Making the grade: 5 college coaches who passed, failed in NFL

Will 3-time national champion Urban Meyer continue his winning ways in Jacksonville?
Urban Meyer leads Florida Gators onto field before 2007 game
Posted at 4:36 PM, Jan 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-15 16:36:00-05

Now that former Florida and Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer is headed to Jacksonville to helm the Jaguars, is taking a look at some other college coaches who have made the transition to the NFL.

Meyer won a pair of national championships with the Gators and another with the Buckeyes, but success in college doesn't always translate to the next level.

Here's a look at five coaches who made the grade, as well as five coaches who flunked out.


Jimmy Johnson

College: Miami Hurricanes (1984-88)
NFL: Dallas Cowboys (1989-93)

Dallas Cowboys head coach Jimmy Johnson and owner Jerry Jones celebrate Super Bowl victory, Jan. 31, 1993
Dallas Cowboys head coach Jimmy Johnson, right, and owner Jerry Jones hold up the Vince Lombardi Trophy as they celebrate their 52-17 win over the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVII, Sunday, Jan. 31, 1993, in Pasadena, Calif.

Jimmy Johnson spent five seasons at Miami, leading the Hurricanes to a national championship in 1987. Johnson took his 52-9 record and parlayed that into his first professional opportunity, taking over for a franchise that owned the No. 1 overall draft pick (which Dallas used to select UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman) and in short order had the Cowboys completive again. Johnson's Dallas teams won back-to-back Super Bowls after the 1992 and 1993 seasons, but he walked away in 1994 after butting heads with owner Jerry Jones. Johnson was coaxed out of retirement in 1996, returning to the NFL to succeed the legendary Don Shula in Miami, and led the Dolphins to three straight playoff appearances in his final four seasons. But a blowout loss to Jacksonville in an AFC divisional game signaled the end of both Johnson's and quarterback Dan Marino's careers.

Grade: A+

It's hard to argue against a coach who has won championship rings at both levels and been inducted into the Pro Football and College Football Halls of Fame.

Barry Switzer

College: Oklahoma Sooners (1973-88)
NFL: Dallas Cowboys (1994-97)

Barry Switzer, Dallas Cowboys head coach in 1995
Dallas Cowboys head coach Barry Switzer watches the second-quarter action against the Green Bay Packers during their NFC playoff game, Sunday, Jan. 8, 1995, in Irving, Texas.

Losing Johnson didn't slow down the Cowboys. Jones was able to convince former Oklahoma head coach Barry Switzer, who retired after the 1988 season, to return to coaching. The three-time national champion at Oklahoma no doubt benefitted from having established players like Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith and wide receiver Michael Irvin at his disposal, but he made the most of their talent, helping Dallas win its third Super Bowl in four seasons.

Grade: A

Switzer's 40-24 mark in four seasons in the NFL isn't overly impressive, but it did include three playoff appearances that culminated with a Super Bowl victory after the 1995 season.

Pete Carroll

College: Southern California Trojans (2001-09)
NFL: Seattle Seahawks (2010-present)

Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks head coach in 2021
Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll reacts during the first half of a game against the San Francisco 49ers, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Glendale, Ariz.

The third time seems to have been the charm for Pete Carroll. Twice fired in the NFL as head coach of the New York Jets (1994) and New England Patriots (1997-99), Carroll took a year off before taking over at Southern California for the 2001 season. After a 97-19 record and two national championships with the Trojans, Carroll returned to the NFL once more, this time in Seattle, where the Seahawks have made the playoffs in all but two of Carroll's 11 seasons and won a Super Bowl to cap the 2013 season.

Grade: A

The guy keeps on winning. His successor in New England did OK (see Bill Belichick) and Seattle fans are hardly sleepless. Just don't tell the Jets.

Jim Harbaugh

College: Stanford Cardinal (2007-10)
NFL: San Francisco 49ers (2011-14)

Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco 49ers head coach in 2014
San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh looks at the scoreboard during a game against the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014, in Santa Clara, Calif.

Jim Harbaugh took Stanford from four wins in 2007 to 12 in 2010. That was enough to convince another Bay area-team to hire the former NFL quarterback. In Harbaugh's first three seasons, the San Francisco 49ers advanced to the NFC Championship all three times, with a Super Bowl appearance sandwiched in the middle. Even though the 49ers missed out on the playoffs in 2014, Harbaugh never had a losing season, finishing 44-19-1 before returning to college as head coach of his alma mater.

Grade: B

Harbaugh hasn't had as much success at Michigan, where the Wolverines have yet to win a Big Ten Conference championship or beat Ohio State. But it's hard to ignore the immediate success he had in San Francisco.

Bobby Ross

College: Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (1987-91)
NFL: San Diego Chargers (1992-96)

Bobby Ross, San Diego Chargers head coach in 1995
San Diego Chargers head coach Bobby Ross watches a replay on the scoreboard while arguing with referee Johnny Grier during the fourth quarter of San Diego's 22-21 win over the Miami Dolphins in their AFC divisional playoff game, Sunday, Jan. 8, 1995, in San Diego.

