Haknpoints: Coaches Who Went Back to School Comment Count

Seth December 16th, 2014 at 2:00 PM


It can happen.

Some NFL beat writers have been going to great lengths lately to poo-poo the idea of a successful NFL coach going back to college. Well, as you can imagine there are a bunch of NFL guys who've gone back to coach college, though not so many with a legit shot at an NFL position in a short (year-ish) window.

Typically when it happened, it was successful college coach who wasn't very successful in a short NFL stint. There's Saban and Spurrier of course. Also new Nebraska head coach Mike Riley spent three bad years coaching the Chargers in between tenures at Oregon State. Dan Devine, Bill Callahahan, John Mackovic, Butch Davis, Rich Brooks, Gene Stallings, June Jones, Paul Wiggin, Lane Kiffin (giggle), Howard Schnellenberger, Bobby Petrino, Bill Arnsparger, and Lou Holtz all coached one to four years in the NFL without getting to the playoffs. Dan Henning, Forrest Gregg, and Dennis Erickson are three examples of established pro dudes who exhausted their NFL opportunities before accepting demotional collegiate positions.

Between 8 and 10 of the 30 NFL head coaches I could find who went back to college appeared to have some competing pro prospects. They were:

Bill Walsh
Though just 60 when the took the job, Walsh, who'd walked away on top of the NFL at 56, wasn't expected to be a long-term answer for Stanford. [Gerry Gropp]

Bill Walsh

NFL Record: 92-51-1 with 49ers, 1979-'88. Won Superbowls, established a dynasty, staffed a generation of NFL jobs with his assistants. All-around badass.

College Record after NFL: 17-17-1 at Stanford, 1992-'94

Walsh is the go-to comparison because he's certainly the greatest NFL coach to ever return to the college ranks, but he's also not very instructive, since he walked away from coaching for three years before surprisingly returning to college.

After winning Super Bowl 23 Walsh voluntarily retired, citing burnout, and went to work in broadcasting. Everyone expected he would continue to do so. But in 1992 Stanford, where he'd developed the West Coast offense and been head coach for two years in the late '70s, begged him to come back (he turned 61 that season). There's a book about the return, wherein Walsh says he didn't like broadcasting and was getting an itch.

Certainly ANY NFL team would have taken him. And the Stanford he returned to wasn't a Michigan, but they had gone 8-4 in '91 and returned most of that team. In his first year back, Stanford was 10-3 and shared a piece of the conference championship (but didn't get the Rose Bowl nod, having been creamed by Washington). They regressed back to near the bottom of the conference in 1993 and 1994, losing a lot of close games to top 10 teams in that period, and Walsh re-retired. He lived out his days around the Stanford program, teaching classes and writing books.

[Jump for guys who aren't in the conversation as greatest coach in history]



If Carroll was this good of a coach before USC he wouldn't have made the mistake of following Parcells. [Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire, via ESPN]

Pete Carroll

NFL Record: 33-31 with Jets and Patriots, 1994 and 1997-'99, two playoff appearances
(later: 48-30 and won Superbowl with Seahawks)

College Record after NFL: 83-19 at USC, 2001-'09

Carroll wasn't really a successful NFL coach before he went to USC, but neither was he a failure of one. Carroll was an assistant for Lou Holtz and Monte Kiffen at Arkansas, Earle Bruce at ISU and Ohio State, and Bruce Coslet of the Jets.

In 1994 the Jets gave Carroll his first shot as head coach. A 6-5 start degraded to 6-10 and he was fired after one season. Carroll took his and Kiffen's 4-3 over to San Francisco as defensive coordinator under Seifert. When Mariucci ascended to Seifert's seat, Carroll was offered the Patriots job vacated by Parcells. Carroll went 10-6, 9-7, and 8-8 (in a very tough AFC East) with the Patriots, and was fired after that (Belichik's first team went 5-11 the following year).

