I love all the hype about Chip Kelly's collegiate enthusiasm being brought to a professional team…I even relish the news that other teams in the league (including Andy Reid's Kansas City Chiefs) are introducing musical soundtracks and timing periods into their OTA practices.
But all the publicity and the copycat adulation got me to thinking: what exactly are the historical odds of a new head coach coming out of college and turning an NFL loser into a winner?
Bill Walsh and Jimmy Johnson did it successfully, coaching five Super Bowl winners between them. But it has become more obvious than ever that the road they traveled was a lonely one.
Bobby Petrino's disgraceful move, from the Atlanta Falcons a few years ago back to college, served as the latest clear reminder of how difficult it is for football coaches to make the trip in the other direction.
The game may look the same, and the field is still the same size. But it is a different game, nonetheless.
"In college, the players will do anything you want them to," said Seattle coach Mike Holmgren, who was an assistant coach at BYU and then with the San Francisco 49ers before becoming a head coach in the NFL.
College players, Holmgren said, are "worried about classes and their scholarships and then looking forward to the NFL in some cases, and what you say goes."
"I don't think it's ever that easy in (the NFL)," he added.
A long-time issue
Many people are under the impression it's a recent phenomenon, created by the big-money, salary-cap and free-agency eras that have changed the face of the NFL. But, in fact, it goes way, way back. Walsh and Johnson are the only coaches since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 who arrived in the league directly from a head-coaching position in college and went on to win a Super Bowl.
And Walsh deserves an asterisk on the transition because his college job (Stanford) was just a two-year interlude after a decade as an NFL assistant.
In a separate category, there's also Barry Switzer, who replaced Johnson at Dallas and had been out of coaching for five years at the time, following a successful college career. Johnson and Switzer are the only Super Bowl-winning coaches who were never an NFL assistant.
Yes, it's the same game — but different.
It has been more than a decade, since Steve Mariucci went from the University of California to the 49ers for the 1997 season, that a college coach made the jump and even managed to leave the NFL with a winning record, let alone a championship.
And, like Walsh, Mariucci hardly was representative of the genre; he had been at Berkeley for only one year after spending the previous four years as Green Bay's quarterbacks coach.
Since then, Petrino, Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier, Butch Davis, Mike Riley (who coached two Grey Cup winners in Canada) and Dennis Erickson (in his case, for the second time) have tried and failed. Four of those six won national championships in college, but all of them left the NFL with a losing record. (Oakland's Lane Kiffin, who has a 4-10 record, came to the Raiders from a job as a college assistant.)
Aside from the Hall-of-Famer Walsh and Johnson, a handful of others made the jump and at least managed not to embarrass themselves. John Robinson (USC to the Rams), Dennis Green (Stanford to the Vikings), and Tom Coughlin (Boston College to the Jaguars) all took teams twice to conference championship games (but never to the Super Bowl). Bobby Ross, who went from Georgia Tech to the Chargers, made it to a Super Bowl following the '94 season, but lost to the 49ers.
Others, like Rich Brooks (Oregon to the Rams) and Dick MacPherson (Syracuse to the Patriots) didn't begin to approach their college records. In the past, such college coaching giants as Bud Wilkinson and Lou Holtz also flopped in the NFL.
Count Robinson among those who think the move is tougher now than when he did it in the '80s because no one has any patience anymore and the scrutiny is so much greater.
The past cases of Saban and Petrino were expected to pretty much close the NFL coaching door to college coaches for the foreseeable future. Both of them walked out on their NFL teams to return to college jobs after saying in strong terms that they would not. That history may have made NFL owners wary of hiring another college coach for awhile. But now the legacies of Jim Harbaugh, Pete Carroll and our own Chip Kelly are getting a second chance.
At least four factors of difficulty are at work:
» Lack of autonomy: The atmosphere in the NFL is so different and the coach, no matter what his contract says, does not have the degree of autonomy that college coaches enjoy.
"In college, you have control of who you get, you have control of your whole situation, football-wise — your recruiting, your travel — everything," Erickson said. "When you get into the NFL, that's not the case. There's so many people you have to go through, a general manager, a personnel director, involved in the final outcome of what happens."
Erickson thought he had a chance in his first NFL job, with Seattle in the '90s, but, in retrospect, now concedes he didn't know what he was getting into when the 49ers hired him in 2003. He said he was misled about the team's salary-cap situation and its plans for the future.
Bobby Petrino had a real tough time as a rookie head coach out of college for the Atlanta Falcons…He had trouble relating to players making big money…
» From king to pauper: Because college coaches deal with younger players, they are more able to rule with an iron hand, and more likely to command loyalty.
"In college, you're very much a king," Holmgren said. "The athletic director hired you, and normally stays out of the football thing. The president is your boss, but he's in academics pretty much, and leaves you alone to create your own kingdom."
"Then, you have the 18- and 19-year-olds and the old adage — you say jump, they ask how high — I think it's still there at the college level. Now, you take that feeling and that sort of control, and you come into our league [the NFL] and you're not the king. Really, the owners are the king, and you are accountable to more people."
"All these (coaches) have different personalities, but the old way — my way or the highway — that worked in high school or college to a certain extent, doesn't have much oomph to a guy who just signed a five-year, $60 million contract. It's a little bit of a bluff. You can't get your message across that way, so you have to figure out some other way."
