Sports

College football coaches who should have stayed in school


Urban Meyer is attempting to carry his college mastery to the NFL. Several have tried to accomplish this, only to come up short. This group of coaches, which includes a host of national championship winners, serves as a reminder how difficult this jump can be.

 

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A Wisconsin lifer, Blackbourn only coached in The Badger State. He took the Packers’ reins in 1954, after four seasons at Marquette. Several Hall of Famers — from Bart Starr to halfback Paul Hornung to tackle Forrest Gregg to center Jim Ringo — arrived during Blackbourn’s four-year tenure. However, no winning seasons ensued, with Green Bay’s resurrection not occurring until Vince Lombardi’s 1959 arrival. While Blackbourn went just 17-31, Lombardi rehired the longtime high school coach as a scout years later. 

 

Rich Brooks

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A handful of Pac-8/Pac-10/Pac-12 coaches have fallen short of NFL success. Brooks spent time as a Rams assistant in the early 1970s but entrenched himself at Oregon for most of the next 25 years, coaching the Ducks for 18 seasons. After their 1994 Rose Bowl bid, Brooks accepted an offer to return to the Rams as their first St. Louis-era head coach. Brooks’ tenure started off well, with the Rams upsetting the Brett Favre-led Packers and going 4-0 in 1995. But he finished with two losing seasons, with 1996’s Jerome Bettis trade and the selection of troubled running back Lawrence Phillips sixth overall aging poorly. 

 

Dan Devine

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Millennials surely know Devine better as the coach who steadfastly refused to play Rudy Ruettiger, but Devine only arrived at Notre Dame — as the 1993 film also notes — after a stint with the Packers. Devine became a head coach at 30, being tabbed to lead Arizona State, and spent 13 seasons at Missouri. He joined the Packers in 1971, inheriting some of Lombardi’s former stalwarts. Despite Starr’s retirement, Devine led the 1972 Packers to an NFC Central title. QB play, however, keyed Green Bay’s ensuing downfall. 1974’s disastrous trade for John Hadl preceded Devine’s exit and a lengthy Packers swoon. 

 

Dennis Erickson

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Erickson’s two national titles at Miami surpass every other coach’s “The U” work, and up until the last of his six NFL seasons, he kept the Seahawks and 49ers out of the basement. The Seahawks hired Erickson in 1995, and he went 8-8 in three of his four seasons in a tough AFC West. The Washington native also oversaw a Pro Bowl season from a 41-year-old Warren Moon, but owner Paul Allen, who took over midway through Erickson’s tenure, fired him for Mike Holmgren in 1999. Erickson’s two 49ers years (2003-04) came at a transition point, the second one coming after the team lost Terrell Owens and Jeff Garcia. It ended in a 2-14 finish.

 

Lou Holtz

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Holtz spent more than 40 years on the sidelines at various colleges but did try the NFL for one fall. After four seasons at N.C. State, his first big-school head coaching opportunity, Holtz agreed to coach the Jets in 1976. In what doubled as Joe Namath’s final season in green and white, Holtz proved ill-suited for the pros. Holtz went 3-10 as Jets coach and attempted college-y gimmicks — chiefly a Holtz-composed Jets fight song, which at least sounds like harmless fun — that failed. He left the Jets with one game remaining, accepting an offer to coach Arkansas, later admitting he was out of place in the NFL.

 

Chip Kelly

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Entering the NFL with considerable hype as an offensive guru, Kelly initially succeeded. The ex-Oregon coach’s fast-paced attack helped drive the Eagles to 10-6 and the 2013 NFC East title. Nick Foles tied an NFL record with seven TD passes in a game (by the third quarter) that season, and despite Mark Sanchez replacing an injured Foles in 2014, the Eagles went 9-7. The bottom fell out in 2015. The Eagles gave Kelly personnel power. A host of moves followed, including trades of Foles and LeSean McCoy. Fired late that season, Kelly landed in San Francisco. The 49ers made him their second straight one-and-done HC after a 2-14 slate.

 

Lane Kiffin

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Kiffin’s popularity has risen in the years since his Raiders ouster, but Al Davis pulled the plug on the young coach quickly. Cycling through coaches in his final years, Davis hired USC’s 31-year-old offensive coordinator in 2007. Kiffin encountered a poor draw, being stuck with one of the worst busts in NFL history (JaMarcus Russell, whom Kiffin did not want to draft). Kiffin only received 20 games, during which he went 5-15, before being fired four games into the 2008 season — when Davis tore into his coach in a press conference involving an overhead projector. 

