For players, the jump from college football to the NFL can be a big one. We’ve seen plenty of great college players, including Heisman Trophy winners, who struggled to find success in the NFL. Well, the same can be true of coaches who make the move from college football to the NFL. The transition isn’t always an easy one and success in one doesn’t always equal success in the other. While coaches like Pete Carroll have had success at both levels, let’s look at some of the coaches who excelled at the college level only to fail miserably when they tried their hand in the NFL.
Davis stepped into a near-perfect situation at Miami, taking over in 1995 after Dennis Erickson and inheriting a ton of talent in the process. Despite one bad season with the Hurricanes, Davis won at least nine games in four of his six years in Coral Gables. He took that success and leveraged it into a job in the NFL, only to make the mistake of accepting a job with the Cleveland Browns. Even back then, taking over the Browns was no easy task, as the team won just five games total in the two seasons before Davis got the job.
In his defense, Davis got Cleveland to the playoffs in 2002, which to date is their most recent playoff appearance. However, things quickly went downhill, as the Browns were 9-23 over the next two seasons, ending Davis’ tenure in the NFL at 24-35. Davis went back to college, spending four seasons at North Carolina, only for 16 of his 28 wins over four seasons to be vacated. The latest chapter of his career has seen Davis return to the Sunshine State as the Florida International head coach, leading the Panthers to bowl games in each of his first three seasons, including a shocking upset of the Miami Hurricanes in 2019.
It’s easy to forget that Holtz was an NFL head coach because he lasted less than a year. He always looked like a guy who was a good fit for the college game. But after an impressive four-year run at NC State in the 1970s, he took his shot in the NFL, getting the job as head coach of the Jets. Holtz resigned with one game left in the season after the Jets went 3-10.
Things immediately got better when he returned to college, going 11-1 with Arkansas in 1977. After the Razorbacks fizzled and Holtz spent two unimpressive seasons at Minnesota, he became the head coach at Notre Dame, the job for which he’s best known. In his third season, Holtz led the Fighting Irish to a perfect 12-0 season and the 1988 national championship. Over 11 seasons, Holtz won 100 games at Notre Dames. He then retired, only to come back a few years later and rebuilding a South Carolina program that went 0-11 in his first season.
In a way, you have to tip your cap to Riley after the way he worked his way up the ladder. He was the youngest head coach in CFL history, leading Winnipeg to two Grey Cup wins while at the helm. Riley then coached two seasons in the now-defunct World Lead of American Football. Eventually, he got the head coaching job at Oregon State, where he inherited a disaster. After going 8-14 in his first two seasons, which was progress for that program, Riley was hired by the San Diego Chargers.
Alas, Riley couldn’t cut it in the NFL. He lasted just three seasons in San Diego, including an abysmal 1-15 campaign in 2000. Over those three seasons with the Chargers, Riley was 14-34. Fortunately, Oregon State welcomed him back in 2003. He took the Beavers to eight bowl games over the next 12 seasons before making the jump to Nebraska, where Riley once again failed, going 19-19 over three seasons. He has since taken jobs in the AAF and XFL, and if he could do it all over again, he’d probably be wise to just stay at Oregon State, where he remains the winningest coach in program history.
While Spurrier didn’t exactly work out in the NFL, it’s worth noting that he began his career as a head coach by going 35-19 over three seasons in the USFL. However, there’s no denying that college is where the former Heisman Trophy winner belonged as a head ball coach. He won 20 games in three seasons at Duke before returning to his alma mater and leading the Florida Gators for 12 seasons. He averaged over 10 wins per season, won six SEC titles, and one national championship.
Alas, Spurrier could not resist the siren call of the NFL, taking a job with the Washington Redskins in 2002. He had two of his former Florida quarterbacks, Shane Matthews and Danny Wuerffel, on the roster in 2002, but that didn’t lead to success. Spurrier was 12-20 over two seasons, finishing third in the NFC East both years. Fortunately, after taking a year off, Spurrier returned to college in 2005, taking over at South Carolina. While not an easy place to win, Spurrier took the Gamecocks to nine bowl games in 10 years. More importantly, South Carolina finished three straight seasons ranked in the top-10 from 2011 to 2013, which might be the most-impressive accomplishment of Spurrier’s career.
We know Erickson best for his days at Miami, but he was a great college coach long before he took over the Hurricanes in 1989. He had a nice run at Idaho, one season at Wyoming, and made Washington State a top-25 program within two years. Erickson then won two national championships in his first three seasons at Miami, ultimately going 63-9 with the Hurricanes over six seasons. Obviously, he walked into a great situation, taking over for Jimmy Johnson, but Erickson deserves plenty of credit for Miami’s success during that time.
However, he was little more than average in the NFL, going 31-33 over four seasons with the Seahawks, failing to get Seattle to the playoffs during that time. Erickson is also at fault for not learning his lesson the first time. After his stint in Seattle, he was hired at Oregon State and went 31-17 over four seasons, taking the Beavers to three bowl games, including a Fiesta Bowl win to cap off an 11-1 season in 2000. But he went back to the NFL in 2003 after getting a chance with the 49ers, only to go 9-23 over two years. Erickson later had head coaching stints at Idaho and Arizona State but didn’t do anything of note outside of a 10-3 season with the Sun Devils in 2007.
