Ranking the Best & Worst College Football Coaches Who Went to the NFL
Athlon ranks the top 15 coaches that moved from college to the NFL since 1989.
By: Steven Lassan | 1/30/13, 7:10 AM EST
Philadelphia's decision to pick Chip Kelly as its head coach will be one of the most intriguing and heavily scrutinized hires in NFL history. Kelly was a traditional college coach, as he ran an up-tempo, spread offense that most don’t believe will work on a consistent basis in the NFL.
Although he’s yet to coach a game in the NFL, some have already called Kelly’s hire one of the worst ever. Needless to say, there are a lot of misconceptions about Kelly and his offensive scheme that will be played out in the NFL. Will he win multiple Super Bowl titles? Probably not. Will he finish his tenure with Philadelphia as the worst college coach to make the jump to the NFL? Absolutely not.
Hiring a college coach hasn’t produced much in the way of success for NFL franchises. Jimmy Johnson, Tom Coughlin and Barry Switzer won Super Bowl titles, while Dennis Green, Bobby Ross, Pete Carroll, Steve Mariucci and Butch Davis led their teams to playoff appearances. And of course, there’s Jim Harbaugh, leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl in his second season.
With Kelly’s hire in mind, Athlon ranked the top 15 head coaches that jumped from college to the NFL since 1989. The criteria was simple. In order to be ranked, the coach had to be a college head coach, with their next job being in the same position in the NFL. Although Jim Caldwell, Tom Cable and Cam Cameron were head coaches on both levels, all three held positions outside of being a head coach after leaving college.
Ranking the 15 Best College Head Coaches that left for the NFL Since 1989
1. Jimmy Johnson, Miami and Dallas
It’s a close call for the No. 1 spot in these rankings, as Johnson or Tom Coughlin is a worthy candidate. Johnson jumped to the NFL after successful college head coaching stints at Oklahoma State and Miami, recording an 81-34-3 mark from 1979-88. His debut season with the Cowboys resulted in a miserable 1-15 record but the team quickly improved with the emergence of quarterback Troy Aikman. Dallas went 7-9 in Johnson’s second year but made the playoffs – with two Super Bowl wins – in his final three seasons. Johnson left the Cowboys after the 1993 season and resurfaced with the Dolphins in 1996. He led Miami to three playoff games from 1996-99 but never advanced to the AFC Championship game.
2. Tom Coughlin, Jacksonville and New York Giants
If Jimmy Johnson is 1 in these rankings, Coughlin is essentially 1b. After three years as Boston College’s head coach, the New York native was selected to be the first coach in Jacksonville’s history. The Jaguars went 4-12 in their debut season but made the playoffs in each of the next four seasons. Coughlin took Jacksonville to the AFC Championship game twice but was never able to take the Jaguars to the Super Bowl. He was fired from Jacksonville at the end of the 2002 season and spent 2003 out of football. Coughlin was scooped up by the Giants in 2004 and led New York to a playoff appearance in his second season. The Giants won the Super Bowl in the 2007 and 2011 seasons, while accumulating an 83-61 record under Coughlin’s watch.
3. Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco
Give Harbaugh a couple more seasons and he could climb to the No. 1 spot on this list. In two years with the 49ers, the former NFL quarterback has an impressive 24-7-1 mark, which includes two division titles and two playoff appearances. San Francisco narrowly missed a Super Bowl trip in 2011 and navigated a tough path to get to New Orleans in 2012, beating Green Bay and knocking off No. 1 seed Atlanta.
4. Bobby Ross, San Diego and Detroit
Ross wasn’t the flashiest coach, but he was a proven winner in both college and the NFL. The Virginia native guided Georgia Tech to a national championship in 1990, before joining the Chargers in 1992. San Diego went 11-5 in Ross’ first year and made the Super Bowl after upsetting the Steelers in the AFC Championship game during the 1994 season. After five successful years with the Chargers, Ross left for Detroit in 1997. Despite his solid tenure in San Diego, he was never able to experience the same success with the Lions. Detroit made two playoff appearances under Ross’ watch but never won more than nine games.
5. Dennis Green, Minnesota and Arizona
Green didn’t have the best pick of jobs on the college level, finishing with a 26-63 mark in eight years. However, it’s not exactly easy winning at Northwestern and Stanford on a consistent basis. After going 8-4 with the Cardinal in 1991, Green left to become the Vikings’ head coach. Minnesota went 11-5 in Green’s first season and made the playoffs in each of his three years. After missing the playoffs in 1995, the Vikings rebounded with five consecutive postseason appearances from 1996-2000, which included a painful, narrow miss at a Super Bowl berth in 1998. Green was canned after winning just five games in 2001 and resurfaced with the Cardinals in 2004. Although Green was a good coach in Minnesota, he had a miserable tenure in Arizona, winning just 16 games from 2004-06.
6. Pete Carroll, New England, New York Jets, Seattle
Carroll was a relatively average coach in his first two stops, leading the Jets to a 6-10 record in 1994 and then the Patriots to a 27-21 mark with two playoff appearances from 1997-99. However, after leading USC to one of the most successful stints by a program in the BCS era, Carroll has returned to the NFL better than ever. The Seahawks made the playoffs with a losing record in 2010 and then went 7-9 in 2011 despite undergoing a roster transformation. However, Seattle went 11-5 in 2012 and a narrow loss to Atlanta was all that separated it from making it to the NFC Championship game. Carroll is pushing the right buttons with the Seahawks and should rise on this list over the next few years.
