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A Thought About the San Francisco 49ers: Jim Harbaugh and Busting the College Coach Myth

The San Francisco 49ers outbid a number of suitors this offseason for the next hot college coach, former NFL QB Jim Harbaugh. In doing so, they clearly didn’t learn any lessons from the cautionary tales of Nick Saban or Bobby Petrino. After all, history isn’t on the side of the successful college coach looking to make the leap. Or is it?

The perception that college coaches are worse in the NFL than other head coaching candidates is a combination of recent events with small sample sizes, various biases such as confirmation bias or sampling bias (people will mention Lou Holtz from the 1970’s while ignoring other cases in the interim), and failure to properly assess how often other types of candidates fail. The college head coach is a big target. He’s more known than a typical coordinator because he’s been on TV. When he fails, it stands out.

When Harbaugh is hired, Petrino or Spurrier inevitably comes up. When John Fox is hired by a second organization, people don’t whisper about how bad Sam Wyche was in Tampa, or George Seifert in Carolina, or Mike Ditka in New Orleans, and they certainly don’t speak of the glorious Rich Kotite era in New York. When first time coaches are promoted from the coordinator ranks like Pat Shurmur or Ron Rivera, they don’t have to hear about Marty Morningwheg, Rod Marinelli, Cam Cameron, Rod Rust, Kevin Gilbride, Richard Williamson, Scott Linehan, Gunther Cunningham, well, I’ll just stop because I could go on for a while.

But rather than throw out examples, let’s look at it rigidly and fairly. I went back over the last two decades, and looked at all coaches who began a new head coaching job with a team since 1990, and then categorized them by prior experience. That cut off, by the way, keeps me from saying “Jimmy Johnson was a college coach from a big program, and he did well.” So I won’t say that.

There were 5 categories I used: (1) Coach with prior NFL head coaching experience; (2) Offensive Coordinator in most recent position; (3) Defensive Coordinator in most recent position; (4) Other NFL Assistant Coach in most recent position; and (5) College Head Coach. Category (1) trumps all others. So when Norv Turner was fired by Washington, took some time in between as a coordinator, and was hired by Oakland, he counted as a prior Head Coach for the Oakland and San Diego jobs, and an offensive coordinator hire for the Washington job.

One coach didn’t fit any of those categories, though I’ve seen him lumped in with the college failures. Lane Kiffin was neither a NFL assistant or a college head coach when Al Davis hired him off the USC staff. I don’t think someone with no experience as a head coach or in the NFL qualifies as similar to Harbaugh. I think we just chalk that under the Al Davis category. Your mileage may vary.

Here are the results, listing number of coaches fitting a category, and the number of playoff seasons to total seasons:

Type of Coach		No.	Play.	Yrs	Pct Playoffs
Other Asst.		11	20	41	48.8%
College HC		14	23	53	43.4%
Former HC		49	72	197	36.5%
Off Coord.		28	40	111	36.0%
Def Coord.		31	47	148	31.8%

Well, well, well. And remember I’m not going to say that Jimmy Johnson was a college coach, because he wasn’t included, given that he started with the Cowboys the year before this study began. We forget that Tom Coughlin, Bobby Ross, and Dennis Green came into the NFL directly from coaching college programs, and we overstate how bad others, like say, Butch Davis, was relative to his coordinator brethren.

The two most successful categories over the last 20 years, once we account for the number of hires, are the two categories people would consider most risky–assistants with no coordinator experience (think Andy Reid or John Harbaugh, amongst others), and college head coaches.

The average tenure is roughly equal for all categories except one. And it happens to be the one with the lowest playoff percentage, defensive coordinators with no prior head coaching experience. I don’t know if it’s because they are taking over worse situations on average, or whether there is some bias in favor of the hard-nosed defensive types, but for every Mike Tomlin or Bill Cowher, there have been a lot of failures, some who’ve gotten plenty of time to coach.

So, turning to San Francisco and Jim Harbaugh, I don’t feel bad at all for ranking him above other new hires now, and ahead of several established guys. I don’t think cases like Petrino have much to do with him. He’s a guy with NFL ties, who ran an NFL-like system, and had success. I personally think he’s got a lot more in common with the successes like Bobby Ross and Tom Coughlin than some of the failures.

Now, short-term, I think the length of the lockout hurt he and his staff as much as anyone. He wasn’t in the league last year, he doesn’t know the players as well, and he was limited in his contact until recently. Quite frankly, it has shown in the preseason.

San Francisco has been an underachiever in recent years. There are some talented parts (Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis and Frank Gore are among the best at their respective positions) but the team lacked consistency and stability. The quarterback situation looks to be Alex Smith for one more year, as Kaepernick has looked rough this preseason while transitioning from the Pistol offense, and doesn’t need to see action now until late in the year. They added Braylon Edwards, which wasn’t a huge signing, but provides insurance against Michael Crabtree’s injury. I like the young running back Kendall Hunter, just like I liked the 3rd round pick from several years back named Frank Gore.

I suspect that the 49ers will start slow because they are still very much still trying to change a culture and an offense. Remember, 49ers fans, the Cowboys went 1-15 in Jimmy Johnson’s first year. They would be a team I would fade early and expect better things from late, and I see them as about a 6 win team, but as we know in the NFC West, that might have them near contention.

[photo via Getty]

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