It has already started. Some Twitter buzz is panning the Seattle Seahawks for hiring USC coach Pete Carroll. Seattle should have talked to Miami and Atlanta, the buzz goes, since those franchises had less than stellar results with Nick Saban and Bobby Petrino, respectively.
But that’s not fair, and really not that simple. A more detailed study of the situation shows that some college coaches have done fine in the NFL, and that it simply takes more than a coach to win.
The ultimate argument for college coaches in the NFL would be Jimmy Johnson, who won two Super Bowls in the ’90s with the Dallas Cowboys. The reasons were more than Johnson’s coaching. That Cowboys team was built by some excellent drafting that included Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin. Likewise, former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer followed Johnson and won a Super Bowl with Dallas with largely the same team. In other words, it starts with talent.
Saban, who has won national championships with Alabama and LSU, had mediocre results with the Dolphins. But his successor, Cam Cameron, won just one game despite success as offensive coordinator with the talent-rich San Diego Chargers. Many point to former Florida coach Steve Spurrier as the ultimate NFL flameout. But Spurrier’s two successors, Joe Gibbs and Jim Zorn, could do no better under meddling owner Daniel Snyder. And Gibbs won three Super Bowls with the ‘Skins in earlier days, with teams that included Joe Theismann and John Riggins.
It’s just as hard to go in the other direction. Bill Callahan took the Oakland Raiders to a Super Bowl in the early part of this decade, yet washed out at Nebraska. Charlie Weis has Super Bowl rings from his New England days, yet had mediocre results at Notre Dame before being fired. College success is almost totally tied to recruiting, which NFL coaches are foreign to.
Granted, the list of college coaches who have failed in the NFL is long, and includes Butch Davis (Cleveland Browns), Dennis Erickson (Seattle, San Francisco), Mike Riley (San Diego Chargers) as well as those already mentioned. In college, a coach is totally in charge of the team. He has the option of taking a player’s scholarship away as a disciplinary measure. And dealing with young adults is quite a bit different than grown men earning six- and seven-figure salaries.
But my point is that, as in all sports, no one wins without the horses. The Atlanta Falcons, one of the NFL’s most snakebitten franchises, have finally posted successive winning seasons. They did so primarily because of the shrewd drafting and trading of GM Thomas Dimitroff. Coach Mike Smith was given good talent, and he made the most of it.
So we’ll see how Carroll does now that he’s back in the NFL. He was no great shakes with the New York Jets and the Patriots before. He certainly leaves behind a strong legacy at USC: three Heisman Trophy winners, a national title, and multiple Rose Bowl appearances. There, he could recruit talent to a beautiful campus, a team with great tradition, and a university in a beachside city with well-heeled boosters. In Seattle, he won’t be recruiting at all. His fate will depend on others.