We’ve already seen a series of seismic “poach” movements in the college football coaching landscape in the last month that the industry (and fans and lowly pundits) are still trying to make sense of, but there might be even more transition on the horizon for the sport.
Blame Kliff Kingsbury. For a very, very long time, the NFL showed no real interest in hiring college head coaches. This made sense for a little while — the offensive and defensive styles finding the most success in each version of the sport looked very dissimilar – until suddenly what worked in the NCAA found success in the NFL. So, maybe blame Patrick Mahomes, one of Kingsbury’s quarterbacks at Texas Tech that became a Super Bowl winner in large part because the Kansas City Chiefs sought to enhance Mahomes’ abilities and not fit him into an “NFL QB” archetype.
When Kingsbury was hired by the Arizona Cardinals after 2018 (I detailed his bizarre journey here, but just remember, he was fired by Tech and then hired by an NFL team in the same cycle), it signaled the league’s embrace of the college game’s previously loathed Air Raid and spread tendencies. Tack on Baylor’s Matt Rhule to the Panthers two years ago, and you could officially consider college-to-NFL head coach moves back in fashion even despite no such transitions during last year’s cycle.
It makes sense that NFL franchises are looking for the kind of coaches who understand a new generation of quarterbacks. It also makes sense that the NFL just wants to copy whatever’s hot at the moment, and that’s Kingsbury: After a ho-hum 13-18-1 record in his first two seasons, the Cardinals and Kyler Murray are 10-3 and in the hunt for the top seed in the NFC. So yeah, sometimes it’s as simple as an owner pointing at whatever might be successful at this very moment and demanding his team replicate that.
And yeah, there are two obvious “that’s:”
Ryan Day – The most persistent NFL-NCAA rumor this season is that Ohio State’s head coach is already headed out the door to reunite with Bears quarterback Justin Fields in Chicago. The Bears are bad (4-9 currently and 16-16 in the last two seasons) and there’s concern among fans that current head coach Matt Nagy will misuse or “ruin” Fields, who was drafted 11th overall this year.
After Ohio State’s first loss to Michigan since 2011, Day has lost some of his shine in Columbus, but he’s certainly not on any kind of hot seat. He also has one of, if not the, best jobs in all of college football. For the sake of discussion, let’s say he leaves – it would be possible to interpret that the NFL is the ultimate goal for more college coaches than we previously assumed. But even that argument is a stretch and without a lot of context. The only certainty here is that Day’s departure would set off another round of the college carousel.
Lane Kiffin – This name appears less from circulating rumors like Day-to-the-Bears, and more from deduction: Kiffin’s never been better as a head coach and play-caller than right now. Ole Miss is 10-2 heading into the Sugar Bowl against Baylor, and quarterback Matt Corral was almost a Heisman candidate this season. However, Kiffin’s long and… detailed, let’s say?... past is keeping him out of serious contention for elite college football jobs. He wasn’t considered at either Florida or LSU, and had Miami opened their search any wider than their intended target of Mario Cristobal, many in the industry doubted that Kiffin would get a serious look.
Because of his non-starter status among Tiffany jobs, Kiffin signed an extension with Ole Miss that’s friendly on both sides, as it's understood in Oxford that Kiffin has no interest in being with the Rebels any longer than he has to be. So why not the NFL? It’s been a long time since Al Davis ran him out of Oakland, and Kiffin is an offensive mind certainly on par with a coach like Kingsbury. Plus, the NFL affords coaches a certain level of freedom (not to mention no recruiting season) that would suit Kiffin. So if not the Hurricanes, maybe the Dolphins?
Wild cards – If I had to round out this list with sitting CFB coaches who I could see fitting the NFL’s culture, I’d go to the Big Ten first.
1. Jim Harbaugh: Time has been kind to Harbaugh’s tenure in San Francisco, which ended poorly in large part to the organization’s mismanagement of the roster, not the head coach. Imagine if Harbaugh parlays a national title next month into a return to the NFL. Maybe Las Vegas?
2. James Franklin: The veteran Penn State coach was once an assistant for the Packers (2005), and could easily transition his culture and messaging to fit professionals instead of students. Franklin has a fresh extension in Happy Valley courtesy of new agent Jimmy Sexton, but the penalties wouldn’t be prohibitive if he left.
3. Dave Aranda: Consider this a plaudit and nothing more, because Aranda has shown throughout this college coaching cycle that he’s very happy in Waco. Is that because he wants to retire at Baylor…. Or because he’s planning a transition similar to Rhule? Either way, he’s a universally respected defensive mind and the antithesis of a rah-rah or tyrant personality. He could easily deal with pro players.
4. Matt Campbell: So far this cycle, Iowa State’s head coach is on the outside looking in after major jobs were filled without him at places like USC, Washington, and Notre Dame. But Campbell turned down an offer to go to the Detroit Lions last year. Was that because he wanted to stay in college, or because it was the Lions? The logic seems to point to the latter.
– Steven Godfrey is a senior writer for Vox Media's Secret Base, and co-host of The Split Zone Duo podcast. Follow him on Twitter @38Godfrey