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It's a Copy-Cat League

Nov 15, 2012 -- 8:18am

By Bruce Hooley

Have you heard the one about the successful college football coach who thought he could translate his dominance to the NFL?

Of course, you have.

It’s the oldest joke in professional football, right?

There are variations on the punchline, but whether it’s Butch Davis, Bobby Petrino, Steve Spurrier, Dennis Erickson, Lane Kiffin or Mike Riley, the pie always ends up on the face of the NFL owner who hires the ultra-successful college coach to run his team.

New Browns owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner have certainly heard the narrative and wouldn’t dare subject Browns’ fans to a second “guuuut feeling” that a guy like Davis – who went 12-23 in three seasons on the Cleveland sideline after going 51-23 at the University of Miami – could be the answer post-Pat Shurmur.

Or, would they?

Well, perhaps, if Haslam and Banner are the smart visionaries we hope they are.

While there’s certainly a body of evidence against college coaches translating their talents to the NFL, a paradigm shift has taken place recently that – if applied to the Browns in 2013 and beyond – might elevate the franchise in the AFC North as the aging Steelers and Ravens hopefully begin trending downward.

When Seattle hired Pete Carroll away from USC (53-14 in nine seasons), people around the NFL laughed. The Seahawks, everyone thought, were getting an NFL re-tread (27-21 in five seasons as head coach in New England and New York) who had the double-whammy of college coaching genius around his neck.

Prior to Carroll guiding the Seahawks to a 7-9 record and a surprise playoff win in his first season, each of the previous six college head coaches who moved to the NFL failed to win a playoff game before being fired.

Since Carroll’s move to Seattle, San Francisco hired Jim Harbaugh (58-27 in seven seasons at San Diego and Stanford) in 2011 and Tampa Bay hired Greg Schiano (68-67 in 11 seasons at Rutgers) this past summer, after Oregon’s Chip Kelly turned down the job.

Harbaugh took the Niners from 6-10 the year before his arrival to 13-3 and the NFC Championship game. San Francisco remains among the best teams in the NFC this season, playing a physical brand of football that Schiano’s Buccaneers also employ.

Observers around the league laughed at Schiano, or excoriated him, after his defense bull-rushed Eli Manning in Victory Formation in Week Two. No one, though, is laughing now. Tampa Bay has won three in a row and four of five to get to 5-4 and looks like a solid playoff contender.

Carroll, Harbaugh and Schiano have reversed the trend that hasn’t seen a college coach flame out in the NFL since Petrino quit on the Atlanta Falcons with three games left in the 2008 season.

Yet the “certainty” of a college coach failing in the NFL arises whenever a name like Kelly, Saban or Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin gets mentioned in consideration for an upcoming NFL opening.

Expect those three coaches and perhaps Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen and Washington’s Steve Sarkisian to get a look from someone this off-season.

That’s because the NFL is the ultimate copy-cat league. The smartest league executives pay attention to the present, are not prisoners to the past, and will therefore enlarge their field of candidates to include elite head coaches from the college ranks.

Bruce Hooley hosts The Hooligans from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on ESPN 850 WKNR. He is the author of, “That’s Why I’m Here: The Chris and Stefanie Spielman Story.”

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