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Who’s Next? College Football Coaches Who Could Make NFL Leap

Coaching college football isn’t nearly as much fun as it used to be. Between the NIL deals and the transfer portal, the job has become more about fund-raising and keeping players happy and less about preparing game plans and teaching life lessons.

The stress and craziness of the job are causing many coaches to be open to the possibility of jumping into the NFL. However, the poor success rate of coaches who have made that jump during the last two-plus decades might make NFL owners more hesitant to consider college coaches, particularly those without any previous NFL experience on their resumes.

Failures of College Coaches in NFL

Since 2000, 12 coaches have made the college-to-pro jump. Most of them have not fared well. Eight of the 12 didn’t make it past their third season.

The most recent college coach to get hired by an NFL team – Urban Meyer in 2021 – was canned 13 games into his first season with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Matt Rhule, who resurrected a disgraced Baylor program that won one game in 2017 and took it to the Sugar Bowl and a No. 8 national ranking two years later, lost 27 of 38 games after the Carolina Panthers hired him in 2020. 

He was fired last year, just five games into his third season.

“When there is this kind of visible lack of success, it can affect people’s thinking and cause some who were open to the idea [of hiring a college coach] to no longer be open to it,’’ said former NFL executive Joe Banner, an analyst for The 33rd Team.

“Matt built two programs up at Temple and Baylor,’’ said NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger. “And he had been in the NFL with the Giants (assistant offensive line coach in 2012). There was a belief that he knew what it took. After what happened with him in Carolina and what happened with Meyer in Jacksonville, that might scare some teams. The bad stories remind NFL teams that the pro game is so much different from the college game.’’

Not everyone who has jumped from college to the NFL has fallen on their face.

Jim Harbaugh did a terrific job in San Francisco after the 49ers hired him away from Stanford in 2011. The 49ers made it to the NFC Championship Game three times in four years under Harbaugh and were Super Bowl runners-up in 2012. Harbaugh was 44-19-1 with the 49ers before leaving in 2015 to become the head coach at his alma mater, Michigan.

Bill O’Brien jumped from Penn State to the Houston Texans in 2014. He coached there for six-plus seasons and took the Texans to the playoffs four times. 

Chip Kelly, who the Philadelphia Eagles hired away from Oregon in 2013, had back-to-back 10-6 seasons in Philly before getting fired with one game left in his third season.

“We always considered and looked at college guys when we were hiring a head coach,’’ said former NFL executive and The 33rd Team analyst Mike Tannenbaum.“There are a number of guys in today’s college game that I think would be really good in the NFL.’’

“You’ve got to dig deep with all of these guys,’’ said former Las Vegas Raiders general manager Mike Mayock. “Some guys are just better suited to coach college players. Some guys can do it at any level. But when you look at the low success rate over the last 20-25 years, there’s going to be a natural bias against college coaches just because of the history. I think that’s going to cause a little more hesitancy about hiring them.’’

No Lack of Options

There are plenty of appealing candidates out there. The Detroit Lions courted Iowa State’s Matt Campbell two years ago. Harbaugh interviewed with the Minnesota Vikings last year. 

All Georgia’s Kirby Smart and Southern Cal’s Lincoln Riley have to do is whistle, and they’ll move to the front of the line for any NFL head-coaching vacancy.

Bill Polian was involved in five coaching searches as general manager of the Buffalo Bills, Indianapolis Colts and Panthers. The Hall of Fame executive has also served on search committees for other teams recently.

Polian, an analyst for The 33rd Team, has interviewed but never hired a college coach.

“In an ideal world, for a college coach to make the jump, previous NFL experience is almost a must,’’ he said. “There are certain college coaches [without NFL experience] that could make the jump. But unless you, as the GM, have real first-hand knowledge, you may be reluctant.’’

Polian points to long-time Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, an offensive line coach with the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens before taking the Iowa job in 1999, as a college guy he would have confidence in hiring. 

Ferentz has had multiple opportunities to jump to the NFL but turned them down to stay at the college level. He’s 67 now and pretty much has aged out of consideration for NFL jobs.

