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The Denver Broncos Situation: A Thought About College and NFL Head Coaches

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     The unexpected announcement by Urban Meyer that he was stepping down as the head coach of the University of Florida Gators started all kinds of speculation about whether or not a deal was in the works to bring Meyer to Denver to be reunited with Tim Tebow. One of the more interesting (at least to me) aspects of the discussion revolved around the point/counterpoint about whether or not college head coaches could come into the NFL and find success. 

     Names like Jimmy Johnson (80-64-0 regular season, 9-4 playoffs, 2 Super Bowls), Barry Switzer (40-24-0, 5-2, 1 SB), and Tom Couglin (131-105-0, 8-7, 1 Super Bowl) are cited as examples of successful college to NFL jumps.  Names like Pete Carroll (39-37-0, 1-1), Steve Spurrier (12-20-0, 0-0) and Dennis Erickson (40-56-0, 0-0) are often tossed out as examples of how hard it is to make the jump.

     This discussion created some curiosity on my part as to the path the current NFL head coaches took to reach their current jobs. After the jump, we'll take a look at each one.

Please note: I've left Eric Studesville off this list since he has not -- as of the time of this writing -- coached a single NFL game.

Second note: in the tables I have listed some coaching experience as either "college assistant" or "NFL assistant." I am not making a distinction between assistant roles such as quarterbacks coach and coordinators such as defensive coordinator. When a college or team is listed by name, this means that the coach served that team as it's head coach.
Buffalo Bills Chan Gailey Reg Season Record Playoffs Playoff Record
1974-82 College assistant
1983-83 Troy State
1985-90 NFL assistant
1991-92 WLAF head coach
1993 Samford University
1994-97 NFL assistant
1998-99 Dallas Cowboys 18-14-0 2 0-2
2000-01 NFL assistant
2002-07 Georgia Tech
2008 NFL assistant
2010-present Buffalo Bills 2-10-0 0 0-0
Overall NFL Record 20-24-0 2 0-2


     Gailey served two different colleges as their head coach and served as a head coach in the now defunct World League of American Football, before becoming an NFL head coach.

Miami Dolphins Tony Sparano Regular Season Record Playoffs Playoff Record
1984-93 College assistant
1994-98 New Haven University
1999-2007 NFL assistant
2008-present Miami Dolphins 24-20-0 1 0-1

     Sparano followed what would seem to be a logical path to his head coaching position -- time served as a college assistant coach, then college head coach, time as an NFL assistant coach, then finally, an NFL head coach.

New England Patriots Bill Belichick Reg Season Record Playoffs Playoff Record
1975-90 NFL assistant
1991-95 Cleveland Browns 36-44-0 1 1-1
1996-99 NFL assistant
2000-present New England Patriots 122-50-0 7 14-4
Overall NFL Record 158-94-0 8 15-5

Belichick never served as a college coach. He has led the Patriots to four AFC championships and three Super Bowl victories.

New York Jets Rex Ryan Reg Season Record Playoff Playoff Record
1987-93 College assistant
1994-97 NFL assistant
1998 College assistant
1999-2008 NFL assistant
2009-present New York Jets 18-10-0 1 2-1

Ryan never served as a college head coach.

Baltimore Ravens John Harbaugh Reg Season Record Playoffs Playoff Record
1984-97 College assistant
1998-2007 NFL assistant
2008-present Baltimore Ravens 28-16-0 2 3-2

Harbaugh never served as a college head coach.

Cincinnati Bengals Marvin Lewis Reg Season Record Playoffs Playoff Record
1981-91 College assistant
1992-2002 NFL assistant
2003-present Cincinnati Bengals 58-65-1 2 0-2

Lewis never served as a college head coach.

Cleveland Browns Eric Mangini Reg Season Record Playoffs Playoff Record
1996-2005 NFL assistant
2006-08 New York Jets 23-25-0 1 0-1
2009-present Cleveland Browns 10-18-0 0 0-0
Overall NFL Record 33-43-0 1 0-1

Mangini never coached at the college level.

Pittsburgh Steelers Mike Tomlin Reg Season Record Playoffs Playoff Record
1995-2000 College assistant
2001-06 NFL assistant
2007-present Pittsburgh Steelers 40-20-0 2 3-1

Tomlin never served as a college head coach. Tomlin has led the Steelers to a Super Bowl championship.

Houston Texans Gary Kubiak Reg Season Record Playoffs Playoff Record
1992-93 College assistant
1994-2005 NFL assistant
2006-present Houston Texans 36-40-0 0 0-0

Kubiak never served as a college head coach.

