On Sunday, 12 NFL teams will officially be heading to the playoffs. On Monday, coaches of the other 18 will be warily eyeing their phones as they try to avoid being a casualty of the annual "Black Monday' firings. The Jaguars and Rams have already fired their head coaches and you could probably point out at least six or seven other coaches who could be next. And when the search begins for their replacements, there will be a handful of current college coaches whose names will be thrown out as candidates. But what does the NFL really think about guys like Harbaugh, Saban and Shaw? We decided to ask former NFL GM and current FS1 NFL analyst Mike Lombardi how some of college football’s most successful current coaches would transition to the NFL.
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Saban is obviously the white whale of football coaching, a man whose wild success in college (he could win a staggering sixth national championship overall this year) and previous time in the NFL make him an ideal candidate for any professional organization looking for a coach. At 65-years-old and with a $7 million salary, it’s hard to know if Saban is truly interested in starting over again, especially since he has everything at Alabama exactly how he wants it.
Lombardi comments: I don’t want to speak for Nick, but the reason the college is more attractive is that he can control everything in the organization and his destiny. For most college coaches what makes college more attractive is their ability to have their hands on everything that effects winning and not have a lot of outside influences.
In the pro game there are a lot of people that effect the team as much as the head coach… As I’ve cited many times, he’d still be the coach in Miami if they’d passed Drew Brees on the shoulder injury. Those things are problematic to guys that want to build a program.
What about the idea that Saban “struggled” to coach pro players in Miami? I don’t know if that’s true at all. All I know is that in 1994 he had a defense in Cleveland that only gave up 214 points in the NFL, coaching pro players. I don’t know what else you need to prove.
Jim Harbaugh has been at Michigan less than two full calendar years, yet his name has already been floated around for several NFL jobs thanks to the success he had in San Francisco. Harbaugh denied any interest in returning to the NFL a few weeks ago (in a way that only he could), but for Michigan fans this is their new reality: As long as you have Jim Harbaugh as your coach, you’re also going to have NFL teams trying to steal him away. Of course with the way things ended for Harbaugh in San Francisco, there’s a good chance that he’s soured on the NFL for a good, long time.
Lombardi comments: Great coaches are hard to find and he obviously has a proven track record [which is why he’s so desirable]. [At the same time] he took an NFL team to three conference championship games, one Super Bowl, and he didn’t get his contract extended in the pros. Therefore, I’d suspect he’s pretty content doing what he’s doing. When you win that much and you don’t get an extension, what else can you do?
On the importance of coaching in Ann Arbor specifically, the town he spent most of his childhood: I just think, it’s his school, his alma mater, his parents are nearby, his sister lives in Bloomington, Indiana, I think he likes the environment. You can just see by the way he coaches he has a great deal of respect for the history of the place. I think he’s comfortable there. I don’t want to speak for him, but through my eyes he looks very comfortable doing what he’s doing.
Unlike Harbaugh and Saban, Petersen has never really been mentioned in consideration for NFL jobs yet. However, Lombardi has seen enough in Petersen’s building job at Boise State and rebuild at Washington to believe that he’d be an excellent fit. What makes him so special?
Lombardi’s comments: I know he’s never coached in pro football and there would be a learning curve in learning the game. But I would suspect that he would build a program, and that’s what organizations need in pro football, guys that can build a program that can sustain success.
For me, that’s the No. 1 thing. You’re not going to beat Bill Belichick with a new scheme, or idea; organizations win. And Petersen has proven he can build an organization that is demanding, that has attention to detail. That he can coach the coaches, and that’s something that I think is sometimes missing in the NFL. And he has experience doing that. I’d rather take a chance on a guy with a learning curve like that.
Is there a historical precedent? Jimmy Johnson, when he left for the NFL after coaching at Oklahoma State and the University of Miami, everybody said he didn’t have a complete grasp of the NFL. But shoot, he learned it. But what Jimmy was more than anything was a great leader, he built a program in two different places that competed for national championship. I think that’s what’s most important. And Jimmy’s work ethic allowed him to compensate and grow within the organization and I’m sure Petersen would do the same.
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Petrino might be the single most interesting name on this list, if only because of the baggage he would potentially bring to an organization. No one questions his ability to call plays, build a team or lead men. But after leaving Atlanta in the middle of the night in his only NFL head coaching job, can he be trusted? It’s a fair question. But according to Lombardi there’s a much simpler reason why teams probably won’t pursue Petrino this off-season.
Lombardi’s comments: He’s got a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback coming back for another year. That’d be a really hard thing to give up. You’ve got a really talented player who can do some really rare things.
[But in terms of what he brings to the table] Bobby is one of the best offensive minds in football. He was at Arkansas, he was at Louisville the first time, he is now. Great play-caller. He can coach the quarterback, I don’t think there’s any denying that. He’ll make the quarterback play better. He’s a demanding head coach. I have great respect for Bobby.
Every coach claims to be demanding. What makes Petrino different? I think football is a game of the details. And the team that usually wins covers the details. And I think you have to demand attention to the details to win. Bobby, Nick Saban, Pete Carroll are successful [at demanding those details] …You’re a leader. You have to demand excellence from everyone you’re leading. How many times have we read this year that the players ‘really like the coach’ as he’s getting fired?
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The man who replaced Harbaugh at Stanford, David Shaw, has garnered plenty of NFL interest through the years as well. Like those two previously mentioned names, Shaw seems to be content at Stanford, and not in a rush to leave. But if he did, the NFL is getting the rarest coaching candidate available, according to Lombardi.
Lombardi’s comments: Well I think he’s had success [as a head coach] and he has experience in pro football. So I think whenever you combine those two, because there are so few guys [who have done both]. When you’re a successful head coach and you’ve got pro experience you’re attractive.