Wisch: Hire A College Coach In The NFL? Only At Your Own Risk

By Dave Wischnowsky-

(CBS) Last weekend, a buddy of mine fired off an incredulous text message to me in which he typed: “The Colts are seriously interviewing Jim Tressel?!”

Upon receiving it, I chuckled and immediately shot back the reply: “Sure, why not? After all, he’s already had big success with a pro team in Columbus.”

Rim shot, please.

All joking aside, the hiring of college coaches can be a seriously risky business for NFL teams. This week, the Colts chose not to go down that road with Tressel, who went 229-72-2 and won five national titles (four I-AA, one I-A) in 25 seasons at Youngstown State and Ohio State before he was tattooed by scandal and ousted last summer. Instead, Indy opted to play it safe and named Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano as their new coach.

On the flip side of things, however, Tampa Bay seemed dead-set this month on dipping into the college ranks for its next head coach. Just days after they were turned down by Oregon’s Chip Kelly, the Buccaneers on Thursday hired Rutgers’ Greg Schiano to captain their ship.

More often than not, “A-List” college coaches – such as the likes of Tressel, Kelly and Schiano – have ended up finding themselves shipwrecked on the NFL shores. It remains to be seen how Schiano will fare in Tampa, but below you’ll find a list of 13 of his predecessors who have experienced a mixed bag (of mostly bad) after beginning their head coaching careers in college before leaping to “The League.”

Sorted into three categories – the good, the bad and the ugly – these 13 coaches enjoyed a sterling 1,760-704 record (.714 winning percentage) in the college ranks, only to see it crumble into a 446-455 (.495) mess in the NFL.

If you remove the four “good” coaches from the equation, that record tumbles to a paltry 171-249 (.407).

So, beware, Buccaneers – and Greg Schiano. Those NFL waters can be awfully choppy.


Tom Coughlin: The sourpuss head coach of the New York Giants is currently in position to capture his second Super Bowl trophy when he squares off against New England next weekend. But before Coughlin entered the NFL, where he’s gone 142-114 in 16 years with the Giants and Jaguars, he began his career at Boston College, where he went 21-13-1. Think he still has any fans in Beantown?

Jim Harbaugh: In seven seasons at the University of San Diego and Stanford, Harbaugh piled up an impressive 58-27 record. After winning the Orange Bowl last January, the former Bears quarterback decided to jump over to San Francisco and into the NFL. In his first season, he led the surprising 49ers to a 13-3 and a place in the NFC championship game.

Jimmy Johnson: Johnson is currently the gold standard of college coaches who have gone to the NFL, although Coughlin will stake a claim if he wins another Super Bowl next weekend. In 10 seasons at Oklahoma State and the University of Miami, Jimmy – and his hair – went 81-34-3. Having won a national championship at “The U,” he then went on to become a two-time Super Bowl champion in “The Big D” while guiding the Cowboys to an 80-64 record in nine seasons.

Barry Switzer: One of college football’s all-time greats, Switzer went 157-29-4 and won three national championships during 16 seasons at Oklahoma before resigning in 1989 when the NCAA placed the Sooners on probation. In 1994, he took over as coach of the Dallas Cowboys and went 40-25 in four seasons, including a Super Bowl championship in ’95, before he was fired two years later after a 6-10 season.


 Nick Saban: After going 91-42 in 11 seasons at Toledo, Michigan State and LSU, where he won a national championship with the Tigers, Saban decided to try his hand at the NFL. It went bust, as he amassed just a 15-17 record in two seasons with the Dolphins from 2005-06. After that, Saban returned to college at Alabama where he’s merely gone 55-12 with two more national titles, including this year’s.

Steve Spurrier: A national championship coach at Florida with a record of 142-40-2 in 15 seasons with the Gators and Duke Blue Devils, Spurrier bolted for the Washington Redskins in 2002. He went just 12-20 in two seasons. Darth Visor then returned to the SEC, this time at South Carolina, and has gone a solid 55-35 since.

Dennis Erickson: In 13 seasons at Idaho, Wyoming, Washington State and Miami, Erickson piled up a 134-41 record and won a pair of national titles with the Hurricanes. The Seattle Seahawks then lured him to the NFL in 1995, but he went only 31-33 in four seasons before getting canned in ’98. Erickson returned to college and went 31-17 in four years at Oregon State, which was good enough to fool the 49ers into bringing him back into the NFL. In San Fran, however, he was just 9-23, including a 2-14 record in his last season. Erickson was fired again, and returned to Idaho before taking over at Arizona State. By then, though, the magic was gone and the Sun Devils fired him after this season and a 31-31 overall record in five years.

