On Monday, Kliff Kingsbury became the latest former college football head coach to wash out at the NFL level. His four-year tenure with the Arizona Cardinals was largely disastrous, compiling a record of 28-37-1 despite having a fairly loaded roster. His failure is yet another reminder that NFL teams should stop hiring college coaches.
This season alone, both Kingsbury and Matt Rhule were fired. Rhule went 11-27 in three seasons with the Carolina Panthers. In 2021, Urban Meyer -- an all-time great college coach -- lasted 13 games with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He went 2-11, was a mess in the locker room and disgraced himself off the field.
Adam Schefter compiled a list of former college coaches who jumped to the NFL since 2000:
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Pete Carroll isn't on that list, I'm assuming because he was in the NFL before his nine seasons at USC. But the point still stands. Of that list, only Jim Harbaugh looks like a success. He reached the NFC Championship Game in each of his first three seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, and went to Super Bowl XLVII in his second campaign. But it's easy to forget that in his final season (2014) the 49ers were a Super Bowl favorite and flamed out, going 8-8 with a ton of behind-the-scenes dysfunction.
Of the other guys, Bill O'Brien left Penn State after two seasons and went 52-48 in six-plus seasons with in Houston. While he took the Texans to the playoffs four times, they had one of the NFL's best rosters and it felt like they underachieved every season.
Chip Kelly was a groundbreaking head coach at the college level, then jumped to the NFL and took the Philadelphia Eagles to the playoffs in his first season. He went 10-6 and missed the playoffs in Year 2, then went 6-9 before being fired in Year 3. The San Francisco 49ers immediately hired him and he went 2-14 in his first season before being canned. Kelly's tenure in the NFL was noted for constant clashes with players who absolutely did not enjoy playing for him.
Doug Marrone had moderate success in four season at Syracuse (25-25) and somehow parlayed that into the head job with the Buffalo Bills. He went 15-17 and was fired after two seasons in 2014. Somehow, the Jaguars decided to hire him in 2017 after a stint as interim head coach in 2016. He took them to the AFC Championship Game in 2017 then cratered over the next three seasons, finishing with a record of 23-43 before he was fired.
Greg Schiano's hard-nosed, defense-first approach to the game in 10 seasons at Rutgers seemed to be an excellent fit for the NFL. So the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired him in 2012. In two seasons he went 11-21 and, like several others on this list, his personality just didn't fit the professional ranks. He was drummed out after a 4-12 campaign in 2013 and took years to rebuild his reputation.
Bobby Petrino build Louisville into a solid program from 2013-16, going 41-9, including a 12-1 Orange Bowl-winning campaign in 2006. The Atlanta Falcons pounced to bring in the offensive guru who had seemingly cracked at code at the college level. He lasted 13 games, going 3-10 before resigning to head back to college and take the Arkansas job.
Nick Saban had had great success as a college head coach at Michigan State and LSU. With the Tigers he won a national title in 2003 and had been to three BCS bowls in his five seasons in Baton Rouge, winning two. The Miami Dolphins hired him away in 2005, thinking they had the next Jimmy Johnson. It didn't go well. Saban went 15-17 in two seasons before bolting to take over at Alabama. The rest is history.
Steve Spurrier went 122-27-1 at Florida during his 12-year tenure at his alma mater. He won a national title in 1996 along with five SEC titles. He took Daniel Snyder's money in 2002 and jumped to the NFL as the head coach in Washington. He was a fish out of water in the NFL, as the innovative spread offense that terrorized defenses in college was easily snuffed out in the pros. He went 12-20 in two awful seasons before getting the boot.
The caveat to this long history is that lots of coaches don't work out in the NFL. Having lasting success is the exception, not the rule. That said, there are a number of factors that make the adjustment from college to the NFL really difficult. The biggest is roster control. Coaches in the NFL do not decide what playes are brought in. Yes, they have input, but ultimately a general manager selects players and signs them to contracts, trades for or drafts them. It's not recruiting, where coaches can bring in whoever they want and not have to worry about a salary cap. They have to make do with what they have and adjust their systems accordingly.
That change is often too much to overcome for a lot of coaches and it's a reason many head back to college football after their time in the league.
Hiring successful college coaches and expecting that success to translate to the pros is a fool's errand for NFL teams.