How coaches have fared making the leap from college to the NFL

The Jacksonville Jaguars made what will likely be the biggest coaching hire of the cycle by agreeing on Thursday to terms with former Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer.

Rumors swirled that the Jaguars would land the three-time national champion since the club fired Doug Marrone.

Now, a franchise suffering from a decade-plus of stagnation – save for one memorable run to the AFC title game in 2017 – will hope Meyer is the right man to steer Jacksonville back to relevancy.

He’s one of the most successful coaches ever at the college level and possesses rare leadership qualities. The Jaguars boast the No. 1 pick (likely to be used on Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence), stacks of cap space, and a roster featuring a host of young talent.

However, there are few success stories when it comes to head coaches making the leap from the college ranks to the NFL. Let’s examine the 11 first-time head coaches who made the transition from college football since 2000:

Butch Davis

Hired by the Cleveland Browns from Miami in 2001
Record: 24-35

Davis helped set up Miami as one of college football’s top programs in the early 2000s. The former Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator produced a 51-20 record and won four bowl games in six seasons with the Hurricanes before becoming the Browns’ head coach in 2001.

But Davis wasn’t the man to turn around Cleveland, which won five games in the prior two years – though he did come closer than most. Davis just missed out on the playoffs in his first campaign before making the postseason at 9-7 in 2002, which was the Browns’ last appearance before 2020’s. Two poor seasons followed, though, and the team fired Davis before the end of the 2004 campaign. He returned to the college ranks in 2007 with North Carolina.

Steve Spurrier

Hired by Washington from Florida in 2002
Record: 12-20

Washington bet big on Spurrier, signing the former Florida head coach to a $5-million-per-season deal, which topped the NFL at the time. Spurrier won a national championship with the Gators in 1996 and racked up a 122-27-1 record over 12 years in charge. The coach failed to live up to expectations in Washington, though, lasting only two seasons before resigning.

Spurrier was criticized for failing to build a staff with NFL experience, opting instead to hire most of his coaches from Florida. He also butt heads with ownership, particularly over 2002 first-round quarterback Patrick Ramsey. Spurrier later said he was wrong to take the job that offered the most money instead of the best opportunity when making his leap to the NFL.

Nick Saban

Paul Spinelli / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Hired by the Miami Dolphins from LSU in 2005
Record: 15-17

Even arguably the greatest college coach of all time couldn’t find success at the NFL level. The Dolphins hired Saban in 2005 after his wildly prosperous five-year stint at LSU, which was highlighted by a national championship win in 2003. Miami narrowly missed the playoffs in Saban’s first season in charge, finishing with a 9-7 record after a 3-7 start.

The Dolphins fell short of expectations in his second season, and most remember that year for the team’s decision to sign Daunte Culpepper over Drew Brees in the offseason. Ultimately, the coach was enticed back to college by Alabama, with which he’s added six more national titles to his legendary resume.

Bobby Petrino

Hired by the Atlanta Falcons from Louisville in 2007
Record: 3-10

The only coach on this list to last just a single season, the Falcons hired Petrino following four years at Louisville that included a pair of one-loss campaigns. Atlanta envisioned its new head coach as the one to help Michael Vick to take his next leap as a passer, only for the franchise quarterback’s career to come to a halt due to his involvement in a dogfighting ring.

Petrino was left to shepherd a franchise reeling from the loss. Despite promising team ownership he would stay, the head coach resigned after a 3-10 start to join Arkansas. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he apparently left laminated notes on the players’ lockers to inform them of his decision.

Jim Harbaugh

Hired by the San Francisco 49ers from Stanford in 2011
Record: 49-19-1

Harbaugh’s reputation might have taken a hit since he returned to the college level with Michigan, but there’s no denying he reached heights that no one else on this list managed during his time in San Francisco. Hired by the 49ers in 2011 after his four-year stint with Stanford culminated in a 12-1 season, Harbaugh instantly turned the team into a contender.

San Francisco ended a nine-year playoff drought by going 13-3 in 2011 and made the first of three straight NFC title-game appearances. Harbaugh led the 49ers to the Super Bowl the following year, losing to the Baltimore Ravens and his brother, John. He missed the playoffs for the first time in 2014 at 8-8 and parted ways with the team amid an apparent power struggle with then-general manager Trent Baalke.

Greg Schiano

Steve Mitchell / Reuters

Hired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from Rutgers in 2012
Record: 11-21

Schiano produced a 68-67 record and five bowl wins in 11 seasons as the head coach at Rutgers. Tampa Bay scooped him up and spent big to reinforce a roster that went 4-12 the year prior, signing the likes of receiver Vincent Jackson and guard Carl Nicks. Schiano engineered a modest improvement in Year 1, leading the team to a 7-9 finish and helping bolster attendance numbers that dwindled in years past.

