Why you should stop believing that big-time college coaches are going to leave straight for the NFL
Dan Mullen, Ryan Day, James Franklin, Lincoln Riley and Dabo Swinney probably let out a good belly laugh whenever they see the rumors.
“NFL team ‘X’ reportedly interested in interviewing big-time college coach ‘Y’.”
Yeah, I bet they are. And I bet those college coaches (and their agents) don’t mind hearing that, especially if the majority of their recruiting classes are signed. All that does is up their price.
But in case you haven’t been paying attention, it really doesn’t make a lot of sense for big-time coaches to leave directly for the NFL in this era.
Like a coach rocking pleated khakis on the sidelines, it’s outdated.
That wasn’t a shot fired at Dan Mullen or Jim Harbaugh, both of whom somewhat quietly ditched the pleated look for the basic, un-pleated (?) khakis. It’s about time we ditch this notion that big-time college football coaches are leaving straight for the NFL.
No longer is it the mid-2000s when coaches like Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban would leave for the NFL to get steep raises. Saban made $5 million a year with the Dolphins then quit after Year 2. When he returned to the college ranks and took over at Alabama, he was the first college coach to make $4 million annually.
Times have changed. Big time.
Look at the NFL right now. Here’s the entire list of current head coaches who came directly from a college job:
- Matt Rhule, Baylor
- Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech/USC offensive coordinator
- Pete Carroll, USC
Rhule was at Baylor, which he rebuilt after a sexual assault scandal torpedoed the Art Briles era. In other words, it wasn’t a big-time job. Kingsbury was fired at Texas Tech and briefly the offensive coordinator at USC before he pounced on the opportunity to take over the Arizona Cardinals. And of course, Carroll fled USC for the NFL in 2009 right before the program was about to get hit with NCAA violations.
Show me the big-time college head coach who left that job for the NFL in recent memory. There hasn’t been one since Saban.
This graphic shows the NFL coaches who made that jump in the 21st century (I’ll explain later why you can’t actually count Urban Meyer in this group):
Urban Meyer becomes the 12th first-time NFL head coach since 2000 hired from the college ranks, spanning the spectrum from Bobby Petrino (very bad) to Jim Harbaugh (very good). pic.twitter.com/jNAK3K1lMz
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) January 15, 2021
Jim Harbaugh’s NFL jump was 10 years ago, and he took over a Stanford program that went 5 years without a postseason berth (and another 2 after he got there). In other words, big-time program? Nope. Neither was Syracuse, Rutgers or Louisville.
Bill O’Brien jumped to the NFL 8 years ago. Penn State was in the midst of an NCAA investigation because of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Nobody viewed Penn State in its normal context. It isn’t what it is today with Franklin, where it still recruits top-15 classes and is expected to go to a New Year’s 6 bowl every year. It wasn’t a shock when O’Brien left. Those weren’t normal circumstances.
And to be clear, we’re talking about head coaches here. Joe Brady leaving his role as LSU’s passing game coordinator/wide receivers coach to go join Rhule’s staff as the Panthers’ offensive coordinator is different from the idea of Riley leaving Oklahoma for the Cowboys.
Why aren’t big-time college coaches leaving for the NFL? Well, I’ve got an idea. It starts with an “M” and ends with “oney.”
Remember that record-setting $4 million annual contract Saban received after he left the NFL and returned to the college ranks? In 2020, there were 27 FBS head coaches who made at least $4 million annually. I mean, Utah and Northwestern paid north of $4 million annually for their respective head coaches.
Of perhaps even greater significance are the buyout numbers. A whopping 33 college head coaches had buyouts of at least $10 million in 2020 (USA Today). Mullen ($12 million), Day ($45.5 million) Franklin ($35.4 million), Riley ($31 million) and Swinney ($50 million) are all part of that club. Gus Malzahn just got a $21.45 million buyout from Auburn because he had 4 years left on a $49 million deal in which he was guaranteed 75% of it.
That’s the thing to remember. College contracts, on average, are longer than NFL deals. You can thank negative recruiting for that trend of always needing to have at least 4 years remaining on the current contract. Even though NFL contracts are fully guaranteed, the length doesn’t make them more enticing than college contracts. NFL contracts for head coaches are also a bit of mystery, too. They can be heavily incentivized and falsely reported based on that, unlike the contract of a big-time college coach, which is public record if they’re at a public university.
So if the financial returns aren’t greater in the NFL, why would a big-time college coach have any sort of incentive to leave?
Here’s the other point — where is a coach more likely to have a losing season and get canned? That’s obvious. It’s the NFL, where there’s less control of the roster and it’s a much more even pool of talent to build a team than the one that there is for big-time college programs. Times are different now.
When Chip Kelly left Oregon for the San Francisco 49ers after the 2012 season, his annual salary more than doubled. Kelly wasn’t part of the $4 million club. When Kelly signed his new deal at Oregon in the middle of his second season, his base salary with the Ducks was $2.8 million, but it had plenty of incentives.
Speaking of Kelly, maybe the failures of those big-time college coaches in the NFL scared off the current generation of big-time coaches from diving into the NFL waters. Saban, Spurrier and Kelly all failed before ultimately returning to the college game.
In case you were wondering, no, Meyer doesn’t count in this argument because had a full 2 years off before becoming the Jaguars’ head coach. It wasn’t as if he left Ohio State because the NFL came calling. Meyer was a free agent.
With the money that’s being thrown around in college football’s cable TV boom of the last 7 years, don’t expect those lucrative coach contracts to go anywhere. If an NFL team is going to poach a big-time college coach, the compensation will have to be something totally off the charts. The Panthers, in order to get Rhule, went way over the top with a $62 million base salary worth $8.86 million annually for 7 years, according to ESPN. That was basically a big-time college contract that Rhule got, which reportedly “pissed off” NFL owners.
That’s the only thing that can truly change this dynamic. Unless NFL teams want to actually dangle $100 million contracts at coaches like Riley, Day and Franklin, Rhule is going to be the exception and not the, um, rule (I’ll show myself out).
Until then, treat any sort of rumors about a big-time college coach leaving for the NFL like that person you see rocking the pleated khakis.
Don’t laugh or anything. That’s mean. Just know that it’s coming from an outdated school of thought.