Saban, Petrino & Spurrier: Why Didn’t They Make It In The NFL?
In the final week of the 2003 NFL regular season, Washington Redskins coach Steve Spurrier made a startling admission during his weekly appearance on a local radio station. The Redskins were sitting at 5-10, long out of the playoff hunt, and facing a home finale against the rival 11-4 Philadelphia Eagles. The radio host, Andy Pollin, lobbed a softball at Spurrier, asking him what Redskins fans could be optimistic about for next season. Spurrier’s response proved to be his NFL coaching epitaph: “What do I have to give for optimism for next year? I can’t think of anything right now.”
A few days later, after losing to the Eagles 31-7, Spurrier resigned as Redskins coach while playing golf back in Florida. Ten months later, the coach who once dominated the SEC at Florida returned to the conference, taking over for Lou Holtz at South Carolina.
Spurrier proved to be the first of three current SEC head coaches who had brief, inglorious stints in the NFL. Like Nick Saban and Bobby Petrino, Spurrier arrived in the NFL as a presumptive savior who could replicate collegiate success at the professional level. Spurrier and Saban only lasted two seasons before retreating to the SEC’s familiar confines. Petrino didn’t even make it a full year, abandoning the Atlanta Falcons with four games left in the 2007 season.
Daniel M. Snyder purchased the Washington Redskins for a then-record $800 million in May 1999. Reportedly he coveted Steve Spurrier as his coach from the outset. But with the Old Ball Coach firmly entrenched at Florida and the 1999 season beginning, Snyder retained coach Norv Turner for what turned out to be a surprising playoff run. The following season, Snyder invested heavily in free agents and produced what media critics dubbed the “Fortune 500” Redskins — they cost a fortune and finished 8-8.
By then Turner was gone and Snyder brought in longtime NFL coach Marty Schottenheimer to run the entire football operation. That only lasted a year, another 8-8 season. Snyder seemed particularly impatient with Schottenheimer’s conservative offense — his starting quarterback reportedly had just one audible — and it was clear the new owner wanted a dynamic offensive attack that would win games and dazzle fans.
On January 2, 2002, four days before Schottenheimer coached his last game for Washington, Snyder attended the FedEx Orange Bowl as a guest of the title sponsor, who also owned the naming rights to Snyder’s stadium. Florida routed Maryland 56-23 in what would end up being Spurrier’s last game as the Gators coach. He resigned two days later.
In quick succession, Snyder fired Schottenheimer and signed Spurrier to a five-year, $25 million contract, instantly making the new Redskins coach the highest paid in the NFL. This despite the fact Spurrier never coached in the NFL, even as an assistant, and his only professional coaching experience came with the Tampa Bay Bandits of the long-dead USFL in the mid-1980s.
Spurrier also inherited a Redskins roster that lacked a quarterback who could run his “Fun ‘n’ Gun” offense. He attempted to remedy that by signing two of his former Gators, Danny Wuerffel and Shane Matthews, neither of whom had distinguished themselves in the NFL. At Snyder’s insistence, the Redskins drafted Tulane’s Patrick Ramsey as the team’s quarterback of the future. Spurrier originally said he wouldn’t play the rookie at all in 2002.
As Spurrier’s first training camp began, there were already signs of trouble. Ross Tucker, who played offensive line, later recalled the coach opened camp by saying, “You know men, I played 12 years in the NFL and went to 12 of these here training camps and I can’t remember one darn good thing I ever got out of it. But you know what, Mr. Snyder wants us to be here, so let’s try to get something done.” At that first practice, Spurrier asked defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis — handpicked by Snyder and signed to a record contract for an NFL assistant — “Which field would you like to practice on?” In the SEC, where you could have 100 players on the roster, the offense and defense practiced separately. Lewis politely explained that in the NFL the entire team practiced together.
Still, Spurrier had cause for early optimism. His first preseason game against the 49ers in Osaka, Japan, proved a smashing success with Wuerffel lighting up the scoreboard against San Francisco’s third-stringers. Spurrier assumed success would come easier in the NFL; he boasted at his introductory press conference that unlike the six-team divisions in the SEC, in the NFC East he would only have to beat three other teams.
Some observers instantly bought into Spurrier mania. Sports Illustrated’s Peter King said “Spurrier is going to enjoy proving the NFL wrong on Wuerffel, and that he will throw the ball early and often, and that by sheer force of will he will find a way to make the Washington passing game one of the league’s best.” King predicted Wuerffel “could throw for 3,600 yards and 26 touchdowns.”