Carroll was approached with more defensive coordinator jobs but no HC ones. After a season off, USC hired him as a darkhorse and not very popular candidate; his daughter was attending USC at the time. When his 2001 team started out 2-5 they really hated him.

Then "Sun and Fun" started to happen. Recruiting like a superstar program placated the fans until his guys started dominating in 2003-'05. Starting in 2002 he was being approached about NFL jobs; when the NCAA came down with their mega-penalties Carroll jumped at the Seattle one.


Sherman was all "I coached Brett Favre," and A&M was all "Do you publish secret newsletters?" and Sherman was all "No, I communicate to the fans through toughness" and it was a done deal. [Sun Sentinel]

Mike Sherman

NFL Record: 57-39 with Packers, 2000-'05, four playoff appearances

College Record after NFL: 25-25 at Texas A&M, 2008-'11

Sherman was an OL coach who was plucked from Texas A&M to Green Bay by Mike Holmgren, then followed Holmgren to Seattle in 1999, becoming the offensive coordinator there, thus affixing his name under a branch of the Walsh West Coast tree. The Packers then offered him the opportunity to come back in 2000 as head coach and he jumped at it.

His Packers tenure coincided with some of Favre's statistically best seasons, and from 2001 to 2004 he won between 10 and 12 games and made the playoffs. Then in 2005 most of the team's stars were injured and the Pack limped to a 4-12 finish, and they fired Sherman. Speaking as a Lions fan, I was happy they did so.

Sherman was picked up as an assistant head coach/OL guy with the Houston Texans the year after their OL was getting poor David Carr killed—Carr was sacked only 41 times in '06 as opposed to 68 times the year prior. That offense did steadily improve over his tenure despite some pretty awful players (half-dead Carr, Matt Schaub, and Sage Rosenfels were his QBs), from last in 2005 to 12th in scoring in 2007. I don't know if that helped his chances for an NFL position; he was a guy some people thought the Lions were looking at when we hired Marinelli, but that was like radio chatter.

That year Texas A&M got rid of Franchione and hired Sherman. Sherman did the Brady Hoke thing, scrapping the spread/zone-read to force an awkward pro style offense transition. They went 4-8 and 6-7 before the breakthrough 2010 season saw them go 9-4 and tie atop their division. But they didn't get to go to the Big XII championship, lost the Cotton Bowl, then lost the first four games of the 2011 season. The 6-6 finish got him fired in December.


Jack Pardee

NFL Record: 44-46 with the Bears and D.C. from 1975-'80 (later: 43-31 with the Oilers)

College Record after NFL: 22-11-1 at Houston, 1987-'89 (when they were in the SWC)

There's seven years as a coordinator and USFL coach before the University of Houston came calling, and after just three years there he went back to the NFL to coach the Oilers, so Pardee doesn't really count for much. I include him because he went back and had success with the Oils.


Chan Gailey is still available and affordable for a middling Power 5 team willing to get exactly seven wins annually. [David Richard/AP]

Chan Gailey

NFL Record: 18-14 with Cowboys, two playoff appearances (later: 16-31 with Bills)

College Record after NFL: 44-32 at Georgia Tech

Chan had only been a head coach of Troy State (1983-'84), the Birmingham Fire (1991-'92), and Samford ('93), and longtime NFL OC when Dallas hired him to replace Barry Switzer. Mostly Chan was known in NFL circles as Dan Reeve's top offensive assistant for the late-'80s Denver Broncos, and the OC of Bill Cowher's Steelers for the Superbowl they lost to Dallas.

In his first season with Dallas, Gailey won the NFC East with a 10-6 record, overcoming a stretch without Aikman, but lost the Wild Card game. The next year they went 8-8 with a ton of injuries, and again went out in the first round of the playoffs. Jerry Jones fired Gailey, apparently in a rage about the early playoff exits (and not a fan of Gailey's Al Borges-like offensive playcalling in lots of close losses).

