Understanding the appeal of college coaches

The latest big name on the team’s radar is Brian Kelly. The Eagles are interested in the 51-year-old Notre Dame coach and have made overtures to Kelly, two NFL sources said. (Al Goldis/AP file photo)

There's been debate in Philadelphia about the merits of a "college coach" coming to Philadelphia. Clearly, the Eagles' early search has focused on college coaches, with Chip Kelly and Bill O'Brien drawing initial interest, and Brian Kelly drawing recent interest.

Owner Jeffrey Lurie offered insight on his view of the college game on the day Andy Reid was fired, when he noted the advancements in college from the time the Eagles hired Reid in 1999 to 2013, when he's amid another coaching search.

“I think right now, the NFL tends to borrow more from college than the other way around,” Lurie said then. “Some of these coaches in college are outstanding leaders, and they just go from a younger roster to a slightly older roster.”

Where it's particularly noticeable is with college offenses. I keep hearing from fans about certain schemes that "won't work in the NFL," but the key to understand is how advanced the quarterback play is in college football, and how it's become easier to make the jump from college to the NFL.

That's what struck me during an August conversation with Eagles general manager Howie Roseman about some trends in the college game. I had become interested in how college offenses were evolving in recent years, and I was curious for Roseman's insight on whether the schemes in the college game have become closer to the NFL, or whether there's more separation between what's run in the NFL and what's run in college.

“The interesting thing is, it’s become easier to evaluate quarterbacks," Roseman said in August. "Because 10 years ago, you still had powerhouses that were running the wishbone. And so now you see quarterbacks in the spread, making every sort of throw. Whereas a college quarterback might have thrown half as much as the guys who are coming out now, and you’re going, when they play four years, you find these quarterbacks have made so many throws that you can make a cut-up of every single route and see them throw the ball, like they’ll do in the National Football League."

So how is this applicable? A pro-style offense is not generic. Because of how good the defenders are in the NFL relative to college, it's important to have a quarterback who can make different kind of throws. That's more clear in college now than it was before, which is why the passing game in college is somewhat transferable to the NFL. There are differences in the ability of the defenders, and the location of the hashmarks also add a wrinkle into the college game, but Lurie's point is well made -- the NFL game is borrowing from the college game as much as the other way around.

But it's important to go beyond the scheme and also look at the qualities a college head coach coach acquires. They're used to running an entire operation -- being the "CEO" that front office types discuss in a head coach -- and have experience serving as the public face of a team. The issues that arise with college players are sometimes different than what NFL coaches endure, but they realize that there's more to coaching than worrying about what happens on the field. And as coaches have expressed before, there's no way to simulate standing in front of the team and being responsible for everything.

It's imprudent to hire a college coach based on his scheme. But you hire him for his mind, his philosophy of football, his leadership ability and experience. These are qualities that might be easier to assess in someone who's been a head coach, even if it's at the college ranks.

I also thought about the reporting that went into a story leading up to the Eagles-Bucs game back in December that examined a coach's job from college to the NFL. Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano noted the disparity in age -- instead of players aged 18 to 23, he had players from 21 to 37. But he also had considerably more time with the players in the NFL than in college, and he also had more time to invest in coaching and scheming because there's a chunk of time a college coach must spend recruiting and even fundraising. Plus, the roster size is much smaller in the NFL, so there's more time for individual work with the players.

However, patience is thinner in the NFL than college. (Although college coaches aren't getting as much time anymore.) That's why Schiano said his advice to a college coach considering the jump is to really make sure it's what he wants.

"I love it, but it's not for everybody," Schiano said. "Make sure you have your ducks in a row as far as how you're going to do things, because you don't have a lot of time."

Does this mean the Eagles will hire a college coach? Time will tell. The pool of qualified college candidates might be wearing thin, frankly. But it's reasonable to understand why the Eagles are so interested in the college ranks this season.


Hits and Misses


Jimmy Johnson, right: The standard- bearer of college coaches taking NFL jobs rebuilt the Cowboys and won two Super Bowls.

Jim Harbaugh: The 49ers made the postseason for the second consecutive season under Harbaugh after an eight-year drought.

Dennis Green: He led the Vikings to the playoffs eight times in 10 years after leaving Stanford in 1991.

Tom Coughlin: The two-time Super Bowl winner with the Giants started his NFL head-coaching career when he left Boston College and turned the expansion Jaguars into a playoff team from scratch.


Steve Spurrier: The 'Ol Ball Coach went 12-20 with the Washington Redskins after his offense proved to work better with Florida in the SEC than in the NFL.

Bobby Petrino: He went to Atlanta to coach Michael Vick, and left for Arkansas after 13 miserable games and Vick's off-field issues.

Nick Saban: The best coach in college football went 15-17 in two seasons with the Miami Dolphins.

Mike Riley: An underrated college coach, Riley had a forgettable three-year stint in San Diego.