The regular season didn’t go smoothly. By week four Ramsey — who Spurrier vowed not to play at all — was starting. (Contra Peter King, Wuerffel only managed 719 passing yards and three touchdowns in seven games.) The rookie clearly didn’t have the skills or support necessary to run the Spurrier offense. Ross Tucker noted:
There were no hot reads or sight adjusts. If a blitz came, [Spurrier’s] philosophy was to change the play at the line of scrimmage … He would literally be on the sideline screaming at Patrick to change the play, so Patrick would change the play, then the defense would shift, and Spurrier would be like no no no, and there’d either be a timeout or a delay of game.
A mediocre 7-9 finish in 2002 was merely a prelude to a lethargic 2003 where the team would start 3-1 but lose 10 of the next 12. At his final press conference after the 31-7 drubbing by the Eagles — which lasted all of five minutes — Spurrier merely said, “Well we wound up 5-11, not the best, but not the worst either.” The next day he was back in Florida and the Redskins were looking for their fourth coach in four years.
Spurrier’s inglorious end in Washington did not discourage other NFL owners from pursuing successful SEC coaches. A season after Spurrier’s departure, the Miami Dolphins hired then-LSU coach Nick Saban. Like Spurrier, Saban was a big-name coach who Miami owner Wayne Huizenga thought would generate positive buzz for the team. Unlike Spurrier, Saban had worked in the NFL for four years as Bill Belichick’s defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns. From there he got his first head coaching job at Michigan State, where he built a modest record (34-24-1) and left after five seasons for LSU.
In Baton Rouge, Saban rose to the top echelon of the coaching ranks, winning two SEC titles and a BCS championship over five seasons. After the 2003 BCS title, rumors began to swirl that Saban would return to the NFL, possibly with the Dolphins, where coach Dave Wannstedt was always on the hot seat. Saban returned to LSU in 2004, but Wannstedt didn’t survive in Miami, replaced by assistant Jim Bates in November.
By early December, the Dolphins courtship of Saban became public. On December 18, Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com reported that Saban assistant Derek Dooley, now Tennessee’s head coach, told a Miami assistant that he expected to join Saban with the Dolphins (which he did). Four days later, Huizenga formally offered Saban the job, but the coach waited three more days before accepting on Christmas night.
Saban’s first season in Miami went better than Spurrier’s first in Washington. Despite losing seven of nine games in one stretch, the 2005 Dolphins finished 9-7 and just missed the playoffs. Going into 2006, Sports Illustrated declared, “Saban’s Dolphins overhaul is ahead of schedule.” Saban radically turned over the roster and even his coaching staff — dumping defensive coordinator and current Florida coach Will Muschamp — and unlike Spurrier’s famously laid-back approach with Washington, Saban attempted to recreate the authoritarian regime of a college program in the NFL. According to SI’s Tim Layden:
Only 20 players from 2004 remain on the roster. Saban reviewed every aspect of the team’s operations, with an eye to instilling order, discipline and attention to detail. Players were forbidden from wearing hats in meeting rooms; shoes had to be tied during Saturday pregame walk-throughs. The practice facility is papered with motivational axioms. Last year Saban stunned veterans by running them through 40-yard sprints after the second practice of training camp, to test which players had come prepared.
But the Dolphins actually took a step back in 2006, finishing 6-10. In early December, with the team at 5-7, Huizenga insisted the team was “on the right track” and that he remained “completely sold on Nick Saban.” Huizenga added that Saban had assured him, “I’m not going anywhere” and that he wasn’t looking for another job.
Within a few days, Saban was openly linked to Alabama, which in a fun twist had just fired Mike Shula, son of retired Dolphins coach Don Shula. Early reports said, erroneously, that Alabama was prepared to give Saban as much as $57 million to return to the SEC. Alabama had reportedly offered the job first to West Virginia’s Rich Rodriguez, who vowed to “finish my career” in Morgantown (a year before leaving for Michigan). After several weeks of rumors, including a reported offer turned down by the coach, Saban finally said on December 21, 2006, “I’m not going to be the Alabama coach.”
Two weeks later, Saban accepted an eight-year, $32 million contract from Alabama. Saban said, “What I realized in the past two years is that we love college coaching because of the ability that it gives you to affect people, young people … I don’t think it would be fair to the [Dolphins’] organization if I stayed.”
