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What the History Of College Coaches Jumping To the NFL Says About Urban Meyer's Chances With the Jaguars

The history of college coaches becoming first time NFL head coaches is spotty at best. But Urban Meyer is looking to join Jimmy Johnson as one of the best to make the transition, with a No. 1 overall pick at quarterback to help as they look to change the future of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

For the time being, Urban Meyer’s new title comes with an asterisk.

Urban Meyer, Head Coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars; first time NFL head coach.

Meyer has risen to the top and dominated in the college coaching ranks, to the tune of three national championships and a 187-32 record all-time record. He’s spent the past two seasons in retirement, vowing he was done with coaching…or at least college coaching. But the Jaguars—with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, 10 draft picks and ample cap space—offered what Meyer called a “perfect” situation

How long will it remain perfect? That largely depends on how Meyer is able to adapt to what is essentially a new game. Adapt is actually the name of the game according to the 56-year old coach.

“The days of coaching the way you did back when I was at Bowling Green or when I was an assistant coach—I mean, the whole country has changed, everything’s changed. And so you have to adapt, and those who adapt have success, those who don’t, fail,” opined Meyer last Friday.

“I certainly have my failures along the journey, but for the most part, I can’t wait. That’s the part of the game that I love, is to be able to adapt to the NFL player and we’ve had no shortage of them the last 12 years, or whatever it’s been, but it is. 

"Talking about grown men, you’re talking about—this is a business, you have a job to do. And I’ve always looked at the college environment as an opportunity to—not that we’re not going to do it in the NFL, but you’re dealing with 17-, 18-, 19-year-olds that are leaving home for the first time and you’re also dealing with an academic environment. So, just a much different environment. However, between the white lines, I don’t see a lot of difference. I’ve studied the NFL game now for really years, but really studied it for the first time in my life [over] the last six months.”

Is it the same though?

Other coaches have attempted the leap from college to the pro’s. According to research from ESPN’s Cole Cubelic, since the year 2000 there have been 11 coaches hired to the NFL directly from a college position. Here are their records during those tenures: 

1st Time NFL Head Coaches hired Directly from College since 2000:

  • Matt Rhule, Carolina Panthers 5-11
  • Kliff Kingsbury, Arizona Cardinals 13-18-1
  • Bill O’Brien, Houston Texans 52-48
  • Chip Kelly, Philadelphia Eagles 26-21
  • Doug Marrone, Buffalo Bills 15-17
  • Greg Schiano, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 11-21
  • Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco 49ers 44-19-1
  • Bobby Petrino, Atlanta Falcons 3-10
  • Nick Saban, Miami Dolphins 15-17
  • Steve Spurrier, Washington Football Team 12-20
  • Butch Davis, Cleveland Browns 24-35

Working from that list, we find eight of them returned to the college sideline after a stint in the NFL. Matt Rhule just completed his first season in the NFL, Kingsbury just wrapped his second and Doug Marrone has not yet landed a new job after being let go by the Jaguars two weeks ago, though he got a second NFL head coach job after his stint with the Bills. 

When studying all 11 of those coaches though, there are noticeable trends, noticeable differences and notable make-or-break aspects of the job.

  • Average Length of Stay: Not including the two coaches who still hold a. NFL job (Kingsbury and Rhule) the average length of stay by former college coaches in their first NFL job is 2.89 years. The average is somewhat skewed by the fact Petrino resigned after 13 games, not finishing the regular season, and O’Brien being let go four games into a season.
  • Conferences: While there is no one conference NFL teams seem to prefer pulling from, all of the coaches on the list were hired from a Power 5 schools: SEC-two, Big 12-two, ACC-three, Pac 12-two, Big 10-two.
  • Records: Only three of the 11 had/have winning records above .500. They are Jim Harbaugh (69%), Chip Kelly (55%) and Bill O’Brien (52%).
  • Playoffs: Four of the 11 coaches have or did reach the playoffs. Butch Davis took the Browns to the first round in 2002. Chip Kelly and the Eagles went to the first round in 2013 and O’Brien had the Texans in the playoffs four times during his six-year tenure, with two wins in those four trips. Harbaugh had arguably the best postseason record of former college coaches, taking the San Francisco 49ers to the postseason all three of his seasons in the Bay Area. His first and third season saw trips to the NFC Championship Game and the 2012 year included a trip all the way to the Super Bowl where he lost to his brother and the Baltimore Ravens.
  • Previous NFL Experience: Only Kliff Kingsbury and Chip Kelly entered the league having had no previous NFL or professional coaching experience at all. Every other coach had at least served as a position coach or coordinator in the NFL or as a head coach in another professional capacity (Spurrier, USFL).
  • A Franchise Quarterback: Arguably the most important aspect of all, the franchise quarterback. Six of the 11 coaches had or have what the general public would agree will be, was or has/had potential to be a franchise quarterback. Those that did saw their time in the NFL go somewhat more fortunately. The loss of a franchise QB changed the fate of the franchise and subsequently the coach. And then in some cases, the coach squandered the opportunity with an elite passer.
The full table of data on 1st year NFL coaches from college since 2000, plus Jimmy Johnson