Pete Carroll: In four seasons of coaching the New York Jets and the New England Patriots, Carroll was a mediocre 33-31. He then headed west to USC and won two national titles in nine seasons, piling up a stellar 83-19 record that was 97-19 before the NCAA forced the Trojans to vacate 14 wins due to the Reggie Bush scandal. In 2010, Carroll jumped back up the NFL, where he’s been mediocre once again, going 7-9 in each of two seasons with Seattle.

Butch Davis: In six years at Miami – what is it about Miami coaches and the NFL, anyway? – Davis went 51-20 before jumping to the Cleveland Browns, for whom he went just 24-34 in four years. Davis was fired and returned to the college ranks at North Carolina, but his mojo was gone. In Chapel Hill, he was fired after going just 12-23 in four seasons and being forced to vacate 16 victories due to NCAA violations.

Rich Brooks: Brooks racked up an unimpressive 91-109-4 record in 18 years at Oregon, but after going 9-4 and reaching the Rose Bowl in 1994, the Rams still decided to hire him. He didn’t cut in the NFL, however, going just 13-19 in two seasons. In 2003, Brooks returned to college at Kentucky and went 39-46 in seven seasons, about the same winning percentage as he had in Eugene.

Mike Riley: In two seasons at Oregon State, Riley was a mere 8-14 but that somehow managed to launch into the NFL with San Diego Chargers. He went only 14-34 in three seasons with the Bolts, however, before they canned him. Ironically, in 2003, Riley would eventually return to Oregon State, where he’s gone 64-49 since and is signed to coach the Beavers through 2019.


Bobby Petrino: In 2007, Petrino left the Louisville Cardinals after four seasons and a 41-9 record to take over the reins of the Atlanta Falcons. He didn’t last long, going 3-10 and then shocking his team by exiting the NFL with three games still left in the season after Arkansas offered him its head coaching job. Since turning his back on the NFL, Petrino has gone 34-17 with the Razorbacks.

Lou Holtz: Petrino wasn’t the first former college coach to last less than one season in the NFL. Long before he turned that trick, none other than Lou Holtz did the same. After going 33-12-3 in four seasons at N.C. State, Holtz jumped to the New York Jets in 1976 only to go 3-10 and resign with one game left on the schedule. Ironically, just like Petrino, Holtz landed at Arkansas, where he spent the next seven years. In total, Holtz enjoyed enormous success at the college level, racking up a 249-132-7 record in 33 seasons at William & Mary, N.C. State, Arkansas, Minnesota, Notre Dame and South Carolina, including winning the 1988 national title with the Fighting Irish. His ever-so-brief stint in the NFL was but a blip – albeit quite the blight – on his overall career record.

davewisch Wisch: Hire A College Coach In The NFL? Only At Your Own Risk

Dave Wischnowsky

If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.

  • Larry Horse's Arse

    Excellent,thorough, thoughtful column, Dave.
    Only disagreement: Switzer.
    He was hired to be Jerry’s puppet and he was…the beginning of the Dallas decline.

    • Dave Wischnowsky

      I hear ya on that, Arse. I just didn’t think I could really put him in a “bad” category considering he won a Super Bowl. Perhaps I should have created a separate category for him: “Mixed Bag.” :)

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  • Hawk_Eye

    I wouldn’t say coaching .500 for your first 4 years is bad. If that was the case, you might as well put in Bill Belichick who went 36-44 in his first 5 years, Bill Walsh went in his 24-33 first 4 Years and Chuck Noll who went 23-33 in his first 4 Years to your Bad List. Secondly, I think the number of “NFL coaches” that gets fired every year is way greater than the amount of college coaches that fail. Why don’t you put up a failure comparison? Otherwise this article doesn’t mean nothing.

    • J-Dubya

      Look at Harbaugh. In his first season they were a couple of plays away from the Super Bowl without a lot of significant roster moves over last season.

      Unlike in college, you can turn a team around quickly in the NFL.

      To me, Spurrier and Saban proved that a great college coach doesn’t mean anything in the NFL. Same genus but different species.

      I don’t have a clue why Schiano left Rutgers. He was set for life there. I don’t see him succeeding in Tampa.

      The key to success isn’t their first four years. It is there longevity. Belicheck and others may have had a bad four years, but they stuck around in the league. No self respecting NFL coach would ever hire Nick Saban or Spurrier again. Not going to happen.

      • Dave Wischnowsky

        I suspect that Schiano left Rutgers for two reasons. 1) Money, and 2) The instability of the Big East and being forced to make conference road trips to places such as Boise and San Diego. The Big East is just an enormous mess.

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