“I did a study many years ago that showed that the college coaches who had the most [NFL] success had some NFL experience earlier in their careers,’’ Banner said.

What are the biggest impediments for a college coach with no NFL experience?

“Not understanding how to coach grown men,’’ Polian said. “Not understanding how the salary cap works. It’s a huge impediment and completely alien to the college experience.

“And not understanding the grind that the NFL is for players, coaches and staff. You have to know how to give everyone breathing space and time and not wear them out with a bunch of nonsense that doesn’t win or lose games.

“And the 17-game schedule. There are no cupcakes in the NFL. You don’t play four games against Division I-AA opponents. And then you have the playoffs on top of that. It’s a different cat altogether. Perhaps the most difficult impediment of all is that you don’t get 25 No. 1 draft choices. You only get one.’’

Why Leave for NFL the Now?

For a long time, most successful college coaches had little interest in leaving the security of State U., which, in many cases, pays better than the NFL for an uncertain pro shot.

But that was before NIL deals and the transfer portal turned college football into the wild west.

“My last year with the Raiders (2021), I was doing school visits, which means going around the country and talking to college coaches,’’ Mayock said. “The frustration level with both the portal and NIL was something they had never experienced before coaching college ball.

“There aren’t really any real rules or guidelines. They’ve had to become part-time fundraisers. And with the transfer portal, you get a kid to come to your school, and then you have to recruit him for the next 3-4-5 years. When you add it all up, a lot of them are looking at their families and saying, ‘Man, I’d much rather be in the NFL with a defined year-round schedule.’’

“They have their own form of a salary cap now,’’ Tannenbaum said of the college game. “They have their own form of free agency. If you’re going to be dealing with all of those things, why not do it at the highest level?’’

Hiring a head coach is a gamble, regardless of his background. While the success rate of college coaches who have jumped to the NFL in the last quarter century hasn’t been great, plenty of NFL offensive and defensive coordinators failed miserably in a head-coaching opportunity.

“The hardest thing to find and be really confident that you got right is that you have a top-tier leader who can hire and manage really good people,’’ Banner said. “Obviously, a college coach has proven he can do that. Whereas, with an NFL coordinator, you don’t necessarily know.’’

Elite Eight

Here is a list of eight current college coaches The 33rd Team feels have the right stuff to make the jump to the NFL at some point.

Matt Campbell, Iowa State (2016-Present)

Age: 43

Previous NFL Experience: none

Campbell, who played and coached with the Eagles’ Nick Sirianni at Mt. Union (Ohio) College, is one of the best more-with-less coaches in college football. 

Iowa State doesn’t attract a lot of five-star recruits, but Campbell managed to turn around a program that had made just eight bowl appearances in the previous 38 years before he arrived.

The Cyclones have had five winning seasons in seven years under Campbell and went to five straight bowl games. In 2020, they won the Big 12 regular-season title. It was their first first-place finish in 119 years.

Campbell became the youngest head coach in the FBS in 2012 when Toledo hired him at 32. He took the school to three bowl games in four years and finished 10-2 in 2015.

“I’ve been around Matt a lot,’’ Baldinger said. “He’s very well organized. He’s a very good delegator. He doesn’t have to call offensive or defensive plays, although he’s certainly capable of doing either.

“He’s revolutionized defense in the Big 12. Everybody copied what they’ve been doing, which shows a level of innovation. For Iowa State to be competitive in the Big 12 the way they’ve been under Matt and win a (regular-season) title and go to the Fiesta Bowl, and develop elite players like Will McDonald and Brock Purdy, speaks volumes about Matt and his staff.’’

After firing Matt Patricia, the Lions were interested in Campbell for their head-coaching vacancy in 2021. CBS Sports reported Campbell turned down an eight-year, $68.5 million offer from the team.

Kirby Smart, Georgia (2016-Present)

Age: 47

Previous NFL Experience: One year on Nick Saban’s staff with the Dolphins (2006) coaching the safeties.

Smart has won back-to-back national titles at Georgia. The school rewarded him last year with a 10-year, $112.5 million contract extension, placing him among the highest-paid college coaches in the country. Saban ($11.7 million per year), USC’s Lincoln Riley ($11 million) and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney ($10.25 million) also inhabit that neighborhood. 

