The subtle things make Seattle Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson such a firm believer. He'll trot out to practice at the end of a draining week -- long after the season has worn on veterans and rookies alike -- only to find head coach Pete Carroll with some remedy for the predictable doldrums. It might be a clever joke Carroll has been preparing for just the right moment. It could be pulsating hip-hop blaring through the team's stereo system or the coach's rapid-fire chatter filling the air as he strolls past players stretching their hamstrings.
Regardless of the tactic, the result tends to be the same: The Seahawks suddenly find themselves re-energized.
A seven-year veteran such as Robinson might normally find it hokey to think a coach whose greatest achievements came at USC could so easily influence professional football players. That's also the irony behind the success the Seahawks have enjoyed this season. "Before I got here, I used to think that college coaches didn't know how to coach grown men," said Robinson, who is Seattle's top special teams player. "Guys like Pete have changed my mind."
In fairness, Carroll isn't the traditional college coach. He has logged 11 seasons as an NFL assistant, and he had two previous stints as a head coach in the league (with the New York Jets in 1994 and the New England Patriots from 1997 to 1999). But Carroll's success is one indication that the league might be looking for more coaches of his ilk -- men who've dominated the college game. The days when college coaches were considered long-shot candidates to make it in the NFL are waning. More than ever, it looks as though several opportunities could await them in the NFL.
Oregon's Chip Kelly has been a hot name for two years. Alabama's Nick Saban could return to the NFL -- he coached the Miami Dolphins in 2005 and 2006 -- if he ever felt the urge. Stanford's David Shaw and UCLA's Jim Mora, two more coaches with plenty of NFL experience, probably will be on somebody's short list soon. Part of this buzz stems from their notable college success. The rest comes from the jobs their former peers are doing.
Carroll already has one NFC West title -- albeit with a 7-9 team in 2010 -- and his current Seahawks are fighting for another playoff spot this season. It has been two years since Jim Harbaugh left Stanford, and he has quickly turned the 49ers into Super Bowl contenders. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers also love what they've seen from Greg Schiano. After nearly hiring Kelly last offseason, they've watched the former Rutgers coach transform that franchise.
Many skeptics laughed at the Bucs' willingness to put a young roster in the hands of a man who had spent 11 years building Rutgers into a respected college program. The chuckling stopped when Tampa Bay's offense exploded midway through the season, and the Bucs -- a team that finished last season with 10 consecutive losses -- became legitimate playoff contenders.
"When we first sat down to decide who our next coach was going to be, part of our plan was to go to colleges and identify the best college coaches," Bucs general manager Mark Dominik said. "Our attitude was that history doesn't dictate the future."
Said Carroll: "There are some [opportunities in the NFL]. It depends on the quarterback. It depends on the team. The spread and the hurry-up offense [which are more prevalent in college] are perfect examples of that. They might not work for everybody, but they work for people who carry it out. The thing about the college game is that there is more of a willingness to be diverse. They challenge the NFL to follow them."
The three coaches who've most recently entered the NFL after leading college programs have earned respect with different approaches. Robinson said Carroll is the master of positive reinforcement, adding that "the team is never down" because Carroll's boundless, college-like enthusiasm runs so high. Harbaugh also doesn't lack for energy, but what set him apart from recent 49ers coaches is a mixture of strategy and quirkiness. No San Francisco player can remember a head coach who cared so little about what people thought of his public image.
When Harbaugh went through his first training camp with the team, it wasn't uncommon for him to approach a crowded table and squeeze his way in between a couple of players so he could talk shop. He was no different when the team was trying to sign free-agent wide receiver Braylon Edwards last season. As Edwards remembered, "[Harbaugh] sat down for 20 minutes at dinner and talked all football before leaving. I respected the fact that he was no bull----."
"When you hear him speak, he's not trying to motivate you with his words," 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said. "He talks to you like you're a friend. Most coaches try to blow you away with big speeches, but he just tells us what we have to do and how we're going to do it."
Schiano has made his mark on the Bucs with his obvious organizational skills. When Tampa zeroed in on him, they were most intrigued by how NFL-ready some of his top players were -- including Baltimore running back Ray Rice and New England cornerback Devin McCourty -- and how Schiano built a once-lowly program into a winner.
"Greg has a strong personality in a good way," Dominik said. "We knew what football meant to him and we knew we needed to be more accountable. At the end of the day, you want to see results. And we've started to see that here."
The biggest advantage Carroll, Harbaugh and Schiano had was their knowledge of the NFL. Carroll had his two prior head coaching stints in the league. Harbaugh spent 15 years in the league as a quarterback and two as an assistant with the Oakland Raiders. Schiano also was on the Chicago Bears' staff from 1996 to 1998, coaching defensive backs in his final year. Those experiences gave each man something critical to surviving in the pros: credibility.
The first knock any former college coach faces in the league is the question of whether he can deal with adults instead of kids. Every college coach is virtually his own king with the power to dictate the fates of everyone in his program. There are no salary caps, no bloated contracts, no clashes with a general manager over critical personnel moves. It's an indisputably better life, particularly for those who make the kind of coin that men such as Saban ($4.83 million), Texas' Mack Brown ($5.193 million) and Oklahoma's Bob Stoops ($4.075 million) earn annually.
Still, the lure of pro football can be strong for those with healthy egos. The key is realizing the difference between managing personalities and manipulating teens.
