College Coaches Who Went to the NFL: The Good, Bad, and Ugly

Many coaches have left the college game for the pros and had varying degrees of success

Matt Rhule is the latest college head coach to try his luck in the NFL, leaving Baylor after three seasons for the Carolina Panthers. Will he have the same success in Charlotte that he had in Waco? Only time will tell.

 

Ever since Paul Brown won a national championship at Ohio State and launched the original Cleveland Browns franchise in the 1940s, coaches have been leaving the NCAA for the NFL. Some like Bill Walsh and Don Coryell jumped ranks and revolutionized the game.

 

Others have struggled. Former Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury joined the Arizona Cardinals last season and improved the team from 3-13 to 5-10-1. Time will tell on that hire if things will work out, but there's plenty of other examples in recent history. Here are the good, the bad, and the ugly of the last 30 years.

 

The Good

 

Pete Carroll

Carroll had actually coached four seasons with the New York Jets and New England Patriots before taking the USC head coaching job in 2000. There, he went 97-19 in nine seasons, winning seven straight conference titles and two national championships. He left in 2010 for the Seattle Seahawks and won a Super Bowl in 2013 and missed out on a consecutive title because of a goal-line interception against the Patriots. The Seahawks have made the playoffs in eight of his 10 seasons at the helm, and they will face the Green Bay Packers in the Divisional Round on Sunday.

 

Jim Harbaugh

After taking the reins of a Stanford program that went 1-11 in 2006, Harbaugh rebuilt the team and led it to its first 12-win season and BCS bowl game just four years later. He then took the head coaching job of a San Francisco 49ers team that went 6-10 in 2010. Harbaugh immediately turned the franchise around and led them to three straight NFC Championship Game appearances and a berth in Super Bowl XLVII. He left after the 2014 season for the top job at Michigan, his alma mater, making him one of the few coaches to return to college immediately following success in the NFL.

 

Jimmy Johnson

Johnson had coached 10 seasons at Oklahoma State and Miami, where he won a national championship. New Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones hired him to replace Tom Landry in 1989, and the Cowboys went 1-15 in his first year. But during the season, Johnson traded running back Herschel Walker for a lucrative haul of draft picks that enabled him to build a dynasty. Dallas won Super Bowls in 1992 and '93, but Jones and Johnson had a falling out, and the coach abruptly resigned in the offseason. Johnson returned to the NFL in 1996 to coach the Miami Dolphins and went 36-28 with three playoff appearances in four seasons.

 

The Bad

 

Chip Kelly

After establishing himself as an offensive mastermind at Oregon, Kelly went to the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013. He went 10-6 and made the playoffs in his first season, and it appeared his style and philosophy would translate well in the league. Then the Eagles missed the playoffs the next season, and Kelly was fired after a 6-9 start in 2015. He was hired by the San Francisco 49ers in 2016 but was fired after one 2-14 season.

 

Nick Saban

Saban had won a national championship at LSU before leaving for the Miami Dolphins late in 2004. The team started 3-7 but rallied to win its final six games and narrowly missed the playoffs in his first season. Miami entered the 2006 season expected to contend for a playoff spot, but the decision to sign Daunte Culpepper instead of Drew Brees proved ruinous. Culpepper suffered a knee injury that would ultimately end his career and was benched after a 1-3 start, while Brees has gone on to set numerous passing records. The Dolphins finished 6-10, and Saban left for Alabama in the offseason. He has won five national titles in Tuscaloosa and has become arguably the greatest coach in college football history since his stint in Miami.

 

Steve Spurrier

Spurrier abruptly resigned as the Florida Gators head coach in early 2002 and took the head coaching job with the Washington Redskins. The "Ole Ball Coach" brought most of his coaching staff from Gainesville, even though they had little NFL experience, and signed former players like Danny Wuerffel and Chris Doering. The moves did not result in an NFL edition of the Fun 'n' Gun offense, as Washington finished 7-9 and 25th in scoring in 2002. The Redskins went 5-11 in 2003, and Spurrier resigned, forfeiting the remaining $15 million on his contract. He resurfaced at South Carolina in 2005 and went 86-49 in 11 seasons.

 

The Ugly

 

Dick McPherson

MacPherson had just finished a run of leading Syracuse to four straight bowl games before taking the head coaching job with the New England Patriots. The Patriots went 6-10 in 1991 and regressed to 2-14 in '92, so MacPherson was fired at the end of the season.

 

Bobby Petrino

After putting Louisville on the path from mid-major to Power 5 college football program, Petrino became the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons in 2007. Then in the offseason, quarterback Michael Vick was arrested for his involvement in an illegal dog-fighting ring, and the terms of his bail prevented him from leaving Virginia and playing for the Falcons. Atlanta proceeded to go 3-10, and Petrino left with three games to go in the 2007 season to take the head-coaching job at Arkansas, informing his players with a four-sentence, laminated note in each of their lockers. In Fayetteville, he learned a thing or two about karma.

 

Mike Riley

Riley had gone 8-14 in two seasons at Oregon State before being hired to helm the San Diego Chargers after the disastrous first season with Ryan Leaf at quarterback. San Diego improved to 8-8 in 1999 but went 1-15 in 2000. The Chargers went 5-11 in 2001, and Riley was fired at the end of the season. He returned to Oregon State, where he coached for 12 more seasons before moving on to Nebraska (2015-17). More recently, he was the head coach of the San Antonio Commanders in the short-lived Alliance of American Football and is set to serve as offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach for the Seattle Dragons in the rebooted XFL, which is set to debut in early February.

 

— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.

 

(Top photo by Brandon Todd, courtesy of panthers.com)

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