The full table of data on 1st year NFL coaches from college since 2000, plus Jimmy Johnson

Like Kingsbury and Kelly, Meyer comes to the Jaguars with no previous NFL coaching experience in any capacity and therefore knowledge of how some things are different than college. A smart man can crest those learning curves on the job, particularly if he’s surrounded himself with a staff that does include NFL veteran coaches. Meyer is doing that now as he fills out his staff. He’s also spent the past several years hoarding information and asking questions to find answers he knew he’d likely need one day.

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“Ten years ago I would say I started getting some phone calls and it made you wonder, and it made you think. I’ve had some very good friends in the National Football League that I would sit down and have very confidential conversations with, coaches, even some GMs about just what it’s like. Then the most important people are the players, and that didn’t start until this past year, probably around December.

"It was about a six-month journey that I went on and had very in-depth, detailed conversations with some of the players. I’ve always considered it, always thought about it, but not until the last 12, 13 months now has it been a [real consideration]. I just want to be educated. I spent a lot of time this year on the salary cap, [understanding] roster management. I just want to be very well educated and it’s something that is obviously going to be critical to our success.”

Then, there’s the quarterback. As mentioned, that can be the biggest difference-maker for a coach making the jump. Nick Saban and the Dolphins passed on Drew Brees, a move that altered the franchise. Petrino lost Michael Vick before his season began, effectively ending it there. Schiano was left trying to win while switching between Josh Freeman and Mike Glennon.

Jim Harbaugh—who as established had the most success of the 11 (at least thus far) was able to reach the conference game twice and the Super Bowl once thanks to the play of Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick.

Bill O’Brien saw some of his best success at Houston come after the Texans drafted Deshaun Watson, only for the club to internally crumble to the point that now O’Brien is gone and Watson reportedly wants the same.

One could argue the potential of what Kyler Murray can become is why Kliff Kingsbury has received a longer than normal rope to build something with the Arizona Cardinals. That will be much the same situation Meyer finds himself in, entering the league for the very first time with a rookie quarterback (presumably Trevor Lawrence) as both learn the ropes together.

Can Meyer replicate his winning ways in the NFL? Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Can Meyer replicate his winning ways in the NFL? Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The advantage, however slight, that Meyer has over Kingsbury is that the former has been a head coach longer and reached the end of a championship road multiple times, albeit in college.

All of this was put into practice better than anyone though by Jimmy Johnson. He’s not on our original list because he was hired—and done in the NFL—all before the year 2000. The former Miami Hurricanes coach was and still is the most successful of any college coach to be hired straight to the NFL and he did it following the formula that Meyer now hopes to emulate.

Johnson—like Kingsbury and Kelly, and for that matter Meyer—came to the NFL with no previous professional experience. He’d only ever been a college coach. But, like Meyer, he’d done that well. After rebuilding the Oklahoma State football program, Johnson went to the Miami Hurricanes. During the Canes’ 80 heydays, Johnson led “The U” to a 52-9 record, appeared in five New Year’s Six bowl games and appeared in two National Championships, winning one for the 1987 season.

Hired to the Cowboys in 1989, Johnson entered the NFL for the first time with the No. 1 overall pick, Troy Aikman. The new head coach and rookie quarterback had a rough start, going 1-15 during that first season. Year two saw marked improvement at 7-9, year three took the Cowboys to the divisional round of the playoffs and by year four together, Johnson and Aikman—along with the linchpin Emmitt Smith—won their first of back-to-back Super Bowls.

Johnson, Aikman and Smith are all in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Can Urban Meyer, Trevor Lawrence and James Robinson do the same? Meyer is hoping so and is going to the source for tips and tricks.

“Jimmy Johnson has been a very good friend over the years and our time at FOX together—he was a guy that I leaned on very heavily during television for the last two years. But then I had a few phone calls with him recently. He will be a resource for me, he will be a guy that I’ll speak to quite frequently.

“He told me that you have to be much different when you’re in college, than you have to be in professional football. But he made clear that players want to win. Players, they want to win, they understand their value, their brand—and their lifestyle proves that you win and they want to be around winners. So I’m very enthusiastic after speaking with him. I’ve also spoken to several of my very close friends that are head coaches in the NFL. But Jimmy Johnson was fantastic and he’ll be a guy that I’ll lean on quite frequently.”

The history of college coaches making the jump to the NFL is spotty at best, making one understandably skeptical that Urban Meyer can rise to the top. But leaning on the man that made the transition better than anyone, Meyer and the Jaguars look to grow from “the new guys” into a powerhouse.