"In the NFL, you have to be a happy-go-lucky coach," said former NFL wide receiver Joe Horn, who played for former Louisville and Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino with the Atlanta Falcons in 2007. "You have to let guys have some fun and be a father figure in some ways. You come into the NFL talking that 'my-way-or-the-highway' stuff and players will turn their backs on you."
That dynamic is one of the main reasons NFL teams largely soured on college coaches for a few years. Although some notable NFL coaches made their names at the college level -- including Bill Walsh, Jimmy Johnson and Tom Coughlin -- history hasn't been kind to most making the transition. The past decade alone gave us plenty of punch-line material. Whether it was Steve Spurrier (who went 12-20 in two years in Washington), Butch Davis (who went 24-34 in three-plus seasons with Cleveland) or Dennis Erickson (40-56 in six years with Seattle and San Francisco), the general thinking was that no high-profile coach coming from college was too big to fail.
Horn specifically remembered how quickly Petrino bombed with the Falcons after bringing a reputation for offensive genius to the NFL from Louisville. Petrino failed to earn players' respect at the start of his tenure, according to Horn, and their disdain grew when he resigned with three games left in his first season to take the Arkansas job.
"We had a lot of veteran guys," Horn said. "And they would get together to go talk to [Petrino] about certain things. But he wasn't that type of coach. His mindset was that you do your job and things will be good. I respected that, because his job wasn't to be a happy-go-lucky guy. Some guys didn't want that."
Current Oregon State head coach Mike Riley also can relate to the feeling of being overwhelmed in the NFL. When the San Diego Chargers approached him to be their coach in 1999, he had just finished his second year with the Beavers. Riley did have head coaching experience at the professional level, but it had come with the Canadian Football League's Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the World League's San Antonio Riders.
At the time, Riley believed the opportunity was too good to pass up. Looking back -- after he went 14-34 in three seasons with some lousy San Diego teams -- he said, "I was really ill-prepared. I'd dealt with guys who were professionals and my thing always has been that players want to be coached and treated right. That's the common denominator with me. But in college, you're dealing with young men at different levels of their lives. You have more to do and you're dealing with parents. Development is nice in the NFL, but you also need performance."
Riley acknowledged that college coaches could find more opportunities in the NFL for one obvious reason: The pro game is starting to use more elements of the college game. Pro coaches and executives used to scoff that the spread offense would never find a home in the NFL. Now it's difficult to find teams that aren't using some variation of it. Multidimensional quarterbacks used to be treated like conundrums. Today, they're first-round picks, and Carolina's Cam Newton and Washington's Robert Griffin III are even running the triple option.
Said Terry Shea, a former NFL quarterbacks coach who has mentored top picks such as Griffin and Detroit's Matthew Stafford: "What you're seeing in the NFL right now is the tip of the iceberg. The NFL will start doing more things with the quarterback. If you watch Pittsburgh play right now, the only difference between what Ben Roethlisberger does on a read option and what a college quarterback does is Ben doesn't run with the ball."
"You're definitely seeing that trend already," said George Whitfield, who has trained quarterbacks such as Newton and Andrew Luck. "Probably 60 percent of the league is using the shotgun. You get to third down, and three-quarters of teams are in that formation. It used to be an issue for spread quarterbacks, because critics would question whether they could go under center. When's the last time you saw Tom Brady take a snap under center?"
Those changes certainly make men like Oregon's Kelly a hot commodity. Dominik said the Bucs were intrigued by his success in college -- the Ducks have gone 45-7 during his tenure and average 50.8 points a game this season -- because Kelly "is the best offensive mind in the country."
The Seahawks' Robinson also said Carroll was a fascinating coach because "he had so much success at the college level. USC was dominant for so long that you had to wonder how he was doing it."
Skeptics would say money had something to do with Carroll's run, especially after USC was hit with NCAA violations upon his departure and stripped of its 2004 national championship. But Carroll also learned things in college that helped him in his third opportunity as an NFL head coach. Most importantly, he discovered that being a pro head coach is all about power. The more you have, the more you can determine your own fate.
When the Seahawks hired Carroll, he was given full control over personnel moves. Suddenly, the man who was once deemed too nice to run an NFL team had the resources to do whatever he pleased. Carroll overhauled the roster in one season.
"When I was in New England, there was a lot going on with me," said Carroll, who won 56 percent of his games in his three seasons with the Patriots. "But I got a clearer vision of my philosophy at USC, and that's a lot of what we're doing here. The autonomy you get in college is great. I didn't have the power in New England to do certain things, but that's what I have here."
Another factor affecting pro opportunities for college coaches is the need for fresh blood. The NFL has reached a point that its pool of potential coaching candidates among its own ranks is shallow. Coordinators used to be the likeliest prospects for head coaching jobs, but now a fair amount of those roles are filled by men who've been fired as head coaches. This year alone, there are 23 coordinators who fit that description. "The league is extremely volatile," Dominik said. "Every year, about six guys will lose their jobs."
That's why Carroll says the best coaching candidates from the college ranks are those who've already had some taste of the NFL. "If they haven't been in the league, it can be a bit of a culture shock,'' Carroll said. "You have to be so precise in everything you do because everybody is so good. It's a monumental process. You have to pay attention to every detail. The ones who don't do that usually fail. But if you have been there before, it's easy to formulate your plan."