It's not just hard for a college coach to win in the NFL. It's hard for any coach to win in the NFL regardless of coaching pedigree.
“More people will want the job you just left than the one you just took.” — Barry Switzer, July 6, 2010
That was Barry Switzer’s assessment of Pete Carroll’s decision to leave USC for the Seattle Seahawks.
Switzer said he has told Bob Stoops something similar any time the Oklahoma coach’s name has been mentioned as a potential NFL candidate.
“You just don’t leave those jobs that are one of the great jobs in football,” Switzer said.
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Except Carroll did just that. He left USC after performing a comeback that even Lazarus would admire. When the Trojans hired Carroll in 2001, they had finished out of the top 20 for four successive years, and over the next eight seasons the Trojans won seven Pac-10 championships.
He became historically successful at one of the most historically significant schools in the sport.
That Carroll insists he wasn’t leaving because of the specter of NCAA sanctions, which fell like a curtain on the Trojans earlier this year, makes it even more puzzling. It means that one of the most successful head coaches in college-football history decided to become the third coach in three years for Seattle, a franchise that plays in a league where there have been 35 head-coaching changes since January 2006.
Carroll knows the nature of the league firsthand. He has been fired as an NFL head coach twice, and while he returns with the confidence that this time will be different, he’s also swimming upstream against 30 years of history when it comes to the transition he’s attempting.
There’s a formula for analyzing this transition.
It’s a recipe, really, one that is simple and straightforward, describing the challenges faced when an NCAA head coach is hired to head an NFL team.
Start with the body of evidence, singling out the 15 instances from 1989 to 2007 in which an NFL team hired a head coach whose most recent job was as an NCAA head coach.
Mention the transcendent success of Jimmy Johnson, who won two Super Bowls in Dallas after leaving the University of Miami in 1989.
Next, point out that is the exception rather than the rule.
Then list some of the more moderate successes like Denny Green’s decadelong run in Minnesota after he was hired out of Stanford and the fact Bobby Ross got the Chargers to a Super Bowl after winning a share of a national championship at Georgia Tech.
Now comes the longest, most time-consuming step of enumerating the unambiguous failures. Dick MacPherson lasted two years in New England, Rich Brooks two years with the Rams and Bobby Petrino, who almost made it through one whole season in Atlanta before skedaddling back to college so he could coach Arkansas. Of the last six men who went from being a college head coach to the NFL, none lasted more than four seasons or won a playoff game in the pros.
Finally cite a few of the theories for why their college success didn’t translate to the pros, whether it’s the fact that the NFL’s salary cap and its draft prevent a coach from recruiting his way to a prohibitive edge in talent, or the greater degree of difficulty in motivating 25-year-old millionaires compared to 19-year-olds who are grateful to get a scholarship that provides room and board.
Cook steadily for a good 800 words and the result is an eminently predictable and entirely consistent story that shows that it is harder for a coach to win in the NFL compared to college.
This is undeniably true. The NFL legislates parity and patience is in short supply when it comes to an NFL coach’s tenure.
But stating that coaches tend to be more successful in college compared to the pros is very different from stating that it’s hard for a college coach to be successful in the NFL. That implies there’s a difference between the success rate of NFL coaches hired from college and those with an NFL background either as an assistant or a previous head coach.
There are still 11 players to a side, and six points for a touchdown, but the differences between the NCAA and NFL are much more than a single letter and the overtime rules.
Recruiting is the lifeblood of a college coach, his talent base limited only by his energy and effectiveness in convincing kids to sign up. The NFL seeks to equalize the chances its 32 teams have at success with everything from the draft order to the salary-cap, right down to the difficulty of the schedule.
A college coach must also serve as a program’s politician, the school’s representative for a constituency that ranges from the school’s alumni to a recruit’s parents. The NFL is a bottom-line business where Bill Belichick has shown you can survive with the personality of a crustacean so long as you win.
Mike Riley left Oregon State to coach the Chargers in 1999, lasted three years in the NFL and is now back with the Beavers.