Indianapolis Colts Jim Caldwell Reg Season Record Playoffs Playoff Record
1977-92 College assistant
1993-2000 Wake Forest
2001-08 NFL assistant
2009-present Indianapolis Colts 20-8-0 1 2-1

As with Sparano, Caldwell moved from college assistant, to college head coach to NFL assistant, to NFL head coach. Caldwell has led the Colts to an AFC championship.

Jacksonville Jaguars Jack Del Rio Reg Season Record Playoffs Playoff Record
1997-2002 NFL assistant
2003-present Jacksonville Jaguars 64-60-0 2 1-2

Del Rio never coached at the college level.

Tennessee Titans Jeff Fisher Reg Season Record Playoffs Playoff Record
1985-93 NFL assistant
1994-present Tennessee Titans 141-117-0 6 0-0

Fisher never coached at the collegiate level. Fisher has led the Titans to one AFC championship.

Kansas City Chief Todd Haley Reg Season Record Playoffs Playoff Record
1995-2008 NFL assistant
2009-present Kansas City Chiefs 12-16-0 0 0-0

Haley never coached at the collegiate level.

Oakland Raiders Tom Cable Reg Season Record Playoffs Playoff Record
1987-99 College assistant
2000-03 Idaho
2004-05 College assistant
2006-08 NFL assistant
2008-present Oakland Raiders 15-25-0 0 0-0

Cable spent time as a college assistant, college head coach, and NFL assistant before becoming an NFL head coach.

San Diego Chargers Norv Turner Reg Season Record Playoffs Playoff Record
1975-84 College assistant
1985-93 NFL assistant
1994-2000 Washington Redskins 49-59-1 1 1-1
2001-03 NFL assistant
2004-05 Oakland Raiders 9-23-0 0 0-0
2006 NFL assistant
2007-present San Diego Chargers 38-22-0 3 3-3
Overall NFL Record 96-104-1 4 4-4

Turner never served as a college head coach though he did work as a college assistant.

Dallas Cowboys Jason Garrett Reg Season Record Playoffs Playoff Record
2005-09 NFL assistant
2010-present Dallas Cowboys 3-1-0 0 0-0

Garrett never coached at the collegiate level.

New York Giants Tom Coughlin Reg Season Record Playoffs Playoff Record
1969 College assistant
1970-73 Rochester Inst. of Tech.
1974-83 College assistant
1984-90 NFL assistant
1991-93 Boston College
1995-2002 Jacksonville Jaguars 68-60-0 4 4-4
2004-present New York Giants 63-45-0 4 4-3
Overall NFL Record 131-105-0 8 8-7

Coughlin has served as both an assistant and a head coach at the collegiate level, as well as an NFL assistant before becoming an NFL head coach. Coughlin has led the Giants to one Super Bowl championship.

Philadelphia Eagles Andy Reid Reg Season Record Playoffs Playoff Record
1982-91 College assistant
1992-98 NFL assistant
1999-present Philadelphia Eagles 116-71-1 8 18-10

Reid never served as a college head coach. Reid has led the Eagles to one NFC championship.

Washington Redskins Mike Shanahan Reg Season Record Playoffs Playoff Record
1975-83 College assistant
1984-87 NFL assistant
1988-89 Oakland Raiders 8-12-0 0 0-0
1989-94 NFL assistant
1995-2008 Denver Broncos 138-86-0 7 8-5
2010-present Washington Redskins 5-7-0 0 0-0
Overall NFL Record 151-105-0 7 8-5

Shanahan never served as a college head coach. Shanahan led the Broncos to two Super Bowl championships.

Chicago Bears Lovie Smith Reg Season Schedule Playoffs Playoff Record
1980-82 High School assistant
1983-95 College assistant
1996-2003 NFL assistant
2004-present Chicago Bears 61-47-0 2 2-2

Smith has coached at every level, high school, college, and NFL. Smith has led the Bears to one NFC championship.

Detroit Lions Jim Schwartz Reg Season Record Playoffs Playoff Record
1989-92 College assistant
1993-2008 NFL assistant
2009-present Detroit Lions 4-24-0 0 0-0

Schwartz never served as a college head coach.

Green Bay Packers Mike McCarthy Reg Season Record Playoffs Playoff Record
1987-92 College assistant
1993-2005 NFL assistant
2006-present Green Bay Packers 46-30-0 2 1-2

McCarthy never served as a college head coach.