Bobby Ross was moderately successful in college, winning three straight Atlantic Coast Conference titles in five seasons at Maryland. He never found the same success at Georgia Tech, although he did lead the Yellow Jackets to the 1990 national championship. The Chargers liked what they saw and hired him in 1992. In his five seasons in San Diego, the Chargers went to the playoffs three times and played in a Super Bowl, but he left for the Detroit Lions in 1996.

Grade: C+

Aside from the Super Bowl season of 1994, his teams struggled to win in the postseason. Ross was .500 in the playoffs in San Diego and 0-2 in Detroit. He resigned in 2000 after nine games.


Nick Saban

College: LSU Tigers (2000-04)
NFL: Miami Dolphins (2005-06)

Nick Saban, Miami Dolphins head coach in 2006
Miami Dolphins head coach Nick Saban argues a touchdown call during the second half of a game against the Green Bay Packers, Sunday, Oct. 22, 2006, in Miami Gardens, Fla.

While he may be the greatest coach in college football history, his time in the NFL left much to be desired. Nick Saban led LSU to a 48-16 record, two Southeastern Conference championships and a national title in five seasons when he left for Miami. The Dolphins actually had a winning season in 2005, but Saban made the ill-fated decision to choose quarterback Daunte Culpepper over Drew Brees in free agency. Culpepper never fully recovered from a knee injury, was benched and the Dolphins missed the playoffs. Brees went to New Orleans and won two Super Bowls with the Saints.

Grade: D+

Saban was further vilified when he repeatedly denied that he was leaving Miami to take the open Alabama job. "I guess I have to say it," Saban said Dec. 21, 2006. "I'm not going to be the Alabama coach." He became the Alabama coach, and the rest is history.

Rich Brooks

College: Oregon Ducks (1977-94)
NFL: St. Louis Rams (1995-96)

Rich Brooks, St. Louis Rams head coach in 1995
St. Louis Rams head coach Rich Brooks argues with an official after a controversial play in the first quarter against the San Francisco 49ers, Sunday, Nov. 26, 1995, in San Francisco.

Rich Brooks gave up his longtime gig in Oregon to become the head coach of the Rams when they moved to St. Louis in 1995. Brooks won 91 games in 18 years at Oregon and had just led the Ducks to a Rose Bowl when he signed a four-year contract with the Rams. But the Rams, who went 13-19 in their first two seasons in St. Louis, cut bait with Brooks midway through his contract.

Grade: D-

Brooks returned to coaching in 2003, leading Kentucky to four consecutive bowl games. The Rams hired Dick Vermeil, who went on to lead St. Louis to a Super Bowl three years later.

Steve Spurrier

College: Florida Gators (1990-2001)
NFL: Washington Redskins (2002-03)

Steve Spurrier, Washington Redskins head coach in 2002
Washington Redskins head coach Steve Spurrier looks out at the field during the final minutes of the Redskins' 27-20 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Thursday, Nov. 28, 2002, in Irving, Texas.

Steve Spurrier got bored beating up on teams after 12 seasons at his alma mater, so the 1966 Heisman Trophy winner resigned to become head coach of the Washington Redskins in 2002, signing what was then the most lucrative coaching contract in NFL history. But it didn't take long for Spurrier to fall out of favor in Washington, first by turning to former Florida quarterbacks Danny Wuerffel and Shane Matthews, and then for his 1-3 record against rival Dallas. After a 12-20 record through two seasons and consecutive third-place finishes in the NFC East Division, Spurrier resigned.

Grade: D-

Spurrier returned to the college ranks in 2005, taking over at South Carolina. The Gamecocks won 86 games in 11 years, including three straight 11-win campaigns, before Spurrier quit again in the midst of another losing season in 2015. The Redskins hired Joe Gibbs, who had previously won three Super Bowls with Washington, for a second stint in 2004.

Mike Riley

College: Oregon State Beavers (1997-98)
NFL: San Diego Chargers (1999-2001)

Mike Riley, San Diego Chargers head coach in 2001
San Diego Chargers head coach Mike Riley covers his face as his team loses its ninth straight game 25-22 to the Seattle Seahawks, Sunday, Dec. 30, 2001, in San Diego.

Mike Riley only spent two losing seasons at Oregon State when he was scooped up by San Diego in 1999. It didn't go well. The Chargers were 14-34 under Riley, including a 1-15 season in 2000. Despite improving to five wins in 2001, he was fired after just three seasons.

Grade: F

The hire was questionable from the beginning. Riley had a losing record as a college coach when he was hired by the Chargers. What were they thinking?

Lou Holtz

College: North Carolina State (1972-75)
NFL: New York Jets (1976)

Lou Holtz in 1974
North Carolina State football coach Lou Holtz becomes a willing captive Dec. 20, 1974, as he is surrounded by Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl princesses Debbie Riley, left, and Susan Lauder as the Wolfpack arrive in Houston.

Lou Holtz made a name for himself as a journeyman head coach who brought a winning culture with him everywhere he went. But that didn't apply to his lone season in the NFL. After a 3-10 start to his debut season with the New York Jets, Holtz resigned. "God did not put Lou Holtz on this earth to coach in the pros," Holtz lamented at the time.

Grade: F

Holtz atoned for his failures in New York, returning to college to coach at Arkansas (1977-83), Minnesota (1984-85), Notre Dame (1986-96), where he won a national championship, and South Carolina (1999-2004).