The two major versions of the most popular sport in the United States are ruled by completely different pantheons. The greatest active NFL coach is Bill Belichick, and the greatest active college football coach is Nick Saban. Even though they are cut from the same cloth—both are no-nonsense, process-obsessed success machines who have quotas of five smiles per year—it’s hard to envision them dominating if they swapped places. I can’t imagine Belichick as a college coach; he would hate recruiting even more than he hates SnapFace and Instachat. And Saban’s stint with the Dolphins was brief and unspectacular, culminating in his only losing season in almost 30 years as a head coach. College football and the NFL are different realms, and it’s strange when the gods of one make appearances in the other.
Saban is not the only college coach to struggle upon transitioning to the pros. Since 2000, 11 longtime college coaches have jumped to take their first NFL head-coaching job. Five of the 11 lasted two years or less in the position, including legends like Saban and Steve Spurrier.
Now a new college coaching legend has come to the NFL: Urban Meyer, who went 187-32 on campus and won national championships at Florida and Ohio State before accepting a job with the Jaguars. Meyer achieved overwhelming success in the college ranks, even in early stops at Bowling Green and Utah. He retired after Ohio State won the Rose Bowl in January 2019, but that retirement is over. He wants to give the pro game a shot.
Meyer’s college success was so thorough that his worst season resulted in an 8-5 record, at Florida in 2010. He retired after that, his second of three temporary retirements. Heading into this fall, FanDuel lists the Jags’ 2021 win total over/under at 6.5, meaning the team is expected to lose 10 to 11 games. That’s twice as many as Meyer has ever lost in a given season.
This year’s Jaguars would likely struggle with or without Meyer at the helm. They went 1-15 in 2020 under Doug Marrone, another coach who made the college-to-NFL jump. (Coincidentally, Marrone is now Saban’s offensive line coach at Alabama.) But the Jags’ 2020 failures afforded them this year’s no. 1 draft pick and allowed them to take Trevor Lawrence, the Prospect That Was Promised, a QB whose brilliance in high school and college makes him one of the most hyped rookies in football history. Jacksonville’s future should be bright.
Only it’s been hard to get too excited about that future with all of Meyer’s missteps. In February, he hired quarterbacks coach Brian Schottenheimer, who not only was terrible during his three-year tenure with the Seahawks, but who reportedly snubbed a young Lawrence during a similarly terrible stint at Georgia. That 2015 encounter may have been the reason Lawrence committed to Clemson over the Bulldogs. And in May, Meyer brought his former Heisman Trophy–winning quarterback Tim Tebow to Jacksonville to play tight end. Tebow looked embarrassingly overmatched in training camp, and was cut in August.
But those are just little things. The most worrisome thing Meyer has done as Jaguars head coach was make the February decision to hire strength-and-conditioning coach Chris Doyle, who lost his job at Iowa not because he once sent more than a dozen players to the hospital with a rare muscle disorder called rhabdomyolysis, but because he has a history of making racist comments to Black players. He resigned from the Jaguars just one day after his hire was announced. Doyle should never again have a job where he’s in charge of the physical well-being of athletes, but Meyer went out of his way to choose him out of all the world’s strength coaches.
These are unforced errors that were obviously going to backfire and never had any defensible logic from a football perspective. There are plenty of strength-and-conditioning coaches who don’t have histories of fostering racist cultures; there are plenty of successful quarterbacks coaches who haven’t famously pissed off Trevor Lawrence; and there are plenty of tight ends who can (a) actually play the position and (b) not cause distractions.
Meyer is one of the winningest college coaches ever. His record is better than most others who have made the jump from college to the pros before him. But consider the factors and history involved, and he may be uniquely ill-equipped for his NFL debut.
The list of coaches who have jumped from college to the NFL can broadly be split into two categories: Scheme Guys and Culture Guys. Scheme Guys are the coaches who built their reputation by embracing a distinct and innovative style of football; Culture Guys are the coaches who built their reputation by demonstrating a distinct and effective style of leadership.