Gailey cooled his heels as the Dolphins' OC for a few years of waiting for another NFL job to open up but the best offer was Georgia Tech to replace George O'Leary. His Tech teams hovered at seven wins, with the lone exception of 2006, when he took them to the ACC championship and the Gator Bowl. At the time his name was all over NFL head coaching searches, but nobody pulled the trigger. After another 7-win season Tech fired him instead.

Gailey went back to being an NFL coordinator, serving as a  pretty bad one for the KC Chiefs. In the 2009 season they took away his play-calling duties then his job at the end of the year. Then the Bills hired him as their head coach in the head-scratchingest NFL coaching hire in history. It didn't work out and they fired him in 2012. His name still comes up in Florida searches because he played there.


Yes, Al Groh is a good example of how a guy might prefer the college life to a vagabond pro existence, but if you start going around saying Seth at MGoBlog told me Al Groh in response to Never-happensers, so help me Bo… [AP, via Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel]

Al Groh

NFL Record: 9-7 with Jets, 2000

College Record after NFL: 59-54 at Virginia, 2001-2009

Groh had a six-year stint as Wake Forest's head coach, going 26-40, in the early 1980s. After that he bounced around position jobs on both sides of the ball until his work as DC for both Parcells and Belichick earned him a shot as the Jets' coach after Tuna left and Belichick immediately jumped ship. That 2000 season was "disappointing" for the Testaverde era, but Groh could have kept on. Instead, he resigned to take the Virginia job, citing the relative long-term job security of college ball.

Notably, the article linked above says Mark Richt was offered the Virginia job but turned it down for Georgia, and if Groh hadn't come the next top candidate was Penn State's Jerry Sandusky.

Groh kept Virginia semi-respectable until he tried to go spread in 2009, lost to William & Mary, and was fired. He was DC at Georgia Tech for a couple of seasons after, but never came up for an NFL job again.


Fairbanks teaches us you can poach an NFL pedigreed guy for your college program and it can blow up in your face. Or he teaches us don't hire Spartans. [via Coloradan Mag]

Chuck Fairbanks

NFL Record: 46-39 and two playoff appearances with Patriots, 1973-'78

College Record after NFL: 7-26 at Colorado, 1979-'81

Some instructional similarities here because Fairbanks was a successful college coach first, was known as a dick, and feuded with his NFL ownership and players for being a hard-ass. Except Fairbanks would never have made it at Stanford.

The MSU grad was a great coach at Oklahoma (52-15-1 from 1967-'72), which job he inherited at 33 when Jim Mackenzie died. When his recruiting/transcript altering scandal hit, Fairbanks bolted, Pete Carroll-style, for the NFL, where he set about making New England not crappy (you can thank him for inventing two-gapping manbeasts at defensive tackle).

New England was furious at Fairbanks for breaking his contract in accepting the Colorado job with a regular season game. His owner suspended him for that game but let Fairbanks coach the playoff game. Then they sued him for breach of contract, and Colorado boosters had to buy him out of the contract.

Then he sucked at Colorado, going 3-8, 1-10, and 3-8. Derf.


We would take this. As an example or a solution. [US Presswire via yahoo]

Jim Mora the Younger

NFL Record: 26-22 with Falcons, 2004-'06, and 5-11 with Seahawks, 2009

College Record after NFL: 28-11 at UCLA, 2012-present(?)

Mora you know (profile in heroism) because he's been rumored as one of the top candidates for the Michigan job. He was an NFL guy since 1985, finally earning a head coaching job of his own in 2004. He took the Falcons to an 11-5 record and the NFL championship game.

Near the end of his third year with Atlanta, Mora stuck his name in the hat for the (not yet open) University of Washington (his alma mater) job. Mora said he was just kidding but it touched off some anger with the owner, who fired him after the season. Mora spent a year as assistant HC in Seattle, being groomed as Holmgren's successor (he turned down the Redskins job in '07). He took over in 2009, went 5-11, and was fired so the Seahawks could hire Carroll.