But Schiano’s combative style led to locker room issues. His relationship with quarterback Josh Freeman deteriorated, and he benched the 2009 first-round pick early in the 2013 season. Tampa Bay entered the year with playoff hopes but started 0-8 and ended with a 4-12 record. The franchise fired Schiano and general manager Mark Dominick at the conclusion of the campaign.

Doug Marrone

Hired by the Buffalo Bills from Syracuse in 2013
Record: 15-17

Marrone earned the top job with the Bills after rebuilding Syracuse and producing a 25-25 record and two bowl wins in four seasons. Buffalo tasked Marrone with doing the same thing in the NFL following its disappointing Chan Gailey era. After a 6-10 finish in 2013, it appeared Marrone had the Bills on the right track, with the team going 9-7 for its first winning season in a decade.

However, he quit following the 2014 campaign, taking advantage of a clause in his contract that allowed him to leave amid the sale of the Bills. His players felt blindsided and criticized the decision. Marrone landed another NFL head coaching job with the Jaguars, who fired him in January after four-plus seasons.

Chip Kelly

Hired by the Philadelphia Eagles from Oregon in 2013
Record: 26-21

Known as arguably the best offensive mind in college football at the time, Philadelphia brought in Kelly to much fanfare after he racked up a 46-7 record at Oregon. And the early results were positive. Kelly turned the 4-12 Eagles into a 10-6 division winner while conjuring up a ridiculous season from quarterback Nick Foles. Philadelphia missed the playoffs in 2014 despite another 10-6 record, but Kelly’s offense once again finished in the top five in scoring.

But the wheels quickly came off. Philadelphia gave the head coach control over personnel in the 2015 offseason, and Kelly struggled to juggle both roles. With the team sitting at 6-9 through 16 weeks following several questionable front-office moves, the Eagles fired Kelly. He immediately took another stab at the NFL with the 49ers but was fired again after a 2-14 campaign and headed back to college ranks with UCLA.

Bill O’Brien

Icon Sportswire / Icon Sportswire / Getty

Hired by the Houston Texans from Penn State in 2014
Record: 52-48

On paper, O’Brien is among the bigger success stories on this list; the former Texans head coach is one of three with a winning record. He led Houston to four AFC South titles and two playoff wins, and had only one losing season (4-12 in 2017) before being fired after an 0-4 start to the 2020 campaign. But O’Brien’s tenure left an especially sour taste in Texans fans’ mouths.

A 24-point playoff collapse against the Kansas City Chiefs in 2020 was the beginning of the end. Houston also made the mistake of letting him run the personnel side after firing general manager Brian Gaine in the 2019 offseason, and O’Brien’s tenure as GM will forever be remembered in infamy for his trade of star wideout DeAndre Hopkins.

Kliff Kingsbury

Hired by the Arizona Cardinals from Texas Tech in 2019
Record: 13-18-1

With teams around the NFL looking for the next great quarterback whisperer, the Cardinals hired Kingsbury despite his underwhelming resume at Texas Tech. After an 8-5 finish and a Holiday Bowl win as a first-year head coach in 2013, Kingsbury went 27-35 with two bowl losses over the next five years before being fired. However, Arizona saw the man who helped develop Patrick Mahomes and handed him the keys to the franchise.

Kingsbury hasn’t yet rewarded the Cardinals for their faith in him. Arizona went 5-10-1 in his first season and then missed the playoffs at 8-8 this year after dropping its last two games. The nuances of coaching at the pro level have often seemed too much for Kingsbury to grasp. Kyler Murray looks like a stud, but it’s fair to question whether that’s because or in spite of his head coach. It’s likely a make-or-break year in 2021 for the Cardinals’ leader.

Matt Rhule

Hired by the Carolina Panthers from Baylor in 2020
Record: 5-11

File this away in the too-soon-to-call category, though the early signs haven’t been great. New Panthers owner David Tepper sought a forward-thinking, program-building coach to lead his franchise and handpicked Rhule after he displayed those abilities at the college ranks.

After a 2-10 first year at Temple, the 45-year-old produced back-to-back bowl appearances before being snapped up by Baylor after four seasons. Rhule again started slow – going 1-11 in 2017 – but went 18-9 over the next two seasons, winning the Texas Bowl in 2018. Hopefully, for the Panthers, he has another dramatic turnaround up his sleeve.