Below is a chronological list of the 11 coaches who have gone from college to their first NFL head job since 2000. (Pete Carroll, who won national titles at USC before jumping to a Super Bowl–winning tenure with the Seahawks, isn’t included here, because he was an NFL head coach with the Jets and Patriots before taking over at USC.) Each coach is labeled as either a Scheme Guy or a Culture Guy, although a few were tough calls.
- Butch Davis (Culture Guy): The man who helped build Miami into the U was hired by Cleveland in 2001. He went 24-35 over four seasons.
- Steve Spurrier (Scheme Guy): The pioneer of the Fun ’n’ Gun offense is a college football Hall of Famer for his prolific tenure at Florida. He went 12-20 over two NFL seasons with Washington.
- Nick Saban (Culture Guy): Arguably the greatest college football coach of all time, Saban left LSU after the 2004 season to join Miami. He went 15-17 in two years with the Dolphins.
- Bobby Petrino (Scheme Guy): Petrino left Louisville for the Falcons before the 2007 season. He went 3-10 in Atlanta and then … yikes.
- Jim Harbaugh (Culture Guy): Harbaugh transformed Stanford into a powerhouse behind rosters headlined by Andrew Luck. He went 44-19-1 with the 49ers between 2011 and 2014.
- Greg Schiano (Culture Guy): The coach who found a way to make Rutgers competitive was not nearly as successful in Tampa Bay. He went 11-21 with the Buccaneers from 2012 to 2013.
- Doug Marrone (Culture Guy): I’m honestly still unsure why Marrone was hired as an NFL coach. He went 25-25 over four seasons with Syracuse before going a combined 38-60 with the Bills and Jaguars.
- Chip Kelly (Scheme Guy): A renowned offensive innovator at Oregon, Kelly went 26-21 over three seasons with the Eagles, and then 2-14 in one season with the 49ers.
- Bill O’Brien (Culture Guy): After rebuilding Penn State from 2012 to 2013, O’Brien left for the Texans before the 2014 season. He went 52-48 over seven years in Houston.
- Kliff Kingsbury (Scheme Guy): An Air Raid guru who coached Patrick Mahomes at Texas Tech, Kingsbury was hired by the Cardinals in 2019. He’s 13-18-1 so far in Arizona.
- Matt Rhule (Culture Guy): The coach who built programs at Temple and Baylor went to the Panthers last season. He was 5-11 in 2020.
Of the 11 coaches on this list, nine have losing records in the NFL. The two exceptions—Harbaugh and O’Brien—both had extensive NFL experience before going pro, Harbaugh as a player and O’Brien as an assistant. If you are even a little familiar with how O’Brien’s NFL tenure ended, it’s troubling that he represents one of the most successful college-to-NFL transitions of the past few decades. Also, both Harbaugh and O’Brien returned to the college ranks after their NFL stints ended. O’Brien, a former Belichick assistant, is now Saban’s offensive coordinator at Alabama, making him Marrone’s boss. Everyone ends up on the Alabama staff eventually.
Scheme Guys can struggle in the pros. That’s largely because there’s more room for experimentation in college. A college coach can turn his team into a football laboratory designed to test one specific offensive philosophy, and then win games against teams that aren’t equipped to stop it. When these coaches move up to the pros, they often try to transport their offenses wholesale, and find more resistance from opponents. While it’s true that schematic innovation in football tends to trickle up from college to the NFL, that happens in bits and pieces. If Scheme Guys are overly dedicated to what made them successful in college, their approaches can grow stale.
Culture Guys seem to have more of a record of NFL success. But when they backfire, they really backfire. These coaches become famous for their ability to get 110 players moving in the same direction—but those players are often teenagers who might have been recruited out of their parents’ living rooms. Culture Guys tend to be great at recruiting, allowing them to have more talent than the rest of their college competition; this isn’t part of the job for NFL coaches, and because of the draft and free agency, teams rarely have massive talent discrepancies. Getting buy-in from NFL veterans is a skill that only a few coaches possess—and they aren’t always the ones who can do it with the players they began courting in high school. A great example is Schiano, who’s now twice turned perennially abysmal Rutgers into a competent football program, but was absolutely abhorred by his NFL players with the Buccaneers. After Schiano failed in Tampa Bay, Meyer sought him out and hired him as defensive coordinator at Ohio State.