Smart would have plenty of NFL suitors if he were interested in making the jump. Like many college coaches, he has complained about the current state of college football with NIL deals and the transfer portal.

Smart spent nine years on Saban’s staff at Alabama post-Miami, including eight as the Crimson Tide’s defensive coordinator. Georgia hired him in 2016. He has an 81-15 record in Athens. 

The ‘Dawgs haven’t finished lower than seventh in the national rankings since his first season.

“I think Kirby would make an excellent NFL coach,’’ Tannenbaum said. “I don’t think he’d have any difficulty making the transition. It’s just a matter of whether he’ll ever want to leave the college game.’’

Lincoln Riley, USC (2022-Present)

Age: 39

Previous NFL Experience: none

Several NFL teams were whispering in Riley’s ear a couple of years ago. But instead of leaving Oklahoma for the pros, he went for USC, which gave him a 10-year, $110 million contract, a $6 million house and all of the NIL money he needs to out-bid just about any school for any player.

The Dallas Cowboys talked to Riley in 2020 before hiring Mike McCarthy, and the Eagles discussed their head-coaching vacancy a year later before hiring Sirianni. 

He’s an offensive wizard who coached two quarterbacks – Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray – who were the first picks in their draft and a third – Jalen Hurts – who finished second to Patrick Mahomes in the league MVP voting last season.

Riley was a walk-on quarterback at Texas Tech, where he learned the Air-Raid offense from Mike Leach. 

He was an offensive coordinator at an FBS school (East Carolina) when he was just 27, was hired by Bob Stoops to be Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator at 32, and got the Sooners’ head job two years later when Stoops retired.

He won four Big 12 titles in five years with the Sooners before abruptly leaving for Hollywood last year. USC finished 11-3 in Riley’s first season and is fifth in the 2023 Associated Press preseason rankings.

“Lincoln’s passing game, whether he had Jalen Hurts or Kyler Murray or Baker Mayfield or now, Caleb Williams, he’s shown an ability to build that all-important relationship between coach and quarterback and have an elite passing game because of it,’’ Baldinger said. “He’s everything today’s NFL owners covet in a head coach. He’s a young, charismatic offensive genius.’’

Jim Harbaugh, Michigan (2015-Present)

Age: 59

Previous NFL Experience: Four years as the 49ers’ head coach (2011-2014). Two years as quarterbacks coach for the Oakland Raiders (2002-2003). Fourteen years as a player. Made 140 starts with four teams.

There are no questions about whether Harbaugh can jump to the NFL. He’s already done it. 

During his four-year stint with the 49ers, he took them to the NFC Championship Game three times and made it to the Super Bowl in 2012. Harbaugh was the NFL Coach of the Year in 2011 after leading the 49ers to a 13-3 record.

Before taking the 49ers job, he turned around a Stanford program that finished 1-11 the year before he got there. Four years later, they finished 12-1 and beat Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl.

Harbaugh interviewed with the Vikings for their head-coaching vacancy two years ago after they fired Mike Zimmer. 

It’s not clear what happened, but Harbaugh, who went to the interview expecting to be the next coach of the Vikings, ended up returning to Ann Arbor, and Kevin O’Connell got the job instead.

Harbaugh has a reputation as someone who doesn’t always play well with others. But he’s got a 74-25 record at Michigan and has led the Wolverines to two straight Big 10 titles (2021, 2022).

“I don’t have any doubt that he could have the kind of success in the league again that he had with the 49ers,’’ Baldinger said. “My guess is you’ll hear his name again when jobs come open. I mean, if he was ready to take the Minnesota job, why wouldn’t he be open to a bunch of other jobs if they become available and they have interest in him?’’

Said Mayock: “Jim’s a natural leader. He was a quarterback. He grew up as a coach’s son. Football comes naturally to him. And it’s not fake. When he jumps into a lifting session, and they put 275 on the bar, and he rips off five reps, when he jumps into the quarterback line and starts throwing slants, that’s who he is.

