Are college coaches back in style?
Jeffri Chadiha [ARCHIVE]
December 21, 2012
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The subtle things make Seattle Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson such a firm believer. He'll trot out to practice at the end of a draining week -- long after the season has worn on veterans and rookies alike -- only to find head coach Pete Carroll with some remedy for the predictable doldrums. It might be a clever joke Carroll has been preparing for just the right moment. It could be pulsating hip-hop blaring through the team's stereo system or the coach's rapid-fire chatter filling the air as he strolls past players stretching their hamstrings.

Regardless of the tactic, the result tends to be the same: The Seahawks suddenly find themselves re-energized.

A seven-year veteran such as Robinson might normally find it hokey to think a coach whose greatest achievements came at USC could so easily influence professional football players. That's also the irony behind the success the Seahawks have enjoyed this season. "Before I got here, I used to think that college coaches didn't know how to coach grown men," said Robinson, who is Seattle's top special teams player. "Guys like Pete have changed my mind."

In fairness, Carroll isn't the traditional college coach. He has logged 11 seasons as an NFL assistant, and he had two previous stints as a head coach in the league (with the New York Jets in 1994 and the New England Patriots from 1997 to 1999). But Carroll's success is one indication that the league might be looking for more coaches of his ilk -- men who've dominated the college game. The days when college coaches were considered long-shot candidates to make it in the NFL are waning. More than ever, it looks as though several opportunities could await them in the NFL.

Oregon's Chip Kelly has been a hot name for two years. Alabama's Nick Saban could return to the NFL -- he coached the Miami Dolphins in 2005 and 2006 -- if he ever felt the urge. Stanford's David Shaw and UCLA's Jim Mora, two more coaches with plenty of NFL experience, probably will be on somebody's short list soon. Part of this buzz stems from their notable college success. The rest comes from the jobs their former peers are doing.

Carroll already has one NFC West title -- albeit with a 7-9 team in 2010 -- and his current Seahawks are fighting for another playoff spot this season. It has been two years since Jim Harbaugh left Stanford, and he has quickly turned the 49ers into Super Bowl contenders. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers also love what they've seen from Greg Schiano. After nearly hiring Kelly last offseason, they've watched the former Rutgers coach transform that franchise.

Many skeptics laughed at the Bucs' willingness to put a young roster in the hands of a man who had spent 11 years building Rutgers into a respected college program. The chuckling stopped when Tampa Bay's offense exploded midway through the season, and the Bucs -- a team that finished last season with 10 consecutive losses -- became legitimate playoff contenders.

"When we first sat down to decide who our next coach was going to be, part of our plan was to go to colleges and identify the best college coaches," Bucs general manager Mark Dominik said. "Our attitude was that history doesn't dictate the future."

Said Carroll: "There are some [opportunities in the NFL]. It depends on the quarterback. It depends on the team. The spread and the hurry-up offense [which are more prevalent in college] are perfect examples of that. They might not work for everybody, but they work for people who carry it out. The thing about the college game is that there is more of a willingness to be diverse. They challenge the NFL to follow them."

The three coaches who've most recently entered the NFL after leading college programs have earned respect with different approaches. Robinson said Carroll is the master of positive reinforcement, adding that "the team is never down" because Carroll's boundless, college-like enthusiasm runs so high. Harbaugh also doesn't lack for energy, but what set him apart from recent 49ers coaches is a mixture of strategy and quirkiness. No San Francisco player can remember a head coach who cared so little about what people thought of his public image.

When Harbaugh went through his first training camp with the team, it wasn't uncommon for him to approach a crowded table and squeeze his way in between a couple of players so he could talk shop. He was no different when the team was trying to sign free-agent wide receiver Braylon Edwards last season. As Edwards remembered, "[Harbaugh] sat down for 20 minutes at dinner and talked all football before leaving. I respected the fact that he was no bull----."

"When you hear him speak, he's not trying to motivate you with his words," 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said. "He talks to you like you're a friend. Most coaches try to blow you away with big speeches, but he just tells us what we have to do and how we're going to do it."

Schiano has made his mark on the Bucs with his obvious organizational skills. When Tampa zeroed in on him, they were most intrigued by how NFL-ready some of his top players were -- including Baltimore running back Ray Rice and New England cornerback Devin McCourty -- and how Schiano built a once-lowly program into a winner.

"Greg has a strong personality in a good way," Dominik said. "We knew what football meant to him and we knew we needed to be more accountable. At the end of the day, you want to see results. And we've started to see that here."

The biggest advantage Carroll, Harbaugh and Schiano had was their knowledge of the NFL. Carroll had his two prior head coaching stints in the league. Harbaugh spent 15 years in the league as a quarterback and two as an assistant with the Oakland Raiders. Schiano also was on the Chicago Bears' staff from 1996 to 1998, coaching defensive backs in his final year. Those experiences gave each man something critical to surviving in the pros: credibility.

The first knock any former college coach faces in the league is the question of whether he can deal with adults instead of kids. Every college coach is virtually his own king with the power to dictate the fates of everyone in his program. There are no salary caps, no bloated contracts, no clashes with a general manager over critical personnel moves. It's an indisputably better life, particularly for those who make the kind of coin that men such as Saban ($4.83 million), Texas' Mack Brown ($5.193 million) and Oklahoma's Bob Stoops ($4.075 million) earn annually.

Still, the lure of pro football can be strong for those with healthy egos. The key is realizing the difference between managing personalities and manipulating teens.

"In the NFL, you have to be a happy-go-lucky coach," said former NFL wide receiver Joe Horn, who played for former Louisville and Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino with the Atlanta Falcons in 2007. "You...
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