“The punctuation on the Nick Saban Dolphin Error is greasy and greedy,” Miami Herald columnist Dan Le Batard wrote in a scathing postmortem. “He will be remembered in these parts as a quitter and a liar.”
Bobby Petrino, like Steve Spurrier before him, was hired to provide college-style offensive fireworks to a lethargic NFL team. After the 2006 season Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank fired defensive-minded coach Jim Mora and lured Petrino away from Louisville with a five-year, $24 million offer. This capped a meteoric rise for Petrino, who just four years earlier was Auburn’s offensive coordinator. Petrino went 11-1 in his second season at Louisville before the school joined the Big East, and he produced a 12-1 Orange Bowl champion in his final campaign in 2006.
As ESPN noted the day he was hired, “Petrino’s first order of business: getting more production out of [Michael] Vick,” the Falcons’ dynamic yet erratic quarterback. Petrino never got the chance. Three months after Petrino took over the Falcons, news broke that federal authorities were investigating reports of illegal dogfighting at a property owned by Vick. Before the 2007 season began, Vick pleaded guilty to felony dogfighting charges and went to prison, leaving Petrino and the Falcons scrambling to replace their franchise player.
Ironically, Petrino’s new starting quarterback was Joey Harrington, who played for Nick Saban in Miami the previous year. Harrington proved no more effective for Petrino than Saban. The Falcons lost six of their first seven games before putting together two wins in a row, the only such streak of the Petrino era. On December 10, a Monday night, the Falcons were blown out by the New Orleans Saints 34-14.
Less than 24 hours later, Petrino was gone. Arkansas needed to replace Houston Nutt, who bolted for Ole Miss two weeks earlier, and on Tuesday, December 11, Petrino flew to Fayetteville to accept the job. Falcons players didn’t officially learn of their coach’s departure until Wednesday, when they found a four-sentence letter from Petrino in their lockers that explained, “While my desire would have been to finish out what has been a difficult season for us all, circumstances did not allow me to do so.”
Petrino’s 3-10 reign in Atlanta was one of the shortest for a non-interim coach in NFL history (he actually tied Lou Holtz, who went 3-10 with the New York Jets before taking, wait for it, the Arkansas job). ESPN’s Len Pasquerelli noted, “There was a palpable tension much of the season between Petrino and the players, and most of the veterans felt the first-year coach was aloof and lacked solid communications skills.”
All three coaches benefited from returning to college. Saban produced a 12-2 team in his second year at Alabama and a 14-0 BCS champion in his third. Petrino finished 10-3 at Arkansas last year and lost in the Sugar Bowl to Ohio State (which later vacated the win). Spurrier’s South Carolina team, which was admittedly mediocre in his first five seasons, finished 9-5 last year and won the SEC East. All three schools are ranked in the preseason top 25 polls.
As for the abandoned NFL teams, their aftermaths were decidedly murkier. Miami sunk even lower after Saban’s departure, finishing 1-15 in 2007 under Cam Cameron in his only season as head coach. The Dolphins then turned to another slick coach with a reputation for leaving, Bill Parcells, to turn things around as head of football operations. Things looked up initially; the Dolphins were a miraculous 11-5 playoff team in 2008 under Parcells’ handpicked coach, Tony Sparano. But in the following two seasons, the team finished 7-9, and Parcells went back into retirement. In 2009, Wayne Huizenga sold the team to real estate developer Stephen M. Ross.
Atlanta quickly rebounded from Petrino’s midnight ride to Fayetteville. Arthur Blank cleaned house and promptly acquired a new general manager, head coach and starting quarterback, who led the Falcons to an 11-5 finish in 2008 and a conference-best 13-3 in 2010.
In Washington, the coaching carousel continued to spin long after Spurrier’s golf course resignation. Daniel Snyder managed to pull a public relations victory from the jaws of disaster when he replaced Spurrier with Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs, who came out of an 11-year retirement. Gibbs proved less effective in his second Redskins tenure but still managed to produce two playoff appearances in four seasons. Gibbs’ second retirement left Snyder scrambling, however, and he made one of the strangest hires in NFL history, elevating former Seattle Seahawks assistant Jim Zorn, who had spent just two weeks as Washington’s offensive coordinator, to the head coaching job. After two comically inept seasons, Snyder fired Zorn and hired yet another big-name offensive coaching mind, former Denver Broncos boss Mike Shanahan.