Becoming an NFL head coach is the peak of the football coaching profession. That’s why coaches are willing to leave behind job security, massive salaries, and perennial national title contention at some of the best universities in the country for a shot at coaching at the game’s highest level.
Jimmy Johnson and Pete Carroll are the exception to the rule, but more often than not, the coaches who make the jump from college to the NFL do so unsuccessfully. Bill O’Brien and Chip Kelly are the latest coaches to make the jump to the NFL, and while both have been mildly successful, the jury is still out on whether or not they will have long-term success at the professional level.
With that, here is a look at six highly successful college coaches who couldn’t make it in the NFL.
1. Steve Spurrier
NFL Team: Washington Redskins
Spurrier’s first head-coaching gig came with the Tampa Bay Bandits in the USFL in 1983. After the USFL dissolved, Spurrier agreed to become the head coach at Duke in 1987. After three years at Duke, the University of Florida hired him in 1990. In his 12 seasons at the helm of the Gators, Spurrier posted a 122-27-1 overall record, won six conference titles, and one national title.
Following the 2001 season, the Washington Redskins hired Spurrier away from Florida with a five-year, $25 million contract, which at the time was the highest paying contract in NFL coaching history. Unfortunately for the Redskins, the man known for his offensive innovation at the college level, won only 12 games in two seasons as the head coach in Washington.
Following the 2003 season, Spurrier chose to resign and leave $15 million on the table in his contract with the Redskins. He is now the head coach at the University of South Carolina, a position he has held since 2005.
2. Nick Saban
NFL Team: Miami Dolphins
Saban has been arguably the best coach in college football over the last 25 years. He was hired by the LSU Tigers in 2000 after a moderately successful run at Michigan State. Saban led the Tigers to a 48-16 overall record and a national title during his five years in Baton Rouge before the Miami Dolphins hired him to take over for Dave Wannstedt.
It became clear very early on in Miami that Saban’s coaching style was not a great fit for the professional level. He clashed with several players, and posted a 15-17 overall record in two seasons before leaving the Dolphins in 2007 to become the head coach for the University of Alabama. Since taking over at Alabama, Saban has led the Crimson Tide to an 86-17 overall record and three national titles.
3. Bobby Petrino
NFL Team: Atlanta Falcons
Petrino has been highly successful in every college head coaching job he has held. In his first stint at the University of Louisville, Petrino posted an overall record of 41-9, while leading the Cardinals to an Orange Bowl victory and national prominence. After his massively successful four-year run at Louisville, he was hired away by the Atlanta Falcons.
Petrino was so bad in the NFL that he didn’t last for one season. He notoriously bailed on the Falcons (who at the time had a 3-10 record), in the middle of the night to accept the head coaching job at the University of Arkansas. To make matters worse, he informed his team of his decision to leave by leaving a brief 78-word letter in the lockers of every player on the team.
This wasn’t the last time Petrino’s integrity and morality would be questioned, as he lost his job at Arkansas after a series of lies were uncovered about him hiring his mistress for a job in the Razorbacks’ football office. He went on to spend one season at Western Kentucky before being hired by Louisville, his current employer, for a second stint with the Cardinals.
4. Dennis Erickson
NFL Teams: Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers
Erickson was hired by the University of Miami to replace Jimmy Johnson in 1989, and went on to post a 63-9 overall record in six seasons as the Hurricanes head coach. During that span, he led the ‘Canes to two national titles, and carried on the tradition of “The U” that helped them become one of the best programs in college football history.
Following the 1994 season, Erickson was hired by the Seattle Seahawks to take over for Tom Flores. In his four seasons as the head coach of the Seahawks, he compiled a 31-33 record and didn’t have a single winning season. Erickson was fired by Seattle in 1998, and was quickly hired by Oregon State University to take over for Mike Riley.
He again was able to work his magic at the collegiate level, and rebuilt the Beavers into a Pac-10 contender before being hired by the San Francisco 49ers for his second NFL head coaching job in 2003. Erickson again flopped in the NFL, posting a 9-23 record in two seasons as the 49ers head coach. After being fired by San Francisco, he returned to the college ranks where he spent one season at Idaho and five seasons at Arizona State.
5. Butch Davis
NFL Team: Cleveland Browns
Davis was hired by Miami to take over for Dennis Erickson in 1995. He would go on to spend six seasons as the Hurricanes head coach, where he posted a 51-20 overall record. Davis was hired by the Cleveland Browns in 2001 to take over for Chris Palmer. In his four years at the helm in Cleveland, the Browns posted a 24-35 overall record with one playoff appearance. He resigned – not by his choice – during the 2004 season, and spent a few years out of coaching before taking the job at the University of North Carolina in 2007.
6. Lou Holtz
NFL Team: New York Jets
Following a successful four-year run at NC State, Holtz took the head coaching job with the New York Jets in 1976. His stay in the NFL would be short-lived, as Holtz resigned from his position before completing one season on the job. He has since been quoted as saying, “God didn’t put Lou Holtz on this earth to coach professional football.” Holtz would go on to post a 203-100-4 overall record, win one national championship, and win two national Coach of the Year awards at the college level after leaving the Jets.