 

Frank Kush

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While Hue Jackson, Rod Marinelli, and John McKay receive the brunt of the judgment, a fourth coach has gone winless in the post-merger era. Yes, Kush’s 0-8-1 record came during 1982’s strike-shortened season, but the longtime Arizona State coach is better known for prompting John Elway to avoid the Colts. Because of the Stanford phenom’s refusal to play for Kush (11-28-1 with the Colts), the 22-year Sun Devils HC was stuck with a shoddy QB situation — which featured 1982 top-five pick Art Schlichter, whose value tanked much quicker than Russell or Ryan Leaf’s — and left before the end of the 1984 season for a USFL job.

 

Dıck MacPherson

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Rod Rust’s one-year 1990 tenure left the Patriots at a franchise low point, and MacPherson could not revive them. The energetic Syracuse coach led the Orangemen to multiple 10-win seasons in the ’80s. Well-liked in New England as well, MacPherson coached the Pats to a 6-10 mark — up from their 1-15 disaster under Rust — in 1991. But the franchise, which whiffed with Tony Eason, experienced rampant quarterback trouble and went 2-14 in 1992. MacPherson’s dismissal led to the Bill Parcells hire, the Drew Bledsoe No. 1 overall draft choice, and the sad demise of Pat the Patriot

 

Bill Peterson

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Peterson spent 11 seasons at Florida State, guiding the Seminoles to multiple bowl games, and developed Fred Biletnikoff ahead of his Raiders run. This led to the Broncos and Oilers aggressively pursuing Peterson, who accepted a lucrative Oilers contract in 1972. Unfortunately, Peterson’s brief stay became one of the worst in NFL annals. An offensive innovator in Tallahassee, Peterson went 1-18 in Houston. Oilers owner Bud Adams fired Peterson midway through the 1973 season, the franchise’s second straight one-win year.

 

Bobby Petrino

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Thirty-one years after Holtz, Petrino followed a wildly similar playbook. Two one-loss seasons in four years at Louisville prompted the Falcons to hire Petrino in 2007. This was certainly a bad time to join the Falcons, with Michael Vick prison-bound and Matt Ryan not yet in Atlanta. Petrino signed on to coach Vick, whose dogfighting scandal soon rocked the league, and bailed on the Falcons with the same 3-10 record Holtz had in New York. Arkansas again provided a soft landing, poaching Petrino with three games left in the Falcons’ season.

 

Tommy Prothro

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Prothro spent 16 seasons coaching at Oregon State and UCLA. He guided both to the Rose Bowl in the 1960s. He coached two California-based NFL teams in the ’70s; neither venture worked out. Prothro started off strong, leading the 1971 Rams to a winning record, but became caught in a historically strange situation. The Rams and Colts’ owners traded franchises in 1972, leaving Prothro with new owner Carroll Rosenbloom, who fired him after the ’73 season. The Chargers gave Prothro (35-51-2) a shot in 1976 but fired him four games into the 1978 season, upon trading for Don Coryell’s rights. 

 

Nick Saban

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Saban’s two-year Dolphins tenure featured long-term consequences. The LSU national championship-winning coach agreed to a Dolphins deal in 2005. Saban had NFL experience, as the Browns’ defensive coordinator under Bill Belichick in the early ’90s, but built up his reputation in college. The Dolphins went a not horrendous 15-17 in two Saban seasons, and even though he denied he was leaving for Alabama before eventually doing so, Saban losing out on Drew Brees in a 2006 free agency battle defined the coach’s Miami stay. An unsatisfactory offer helped send Brees to New Orleans. He and Saban fared well henceforth. The Dolphins have not.

 

Steve Spurrier

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Washington owner Dan Snyder not only canned Marty Schottenheimer for Spurrier, but he also made the Fun ‘n Gun architect the NFL’s highest-paid coach at $5 million per year in 2002. While Spurrier excelled in the USFL and elevated Florida to the 1996 national championship, neither of his Washington teams ranked in the top 20 in passing yards. In Spurrier’s defense, he lacked a viable quarterback, working primarily with Patrick Ramsey. But his second season, a 5-11 showing, provided evidence this Snyder expense would not work out. Spurrier resigned after the ’03 season and returned to the college ranks.

 

Bud Wilkinson

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A three-time national champion at Oklahoma, Wilkinson did not coach between his final Sooners season (1964) and his Cardinals hire (1978). He landed in a bad situation. The ownership meddling that irked Hall of Famer Don Coryell continued, but unlike Coryell, Wilkinson could not elevate St. Louis into a contender. Hired at 61, Wilkinson went 9-20 in less than two seasons leading the Cards. A quarterback dispute, with ownership wanting the coach to start overmatched first-rounder Steve Pisarkiewicz over veteran Jim Hart, led to Wilkinson’s ouster late in the 1979 season.

Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.





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