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The College-to-NFL Coaching Pipeline Has Gone Dry

Coaching in college and coaching in the pros require two different sets of skills. Kliff Kingsbury’s failure in Arizona is just the latest example.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In the NFL, finding the right person to hire as head coach is hard. Teams hire and fire head coaches in huge numbers—just last year, 10 new coaches were hired. With the Black Monday firing of ex–Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury, at least five jobs are open this offseason already.

Filling those jobs is no easy task. Finding the right head coach requires identifying the one perfect candidate in a sea of qualified applicants. A candidate who can manage a quickly expiring game clock on Sunday afternoon and a frustrated star on Monday morning; a candidate with the football intelligence to call plays and the humility to know whether he should pass that responsibility off to a coordinator; a candidate who doesn’t just say the words that culture builders often say and act the way that culture builders often act but actually builds the culture.

But this is not a piece about hiring the right guy. It’s about not hiring the wrong guy. And that’s very easy.

To not hire the wrong guy, owners must identify who in their sea of applicants clearly does not have the stuff. They have to separate the wheat from the chaff, generating the short list of candidates who will receive a full vetting. For example: NFL teams should not hire my dad, who grumbles about analytics ruining the game before asking me what the name of the Green Bay Packers quarterback is again (still Aaron Rodgers!). They should not hire people who, like my dad, have never been professional or even semiprofessional football coaches before, such as Jeff Saturday (actually happened) or Josh McCown (almost happened) or Condoleezza Rice (probably wasn’t gonna happen, but to this day, still incredible).

Beyond the listed exclusions, which are obvious to everyone but Jim Irsay, some guiding principles are helpful for winnowing the herd of head-coaching candidates. Never hire someone from Bill Belichick’s staff, for example. Sure, a team might think this one coach is the exception to the rule—but in this impossible quest of hiring the right person to coach your ball club, why fight against the odds? Every head-coaching hire is a swing for the fences. At least swing at pitches in the strike zone.

To this end, there is another guiding principle that NFL teams seem determined to overlook, given the hires of the last few cycles—but it’s one we should no longer ignore. NFL teams should never hire a college coach to become their head coach. Never again, for any reason.

I know your first thought: “But what about [insert coach here]?” You’ve already fallen into the trap. Good thing nobody put you in charge of the Broncos.

Remember, this is a probability game. As teams like the Broncos, Panthers, and Colts prepare for head-coaching searches this season, they need to generate a small list of extremely qualified candidates to focus on, and then focus on it. And that list shouldn’t include any college coaches because college coaches no longer succeed when they jump to the pros.

Don’t believe me? Here’s a list of coaches who were hired away from a college job to become first-time NFL head coaches since 2000; they’re sorted by career NFL win percentages.

College-to-NFL Coaches Since 2000

Coach NFL Win Percentage
Coach NFL Win Percentage
Jim Harbaugh 0.688
Bill O'Brien 0.509
Nick Saban 0.469
Chip Kelly 0.444
Kliff Kingsbury 0.432
Butch Davis 0.407
Doug Marrone 0.396
Steve Spurrier 0.375
Greg Schiano 0.343
Matt Rhule 0.289
Bobby Petrino 0.231
Urban Meyer 0.154

Two coaches are above .500 in career win percentage—and Bill O’Brien made it only by the skin of his teeth. And just below O’Brien are some good coaches! Nick Saban is probably the greatest college coach of all time; Chip Kelly won Pac-12 championships with Oregon and coached in a BCS national championship. But neither found any success in the NFL, and they quickly returned to the college ranks.

Further along down this list are more legendary college coaches. Steve Spurrier holds the all-time head-coaching winning percentage mark for both Florida and South Carolina (minimum 25 games). Just below Spurrier on the Gators’ list is Urban Meyer, who won multiple national championships with Florida and another at Ohio State. Meyer won two of 13 games when he was the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars; Spurrier, 12 of 32.

Perhaps the only argument for college-to-NFL success—Jim Harbaugh—is about to make a repeat appearance. With a career win percentage of .688 after four years with the San Francisco 49ers, which included a 5-3 postseason record and a Super Bowl appearance, Harbaugh is by far the most successful college transplant to the NFL ranks. Harbaugh eventually lost a power struggle to then–49ers general manager Trent Baalke and “mutually agreed to part ways” with San Francisco. He became the Michigan head coach and has punctuated his last two years in Ann Arbor with wins over Ohio State, Big Ten championships, and appearances in the College Football Playoff.

Unsurprisingly, this success by a college head coach has garnered NFL attention for Harbaugh, attention increased by Harbaugh’s previous successful stint in the NFL. Harbaugh has been connected to the Indianapolis Colts’ head-coaching job, which makes sense—he started at quarterback for the Colts for four seasons in the ’90s. Reports have surfaced that Panthers owner David Tepper, who missed so spectacularly on Matt Rhule just a few offseasons ago, has had discussions with Harbaugh about the open Panthers job; likewise, the Denver Broncos have reached out to Harbaugh about their open position.

But while Harbaugh may seem like an encouraging success story for college coaches leaping to the pros, he really isn’t. Yes, he jumped from the head-coaching job at Stanford right into the big seat for the 49ers with no NFL coaching experience—but before Harbaugh even started coaching, he spent 15 years in the NFL as a quarterback. Drafted in 1987 by the Chicago Bears, he was on an NFL team until 2001 and spent the next two years as a quarterback coach for the Oakland Raiders. That’s 17 years of NFL experience!

If we look at the same chart of college coaches’ win percentages in the NFL but add in how much NFL experience each coach had—whether as a player or as a non–head coach—it becomes easy to understand why Harbaugh seems like an outlier. It’s because he doesn’t belong on the list at all.