Minnesota Vikings Leslie Frazier Reg Season Record Playoffs Playoff Record
1988-96 Trinity College
1997-98 College assistant
1999-2010 NFL assistant
2010-present Minnesota Vikings 2-0-0 0 0-0

Frazier's first coaching position was as the head coach of Trinity College.

Atlanta Falcons Mike Smith Reg Season Record Playoffs Playoff Record
1999-2007 NFL assistant
2008-present Atlanta Falcons 30-14-0 1 0-1

Smith never coached at the collegiate level.

Carolina Panthers John Fox Reg Season Record Playoffs Playoff Record
1978-88 College assistant
1989-2001 NFL assistant
2002-present Carolina Panthers 72-68-0 3 5-3

Fox never served as a college head coach. Fox has led the Panthers to one NFC championship.

New Orleans Saints Sean Payton Reg Season Record Playoffs Playoff Record
1988-96 College assistant
1997-2005 NFL assistant
2006-present New Orleans Saints 47-29-0 2 4-1

Payton never served as a college head coach. Payton has led the Saints to one Super Bowl championship.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers Raheem Morris Reg Season Record Playoffs Playoff Record
1998-2001 College assistant
2002-05 NFL assistant
2006 College assistant
2007-08 NFL assistant
2009-present Tampa Bay Buccaneers 10-18-0 0 0-0

Morris never served as a college head coach.

Arizona Cardinals Ken Whisenhunt Reg Season Record Playoffs Playoff Record
1995-96 College assistant
1997-2006 NFL assistant
2007-present Arizona Cardinals 30-30-0 2 4-2

Whisenhunt never served as a college head coach. Whisenhunt has led the Cardinals to one NFC championship.

St. Louis Rams Steve Spagnuolo Reg Season Record Playoffs Playoff Record
1982-83 College assistant
1983 NFL assistant
1984-91 College assistant
1992 NFL Europe assistant
1993 NFL assistant
1993-97 College assistant
1998 NFL Europe assistant
1999-2008 NFL assistant
2009-present St. Louis Rams 7-21-0 0 0-0

Spagnuolo never served as a college head coach.

San Francisco 49ers Mike Singletary Reg Season Record Playoffs Playoff Record
2003-08 NFL assistant
2008-present San Francisco 49ers 17-20-0 0 0-0

SIngletary never coached at the collegiate level.

Seattle Seahawks Pete Carroll Reg Season Record Playoffs Playoff Record
1978-83 College assistant
1984-93 NFL assistant
1994 New York Jets 6-10-0 0 0-0
1995-96 NFL assistant
1997-99 New England Patriots 27-21-0 2 1-2
2001-09 USC
2010-present Seattle Seahawks 6-6-0 0 0-0
Overall NFL Record 39-37-0 2 1-2

Carroll served as an NFL head coach before becoming a college head coach. He has now returned to being an NFL head coach.

     Of the thirty-one current coaches surveyed in this article, eight never coached at the collegiate level. Twenty-three coaches served as collegiate assistant coaches/coordinators. Seven coaches served as a college head coach. All thirty-one spent some time as an assistant coach/coordinator in the NFL before becoming an NFL head coach. Thus, we see in our current crop of NFL coaches that we do not have anyone who simply jumped from being a college head coach into an NFL head coaching position.

     This makes me wonder if current NFL team managements have decided that the best way for a college coach to grow into an effective NFL coach is to provide him with the chance to "pay his dues" by learning the ins and outs of the NFL by serving as an assistant first. Certainly, the track record of coaches making the jump directly from college head coaching positions to NFL head coaching positions has been less than stellar in their first year. Erickson -- Miami 1994 to Seattle 1995, 8-8, Jimmy Johnson -- Miami 1988 to Dallas 1989, 1-15, and Spurrier -- Florida 2001 to Washington 2002, 7-9, are examples of coaches who struggled with the transition.

     The jury is also still out, IMHO, on coaches whose coaching experience is exclusively at the NFL level. Belichick (158-94-0, 15-3, 4 AFC championships, 3 Super Bowl championships) and Fisher (141-117-0, 5-6, 1 AFC championships) are arguments in favor of it being a good idea. Mangini (33-43-0, 0-1) and Singletary (17-20-0, 0-0) are arguments against that approach. I would suggest that the data is inconclusive for Haley (12-16-0, 0-0), Garrett (3-1-0, 0-0), Smith (30-14-0, 0-1) and Del Rio (64-60-0, 1-2).

     I'm inclined to believe at this point, that the Broncos will choose to seek out their new coach from among the ranks of those who has spent time rising through the ranks of college coaching and who has "paid his dues" as an NFL assistant and/or coordinator.