Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein announced Monday that he’s leaving Ann Arbor for the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, sending shockwaves through the hoops world. This news got us to thinking, Which college football coach is ready to make a leap to the pros? We’ve put our own spin on the answer to that question by breaking some contenders into six different categories.
» Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
» Nick Saban, Alabama
You knew these guys would be included here before you started reading. As the greatest college football coach of all time, Saban’s earned his spot, even though it seems less and less likely that he’ll return to the NFL with each passing year. He’s now 67 years old, 12 years removed from his infamous Miami Dolphins departure, and if he really wanted another taste, you’d think he would’ve put on his boogie shoes and shuffled back to the league by now. Much different story for Mr. Harbaugh. It’s widely assumed he’ll take his talents back to the NFL at some point in the not-too-distant future, although it is dangerous to predict the behavior of a man who has told his players not to eat chicken because it’s a “nervous bird.” Anyway, Harbaugh is the only coach in NFL history to have reached a conference championship game in each of his first three seasons (2011-2013 with the 49ers). Ohio State has gotten in the way of Harbaugh leading his alma mater back to the zenith of college football, but if and when he decides he’d like to coach in the NFL again, a team owner will probably be waiting for him with open arms.
The “Will they ever leave their alma mater?” guys
» Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern
» David Shaw, Stanford
Shaw’s name seems to come up every year when NFL head-coaching jobs become available, and with good reason. He has nearly a decade of experience as an NFL assistant, and he has received the Pac-12 Coach of the Year award in four of the eight seasons he’s led the Cardinal, guiding the team to an 82-26 record. Fitzgerald turned down overtures from multiple teams this winter, according to his agent, after leading Northwestern to its first ever Big Ten title game appearance. He was linked to the Green Bay job this offseason and was hired at NU by Packers president Mark Murphy. While the NFL calls are going to continue to come for these two, they just might be content to continue making history at the schools they attended, played for and have called home for so long.
The rising stars
» Jeff Brohm, Purdue
» Matt Campbell, Iowa State
» Matt Rhule, Baylor
» Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma
Riley has massive appeal right now, having coached the last two No. 1 overall picks. He’s only 35 years old and has been a head coach for just two seasons, but he has the coveted “offensive guru” label in bold on his resume — and if his prized pupils Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray flourish in the NFL (Mayfield is well on his way already), it won’t be much longer before an NFL owner says, “Get me that guy. NOW!” All the coaches listed in this category have offensive backgrounds (shocker!). Campbell, 39, also has the NFL’s attention thanks to his wizardry at Toledo and now in Ames, Iowa. He reportedly turned down the Jets for an interview after last season.
Rhule, who spent a season on Tom Coughlin’s staff with the Giants, receives high marks for his work at Temple and Baylor, where he took over a program that had been rocked by a sexual assault scandal. The 44-year-old interviewed with the Jets this offseason and the Colts a year ago. Rhule gets a hearty endorsement from NFL Network draft analyst and former scout Daniel Jeremiah. It might just be a matter of time until he gets the call. Brohm (48) isn’t quite as young as the others in this category, but while he had to wait a little longer to get his shot as a head coach, he’s making the most of it. He’s a former NFL QB who came up as a QB coach and has led his team to a bowl game in all five of his seasons as a head coach. That could make for a compelling PowerPoint presentation to an NFL owner.
He’s got potential
» Scott Frost, Nebraska
Frost, 44, isn’t a hot NFL name at the moment, but it’s easy to envision him as such down the road. He orchestrated a stunning turnaround at UCF, inheriting an 0-12 team and turning it into a 12-0 juggernaut in his second season on the job. If he comes anywhere close to overseeing a similar reversal of fortunes in his second year at the helm of his alma mater (he finished his college career with the Cornhuskers after starting out at Stanford), his stock could skyrocket. Think of all the wisdom this college-QB-turned-NFL-safety soaked up during his playing career, when he was coached by the likes of Bill Walsh, Tom Osborne, Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, Jon Gruden and Mike Tomlin.
Deserve a look
» Dino Babers, Syracuse
» Chris Petersen, Washington
These guys might not make for the sexiest NFL hires, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them succeed at the next level. Two of five NFL execs polled by Jeremiah a couple Decembers ago identified Petersen as the college coach who’d make the best NFL coach, with one exec saying he “would be a home-run hire for any NFL team.” High, and deserved, praise for a guy with a career record of 139-33. Babers started off with back-to-back 4-8 seasons at Syracuse following short, successful stints at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green, but the Orange broke out with a 10-3 campaign last season. ‘Cuse hadn’t won 10 games in a season since 2001. Plus, Babers helped develop a guy named Jimmy Garoppolo at EIU. He’d be on my short list of candidates if I were running an NFL team.
» David Cutcliffe, Duke
» Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M
» Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
» Gary Patterson, TCU
» Dabo Swinney, Clemson
These are well-known and well-respected college head coaches who have done some incredible things. One of them has developed Eli and Peyton Manning, as well as sixth overall pick Daniel Jones (Cutcliffe), and another has won two of the last three national championships (Swinney). It wouldn’t be a shock to see any of these guys roaming an NFL sideline one day, but we have to wonder if they’re better fits at the college level, even if some (if not all) of them have the desire to make the jump. This at least seems to be a perception that follows each. Doesn’t mean it won’t happen, or that they wouldn’t succeed in the NFL, although I’m not particularly bullish on any of them at the next level. In fact, I think we’re more likely to see Swinney succeed Saban at Alabama (Swinney’s alma mater) than we are to see either coach get an NFL job in the future. But hey, Kliff Kingsbury is an NFL head coach, and we sure as heck didn’t see that one coming.
Follow Dan Parr on Twitter @TheDan_Parr.