College-to-NFL Coaches, With NFL Experience

Name Years in NFL (Player/Non–Head Coach) Before First Head-Coaching Job NFL Win-Loss Record
Name Years in NFL (Player/Non–Head Coach) Before First Head-Coaching Job NFL Win-Loss Record
Jim Harbaugh 17 0.688
Bill O'Brien 5 0.509
Nick Saban 3 0.469
Chip Kelly 0 0.444
Kliff Kingsbury 3 0.432
Butch Davis 6 0.407
Doug Marrone 9 0.396
Steve Spurrier 10 0.375
Greg Schiano 3 0.343
Matt Rhule 1 0.289
Bobby Petrino 3 0.231
Urban Meyer 0 0.154

The NFL was the crucible that formed Harbaugh’s perspective on football—his teaching pedagogy, his coaching style. He was in the NFL for almost two decades before he took his talent to the college level. And the success that he found as a college coach is to his credit! Harbaugh’s a great coach—reported incoming NCAA sanctions at Michigan aside—and NFL teams are right to pursue him as their head coach. But Harbaugh should not be viewed as a college coach who successfully translated his schtick to NFL circles; he was an NFLer who made it work for college.

This framework isn’t exclusive to Harbaugh. Another famous college-to-NFL leaper was Pete Carroll, who spent most of the 2000s dominating at USC before he left for the Seahawks job in 2010. Carroll looks like a success story for college coaches entering the NFL at first—but before he was the head coach at USC, Carroll spent 16 years in the NFL, with two stints as a head coach. The same gauntlet that Harbaugh ran as a quarterback Carroll ran as a secondary coach and defensive coordinator. Unlike the Kellys and Rhules and Meyers of the world, Carroll and Harbaugh spoke the NFL language, marched to the NFL rhythm, and belonged in the NFL culture. Their leaps weren’t like everyone else’s.

Viewing Harbaugh in this light forces a critical question. Each year, we spend a lot of time asking whether college players will translate to the pros—whether they have the height and weight and speed, whether they see the game fast enough, whether they can handle the professional culture and increased expectations and sudden influx of money. But we rarely ask whether college coaches can translate to the pros. Whether they can endure the culture change, the shift in schedules, the radically different process for player acquisition. And the proof is in the pudding: They can’t.

Consider just roster management. At a quick glance, it looks like player acquisition and roster management are similar enough between college and pro football that excellence in one field should imply excellence in the other. Get the big, fast, and strong players into your locker room, and get as many of them as you can. But they are far less similar than they appear.

College programs have a maximum of 85 scholarship players—though that limit is quite skirtable, as many NCAA rules are. In the NFL, the active roster is 53 players—that’s just over 60 percent of the size of the roster college coaches are accustomed to carrying. And when it comes to adding new players, college coaches have staffs of recruiters who chase down five-star athletes from every corner of the country. Coaches entice those young athletes with scholarships, team success, team facilities, and promises of NFL visibility—only recently have college coaches started using money in the form of name, image, and likeness packages. But in the NFL, money and money alone talks when it comes to acquiring free agents—under a hard cap, of course, which college programs don’t have to deal with. And compared to the 25 scholarships college programs get to hand out every recruiting cycle, an NFL team’s seven draft picks provide a much smaller margin for error than college coaches are accustomed to operating with.

These not-so-little differences are pervasive. Player development is different in college, where many athletes have their diets and weight lifting monitored and planned for the first time, and in the NFL, where every athlete has their own personal trainer. Locker room management is different, as players go from (mostly) unpaid teenagers and young adults to grown men and 10-year veterans who know for a fact that they make more money than their head coaches. Heck, even the sport is different. The clock runs in different ways, the penalties are called for different infractions and reward different yardages, and even the hashes are farther apart! It’s not just that college coaching and NFL coaching are different fields; it’s that the games are played on different fields altogether.

Because the NFL gets its players from college, it seems only intuitive that it could get its coaches there, too. But college football is just the best available farm system for NFL players—something that the football community has been trying to rectify with recent efforts by the XFL, Alliance of American Football, and United States Football League. The NFL has no choice but to introduce college players into the NFL, retrain them, develop them, and hope to generate NFL players as a result of their efforts. The NFL has a much better option for creating new head coaches than pulling from the college ranks, where the responsibilities of head coaches are actually wildly different from those of their NFL counterparts. They can pull from the NFL ranks themselves.

Those teams that find their coaches in the league have varying degrees of success—remember, finding the right guy for the job is hard. That’s why teams leap at any promising coach, rushing to catch the wave of a trend before it crests and breaks. Everyone wants a Kyle Shanahan, a Sean McVay—sometimes you get a Mike McDaniel, and sometimes you get a Nathaniel Hackett. Even more unfortunately, hiring from the NFL assistant ranks is no more sure than hiring ex–NFL coaches for a second go-round—sometimes you get a Doug Pederson, and sometimes you get a Lovie Smith. NFL circles are far from perfect—especially when the gates of those circles are so fervently protected by white owners hiring white candidates at radically disproportionate rates.

But the last college hires have not been solutions to that problem—Meyer, Rhule, and Kingsbury, all hired within the last four years, have all been white. They haven’t been solutions to any problem—all three have been bad coaches. All three have been fired. The NFL’s recent dips into the college pool have universally produced bad results while somehow still following the well-worn NFL coaching tropes that fail to introduce diversity of representation or ideas. This doesn’t work.

It’s a new year, a good time for resolutions. I hope that NFL teams will resolve to stop hiring college coaches. Yes, even that guy—that Matt Campbell or Lincoln Riley who just jumped to your mind. There’s a chance that they get it right, sure—but the chance is so small, in a lottery already so difficult to win, that the reward simply isn’t worth the risk. The time of pulling NFL head coaches from the college ranks is over.