How Schiano ever got a chance to coach in the NFL is anybody’s guess. He won just three games during his first two seasons at Rutgers and didn’t have a winning season until his fifth year with the Scarlet Knights. If we’re being honest, the only reason Rutgers started to win is Ray Rice reneged on his commitment to Syracuse after a coaching change and landed at Rutgers. Rice turned the program around and helped improve recruiting. A few eight- or nine-win seasons later, Schiano landed a job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
As we all know, Schiano’s time in Tampa Bay was a complete disaster, which isn’t a surprise since his recruiting skills were rendered useless in the NFL. In fairness, the Bucs were 7-9 in his first season, but midway through a 4-12 campaign in 2013, Bucs fans were already trying to run Schiano out of town. He eventually returned to the college game as the defensive coordinator at Ohio State, where he had all of the talent in the world at his disposal. Before that, Schiano was connected to the Penn State abuse scandal and had a social media campaign stop him from getting the head coaching job at Tennessee. In the end, Schiano ended up back at Rutgers in 2020 with a bigger rebuilding project ahead of him than when he was first hired there in 2001.
In a way, Kelly’s move to the NFL was a grand experiment. He did an amazing job during his four seasons at Oregon, running an offense that countless college teams have tried to replicate in one form or another. While he lost the 2010 National Championship Game, Kelly was 46-7 with the Ducks. Let that record sink in for a minute, especially at a place like Oregon that wasn’t a national power before Kelly arrived.
When he signed up to coach the Eagles in 2013, the world was waiting with bated breath to see how the transition would be. At first, things went well, as Philadelphia won the NFC East at 10-6 in Kelly’s first season. However, another 10-6 season the next year wasn’t enough to get the Eagles to the playoffs. Things turned south in Year 3 with Kelly getting fired before the end of the season with the Eagles at 6-9. He immediately got a second chance in San Francisco, but it was clear Kelly wasn’t cut out for the NFL after the 49ers went 2-14. Nowadays, Kelly is back in college with UCLA, as he tries to resurrect that program.
When all is said and done, Saban could go down as the best college football coach of all time. That makes it even harder to fathom that he was such a failure in the NFL. Yet, that is the world in which we live. Two years after winning a national championship at LSU, Saban took over the Miami Dolphins. His first season wasn’t half bad, as the Dolphins finished 9-7 despite missing the playoffs. However, after starting the next season 1-6, it was obvious that Saban and the NFL weren’t a good fit with Miami ultimately finishing the year 6-10.
Of course, this story has a happy ending, at least for Alabama fans. Under Saban, the Crimson Tide has become the pre-eminent program in college football. As of 2020, Alabama has won six SEC titles and five national titles under Saban, who has dominated college football over the past decade in a way that few coaches could ever dream of doing.
The fact that Kiffin was ever made an NFL coach is still rather puzzling. He spent six seasons as an assistant at USC, only serving as the team’s offensive coordinator for two of those seasons. With a little help from the fact that he’s Monte Kiffin’s son, Al Davis hired him as head coach of the Raiders at the ripe old age of 31. It was a disaster from the start, as the Raiders were 4-12 in Kiffin’s first season. Things got messy between Kiffin and Davis the following year amidst a 1-3 start to the 2008 season. In the end, Kiffin was 5-15 as an NFL head coach and hasn’t worked in the league since.
Somehow, he was able to parlay his NFL failure into a job as the head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers. In Knoxville, Kiffin made a lot of noise with his words but went just 7-6 before taking off for USC, where he was fired midway into his fourth season. In 2017, Kiffin got another chance to be a head coach, leading Florida Atlantic to an 11-3 record in his first season. Despite signing a 10-year contract after that season, Kiffin took off two years later to take the Ole Miss job, as he’s still trying to prove he can win as a head coach in a major conference.
Out of all of the coaches who had success in college only to fail in the NFL, Petrino’s stint might be the shortest and most embarrassing. He has four outstanding seasons a Louisville, winning championships in two different conferences and going 41-9. However, less than six months after signing a 10-year contract, Petrino thought it was a good idea to leave to become head coach of the Atlanta Falcons.
His NFL tenure lasted a hilariously brief 13 games with the Falcons going 3-10 under Petrino. Before the season was over, Petrino bolted to return to college and take the job at Arkansas. To his credit, four years later, the Razorbacks went 11-2 and finish the season ranked no. 5 in the country. However, Petrino’s tenure at Arkansas ended unceremoniously with an affair and a motorcycle crash (you know, run of the mill stuff). By 2013, he was back in coaching at Western Kentucky, and one good year with the Hilltoppers got Petrino invited back to Louisville. He had a few more good seasons with the Cardinals, but when Lamar Jackson left, things fell apart and Petrino was fired 10 games into a 2-10 season in 2018. However, his career isn’t dead yet, as Petrino was tapped to coach Missouri State in 2020.