Dougherty: Packers must be wary of college coaches with no NFL experience

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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Mark Murphy and Brian Gutekunst need to keep an open mind in their search for the Green Bay Packers’ next head coach.

Offense, defense, special teams, coordinator or position coach. The team’s CEO and general manager should consider any and all.

But there’s one type of coach they should be wary of, and that’s the college coach who has never worked in the NFL.

That includes at least three coaches who are on the NFL’s radar this year: Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald and Iowa State’s Matt Campbell.

All three have done well under different circumstances, and no doubt they’re good coaches. But the history of coaches who had never worked in the NFL as a player, coach or scout, and then made the jump from college head coach to head coach in the NFL, well, it isn’t pretty.

Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley speaks during an NCAA college football media day on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018, in Miami Gardens, Fla. Alabama plays Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 29. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

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Let’s start by acknowledging that most NFL coaches fail. That’s the nature of the business. Few hold their jobs for more than four or five years, if that.

But going back to the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, the history of these guys is especially bad.

One of them, Jimmy Johnson, was a smashing success. He turned around the Dallas Cowboys and won two Super Bowls in five years. Don Coryell (111-83-1) also did well with the St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Chargers, and has been a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame because of his influence on NFL passing games.

I guess you have to say Barry Switzer had some success, too – he won a Super Bowl in his second season in Dallas, though that was essentially with Johnson’s team. Switzer quickly bombed after Johnson’s players aged out.

And that’s about it.

By my count, 12 other coaches since the merger made the jump straight from college head coach to NFL head coach with no pro football (CFL, WLAF, USFL) as a coach or player in their background.

That eliminates NFL failures such as Nick Saban (as assistant coach with the Houston Oilers and Cleveland Browns in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s), Bobby Petrino (a Jacksonville Jaguars assistant from 1999-2001) and Steve Spurrier (played in NFL, coached in USFL), as well as NFL successes such as Dick Vermeil (an assistant for the Rams before becoming UCLA’s coach) and John Robinson (assistant with the Raiders before becoming USC’s coach).

In that time the Packers had their own dismal experience. That was Dan Devine, who came to Green Bay from Missouri. Despite making the playoffs once, he was a disaster and split for Notre Dame just ahead of the posse with a 25-27 record in four seasons (1971-74) with the Packers.

Among the other busts were Lou Holtz (3-10 with the Jets), Tommy Prothro (14-12-2 with the Rams in the early ‘70s), John Ralston (34-33-3 in five seasons with Denver in the ‘70s), Chuck Fairbanks (46-40 with New England in the ‘70s), Daryl Rogers (18-40 with Detroit in the ‘80s) and Dennis Erickson (31-33 with Seattle in the 1990s).

The most recent bust was Chip Kelly (28-35 with Philadelphia and San Francisco from 2013-16), who’s now back in college football. Before him, the last coach the NFL plucked from college with no pro experience was Erickson in 1995.

There are reasons NFL teams have been reluctant to hire them for the last 20 years.

For starters, the players are different in the NFL. They’re older, some make a lot of money and a few have salaries greater than the coach. They’re more jaded, more opinionated and more empowered. That’s a lot different than coaching guys in their late teens and early 20s.

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The game is different, too, even if the NFL these days is stealing more plays and schemes from college football than vice versa. It starts with quarterback play. While it’s obviously important in college, it’s everything in the pro game. The ability to work well with a highly paid quarterback is at a premium.

In college, you can win by simply recruiting the best players. The NFL is set up to disperse talent more evenly. Saban doesn’t count on this list because he’d been an NFL assistant in the ‘90s, but his 15-17 record with the Miami Dolphins is telling.

He’s possibly the greatest coach in college football history, but with Alabama he can win national championships with middling quarterback play because he has accrued so much talent everywhere else on the field. But at Miami his quarterbacks were Gus Frerotte, Joey Harrington and a broken-down Daunte Culpepper. Saban bolted for Alabama after two seasons of that.

Even more important is institutional knowledge of the NFL. Someone who has worked in the league knows how it operates and is familiar with at least some of the personnel. Even a couple years as an NFL assistant helps.

And crucially, working in the league helps establish the contacts to put together a good NFL coaching staff. A coach making the jump from college especially needs some experienced NFL assistants, but he almost surely won’t have a deep list of candidates he knows and trusts.

Still, it’s possible to imagine a time and team worthy taking a chance on a college-only coach. But that’s not these Packers. Murphy and Gutekunst have a headstrong, 35-year-old quarterback, which makes a college coach an even tougher sell. Aaron Rodgers’ clock is ticking, and if he doesn’t respect the knowledge and acumen of the next coach or play caller, the Packers will be looking at a couple more lost years.

So how interested are Murphy and Gutekunst in any of these guys?

It seems likely they’ll at least interview Fitzgerald, who has turned Northwestern into a perennially strong program that played in the Big Ten Championship game this year.

Murphy was the athletic director who promoted Fitzgerald to head coach at Northwestern. But it’s not just Murphy. A source with ties to the Packers said Gutekunst, too, thinks very highly of Fitzgerald.

The 35-year-old Riley said Thursday that maybe down the road he’ll want to coach in the NFL, but he has no interest in leaving Oklahoma anytime soon. It’s hard to take these guys at their word on these matters, but he might be out.

And earlier this month, Campbell signed a contract extension with Iowa State, which suggests he’s probably staying put for now.

There’s certainly no harm in the Packers talking to Fitzgerald, and it sounds like he has the leadership qualities worthy of the NFL’s attention.

But history and circumstance say the Packers should be wary indeed of hiring a new coach who has never worked in their league.



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