7. Barry Switzer, Dallas
After resigning as Oklahoma’s head coach in 1988, Switzer was out of football when the Cowboys came calling after the 1993 season. Dallas was coming off back-to-back Super Bowl wins and needed a coach after Jimmy Johnson decided to leave. Switzer went 12-4 in his first season with the Cowboys, before leading Dallas to a Super Bowl victory over the Steelers in 1995. The win over Pittsburgh was the pinnacle of Switzer’s NFL career, as the Cowboys went 10-6 in 1996 and finished with a disappointing 6-10 mark in 1997. Switzer was handed an excellent roster to work with, so it’s hard to judge just how effective a NFL head coach he really was.
8. Steve Mariucci, San Francisco and Detroit
Mariucci experienced a fast rise through the coaching ranks, working as an assistant in Green Bay from 1992-95 and then taking over at California for just one season in 1996. The Michigan native was picked to lead the 49ers after one year in Berkeley and went 57-39 during his six seasons in San Francisco. Mariucci was never able to lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl but had four playoff appearances. He was fired from San Francisco after 2002 and resurfaced with the Lions in 2003. Mariucci had very little success with Detroit, going 15-28 in three years.
9. Nick Saban, Miami
Whenever Saban finishes his career at Alabama, there’s no question he will be regarded as one of the most successful coaches to work on the collegiate level. Success in the NFL? Well, that’s a different story. Saban wasn’t awful during his Miami tenure, but he bolted after just two seasons to go back to the college game. The Dolphins went 9-7 in Saban’s first season but backtracked to a 6-10 mark in 2006. Had he stayed in Miami, Saban likely would have eventually led the Dolphins to the playoffs. However, the West Virginia native is clearly at home in the college ranks.
10. Butch Davis, Cleveland
Davis is the third Miami coach since 1989 to leave Coral Gables for the NFL. Jimmy Johnson was the most successful of the trio, while Davis and Dennis Erickson struggled to find their footing. Davis had some success with Cleveland, leading the Browns to a 7-9 mark in 2001 and a 9-7 record with a playoff appearance in 2002. Despite his early success, Davis never elevated Cleveland to be a contender in the AFC North, finishing his last two seasons with an 8-18 record.
11. Steve Spurrier, Washington
In one of the most puzzling coaching moves of recent memory, Spurrier decided to leave one of college football’s premier jobs (Florida) for a spot in the NFL. After compiling a 122-27-1 mark with the Gators, Spurrier gave his Fun N’Gun offense a shot in the NFL. The results were disappointing for Washington, as the Redskins went 12-20 under his watch. Spurrier did finish 7-9 in his first year, but it’s clear the head ball coach belongs in college.
12. Greg Schiano, Tampa Bay
Schiano is just one season into his NFL tenure, but the Buccaneers showed marked improvement under his watch. Tampa Bay’s win total improved by three games from 2011 to 2012 and had a differential of only five points this year. The Buccaneers also had a handful of close losses in 2012 and got significant contributions from a few rookies, including running back Doug Martin, linebacker Lavonte David and safety Mark Barron. Schiano still has much to prove heading into the 2013 season. However, the former Rutgers coach seems to have Tampa Bay back on track.
13. Dennis Erickson, Seattle and San Francisco
Erickson was largely a mediocre coach in the NFL, never having one season over .500, while missing the playoffs after all six of his seasons. The Washington native had most of his success in college by following Jimmy Johnson at Miami and Mike Riley at Oregon State and struggled to establish himself as a quality NFL coach. Erickson had plenty to work with during his stint with Seattle, which included a roster featuring quarterback Warren Moon, running back Ricky Watters and receiver Joey Galloway. Despite a mediocre tenure with the Seahawks, San Francisco decided to give Erickson another change. As expected, he was a disaster. The 49ers went 7-9 in 2003 but plummeted to 2-14 in 2004.
14. Rich Brooks, St. Louis
Brooks played a central role in turning around two college programs (Oregon and Kentucky) but was never able to work the same type of magic in the NFL. He inherited a team that just moved from Los Angeles to St. Louis and had five consecutive losing seasons. Brooks improved the Rams’ win total by three in his first season but finished a disappointing 6-10 in his second year.
15. Mike Riley, San Diego
Riley has done a tremendous job on the college level, elevating Oregon State from a Pac-12 doormat to a consistent bowl team. However, his work in the NFL was a forgettable three-year stint. Riley went 8-8 in his debut season but recorded a 6-26 mark in the other two years. Of course, it’s hard to evaluate Riley when he was forced to work with Ryan Leaf at quarterback.
Two other failed tenures:
Bobby Petrino, Atlanta
Not only was Petrino awful in his only season in the NFL (3-10), he quit on his team in the middle of the year to take a college job.
Dick MacPherson, New England
MacPherson was a good college coach, but he was awful in the NFL. He went 8-24 in two seasons with the Patriots.
Check out Athlon Sports' special Super Bowl section for more coverage on the Ravens vs. 49ers and the history of the big game.
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