Eric Mangini. Pat Shurmur. Rob Chudzinsk. Mike Pettine. Remember them? Neither do I. Forget the quarterback carousel, these are all the guys who have coached the Cleveland Browns in the last ten years. Out of all of them, it only looks like Hue Jackson will last longer than two seasons (Sports Illustrated, “Why the Browns Made the Right Decision To Not Fire Hue Jackson,” 1.23.2018)
So what is it that makes a great NFL coach? And why is it that college football’s coaching elite often finds it incredibly difficult to make the transition to pro ball?
Time and time again, successful college coaches who attempt to upgrade to professional football find themselves returning to the college game after a few mediocre seasons. Even the greatest college football coach of all time, The University of Alabama’s Nick Saban did brief stints with the Cleveland Browns and the Miami Dolphins at different points in his career before taking his current position.
The current poor standing of professional teams that college coaches find themselves in is at least partly responsible for lackluster performance. Simply put, good teams do not often hire new coaches. NFL teams that are putting college coaching successes at the helm are typically struggling teams looking for a turnaround. Furthermore, new coaches are in a race against time to improve the team before the management loses faith in their abilities.
This is incredibly difficult given the additional responsibility of acquiring new talent. Recruiting at the professional level is an entirely different game than in college. For someone like Saban, it is very easy to recruit top-tier players into established collegiate programs like Louisiana State University and The University of Alabama, based on reputation. Talented high school players dream of playing for those programs and are honored to accept their scholarship offers. While most college players would be happy to have the opportunity to play professional football at all, teams like the Browns and the Dolphins are no one’s first choice. Players already in the NFL are even harder to pick up unless they have lost their starting job with another team. It takes a combination of charisma, clever trades and first-round draft picks for a coach to begin turning a program around.
As for actual coaching, it is difficult to adjust to the differences in the style of play between college and pro football, especially today. College football is fast-paced, with a high percentage of running plays. Many of the quarterbacks in college football are great runners and do not throw the ball nearly as often as their pocket-passer NFL counterparts.
Adjusting to NFL means switching mindsets, in order to run an effective offense and a defense that is prepared to face other NFL teams. While the game is changing in the NFL as well, with several teams adopting the “hurry-up” offense and others using great rushing quarterbacks like Cam Newton, there is still a stark difference in this game play that makes the transition even more difficult.
Despite these obstacles, there are collegiate coaches who have gone on to have very successful professional careers. Pete Carroll, for example, has had an amazing career as the head coach of the Seattle Seahawks after nine years of excellence with the University of Southern California. Carroll’s initial success had a lot to do with the acquisition of powerhouse running back Marshawn Lynch in his first season and the selection of outstanding dual-threat quarterback Russell Wilson in his second.
The quality that has allowed his success to continue over the past eight seasons is emotion. He builds personal relationships with players and shows a level of passion that is rare in today’s game. This dynamic makes players happy to “go into battle” for him on any given Sunday. This does not just make him better, but improves his credibility around the league.
In ESPN.com’s NFL Nation Confidential question, “Which head coach would you most like to play for?,” Carroll came out the clear favorite. Carroll’s team is already strong, but his reputation will make it easier for him to bring in new talent and continue to improve. Fostering a culture that players want to be a part of is a crucial factor to why coaches like Carroll have made the transition from collegiate to professional coaching so smoothly.
College coaches certainly do not get enough credit for how difficult of a task they are given when they are hired by NFL teams. They are asked to balance recruiting, make changes to their playbooks where necessary and build relationships with their players, all while being on an incredibly short leash. This is near impossible to do, but those with the fortitude to do so go on to have incredible success on football’s biggest stage.