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Making the jump to NFL a gamble for college coaches

Steve Spurrier and Dennis Erickson are among the great college coaches who had difficulty in the NFL.

By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer
Published January 8, 2005

You certainly can't fault fans of the Miami Dolphins for doing backflips over the recent hiring of LSU coach Nick Saban.

The guy's a proven winner, with a glowing resume that includes a 2003 national championship and a long track record of success.

But while hopes soar for a Dolphin resurrection, his arrival in the NFL head coaching ranks is accompanied by another reality lurking in the shadows: Hot-shot college coaches often struggle to make the grade in the pros.

In fairness to Saban, part of his appeal is that he knows the league. He was an assistant in Houston under Jerry Glanville and in Cleveland under his good friend Bill Belichick, winner of two Super Bowl titles with the New England Patriots. But Saban's 91-41-1 college record, including a 48-15 LSU mark and 34-24-1 record at Michigan State, is impressive, too.

Then again, Steve Spurrier looked pretty darn good coming out of Florida with his high-powered offense and a 1996 national title ... until he experienced three seasons of misery as coach of the Washington Redskins.

So did Butch Davis, who turned around the University of Miami's football program between 1995-2000. Amid much hoopla, Davis signed on with the Cleveland Browns on Jan. 30, 2001. But in November, Davis left the team with three seasons remaining on his contract and a disappointing 24-35 record.

Dennis Erickson twice has felt the college-to-pros pain. After leading Miami to national titles in 1989 and '91 and compiling a six-year record of 63-9, Erickson couldn't resist the lure of the NFL. He wound up with a 31-33 record in four seasons in Seattle.

Erickson returned to college and coached Oregon State to prominence with an 11-1 record in 2000, winning the third college coach of the year honor of his career. But he had back-to-back losing seasons as coach of the San Francisco 49ers, including a 2-14 mark this season, and was fired Wednesday.

Pete Carroll, conversely, had so-so fortunes in the NFL. He was 34-33 with the New York Jets and Patriots, but has led USC to the last two national titles.

Sure, there are coaches who have been successful at both levels, such as Jimmy Johnson, who coached Miami to the 1987 national title and went on to rebuild Dallas into a Super Bowl winner in 1992 and '93. But the number of established coaches who don't do well in the NFL begs a few questions: Is the NFL, with its 50-plus blitz packages, parity, more intricate schemes and faster athletes too tough for a college coach?

And wouldn't it be preferable to stay in a successful college job 10 or 20 years than to risk taking the NFL bait of big money and potential glory?

"That's exactly what I told Butch Davis," says Johnson, now an NFL analyst for Fox Sports. "I said, "Butch, you're gonna make a lot more money, and probably stroke your ego a little bit to be in pro football. But you're not going to have the quality of life. You're not going to have the time to spare. You're not going to actually enjoy it, because the chances of success are so much slimmer than, say, staying at the University of Miami. And don't count on being there more than three, four, five years.' "

So what are the essential differences coaching in college and the NFL? Why is winning in the pros such a challenge for those who have conquered the collegiate ranks?

Ask Barry Switzer, and he'll instantly dismiss any notion of the NFL being a more complex game. Switzer enjoyed immense success in both the college and pros. He won three national championships and never had a losing season at Oklahoma, then won a Super Bowl and reached two NFC title games as head coach of the Cowboys.

Of course, Switzer took over the reins of the dynasty built by Johnson, guiding a club with Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin. To Switzer, it all comes down to the quality of personnel.

"I'll simplify it for you," he says. "It takes talent at both levels. I was fortunate enough at the collegiate level at Oklahoma, because I had as good or better talent than other people I played. And in pro football, I had as good or better talent as the people I played. So the talent levels gave us an opportunity to win. How they performed determined our success."

Spurrier didn't win in Washington because ... ?

"He didn't have the players Barry Switzer had in Dallas," Switzer said. "If he had the players I had in Dallas, he'd have won a Super Bowl, too."

Switzer does acknowledge a key difference between the NFL and college, however.

"But it's not in complexity; it's the level of sophistication," he says. "Obviously, college players are playing the pro game, right? They're able to handle it, so it can't be that complex. It's not rocket science. The difference is that you just have more time to work with them in the pros. You go in at 7 a.m. and leave at 6:30 p.m., so therefore, your playbooks are bigger. You can carry more in the game-planning. In college, you only have a couple of hours. They've got to go to class. So, simply, you don't have the time to be as sophisticated as you do in pro football."

Coaching legend Lou Holtz has seen the game from both sides of the fence, albeit briefly in the NFL, quitting his post with the Jets after going 3-11 in 1976. As a college coach, Holtz was known for renovating struggling programs and led Notre Dame to the national championship in 1988. He retired recently as coach after seven seasons at South Carolina and 33 years in the coaching game.

