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Urban Meyer, Nick Saban, & Why College Coaches Struggle in the NFL

Last Updated: December 27, 2021
A successful college career doesn’t always translate to the next level. For every Jimmy Johnson and Pete Carroll, there’s a Bobby Petrino and a Butch Davis.

Urban Meyer exemplifies many of the problems that have doomed successful college football coaches who have tried to make the jump to the NFL.

“It’s devastating. Heartbreaking,” the 57-year-old rookie NFL coach said after a last-second 24-21 loss at Cincinnati on Thursday dropped his Jacksonville Jaguars to 0-4.

To put things into context, the last time Meyer lost four games in a season as head coach was in 2010 with Florida. It happened just twice during his 17 years as a college coach.

“I just see a good team in there,” Meyer continued. “I see good guys. I see good hearts. I see guys that work, and I told them I’m not wrong. I’m not wrong about that stuff. This team’s going to win some games.”

Many coaches from the college ranks thought they could translate their style into NFL success. Meyer’s innovative college offenses helped him develop a No. 1 overall draft pick in Alex Smith at Utah and win three national championships at Florida and Ohio State with superstars like Tim Tebow and Ezekiel Elliott.

But with spread and RPO packages now the norm at the professional level, did Meyer’s window for legitimate NFL innovation actually close shut years ago?

Additionally, Meyer still seems to be agonizing over each loss, as if the Jags need to be perfect to make a four-team playoff (among other locker room and off-the-field issues you may have heard about). Coupling that mindset with inheriting the worst team in the league that’s now lost 19 consecutive games, you don’t have an environment around you that’s tailor-made for success.

Meyer has a potential franchise quarterback in Trevor Lawrence, yes. But does he have the patience to see through a full rebuild? Perhaps most importantly, does Shad Khan and the Jacksonville organization have the patience to let Meyer create an entire roster in his own image?

To get to the bottom of how and why college coaches perform the way they do at the NFL level, we took a look at all the recent names who made the jump to the professional ranks and divided them into tiers.

(Note that the jury is still out on a couple of current NFL examples, as Kliff Kingsbury is still in the early stages of making his mark with Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals, and Matt Rhule is off to a 3-0 start this season with the Carolina Panthers after a 5-11 rookie season.)

Successful in Both the NFL and College

Jimmy Johnson

Johnson is still the ultimate example of someone who went straight from college and made it work. He won two Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys while helping develop the Hall of Fame trio of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin (as well as yellow jacket Charles Haley).

Johnson largely let his players do their thing — for better or worse. He nearly went winless in 1989, his first season in Big D, raising uneasy questions about Jerry Jones’ decision to hire the man who put “The U” on the map.

As we’ll see, having a successful quarterback is a major determining factor in college coaches being able to level up to the pros, and Aikman helped provide Johnson and Dallas a stable presence that helped the Cowboys win big.

If not for a meddling owner in Jones, who knows how many titles the Cowboys could have won under JJ?

Pete Carroll

Carroll went 97–19 as part of an incredible run at USC that included two Heisman Trophy winners, two No. 1 overall draft picks, and two national championships (one undisputed, one split). He was unspectacular in the 1990s over four combined years coaching the Jets and Patriots, but it was worth wondering if his time in LA revitalized him.

The Seattle Seahawks bet on that being the case and they were correct.

After heading to the Pacific Northwest in 2010, Carroll is 115-66 as of this writing. He’s missed the playoffs just twice, won the NFC West five times, and hoisted a Lombardi Trophy after a blowout victory over the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. He nearly won the title again the next season, and his Hawks are perennial NFC contenders.

Jim Harbaugh

Though Michigan football fans may be pissed about Harbaugh being in the top tier, his tenures with the Wolverines and at Stanford, where he coached a young Andrew Luck, qualifies him as a college winner. With the 49ers, he won AP Coach of the Year in his first year, and in 2012, made the bold move of replacing Alex Smith as the starter with a young run-pass option QB named Colin Kaepernick. That adjustment helped San Francisco reach the Super Bowl, where Harbaugh lost to his brother John and the Baltimore Ravens.

Harbaugh moved to the pros at the perfect time, where ownership and management let him make tough decisions, at least at first, and his offensive adjustments paid off immediately. Harbaugh’s act ultimately wore thin and he lost a power struggle with GM Trent Baalke (remember him?). He was let go after four seasons in charge.

Barry Switzer

Inheriting an all-time great roster stocked with several Hall of Famers definitely helps. Switzer lost to the 49ers in the conference title game in his first season and won the Super Bowl in his second after a 15-year run with the Oklahoma Sooners. He resigned as Cowboys coach following a 6-10 season in 1997, just over five months after he was arrested for bringing a loaded .38 revolver in his carry-on luggage at DFW.

Ultimately, being more on board with Jones’ ideas than Johnson was ended up paying off for Switzer — not only did he win a championship, but he has the distinction of being the last title-winning coach for America’s Team.

Successful in the NFL or College, but Not Both

Nick Saban

As successful as Saban has been as a college coach with seven college national championships with Alabama and LSU, and a coaching tree that has never defeated him, his two-year tenure with the Dolphins from 2005 to ’06 just didn’t work.

The fatal mistake was choosing a washed Daunte Culpepper as his quarterback over potentially a young-but-injured Drew Brees — a decision that’s one of the great “what-ifs” in football history. Brees became the best Saints player ever and Saban went back to college after a 15-17 mark in Miami.

The Phins never really recovered. (They even had an Adam Gase phase, which you never want.)

