Dienhart: NFL's allure strong for coaches

Competitive people like challenges. And that’s exactly what Chip Kelly is going to get when he takes over the Philadelphia Eagles. Kelly is the latest college coach to make the move to the NFL. It’s becoming a trend in the NFL, the ultimate copycat league.

More and more, we are seeing elements of college spread offenses seep into the NFL–and have great success. Have you seen the San Francisco 49ers? Or the Seattle Seahawks? Or the Washington Redskins? The read-option is all the rage.

Every NFL teams wants to get some. Defenses are flummoxed! It’s all about offense, offense, offense in the NFL. All but one of the latest NFL openings to be filled have been occupied by offensive-minded coaches. And, Kelly is the maddest scientist of all when it comes to Xs and Os.

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Recent college-to-pro success stories include Jim Harbaugh from Stanford to the 49ers; Peter Carroll from USC to the Seahawks; Greg Schiano from Rutgers to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Just a few days ago, Doug Marrone added to the trend by leaving Syracuse to coach the Buffalo Bills. And we saw Bill O’Brien had conversations about jobs with the Cleveland Browns and Eagles before opting to stay at Penn State.

Now, Kelly is adding to the boom. But of all those names of recent college defectors, Kelly is the only one who comes from a spread background. Will he succeed? Will he fail? No one can say for sure. And if they do, they’re lying. But, it’s going to be fun to watch.

Kelly is a dynamic personality with an innovative spread scheme that has caught the eye of NFL types. How much of his offense will he use in Philadelphia? Can he get the personnel to run it?

Many questions loom. But this much is certain: The NFL is trying something different when it comes to coaching. Is it good? Is it bad? Will the trend last? Dunno.

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I still recall sitting in the Alabama film room with Nick Saban a few years ago, and asking him about his two-year experience coaching the Miami Dolphins.

He hated it. Why? Saban went on to explain that he didn’t like the lack of control. In short, Saban summed it up: “Not everyone was rowing in the same direction.” Saban and the Dolphins went around in circles, going 15-17 with no playoff appearances before he bolted for ‘Alabama.

Saban is correct. Having absolute control of an NFL team as head coach is rare. Very rare. There are owners, general managers, personnel people all with a say in building a roster. Saban has none of that at Alabama. And, he loves the control.

I imagine Chip Kelly had the same type of authority at Oregon, given his wildly successful run in Eugene that produced a 46-7 record (33-3 league mark) with three conference championships in four seasons and a trip to the BCS title game after the 2010 season.

But, Kelly is giving it all up to challenge himself at the highest level of the sport. (He also may be trying to stay a step ahead of the NCAA, as Oregon remains under investigation.) The last Oregon coach to head to the NFL was Rich Brooks, who went to the Rams in 1995 and was a colossal failure.

Brooks isn’t alone. There have been many college coaches who flopped when they moved up. Remember Steve Spurrier (Florida to the Washington Redskins); John McKay (USC to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers); Lou Holtz (N.C. State to the New York Jets); and Bud Wilkinson (Oklahoma to the St. Louis Cardinals)?

Still with me? Dick MacPherson (Syracuse to the New England Patriots), Bobby Petrino (Louisville to the Atlanta Falcons), and Mike Riley (Oregon State to the San Diego Chargers) are among the most noteworthy.

The most successful college-to-pro coach probably has been Jimmy Johnson, who went from winning title with the Miami Hurricanes to winning titles with the Dallas Cowboys. John Robinson also had a lot of success after moving from USC to the Los Angeles Rams. And don’t forget about Dick Vermeil (UCLA to Philadelphia Eagles); Bobby Ross (Georgia Tech to the San Diego Chargers); Dennis Green (Stanford to Minnesota Vikings); Ron Meyer (SMU to the New England Patriots). And Dennis Erickson had some success going from Miami (Fla.) to the Seattle Seahawks.

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Bottom line: You can find enough successes and failures to make an argument on either side. Still, why would a college coach make the leap to the NFL? There are several reasons:

  • No recruiting. Honestly, who wants to grovel at the feet of 18-year-old players? And then deal with their parents because Little Johnny isn’t playing enough?
  • No boosters or alumni to deal with. It’s just you, the general manager and your team owner. Period. You don’t have to take phone calls from fat cats who want to make play suggestions.
  • No academics to worry about. Who cares if your left tackle isn’t passing math class? All you want to know is if he can knock someone on their butt. Produce or perish. 
  • You have a legit shot to win a championship in a parity-filled NFL. That’s not the case in the college, unless you are at one of about 15 schools that annually have a true chance. Honestly, 85 percent of FBS schools NEVER will win a BCS title.
  • If a player stinks, you cut him and sign someone else.
  • Of course, the pay is better in the NFL, too.

And let’s not forget about ego. It drives us all, but especially coaches. To win at the highest level of the sport and be hailed a genius—well, that’s important stuff to a CEO with a whistle around his neck.

So, Kelly is gone. Who could be next? Here’s a list of potential candidates that I think at some point could be targets in the near future:

  • Troy Calhoun, Air Force. He has appeared on some radars already. Smart, resourceful, has NFL experience.
  • Randy Edsall, Maryland. He’s a Tom Coughlin disciple who is a perfect fit for the NFL. Tough, hard-nosed, disciplined, smart.
  • Kirk Ferentz, Iowa. He annually is rumored to be a target after his successful stint as an assistant with the Browns/Ravens. But if it hasn’t happened by now, will it ever?
  • Al Golden, Miami (Fla.). A smart coach who rebuilt Temple and is building up Miami (Fla.), but his defensive background may be a detriment. Offense is the hot thing now in the NFL.
  • Brian Kelly, Notre Dame. He flirted with the Eagles and loves a challenge. He was just at Division II Grand Valley State in 2003. Amazing. He appears to want more after leading Notre Dame to the summit.
  • Jim Mora, Jr., UCLA. He already has NFL head-coaching experience with the Falcons and Seahawks. He could someday pull a Pete Carroll and return to the NFL.
  • Bo Pelini, Nebraska. The NFL is all about offense right now, so a defensive mind like Pelini may not have much appeal. But he’s a great coach who has been an assistant with the 49ers, Patriots and Packers.
  • Steve Sarkisian, Washington. He claims to already have been wooed. And, Sark knows offense like few others. He actually made Jake Locker a first-round pick, for crying out loud.

***

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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