Holtz says that reduced time with players adds an extra degree of difficulty to college coaching, and doesn't buy the idea that the NFL is a tougher job.

"You're very limited on how long you can work with an athlete on the college level," Holtz says. "You have 20 hours a week, and during the offseason, you're very limited, too. In addition, you don't have the same team year after year. Different quarterback. Different receiver. Different running back. So you don't reach the level of proficiency you can on the pro level. For example, how many years has Peyton Manning been throwing to Marvin Harrison or handing off to Edgerrin James?"

To Holtz, that's the essential difference.

"They're more proficient in the pros because of the time and the caliber of athletes," he says. "But as far as the defense, for example, the blitz package Tampa Bay runs isn't any more complicated than the blitz package we ran two years ago (at South Carolina), or the blitz package Pete Carroll runs at Southern California. When I was at Arkansas, (Bucs defensive coordinator) Monte Kiffin was my defensive coordinator and Pete Carroll was on the staff.

"Maybe Tampa Bay does something a little different, a little more complex week to week, but the basic thing is the same. But because of the athletes and the amount of time you have with them, you can be more thorough. The one thing the pros do an excellent job of, in comparison to college, is in their game-by-game preparation. In other words, they'll study those people intensely and have more time with their athletes. So they can do more complicated things each week."

One popular theory is that college players are easier to motivate; hence college coaches have a more difficult time dealing with pros who have millions of dollars in their bank accounts and agents to do their bidding.

"That's true without question, even with the players that you have a great relationship with," says Johnson. "A lot of times, it's their agent. You're talking about guys who are making millions, as opposed to somebody that's laying it on the line for good ol' university of whatever."

But there's disagreement on that point.

"With the college kid, the key is getting his focus," says John Robinson, who guided Southern Cal to glory from 1976-82 (with a national title in "78), enjoyed six playoff seasons as head coach of the Los Angeles Rams from 1983-91, returned to USC with more modest results from '93-97 and recently retired as coach at UNLV after going 28-42 in six seasons.

"The college kid's got school. He's never seen so many pretty girls in his life, all that. But the pro athlete is pretty serious and dedicated. Now, I think he's more selfish, because he's oriented to "I've gotta do this so I can make more money and have a better contract.' So pro players are pretty damn dedicated, and if they're not, they're gone. The competition and the fear are pretty strong motivators."

Robinson understands why many established college coaches inevitably pursue NFL jobs. Recruiting burnout is one reason. The lure of whopping contracts is another. But Robinson says college coaches jumping too quickly, perhaps into bad organizations or to owners/GMs who don't have the skills or dedication to win, can dramatically increase the chance of failure.

"People talk about college coaches not doing well in the pros, which they haven't recently," he says. "But not many of them take over teams that anybody predicted was going to win."

In 1987, Ray Perkins walked directly into the kind of situation described by Robinson - a bad organization with an owner, Hugh Culverhouse, not particularly committed to winning. Perkins reached the NFC wild-card round as coach of the New York Giants in 1979, then compiled a 32-15-1 mark at Alabama before coming to the Bucs as Culverhouse's "Vince Lombardi." But his stint in Tampa Bay was a 19-41 nightmare, and Perkins was fired before the end of the '90 season.

Isn't it safer for college coaches to stay put?

"I don't know that there are many coaches who look at things as being safe," Perkins says. "I think we all, at one point in our career, probably the younger period, think that we can rehabilitate anybody and conquer the world. Money has a lot to do with it, for sure. If you're Nick Saban, for instance, they more than doubled what he was making at LSU. How do you say no to that?"

Perkins, however, likes Saban's chances for success with the Dolphins because of his NFL experience. "He knows what it takes," Perkins adds. "I think he's one of the better coaches in the country."

Bobby Ross has been an assistant and head coach in high school, college and the NFL. He won a national championship with Georgia Tech in 1990, led the San Diego Chargers to the Super Bowl in 1995, took the Lions to the playoffs twice and is now trying to rebuild Army after a few years in retirement.

He says his NFL experience has made him a far better college coach, but he also sees a higher level of intricacy in the college game today.

"After being out of football a while, what I've found is that the colleges have followed the pros in schemes on offense and defense," he says. "You're seeing a lot more sophistication in throwing schemes, coverage schemes. Colleges have adopted a lot more of the pro system. Certainly, the pros are still more varied in complexity, but I've seen seven or eight quarterbacks who have the ability to play at the NFL level this year."

So maybe the gap will narrow and more top college coaches will find long-term homes in the pros, such as Tom Coughlin, who left Boston College to coach Jacksonville for eight years and just finished his first year coaching the Giants.

"I'll leave you with this thought," says Holtz. "You win because you have a group of people who want to win, who are fundamentally sound, work hard, play unselfishly, understand their role, accept their role and perform their role, whether it's college or pro. How you get that done is different at both levels. But you win the same way."

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