Jim Harbaugh has reached the NFC Championship Game in each of his first three seasons in the NFL, after leaving Stanford. Pete Carroll left USC for Seattle, and is now in his third playoffs in four seasons. Yeah, but Greg Schiano was an inflexible meanie who got run out after two years, and Steve Spurrier . . . and Bobby Petrino . . . and Nick Saban, right?
Before Harbaugh coached a single game, I wrote about the college coach as NFL bust myth, but I thought now would be a good time to re-visit and update the numbers. In addition to Harbaugh and Carroll this year, Chip Kelly made the jump from major college program to the NFL, and the Eagles made the postseason in year one.
Three years ago, the category of “other NFL assistant” (i.e., those who were not offensive or defensive coordinators) had the highest rate of reaching the playoffs, but thanks to the end of Andy Reid’s tenure, and several others having unsuccessful endings to their stints with teams, the college coaches have now moved in front.
Here’s a summary of how frequently different types of coaches have made the postseason, for any stint that started in the last 25 years.
Some notes on this list. If you were a former NFL head coach and thus being hired for a second job, whether there was a gap in employment or not, you were treated as former NFL head coach. In the other categories, the most recent applicable category was used. Jim Caldwell, who happened to coach Wake Forest over a decade earlier before spending time as an assistant in the NFL, was not treated as a college coach. Also, because of this rule, Pete Carroll in Seattle is lumped in the Former NFL Coach category, even though I think he is an example of a college head coach hire based on his success at USC.
The main thing to remember here is that individual results vary. There is good and bad in each surface category. However, any belief that college coaches are somehow riskier is not borne out by tooking a measured look at the last half-century.
Over the last twenty-five years, the least successful category has been defensive coordinators. Oddly, it’s also the category with the longest average tenure. Maybe there is a personality type that engenders trust in ownership, because it seems like defensive types get more of a benefit of the doubt. College head coaches have the shortest tenures. This is true even if you remove Spurrier, Saban, and Petrino. Unsuccessful college coaches tend to not get as long to turn it around (or leave on their own).
Seven of the last twenty-five Super Bowl winners at one time coached in college during their careers. That percentage (28%) outstrips the number of hires in the category.