Cal Football: Pac-12 Has Spotty Record Hiring Former Pros as Head Coaches

Jeff Faraudo

Jackson State made a big splash this week by hiring Deion Sanders as its new football coach. The flamboyant former NFL star is certain to put the spotlight on the Tigers when they resume play next spring.

Jackson State has a rich football history among Historically Black Colleges and Universities, producing future Pro Football Hall of Famers Walter Payton, Lem Barney, Robert Brazile and Jackie Slater.

Lately, Jackson State is known better for its fabulous marching band, known as the “Sonic Boom of the South." The football team, a member of the FCS level Southwestern Athletic Conference, hasn’t forged a winning record since 2013.

Can Sanders change that? Can he make the Tigers a “Prime Time” program once more?

Perhaps, but he has no coaching experience and his qualifications are limited to his status as an ex-pro football star and his compelling personality.

In the Pac-12 Conference, programs have rarely rolled the dice and hired former NFL stars as coaches. We found just eight notable examples -- most of them with previous coaching experience and one with none. Most of them turned out badly.

Here they are, presented in chronological order, with years and win-loss record in parenthesis:

— EVERETT “SONNY” GRANDELIUS, Colorado (1959-61: 20-11). A record-setting running back at Michigan State, Grandelius played one season for the New York Giants in 1953, totaling 358 yards rushing and receiving with one touchdown. After five seasons as an assistant coach at MSU, he was hired in 1959 by Colorado. By '61, the Buffaloes went 9-2 and played in the Orange Bowl, but reports surfaced after the season that he had allegedly paid anywhere from 15 to 30 top players and their families. The university fired him six weeks before an NCAA investigation led to inclusive findings.

— WARREN POWERS, Washington State (1977: 6-5). Powers played defensive back for the Oakland Raiders’ for six seasons (1963-68). He had 22 career interceptions and was a starting safety in the second Super Bowl. WSU hired him in 1977, and he forged a winning record that included victories over his alma mater Nebraska, Michigan State and Cal. He was promptly lured away by Missouri, which he guided to five bowl appearances in seven seasons.

— PAUL WIGGIN Stanford (1980-83: 16-28). Wiggin played 11 seasons (1957-67) with the Cleveland Browns, and was twice an All-Pro defensive end, helping the Jim Brown-led squad to a pair of NFL titles. He had more than a decade’s experience coaching in the NFL when he was hired by his alma mater in 1980. But Wiggin was just 15-18 and couldn't get to a bowl game in his first three years, despite having John Elway as his starting quarterback. Without Elway in 1983, Stanford went 1-10, triggering Wiggin’s exit.

Joe Kapp on the sidelines as Cal head coach
Joe KappPhoto courtesy of Cal Athletics

— JOE KAPP, Cal (1982-86: 20-34-1). The only quarterback to lead his team to a Rose Bowl (Cal), a Canadian Grey Cup (BC Lions) and a Super Bowl (Minnesota Vikings), Kapp's hiring in 1982 was the most similar to Jackson State's decision to bring on Sanders. Both were NFL stars, neither had coaching experience. Kapp led Cal to what is still its most recent Rose Bowl appearance and he once threw seven touchdown passes in a game for the Vikings. He went 7-4 in his debut coaching season at Cal, capped by “The Play” and a win over Stanford in the Big Game. He was voted Pac-10 Coach of the Year. But Kapp drove away many of his top assistants and was just 13-30-1 in his next four seasons before being relieved of his duties.

— TOM HOLMOE, Cal (1997-2001: 12-39). Holmoe played seven seasons at defensive back for the 49ers in the 1980s, winning three Super Bowls. He had seven years’ coaching experience at both the NFL and college levels when Cal promoted him from defensive coordinator in 1997, replacing Steve Mariucci, who went to the 49ers. Holmoe had five seasons in as head coach, but won just six conference games. He now serves as athletic director at BYU, his alma mater.

— MIKE STOOPS, Arizona (2004-11: 41-50). Stoops was a two-time All-Big Ten defensive back at Iowa in the early 1980s but went undrafted by the NFL. Twice picked up then cut by NFL teams, he played in the inaugural Arena League season in 1987, then drew criticism for participating in three games for the Chicago Bears as a replacement player during the NFL strike that season. In eight seasons at Arizona, he directed the Wildcats to three bowl games but put together just two winning seasons on a campus that cared more about basketball.

— JIM HARBAUGH, Stanford (2007-10: 29-21). Harbaugh played quarterback for four NFL teams, spanning 15 seasons. He passed for more than 26,000 yards with 129 touchdowns. When he was hired by Stanford in 2007, he inherited a program that had five straight losing season and was coming off a 1-11 campaign. By his third season, the Cardinal won eight games and played in a bowl game. In 2010, Stanford was 12-1 and crushed Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. Harbaugh left for the 49ers, but he had set the table for a long run of success by David Shaw.

ASU coach Herm Edwards takes a selfie with a fan
Herm EdwardsPhoto by Mark Lambie, USA Today

— HERM EDWARDS, Arizona State (2018-current: 15-11). Edwards, who played two seasons at Cal, had a 10-year NFL career as a defensive back, nine of them with the Philadelphia Eagles. He scored the touchdown after quarterback Joe Pisarcik’s fumble on the play that became known as the “Miracle in the Meadowlands,” helping the Eagles earn a playoff berth. Edwards was a head coach for eight seasons with the New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs, compiling a record of 54-74, but he had been an ESPN analyst for nine years and was 63 years old when ASU hired him. So far, Edwards has been a hit. The Sun Devils have posted winning records with bowl bids in both of his seasons.

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