“He’s a younger Pete Carroll. He has that natural exuberance for the game. On top of that, when he was in San Francisco, he had a clear, concise plan for who he was philosophically and how to get where he wanted to go. They were going to be a big, physical, tough team. They were going to run the football and had (Colin) Kaepernick and took advantage of his unique skills.’’

Ryan Day, Ohio State (2019-Present)

Age: 44

Previous NFL Experience: Two years as quarterbacks coach with the Eagles (2015) and 49ers (2016) on Chip Kelly’s staffs.

Day has an impressive 45-6 record in four years as Ohio State’s head coach. The Buckeyes won the Big 10 title in Day’s first two seasons in Columbus (2019-2020) and made the four-team College Football Playoffs in 2020 and 2021. They made it to the National Championship Game in 2021 before losing to Alabama.

Ohio State is one of the better college football programs. Day is guaranteed an ample supply of four- and five-star recruits. Twenty-one Buckeye players have been taken in the first three rounds of the past four NFL drafts, including nine in the first round. 

The question is whether Day will still be effective when the talent level on the other side of the field is equal.

Brian Kelly, LSU (2022-Present)

Age: 61

Previous NFL Experience: none.

Kelly spent 13 years at Division II Grand Valley (Mich.) State, carving out a 118-35-2 record and winning back-to-back Division II national titles in 2002 and 2003.

He moved on to Central Michigan, taking over a program that had lost 34 of 46 games the previous four years. The Chippewas had a winning season in Kelly’s second year and won the MAC title with a 10-4 record in his third.

He turned Cincinnati into a national power. They were 34-6 in his three seasons, with three top-20 finishes in the national rankings. The Bearcats went 12-0 and finished fourth in the national rankings in 2009. 

Then he went to Notre Dame, where he spent 12 years and had a 113-40 record. Next, he left for LSU after the 2021 season. His first Tiger team was 10-4 and finished 16th in the national rankings.

Bill Polian knows Kelly well. His son Brian has been on Kelly’s staff since 2017, serving as special teams coach and recruiting coordinator. Polian has no doubt Kelly could be a successful NFL coach, even with no pro experience.

“Without question, he could make the jump,’’ Polian said. “Just his personality and the way he runs his program and the kind of players he’s been around. And what he did at Notre Dame with less than ideal recruiting advantages.’’

Luke Fickell, Wisconsin (2023-Present)

Age: 49

Previous NFL Experience: none.

This will be Fickell’s first season at Wisconsin, but he’s a guy worth watching as an NFL head-coaching candidate. Fickell had a 57-18 record in six seasons at Cincinnati (2017-2022). 

The Bearcats finished in the top 10 in 2020 and 2021 and made the College Football Playoffs in 2021.

Before getting the Cincinnati job, he spent 18 years as an assistant at his alma mater, Ohio State, including 11 as the team’s co-defensive coordinator. Fickell was a defensive lineman for the Buckeyes, starting a school-record 50 games.

“He turned Cincinnati into a big-time program,’’ Baldinger said. “He’s shown an ability to build, much like Matt Rhule did at Temple and Baylor before he got his shot [with Carolina]. Luke got that Cincinnati program to the final four, which was pretty impressive.’’

Chris Klieman, Kansas State (2019-Present)

Age: 55

Previous NFL Experience: none

Klieman replaced the legendary Bill Snyder at Kansas State and guided the Wildcats to three winning seasons in four years. They finished 10-4 last season, earning a Sugar Bowl invitation and finishing 14th in the final AP poll.

Before Kansas State, he was the head coach at FCS-power North Dakota State. He had a 69-6 record and won four FCS national titles in five years there.

Winning at schools where you’re not supposed to win gets you noticed. And NFL teams have noticed Klieman.

“They’re the dragon-slayer of programs right now,’’ Baldinger said. “They were the only team to beat TCU in the regular season last year. Klieman took over for Bill Snyder. Nobody thought anybody could replace Snyder and do what Klieman has done. But he’s done it.’’

Paul Domowitch covered the Eagles and the NFL for the Philadelphia Daily News and Philadelphia Inquirer for four decades. You can follow him on Twitter at @pdomo.