick Saban, who was 15-17 in the NFL and desperate enough to depart the Miami Dolphins that he lied several times about chasing the Alabama job he eventually latched onto. Then there’s Steve Spurrier, Dennis Erickson, Lou Holtz, Butch Davis, Bobby Petrino, Rich Brooks, Frank Kush and even Oklahoma Sooner legend Bud Wilkinson, whose flirtation with the NFL was fairly typical.
After amassing three national championships and a 47-game winning streak (a record that still stands, Wilkinson came out of retirement for the St. Louis Cardinals job, went 9-20 over parts of two seasons and quit with three games remaining in his third.
The reasons for the failures are varied. Most college coaches hired by the NFL begin with bad teams and impatient owners. Some never adjust to the different schemes, much-faster pace of play, or the differences required to motivate highly-paid pros instead of kids dependent on scholarships.
Here’s a quick look at some of the memorable successes and failures:
THE ACCIDENTAL COACH
After an acrimonious split with Jimmy Johnson, who won two Super Bowls in Dallas, owner Jerry Jones essentially introduced Barry Switzer as one of “500 coaches who could have won the Super Bowl with our team.” He was right, since Switzer did just that with the 1995 Cowboys, though it was still Johnson’s team through and through.
Switzer dominated the college game, but was so overmatched in the NFL that some Cowboys players referred to him as “Bozo the Coach.” Switzer went 10-6 after his championship season and then 6-10, leaving Jones to search for the 499 other coaches he passed over the last time.
DON’T LET THE DOOR HIT YOU ON THE WAY OUT
Bobby Petrino tends to leave a mess wherever he lands. After success at lowly Louisville (and later Arkansas and Western Kentucky), he couldn’t even last a season with the Atlanta Falcons. After a 3-10 start there, and a locker-room mutiny gaining steam, Petrino bailed on the NFL and let his team in on the news by posting a note in the locker room.
“That’s not how a man acts,” Joey Harrington, the quarterback whom Petrino benched, said at the time of his departure. “That’s how a coward acts.”
Or maybe just somebody who’s in a hurry to get out of town.
IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED …
Anyone who watched Dennis Erickson coach ‘em up in college could be forgiven for thinking his 40-56 pro record was a typo. He turned around programs at Idaho and Oregon State and won two national titles at Miami. That may explain why two NFL owners gave him jobs (Seattle from 1995-98 and San Francisco, 2003-04). The good news is that Erickson finally recognized his ceiling, returning to the college ranks both times and a third time after a brief retirement.
TRY, TRY AGAIN
Carroll, too, was a yo-yo coach, working as an assistant at both levels before taking over the New York Jets in 1994 and going 6-10 before being axed. Next, he tried his hand with the New England Patriots from 1997-99 and getting fired again. But Carroll hit his stride at USC, and NCAA investigators were hot on his trail when he lit out for a third NFL audition in Seattle. Two Super Bowl appearances and one trophy later, he’s practically a fixture in the Pacific Northwest.
EVERYBODY TAKE IT EASY. NO, NOT THAT EASY!
Steve Spurrier rebelled against the NFL’s worry-every-minute, watch-film-all-the-time cult of coaching the moment he arrived in Washington. He liked to leave the office early, sneak in some golf on occasion and never learned that parity is a fact of life in the pros. Unlike at Florida, where he always recruited enough talent to beat even good teams on athleticism alone, that lax brand of discipline caught up with the Ol’ Ball Coach soon enough.
Practices were sloppy, players arrived late for meetings and a few even took calls during the sessions. “If you don’t make the corrections during the week,” linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said after a tough loss, “it’s going to carry over ‘til Sunday. There’s got to be some type of structure.”
The one thing Spurrier structured very carefully, however, was his contract. After two seasons and a 12-20 record, he left Washington with most of the outlandish 5-year, $25 million contract he arm-wrestled owner Dan Snyder for and went back to the college ranks at South Carolina.
ANYBODY HAVE JOE NAMATH’S PHONE NUMBER?
Lou Holtz could coach. He won at William & Mary, took North Carolina State to four bowl games, finished ranked three times at Arkansas and won a national title at Notre Dame. Tucked into that gleaming resume was most of a disastrous 1976 season with the Jets.
His players there never fell for the card and magic tricks, and the bonding sessions that endeared him college players everywhere else he went. Holtz never got used to having players who didn’t follow his every command and resigned from the Jets with one game remaining that season, not long after calling a sports department in the New York metro area and asking whether anybody there had a phone number for his quarterback, Joe Namath.