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From College to the NFL: A History

Posted Jan 7, 2014

With Bill O’Brien officially named the new Texans head coach, the 44-year old becomes another in a growing list of former college coaches now patrolling the sidelines in the National Football League.

With Bill O’Brien officially named the new Texans head coach, the 44-year old becomes another in a growing list of former college coaches now patrolling the sidelines in the National Football League.

O’Brien spent the past two years as the head man at Penn State, compiling a 15-9 record while winning several national coaching awards. Although O’Brien spent the previous five years working in the NFL for the New England Patriots, a majority of the Dorchester, Mass., native’s tenure has been at the college ranks.

College coaches moving onto the NFL isn’t a new phenomenon, with roots tracing back to the beginnings of the league. Perhaps the most famous of the college converts was the great Vince Lombardi, who spent time at both Fordham University and West Point before becoming an assistant coach with the New York Giants. Lombardi went on to become perhaps the most revered NFL coach of all-time, reinventing the game with the Green Bay Packers throughout the 1960’s.

Names like Jimmy Johnson, Barry Switzer and Bill Walsh all had college roots before finding Super Bowl success in the professional ranks. In recent years, highly successful college coaches like Steve Mariucci and Nick Saban have tried their hand at the NFL as well.

In the past four years, five former college head coaches have been hired for the same position in the NFL. Despite varying degrees of success, a review of these five show similarities to the experience level of the newly hired O’Brien.

In 2010, the Seattle Seahawks hired USC’s Pete Carroll as their head coach. Carroll, who had vast NFL experience, including as a head coach, seamlessly made the transition back to the NFL. In a short time, he has vaulted the Seahawks to one of the premiere franchises in the league. Seattle is 38-26 under Carroll, including a 13-3 mark this season. Carroll’s past experience is the outlier among the five, due to his previous time as a head coach with the New York Jets and New England Patriots.

A year later, Seattle’s NFC West Division rival San Francisco poached Jim Harbaugh from nearby Stanford. Harbaugh, a former NFL quarterback, has also had instant success at the professional level, going 36-11 in his three years with the 49ers. Harbaugh’s previous coaching experience was almost exclusively in college, with 15 of his 17 years coming on campus. His only NFL tour was two years coaching quarterbacks for the Oakland Raiders. Harbaugh famously faced off against his brother John, the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, in last year’s Super Bowl.

2012 saw former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano named as the head man in Tampa Bay. Schiano’s tenure ended a week ago, with the Bucs choosing to move on after just two seasons. Schiano’s approach didn’t yield the same positive results as they did at Rutgers, as his two squads managed just an 11-21 record. Schiano’s resume is similar to Harbaugh’s, with 20 of his 23 years of coaching coming at the collegiate level. He spent time in the mid-90’s working with the Chicago Bears defense. Schiano is the only coach of the five that is no longer employed by the team that hired him.

2013 saw two former collegiate head coaches hired by NFL teams. Chip Kelley (Philadelphia Eagles) and Doug Marrone (Buffalo Bills) were chosen after stints at Oregon and Syracuse, respectively.

Kelly, seen as one of the most innovative offensive minds in football, joined the Eagles after 23 years of only coaching at the college level. Kelly’s unique path to Philadelphia included stops at Columbia, Johns Hopkins, New Hampshire and Oregon. Kelly spent 19 years as a position coach and coordinator before getting a chance to lead the Ducks in 2009.

Of the five, Kelly is the only one to not have any NFL experience before landing a head coaching gig. Despite his non-NFL resume, Kelly helmed the Eagles to an NFC East Division championship and a playoff appearance in his first season. Philadelphia was 10-6 on the year. The Eagles also topped the NFL in rushing, averaging 160 yards per game.

Marrone was named the Buffalo Bills coach after a four-year stint as the head coach at Syracuse. Marrone’s resume most matches O’Brien’s, as both were coordinators in the NFL before becoming head coaches in college. Marrone’s NFL experience included seven years with both the New York Jets (offensive line coach) and the New Orleans Saints (offensive coordinator).

Their careers even crossed paths, with both serving on the staff at Georgia Tech in the late 90’s. Marrone’s first season in Buffalo resulted in a 6-10 season, as the Bills struggled with injuries to several starters, including rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel. 

With O’Brien running the show in Houston, the number of college head coaches now running NFL franchises has grown. That number is likely to grow with five NFL openings remaining to be filled this offseason. Several organizations have reportedly reached out to college candidates in their searches.

Will the college route continue to prove successful in the NFL? Only time will tell. 

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