College coaches should look before they leap to NFL

Some coaches aren't made for the pros, as Chip Kelly, Brian Kelly could learn

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — On a golf cart long ago after Notre Dame football practice, when Lou Holtz could be at his philosophical best, the coach wistfully recalled the time adversity reinforced what Holtz considered his career destiny.

"God didn't put Lou Holtz on this earth to coach professional football,'' Holtz told me.

I kept that notebook from the mid-1990s in a box because of my expectation Holtz one day would betray those words and give the NFL another shot. Wisely, Holtz stayed true to himself and never did.

It was a sentiment Holtz first expressed in 1976 after failing miserably, coaching the Jets to a 3-10 record before resigning to return where he belonged: college football at Arkansas. In his only NFL season, Holtz did hokey things like write a Jets fight song and line up players for the national anthem by height. He was mocked more than embraced by men who weren't 18- to 22-year-olds and won't respond the way kids on scholarship do.

Players in the NFL are around more but still harder to reach. The field is 100 yards but the game is different. Beware any coach who thinks football is football. Be careful what you wish for, leaders of college football fiefdoms.

That goes for NFL flavor-of-the-month Chip Kelly, who could be the next Browns coach and this decade's Steve Spurrier. That goes for Notre Dame's Brian Kelly, who already has had intermediaries gauging his interest in interviewing with the Bears after Monday's Bowl Championship Series title game. That goes for any college coach ambitious enough to forget how good they have it on campus. (Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, a future NFL target, already realizes that, right?)

The NFL always can offer more green, yes, but the grass isn't always greener for coaches who already make millions. Spurrier earned $10 million in 2002-03 as the NFL's highest-paid head coach after jumping to the Redskins, yet his vaunted Fun 'n' Gun offense never compensated for other problems he couldn't control the way he could at Florida. Nobody told Spurrier what recruits to sign the way he was told what players to draft. He went 12-20 and tainted the ol' ball coach's legacy.

Alabama's Nick Saban, college football's best coach, never made the playoffs in two forgettable seasons with the Dolphins. If Saban ever again longs for the NFL, where the fight for final say on the 53-man roster frustrates many a coach, he should visit the statue Alabama erected in 2011. Saban makes $5.4 million. He is Tuscaloosa Ditka. No wonder Saban reiterated Saturday at BCS media day the belief among NFL executives that he has no intention of speaking with NFL teams. Why leave?

What Holtz said remains true: Not every coach is meant for pro football.

People often overlook that because once upon a time, two-time Super Bowl champion coach Tom Coughlin of the Giants was Boston College's coach. Jimmy Johnson preceded Coughlin by building a Cowboys powerhouse after leaving Miami. Before Johnson, Dick Vermeil once cried for UCLA.

But for every successful example, there are at least two Bobby Petrinos who let runaway egos lead to NFL doom. Where have you gone, Dennis Erickson?

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh represent the current exceptions more than the rule. Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano has been offered as evidence after the Bucs won three more games after he bolted Rutgers. But let's see how long before Schiano's rigid, college-like structure wears on pampered players influenced by agents and the CBA.

Chip Kelly indeed might revolutionize the NFL with an offense perfect for the Pac-12. Or he might win 12 games in two seasons with a quarterback that doesn't fit and be rumored to replace Lane Kiffin at USC. He has the stamp of Bill Belichick, but so did Josh McDaniels. Kelly's motives seem obvious: more money and a looming NCAA investigation. But as one NFL assistant suggested: Are Kelly's suitors motivated by the fear of missing out on the Next Big Thing more than the certainty it will work?

A safer bet as an NFL coach seems the other Kelly: Brian — even if he skillfully played the semantics game Saturday at Sun Life Stadium to suggest he was staying put.

Highly polished and organized, Kelly essentially serves as the CEO of Notre Dame football. He designs smart offenses. He skillfully delegates and communicates. He knows defense. His profile defines the "excellence" Bears GM Phil Emery deemed necessary in Lovie Smith's successor.

But Kelly just turned things around at Notre Dame. His $3 million salary goes a long way in South Bend, and the rewards go beyond money. Beat Alabama and Kelly can decide whether they should build his statue next to the Gug or the Grotto. If seeking a new challenge tempts Kelly to flirt with the NFL, remember Holtz always said it is harder to maintain a winner than build one.

Holtz has articulated other sage advice about college coaches considering the NFL. The Kellys can ignore it at their own risk.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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