Urban Meyer is the latest college coach to attempt an NFL replication of his previous success. He would not be the first one. The Pro Football Hall of Fame features a few college leaders who made the leap, and the NFL has seen others succeed as well. Here are the top coaches who transitioned from the college ranks.
- January 19, 2021
Having established a reputation as a winning high school and college coach in Ohio, the latter run at Ohio State, Brown became one of the NFL’s most important figures. Launching the Browns as part of the All-American Football Conference in 1946, Brown ushered in advanced film study, play-calling, and a host of other innovations that moved football forward. In Brown’s first 10 years as Cleveland’s coach, the team made 10 championship games and won seven titles — including two wins over Cleveland’s former team (the Rams). After Art Modell fired Brown in 1963, he launched the Bengals and coached them for eight seasons (three playoff berths).
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Carroll enjoyed a notable NFL life before Seattle. He coached the Jets and Patriots for a combined four seasons. But Carroll’s nine-season USC stay immersed him in the college game, providing a rebirth that carried over to his third NFL act. The two-time national champion has guided the Seahawks to their franchise peak. He and GM John Schneider assembled one of the 21st century’s best roster nuclei, and the Russell Wilson- and Legion of Boom-driven teams were one play-calling mistake from back-to-back titles. The defensive guru has kept the Seahawks an upper-echelon outfit, despite roster turnover, in the years since.
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A head coach at Kansas in a 10-plus-year college coaching career, Clark took over the Portsmouth Spartans in their second year of existence (1931). At 37, Clark guided the Spartans (later the Lions) to an 11-3 season. After losing to the Bears in the strangest championship game in NFL history — on a makeshift 60-yard field inside due to weather — the following year, the Spartans became the Lions. Potsy and Hall of Famer Dutch Clark led the Lions to their first title in 1935, when the team routed the Giants. Potsy Clark went 64-42-12 in 10 pro seasons.
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Fairbanks’ Patriots tenure did not end well, but he elevated the team into an AFC contender by the mid-1970s. Fairbanks left Oklahoma to coach the Pats in 1973. By 1976, they went 11-3. A long-debated roughing the passer call helped spoil a Pats divisional-round upset over the Raiders, but they returned to the playoffs two seasons later. The 1978 Patriots set a team rushing record that lasted until Lamar Jackson’s MVP year, but Fairbanks (46-39 in the NFL) committed to coach Colorado late that season. That resulted in a Week 16 suspension and legal squabble between the Pats and the then-Big 8 school.
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The fiery leader’s first coaching job came with the Raiders under Bill Callahan, but Harbaugh spent seven years as a college head coach in California. The 49ers’ trajectory radically shifted when the Stanford HC took over in 2011. Harbaugh revived Alex Smith’s career and turned the 49ers from a team that missed the previous eight playoff brackets into one of this century’s few squads to book three straight championship-game berths. Some bad breaks — Kyle Williams’ fumbles, Super Bowl XLVII’s pass interference no-call — denied the 49ers, and Harbaugh fell out of favor with team brass. But his four-year stay marked the team’s 21st-century apex.
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A Giants player for eight seasons, Howell became better known for his work as their coach in the 1950s. The World War II veteran did not have a losing season in New York and assembled a preposterously talented staff, hiring Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry as coordinators upon arrival in 1954. This crew restored the Giants to an NFL power. The defense-driven squad routed the Bears for the 1956 title and made two more championship appearances — losses to the Colts, the first a rather famous game. Howell’s .663 win percentage is the highest in Giants history. He is not in the Hall of Fame.
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Although the Johnson-Jerry Jones era stopped at five years, creating a major what-if, the ex-Miami Hurricanes championship-winning coach with tremendous hair talent made them count. The Cowboys, who fell off their 20-year contender perch in the late ’80s, went from 1-15 in 1989 to in the 1990 playoff race — in an era when rapid rises were tougher — to assembling a superpower. Johnson’s next three years: 36-12, seven playoff wins, two Super Bowl titles. The guts of the largely Johnson-built team later won Super Bowl XXX. Johnson’s Dolphins stay lacked dominance, but he took them to three playoff berths and two divisional rounds in four seasons.