Chip Kelly

Kelly was a superb offensive innovator at Oregon, and the Philadelphia Eagles hired him in 2013 after a four-year run with the Ducks where they won three conference titles and lost in the 2010 national title game. Succeeding Andy Reid, Kelly had a stacked offense led by Nick Foles and Michael Vick at quarterback, prime LeSean McCoy at running back, and prime DeSean Jackson at receiver. After two 10-6 seasons and a playoff appearance, Kelly was named head of football operations before the 2015 season and was fired after a 6-9 start, perhaps biting off more than he could chew.

He immediately went to the 49ers, where a disastrous 2-14 season that included a 13-game skid led to his ouster. Kelly is now the coach at UCLA, where he’s yet to crack five wins in any of his four seasons in Pasadena.

Steve Spurrier

The Head Ball Coach took his national championship pedigree to Washington, where he signed a then-NFL record five-year, $25 million contract in 2002. Spurrier then brought most of his coaching staff with him to D.C., along with QB Danny Wuerffel and former Florida QB Shane Matthews. But clashes with management and Spurrier’s offense not translating to the pro game led to a 12-20 record over two seasons and a pink slip. What worked for Spurrier in college massively failed in Washington.

Dennis Erickson

Erickson replaced Johnson at the U and won national titles in 1989 and 1991. He also won conference titles at Arizona State and Oregon State after his NFL coaching career, but was never able to make it happen in the pros. In four seasons with the Seahawks and two with the 49ers, Erickson never had a team finish above .500 without the elite talent he had with the Hurricanes, going 40-56 overall. But the list of college coaches to win multiple championships is short, and Erickson is on it.

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Bobby Petrino

Petrino was a rising star at Louisville, winning 10-plus games twice in a four-year span. That led to a five-year, $24 million contract to coach Vick in his prime with the Falcons in 2007. He signed that deal less than six months after agreeing to a 10-year, $25.6 million extension with the Cardinals. But Vick’s dogfighting scandal ensured he wouldn’t play that season, and Petrino famously quit after a 3-10 start to become the head coach at Arkansas.

In Fayetteville, he had another pair of 10-win seasons in four years before resigning after his infamous motorcycle crash in 2012. He ended up going back to UL as part of a successful, but really weird, college coaching run.

Lane Kiffin

Kiffin went straight from being offensive coordinator for the Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush USC Trojans to head coach of the Oakland Raiders at age 31 for the 2007 season. Led by Josh McCown and an even more washed Culpepper at QB, the Raiders went 4-12 that year, and Kiffin was fired after a 1-3 start in 2008. He’s had a decent amount of success in college since then with Tennessee, USC, Florida Atlantic, and Ole Miss, going 69-40 overall with two Conference USA titles, but he’s never lived up to his early “golden boy” reputation.

Butch Davis

Davis coached under Johnson at the University of Miami and in Dallas with the Cowboys, winning Super Bowls as an assistant with both Johnson and Switzer. He then won three Big East titles as head coach at the U from 1995-2000 before taking over as coach, and later GM of the Cleveland Browns. He managed to go 9-7 and make the 2002 playoffs with Tim Couch and Kelly Holcomb at quarterback, but went just 24-35 in the NFL before resigning in December 2004 with Jeff Garcia under center.

Though an NCAA investigation resulted in his wins at North Carolina in 2008 and 2009 being vacated, Davis has added successful stints at UNC and currently at Florida International to his résumé.

Successful in Neither the NFL nor College

Bill O’Brien

Like Kiffin, O’Brien was an on-the-rise offensive assistant with the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick Patriots from 2007-11. O’Brien then had the unenviable task of not only succeeding Joe Paterno at Penn State, but doing so right after the Jerry Sandusky scandal, as a postseason ban and a loss of scholarships stacked the odds against him from the start. PSU went 8-4 in 2012 and O’Brien was named national coach of the year. A 7-5 year in 2013 led to the Houston Texans job.

He led Houston to three straight 9-7 seasons and two playoff appearances before drafting Deshaun Watson. The Texans never lived up to Watson’s immense potential under BOB, winning a playoff game in 2019 before blowing an enormous lead to Kansas City in the 2019 divisional round. O’Brien was fired after an 0-4 start last year and is still plotting his next move.

Between college and the NFL, he has a 69-61 record as a head coach.

Greg Schiano

Over a 10-year period, Schiano managed to go 68-67 as the head coach at Rutgers — a minor miracle. His ability to produce and develop NFL talent in New Jersey was enough for the Buccaneers to hire him prior to the 2012 season. Led by Josh Freeman, Doug Martin, and the late Vincent Jackson, they went 7-9, but a 4-12 year in 2013 led to his ouster. After a run as an Ohio State assistant, Schiano is back in New Brunswick.

Doug Marrone

After 17 years as a college and NFL position coach, Syracuse hired Marrone from the Saints in 2009. He led the Orange to a share of the Big East title in four seasons and a 25-25 record, which was good enough for the neighboring Bills to hire him in 2013. He went 6-10 and 9-7 in two years in Western New York before Rex Ryan replaced him.

Jacksonville then hired Marrone as an assistant, and he took over as interim head coach in 2016. He then managed to lead the Jags and their dominant defense to the 2017 AFC title game, but went 5-11, 6-10 and 1-15 in his next three seasons before getting the boot.

About The Author
Shlomo Sprung
Shlomo Sprung
Shlomo Sprung is a Senior Staff Writer at Boardroom. He has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with past work appearing in Forbes, MLB.com, Awful Announcing, and The Sporting News. He graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2011, and his Twitter and Spotify addictions are well under control. Just ask him.