That seems to be what happened in Atlanta with Petrino.
Defensive tackle Grady Jackson, who was cut by Petrino earlier in the 2007 season and then played for Jacksonville, said Petrino "doesn't motivate you."
"He was accustomed to dealing with kids in college," Jackson said. "Now, he's dealing with grown men. That was the big thing right there."
» Ego plays a negative role: Successful college coaches may think they know more than they do. Surely that was one of the problems Saban had. Before the first of his two seasons with the Miami Dolphins, he was explaining that his previous experience as an NFL assistant would help him buck the odds and prove that a college coach could win in the pros.
"The systems that we learned in the NFL, as far as size and speed and athletic attributes for each position, and mental and physical characteristics to be successful, are all things that we use(d) in college. Most people don't do that," Saban said.
Spurrier was not a complete flop as a pro coach; he had a 35-21 record with the Tampa Bay Bandits of the United States Football League in the '80s, even before he got his first college head-coaching job. But, when he left the Redskins to return to college, he conceded that "one thing I learned (in the NFL), I learned a lot more humility."
» An uphill climb: College coaches coming to the NFL also face the same problem assistant coaches face when they are promoted. Generally speaking, the teams that change coaches are bad teams, and no matter a new coach's background, the job is going to be a tough one.
"You're so used to winning, because those that (get the jobs) have been successful, obviously, in college," Erickson said. "You're not used to getting beat, and all of a sudden, you're getting beat, and sometimes that's hard. I had a little trouble with that where you win every game (in college) and all of a sudden, you get in (the NFL) and you're going to lose a lot of games.
"That kind of affects you. But usually, you're not going into situations where they've had a great deal of success, or there wouldn't be a job. There's no gimmes. A lot of us have come out of really good programs in college, where you win and you win and you win. In that league there is no such thing (as a gimme) – unless you're at New England, I guess."
None of this is meant to be doom and gloom for Chip Kelly. I'm just pointing out the degree of difficulty he faces in his challenge. And that difficulty is not just confined to rookie head coaches coming out of college ball. Take a look at this chart of past rookie coaches who actually had professional assistant experience…these are the guys who had pretty decent first years—and should inspire the Chippah….
Coach Year Team W L T
Jim Fassel 1997 nyg 10 5 1
Steve Mariucci 1997 sfo 13 3 0
John Gruden 1998 rai 8 8 0
Brian Billick 1999 rav 8 8 0
Dick Jauron 1999 chi 6 10 0
Andy Reid 1999 phi 5 11 0
Jim Haslet 2000 nor 10 6 0
Mike Martz 2000 ram 10 6 0
Mike Sherman 2000 gnb 9 7 0
Herm Edwards 2001 nyj 10 6 0
See, it can be done… There's only two bad seasons on that list, and both those coaches spent first rounders on rookie QBs those years. Donovan McNabb panned out, and Andy Reid became a success; Cade McNown didn't, and Dick Jauron was fired after the 2003 season.
1989 was an interesting year for rookie head coaches. There were only two, but both went on to win Super Bowls. They couldn't have had more different starts, however: George Seifert went 14-2 and won the Super Bowl. Jimmy Johnson went 1-15. As bad as that was, Johnson's worst decision in 1989 might have come a few months earlier. After drafting Troy Aikman first overall in the NFL draft, Johnson took Miami QB Steve Walsh (the two won an NCAA championship in 1987) in the first round of the supplemental draft. That cost the Cowboys their first round pick in 1990, which of course would have been the number one pick in the draft. It turns out it's better to be lucky than good, though. The first pick in the draft that year was Jeff George, and the Cowboys (already with Aikman) would have probably taken RB Blair Thomas, who went second overall. Instead Dallas traded up and took a different RB at the end of the first round.
The last 50 rookie coaches to enter the NFL at the beginning of a season (which takes us back to 1992), still had an aggregate winning percentage of only 0.467.
- Amazing fact of the day: In 1986, Rod Dowhower coached the Colts' first 13 games, and he couldn't manage to win one of them. Ron Meyer replaced him for the last three games, and Indianapolis went 3-0. Rick Venturi couldn't return the favor though a few years later. Meyer was fired after going winless in his first five games for the Colts in 1991. Venturi went 1-7 to finish the year.
- On the other side of the spectrum, most of us remember that John McKay's Bucs went 0-14 in 1976, Tampa Bay's first year in the league. And while that's still a record for futility, he's not alone in having double digits losses and no wins. We saw Rod Dowhower already (0-13), so here are a few others:
- Dick Nolan, whose son had a tough year on the sidelines in 2005, went 0-12 for the Saints in 1980. Interim coach Dick Stanfel went 1-3. Insert your own joke here.
- You've got to feel for Phil Handler, who coached the Chicago Cardinals during World War II. He went 1-29 his first three seasons, including one year where the Cardinals and Steelers merged to form one team.
- 1976 was a really, really bad year to be a coach in New York. Bills' interim coach Jim Ringo took over a 2-3 team and went 0-9. Giants HC Bill Arnsparger went 7 winless games to start the season before John McVay took over. And Lou Holtz — yes, that Lou Holtz — resigned after going 3-10 during his first year with the Jets.
Okay, so Chippah and we fans know what the odds are about in turning things around in 2013. Personally, I will be thrilled with 6-6 at the December 1 marker… and we can make our move from there.