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McKay left a 16-year tenure at USC, leading the Trojans to three national titles, to helm the modern NFL’s ultimate fixer-upper. McKay started his Buccaneers tenure 0-26, with his first Bucs team generally regarded as the worst in league history. McKay’s NFL record of 44-88-1 does not scream success story, but the quotable head coach led the 1979 Bucs to the NFC Central crown — behind a No. 1-ranked defense — and conference championship game. Two more playoff berths followed in a nine-year tenure more remembered for losses, but McKay architecting the initial Bucs rebuild was quite the accomplishment.
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Neale crafted one of the more interesting careers in sports history, holding an outfield job with the Cincinnati Reds — a starter on their 1919 World Series team — and moonlighting as a football coach. After his baseball career ended in 1924, Neale spent nearly 20 years as a college coach. The Eagles hired him in 1941 and ascended to their franchise peak. Philly won back-to-back championships under Neal, with Hall of Famers Steve Van Buren and Pete Pihos leading the way, and remains the only team to win consecutive titles by shutout — the first in a legendary blizzard. Neale (63-43-5) also became a Canton inductee.
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One of McKay’s assistants also tried the NFL after a run at USC. After a successful eight seasons in his first stint as the Trojans’ head coach, Robinson took a shot at leading the NFC’s SoCal team in 1983. Robinson joined the NFC at a rough time, with the 49ers, Bears, Giants and Washington mounting iconic climbs. But his Rams were in the mix. An offense-minded coach, Robinson guided disparately structured offenses — 1985’s Eric Dickerson-powered attack and 1989’s pass-heavy squad — to NFC championship games. The Rams made six playoff berths in Robinson’s nine seasons and won four postseason games.
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A short-tenured Chiefs assistant, Ross was a 10-season college head coach from 1982-91. His Georgia Tech team shared the 1990 national title with Colorado (long live the UPI poll). Ross immediately reeled in an astray Chargers team. The ’92 Bolts remain the only team to go from 0-4 to the playoffs, and despite the team not having an A-lister quarterback (Stan Humphries), Ross had the Chargers in their first Super Bowl two years later. While Ross did not offer a similar turnaround in Detroit, his late-’90s Lions teams were competent; they made the playoffs twice. After his 2001 firing, the Lions became quite bad for a long time.
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Nick Saban’s father won two AFL championships, steering the Bills to their zenith. After a three-year run at Western Illinois, Lou Saban’s career detoured through Boston. The Patriots fired him during his second season (1961), but he caught on as the Bills’ head coach in 1962. Two years later, Buffalo halted Sid Gillman’s would-be dynasty and beat the Chargers in a championship rematch in 1965. The latter game represents the most recent time an AFL or NFL title happened via shutout. Saban’s Broncos hurt his record (95-99-7), but he returned to Buffalo and was there for O.J. Simpson’s run to stardom in the mid-’70s.
The Eagles resurfaced as a power under Shaw. Spending 20-plus years at Nevada, Santa Clara, and Cal, Shaw also landed at Air Force after being fired by the 49ers in 1954 — despite a 71-39-4 record in San Francisco. Shaw made his second chance count, guiding the Eagles to the most significant win in team history. Fifty-seven years before Nick Foles stunned the Belichick-Brady empire, Shaw, Norm Van Brocklin, and Co. became the only team to defeat Vince Lombardi’s Packers in the playoffs. Shaw only coached the Eagles for three years, retiring on top alongside Van Brocklin. The stay proved eventful.
Known more for memorable soundbites, Stram made an atypical jump to earn the job that carried him to the Hall of Fame. Never a college head coach, Stram parlayed two years at Notre Dame and one season at Miami into being the Dallas Texans’ first HC. Lamar Hunt’s hire led the franchise to the AFL title in 1962, and after they became the Chiefs soon after, Stram’s teams featured a storied talent collection. A six-Hall of Famer defense dominated the favored Vikings in Super Bowl IV, which came after the Chiefs’ Super Bowl I cameo. Stram struggled with the Saints, but his 15-year Texans/Chiefs run proved Hall-worthy.
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Responsible for some of the NFL’s most memorable coaching press conferences, Switzer is known more for his wishbone-fueled Oklahoma dominance. But the Cowboys tabbed the three-time Sooners national champion to replace Jimmy Johnson following his 1994 breakup with Jerry Jones. While credit for the Cowboys’ Super Bowl XXX title often eludes Switzer, who inherited a strong team, the jovial leader went 45-26 in four seasons before resigning. Johnson’s coordinators were gone by 1995, and Switzer steered the Cowboys through some turmoil to help the team secure its most recent championship.
Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.