Meyer might seem like a Scheme Guy, because his brilliance originally stemmed from schematic innovation. He ran a spread-option offense at Bowling Green in the early 2000s, and kept winning with that approach at Ohio State nearly 20 years later. As a young coach, Meyer recognized that many trademarks of pass-heavy offenses—putting the quarterback in the shotgun, playing with just one running back—leave defenses vulnerable to rushing QBs and a multifaceted ground game. His “spread-to-run” offenses wreaked havoc on college opponents, whether his quarterback was Josh Harris at Bowling Green, Alex Smith at Utah, Tebow at Florida, or Cardale Jones at Ohio State.
But it doesn’t appear that Meyer will be pushing any boundaries with his offense in Jacksonville. For one, many of his schematic tactics aren’t revolutionary anymore, as coaches have been trying to emulate them for years. (Belichick sent his Pats offensive coordinator to Gainesville to learn from Meyer as far back as 2005.) And two, the Jaguars offense has been referred to as “archaic” this preseason. Meyer’s offensive coordinator is Darrell Bevell, who found success early in his career by feeding the ball to Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch, but who was most recently in charge of a middling Lions offense with an awful running game. And Meyer’s passing game coordinator is Schottenheimer, who was criticized over the past few seasons for not letting Russell Wilson cook.
Plus, Meyer is operating in Jacksonville as if he’s a Culture Guy. It’s why he hired the specific people he hired; it’s why he stocked the Jaguars roster with many of his former players; it’s why he used the same motivational ploys with professionals that he did with college kids. If Meyer wants to replicate the culture he created on campus, that’s concerning—because culture is the most widely reviled thing about Meyer’s college tenure.
The chaos of Meyer’s Florida teams is well-documented. There were at least 31 arrests of Meyer’s Gators players between 2005 and 2010. There were so many that the Orlando Sentinel maintained a regularly updated list of the Florida players who had been arrested under Meyer’s watch. A 2012 Sporting News article described Meyer as having a “circle of trust,” in which his favorite players received virtually no discipline, leading to issues in the locker room. A 2015 ESPN story painted a picture of a program in which players fought coaches, nightclub attendees, and each other, with Meyer focusing more on damage control than discipline. “Get guys to Saturday,” was how former Gators cornerback Jeremy Brown described Meyer’s mindset at the time. “Keep guys out of the press.”
Meyer apparently maintained this mindset at Ohio State, as shown by his decision-making involving former assistant coach Zach Smith. Smith, the grandson of Meyer’s football mentor Earle Bruce, was arrested in 2009 on suspicion of aggravated battery against his then-wife, who was pregnant at the time. Despite knowing this, Meyer hired Smith to be his wide receivers coach upon accepting the Ohio State head-coaching job in 2011. Meyer continued to employ Smith amid multiple accounts of domestic abuse spanning almost a decade, and then misled the public about his knowledge of one 2015 account. Ohio State ultimately suspended Meyer for three games in 2018 after the school deemed that he “failed to take sufficient management action relating to Zach Smith’s misconduct”; Meyer resigned at the end of the season.
Now Meyer is back on the sideline for the first time since stepping away. His moves so far in Jacksonville have disturbing similarities to the biggest issues that characterized his college career. He has a history of prioritizing loyalty and familiarity over morality, and with the Jags he’s already made a series of choices that fit that description. Some, like with Tebow, are questionable; others, like with Doyle, are reprehensible.
Over the past two decades, most coaching jumps from college to the pros have been unsuccessful, because it’s hard to take the qualities that work in one realm and apply them to another. But Meyer’s leap to the NFL is even more complex, since the qualities that will translate are more problematic than those that won’t. He won’t have the colossal recruiting advantage he had at Florida and Ohio State. He won’t have the schematic edge that once set his offenses apart. Meyer will just have his culture, the worst and most damning thing about his college career. The Jaguars hired Meyer for his record; if early signs are an indication, they may be getting only one part.