“College involves a whole lot more in what you do with your team off the field,” Riley said earlier this year. “That’s where your work comes in, the development of young men.”
Switzer is one of those rare coaches who barely has enough fingers to account for the success of a coaching career that includes three national championships at Oklahoma and one Super Bowl victory with Dallas.
So which one did he enjoy more?
“I’m going to tell you something, I enjoyed coaching professional football a lot more than college football,” Switzer said. “Professional football is about nothing but coaching.”
The players are adults. No academic supervision necessary. They’re grown men considered responsible for any trouble they might get themselves into.
Ask Switzer which one was more gratifying, though, and the answer changes because in college there’s more of a connection.
“Those kids, I still know to this day,” Switzer said. “Their mothers, their fathers. When you recruit them, you’ve got them for life. In pro football, you might not have a guy but a day.”
Switzer’s Cowboys won a Super Bowl in January 1995, beating the Pittsburgh Steelers. The following season, 16 players from Dallas’ Super Bowl champions were no longer Cowboys.
“I couldn’t name you many of the 16,” Switzer said. “I could tell you every kid that played on my national championships.
“Pro football is totally impersonal to a degree.”
But that doesn’t mean success is any less satisfying.
“There’s no bigger stage in sports than the Super Bowl,” Switzer said. “That is the greatest stage of all.”
Back to school
Dennis Erickson has grown tired of talking about the subject.
He’s busy preparing for his third season at Arizona State, and he has no interest in rewinding or rehashing previous forays into professional football.
He was hired from the NCAA into the NFL twice in the past 20 years. He won a national championship at Miami, a Fiesta Bowl at Oregon State, but in six NFL seasons with two different NFL franchises, he never made the playoffs.
But take a closer look at his coaching record in Seattle where he was 31-33 in four seasons before he was fired after going 8-8 in 1998. It was the third time the Seahawks finished .500 under Erickson.
He lasted 64 games. That’s very close to the average tenure for those coaches hired since 1989 who were not making the NCAA-to-NFL transition (see chart).
So while Erickson never made the playoffs, neither did almost 42 percent of non-NCAA hires in the past 20 years.
Former college coaches aren’t less successful in the NFL when compared to their counterparts with a pro pedigree. In fact, they win at a higher rate in both the playoffs and the regular season though it’s also worth pointing out there are more outright busts, too. More than half of the coaches promoted from college the past 20 years failed to guide their NFL teams to the playoffs.
It’s not just hard for a college coach to win in the NFL. It’s hard for any coach to win in the NFL regardless of coaching pedigree.
“What this next step presents is the opportunity of a lifetime, in the most challenging of settings.” — coach Pete Carroll, upon the announcement he was leaving USC for the Seahawks on Jan. 11, 2010
While Carroll is only the most recent example of an NFL team going back to school to find a blueprint for future success, he is different from the typical transition.
Carroll has actually spent more years working in the NFL compared to college. In the past 30 years, there have been 15 men hired as NFL head coach after their most recent job was as a college head coach. None besides Erickson had been an NFL head coach before, but Carroll has. Twice.
And ultimately, you can cite all the history you want, research the facts and trends that provide indications of whether this path Seattle has charted will lead the Seahawks back to the playoffs, but none of that will provide anything more than a prediction.
|The basic math|
|Is it harder to succeed in the NFL than college? Sure. The question of whether it’s harder for a college coach to succeed in the NFL compared to others is a more complicated question. Here’s a look at the numbers from 1989 to present:|
|Category||Coaches whose most recent job was NCAA head coach||All other non-interim head coaches|
|Number of examples||15||112|
|Average tenure||61.3 games||67.4 games|
|Regular-season win pct.||.507||.495|
|Playoff win pct.||.531||.497|
|Never made playoffs (pct.)||8 (53.3)||47 (41.9)|
|Note: All current coaches who haven’t been in their job for at least four seasons were excluded because they would have skewed the results|