It’s a tale as old as time (or at least the NFL in modern times).
The coach enjoys success at the university level, turning it into an opportunity to leapfrog to the pros. Once there, the methods they used to generate opportunity work against them, and they fall short – often staggeringly – in achieving their intended glory.
Time and time again, owners and NFL chiefs have taken chances for successful college coaches who ultimately don’t compete in the league. And while there are more than a few notable exceptions, they generally follow the above pattern. This will likely continue as the NFL continues to gather talent and ideas coming from the college game.
Whether or not those decisions lead to successful periods, as always, remains to be seen. Regardless, there is enough data to look at the coaches who have succeeded – and failed the worst – in making the leap from college to the NFL.
With that said, Sporting News looks at coaches who have made the leap from the college game to the pro, their varying levels of success, why they fail so often, and more:
The Most Successful College Coaches in the NFL
Three coaches in the Super Bowl era stand above all others when it comes to successful leaps from college to pros: Pete Carroll, Jimmy Johnson and Tom Coughlin.
Coughlin might be a surprising entry on this list, considering he’s mostly known for his success as the first Jaguars coach in franchise history and for leading the Giants to two Super Bowls. But he qualifies, having coached three seasons for Boston College from 1991-1993.
Carroll still tracks Coughlin’s all-time winning record, although he could reasonably pass it by the end of his NFL career. He is also one of only four coaches to make the jump and win the Super Bowl.
Johnson has 80 wins and Coughlin tied for most Super Bowls on this list, beating an 8-24 start in his first two seasons in Dallas to go 36-12 from 1991-93. He won the 1993 and 94 Super Bowls, but personal problems with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones saw him leave Dallas after the 1993 season.
Of particular note are Chuck Fairbanks (Patriots, 1973-78), Jim Harbaugh (49ers, 2011-14), John McKay (Buccaneers, 1976-1984) and Barry Switzer (Cowboys, 1994-1997), all of whom coached at least four years. in the league and have at least 40 wins. Switzer even won the Super Bowl in his second season, though many claim the Cowboys won despite him, not his coaching.
Here are the top five coaches with the biggest wins after jumping from college to the NFL:
|Fitness Trainer||college team(s)||NFL team(s)||NFL record||Playoff score||Super Bowls won|
|Tom Coughlin||Boston College (1991-1993)||Jaguar (1995-2002)
|170-150||7-12||2 (2008, 2012)|
|Carol’s house||USC (2001-09)||Airplanes (1994)
|Jimmy Johnson||Oklahoma State (1979-1983)
|John Robinson||USC (1976-1982)
|The Rams (1983-1991)||75-68||4-6||Unavailable|
|Bobby Ross||Castle (1973-77)
Georgia Tech (1987-91)
Worst college coaches in the NFL
On the other side of the spectrum are the worst college coaches to jump into the NFL.
In that square, one bus stands above – or sinks below – all the others: Urban Meyer. The former Florida and Ohio State National Championship winning coach lasted for less than a season in Jacksonville in 2021, going 2-11, mocking players, and creating an atmosphere of overall dysfunction.
Another similarly disastrous coach is Bobby Petrino, who turned a successful stint in Louisville into a shot with the Hawks. He won one game more than Mayer, but left the team on his own before the season ended to go to Arkansas as coach.
Matt Roll became the last college coaching failure when he was Launched by the Panthers five games in the 2022 season With a professional mark 11-27. (This tied former Boss coach Greg Schiano to the fewest wins, but with a worse win percentage.)
Although it is not among the worst Coaches for the jump from college to the NFL, Alabama coach Nick Saban also deserves a special mention. He went 15-17 in two seasons with the Dolphins while somehow splitting four games with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
Like Petrino, he left on his own after his second season in Miami (and after fiercely denying he was interested in the Crimson Tide job, something Dolphins fans still despise). He also hated former Dolphins players, Daunte Culpepper and Zach Thomas, so much that they almost ran into him.
With that, here are the former college coaches with the fewest wins in NFL periods:
|Fitness Trainer||college team(s)||NFL team(s)||NFL record|
|Urban Meyer||Bowling Green (2001-02)
Ohio State (2012-18)
Louisville (2003-06, 2014-18)
|The Hawks (2007)||3-10|
|Matt Rowley||Temple (2013-16)
|Greg Chiano||Rutgers (2001-11, 2020-)||The Pirates (2012-13)||11-21|
|Steve Spurrier||Duke (1987-89)
South Carolina (2005-15)
Why college coaches fail in the NFL?
There are countless reasons as to why college coaches fail in the NFL. Chief among them: Coaches try to treat NFL players like college kids.
Those were ultimately the biggest failures of coaches like Mayer and Saban, who have tried to motivate paid professionals as if their future in the league depended on their success. Obviously they weren’t.
Other issues include lack of control. Other than Belichick and Andy Reed, no other coach in the NFL has such control over their respective franchises. This can be a problem for college coaches whose ego is not used to not being in complete control of their program.
Former Penn State and Texas coach Bill O’Brien is a prime example of someone who tried the Belichick method and failed spectacularly. Saban, a coach known for detail, is another example.
Former Purdue quarterback Drew Brees wanted to be quarterback with the Dolphins, but his choice was overruled by team doctors. Would it have made a difference? Probably not, but it upset Saban enough to mention it on several occasions after his Miami run.
Another issue: parity. Whereas a college coach can hoard talent through hiring and small teams simply win when applying, the NFL has the draft, salary cap, and free agency to effectively maintain parity. Meyer was a particularly prominent example of this, especially when he was infamous I didn’t know who the Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald was.
Former NFL coaches in college football
Some coaches have returned to the college game, where they originally had success, to varying degrees. Here is a list of the head coaches who have returned to the college game, as of the 2022 season, after their stints in the NFL:
- Nick Saban (Alabama)
- Jim Harbaugh (Michigan)
- Bobby Petrino (Missouri)
- Greg Chiano (Rutgers)
- Chip Kelly (University of California)
- Jim Mora (Ocon)