Mora did some broadcasting for a couple of years, and his name popped up in various NFL coaching searches until he took the UCLA job.


USC picked up the guy who made the local NFL team watchable back when there was a local NFL team. Other than USC. [getty]

John Robinson

NFL Record: 79-74 with Rams, 1983-'91, most wins in franchise history

College Record after NFL: 104-35-4 at USC, 1993-'97, and 28-42 at UNLV, 1999-'04

Robinson was John McKay's handpicked successor at USC, where he won three Rose Bowls and a national championship from 1976-'82. Then the NFL came calling. Robinson did about as well as anybody with the Rams during their stay in Anaheim, keeping them just behind the Bill Walsh 49ers. He went to the NFL title game twice, losing to the '85 Bears and '89 49ers (what luck, right?).

His final two years with Los Angeles the Rams went 5-11 and 3-13, and he resigned. At 56 he could have retired or gotten another NFL job, but USC asked him to return when they fired Larry Smith. He won another Rose Bowl in 1995, but his '96 and '97 teams were mediocre and USC kinda-sorta fired him. UNLV offered to let him be the AD as well as head coach in 1999, and he coached there with moderate success for UNLV until 2004. Nowadays he's semi-retired, semi-coordinating a high school defense.

Notably, Robinson didn't wear a headset on the sideline.


Sometimes you can fire the program alum you hired to save your ass.

Dave Wannstedt

NFL Record: 82-87 with Bears, 1993-'98, and Dolphins, 2000-'04. Three playoffs.

College Record after NFL: 42-31 at Pitt, 2005-'10

Wannstedt's claim to fame was being Jimmy Johnson's DC and top assistant at Dallas. Dave was the other top candidate for Chuck Noll's successor with Bill Cowher. The following season the Bears tapped him to replace Ditka. The Bears were mediocre for that tenure, going to the playoffs just once.

He was fired, and Jimmy Johnson immediately picked him up again as the D.C. and assistant head coach at Miami. Then Johnson retired shortly after, leaving Wannstedt the obvious heir. The Fins went 42-31 over his tenure, which started with two playoff appearances. But Wannstadt's 2004 team was awful, and at 1-8 he was fired mid-season. He probably could have found an NFL team to take another shot at him, but his alma mater Pittsburgh asked him to come back as soon as he was available.

He was pretty good at Pitt, topping out with the famous upset over Rich Rod followed by 9-4 and 10-3 seasons. After 2010 Wannstedt went 7-5 and resigned. Since then he's served under doomed coaches in Buffalo and Tampa Bay.


biakabutuka ex…

December 16th, 2014 at 2:15 PM ^

Unfortunately for predictive purposes, you might as well have picked these guys at random out of an NFL encyclopedia given how disparate they are from each other, not to mention their results.

edit: Harbaugh


December 16th, 2014 at 2:40 PM ^

interesting in your post is that currently the hottest NFL coach (Carroll) was not all that spectacular or in demand when he went back to the college ranks and it appears that he was a more polished coach after his USC experience when he went back to the pros.  Harbaugh at   a  relatively young age-50 could take a similar path.  


December 16th, 2014 at 4:44 PM ^

The main difference between San Fran and Seattle are W's and L's.  Back when it looked like Seattle would miss the playoffs, Percy Harvin was traded for being a distraction, Marshawn Lynch was talking about his contract, and someone or some people were talking about how "not-black" Russell Wilson was.  Win some games and suddenly that stuff is in the past and they are back to being SB favorites.

SF had suspensions, injuries all over the defense, and an offense that the GM has not upgraded in a couple seasons.  Look at that offense and tell me where the TD's are going to come from.  This is not the same team from 2011-2013.  


December 16th, 2014 at 5:25 PM ^

Agreed, as a Bay Area Blue (who loves the Niners but rooted for them to lose the last few so JH would leave for sure), Jim could most definitely use more polish. Not at the Xs & Os, but at the Jimmy & Joe's part. WE can all see so clearly how his style would be a better fit at the college level, but even if he does come I think we all agree he's likely to give the NFL another try in 5-6 years while he's still young. To have better success in a 2nd attempt he could really use an upgrade in people skills. On the other hand, he can stay at Michigan until he's 70 and screw learning how to coddle over-payed pros. ...Amirite?!


December 16th, 2014 at 3:00 PM ^

Eh only like two of the list had the opportunity to take NFL head coaching jobs and Walsh was retired for 3 years in between.  Harbaugh's situation is different than most of them because even though he is getting fired he can gaurantee himself a head coaching gig in the NFL. There was really only one example of that on the list and that guy wound up sucking at Colorado so hopefully he is not an instructive case.


December 16th, 2014 at 2:31 PM ^

If you're interested in what can be predicted from this, unfortunately, we can point out that not one of these guys was as desirable as a college coach as Jim Harbaugh is at this moment. So, essentially, for U-M to convince him to come back to college right now would be unprecedented, for a coach of his current stature. That would suggest it isn't likely, but of course anything could happen.


December 16th, 2014 at 5:32 PM ^

Agreed and Walsh was well past his prime and out of the game entirely when he returned to Stanford.

The other side of this logic is that, really, there aren't many examples of a coach hitting the market as hot as Harbaugh is right now, period. I'd go back to thinking about Parcells or something like that -- rarely has ANY coach been so in demand. And thus if we can't find examples of a coach so in demand taking job X or job Y, it could just be because there have been so few opportunities to make such an observation.


December 17th, 2014 at 4:02 PM ^

Granted Walsh is the outlier in the group but dismissing him as a coach that chose the NCAA level seems to convenient to win the argument. He was in his early 60s (younger than Parcells with a shorter haitus) and still working in the NFL. He was at least as viable a coaching candidate as John Gruden, Bill Cowher, Tony Dungy and Brian Billick who have all received contact from teams to gauge interest in a return to coaching after retirement. And I am willing to bet that at least a couple teams would have fired there coach by phone at midnight if they knew they could have a presser the next morning introducing Walsh as HC the next morning the year he took the Stanford job.


December 16th, 2014 at 5:54 PM ^

Mike Sherman had a very similar record in the pros to Harbaugh if you bother to look.  Also the decision I would think hinges largely on how much control will Harbaugh have as a HC on a pro team?   It appears Michigan is more of a known in terms the people and how much control he will have whereas most of the possible pro team's are unknown and more of a gamble from Harbaughs perspective.  


December 16th, 2014 at 6:02 PM ^

Sherman inherited a better team, had less success (2-4 in the postseason), and was working as a coordinator for a middling team when he was hired by A&M. I really don't think it is comparable. Harbaugh is a much, much hotter commodity.


December 16th, 2014 at 2:22 PM ^

Hey Seth

"USC picked up the guy that made the local NFL  team watchable..."

The Rams were watchable before Robinson arrived.  They were actually one of the best teams in the NFC during the 70's.  They made the Super Bowl in 1979, losing to the Steelers. 

They won something like 5 or 6 straight NFC West titles in the 70's but with the exception of 1979 could never get by Dallas or Minnesota.  Their dline was known as the Fearsome Foursome (3 of the 4 guys are in the HOF).


December 16th, 2014 at 2:34 PM ^

For those in digital media wondering why this article isn't titled "10 Coaches Who Went Back to School" or "10 Legit NFL Coaches Who Decided to Coach College" it's on purpose.


December 16th, 2014 at 2:41 PM ^

The Bill Walsh photograph kind of reminds me of Faux Pelini's twitter avatar. Also I wonder what piece of critical information in my brain has been displaced by my knowledge of Faux Pelini's twitter avatar.