Owners may be reluctant to raid colleges for 'rookie' head coaches

USC's Pete Carroll (left) and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz (right) are usually at the top of wish lists for NFL teams. Carroll has had two stints as an NFL head coach, while Ferentz has been an assistant coach in the league. Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

ATLANTA -- Asked Tuesday whether the failed experiment with Bobby Petrino would preclude the club from considering current college coaches as candidates to fill the Atlanta Falcons' unexpected vacancy, team president and general manager Rich McKay responded with characteristic aplomb.

"First of all," McKay said, "you eliminate no one. Secondly, you pay attention to history. I think the college coaches have been the exception, as opposed to the rule. I think some of them, though, have been exceptional. I don't want to sit there and say, 'Boy, we don't want to go down that path [again].'"

Few team officials would have been so gracious. After all, Petrino bolted for Arkansas in the midst of a 3-10 season and a rocky relationship with Falcons players. In light of this, the NFL consensus is that most owners will be reluctant to hire candidates who only have college head coaching experience.

Petrino is only the latest example during a stretch in which successful college sideline bosses have been unable to duplicate their campus success in the NFL. The litany of failures includes the train wrecks left behind by Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier, Pete Carroll, Butch Davis, Dennis Erickson and Rich Brooks. Over the past five years, there actually has been a reverse flow of sorts, with more coaches returning to the college ranks than departing them for NFL positions.

One reason is that the salaries in the college game, while still not at NFL levels, have become more competitive with the pro game. And, quite frankly, despite the rigors of recruiting, the lifestyle is much more palatable in college, where some coaches actually can be granted university tenure, and where the profile has begun to approximate that of the pro game.

The bigger elements, though, are issues of control, player management, personnel and challenge. The two games, coaches who have experienced both levels insist, are radically different. The NFL, it seems, requires skills far removed from the job description of the college game.

"It has nothing to do with football basics, the X's and O's stuff, because the [rudiments] are what they are, whether you're coaching Pop Warner football or coaching [in the NFL]," said Erickson, who failed in stints with the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers, but has been hugely successful in the college game and now is the coach at Arizona State.

And in a lot of cases, you're not the guy with ultimate control over your roster, so that becomes an issue. And players just respond differently at that [professional] level. You better have guys in your corner.

-- Former Seahawks and 49ers coach Dennis Erickson, now at Arizona State, on the perils of being a head coach in the NFL

"But you're dealing with a different animal in the NFL player. The money is big. The egos are big. And in a lot of cases, you're not the guy with ultimate control over your roster, so that becomes an issue. And players just respond differently at that [professional] level. You better have guys in your corner."

There have been, of course, coaches who made a successful transition from college to the pros. Dick Vermeil took two teams, the Philadelphia Eagles and St. Louis Rams, to Super Bowl appearances and won one title.

McKay's dad, John McKay, who won four national titles at USC, built the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from an 0-26 franchise start to a berth in an NFC Championship Game. John Robinson left Southern California and won 79 games with the Los Angeles Rams. His critics aside, New York Giants mentor Tom Coughlin is a very good coach (although he did have considerable NFL experience before becoming the coach at Boston College, then moving back to the pro game).

Before he flopped with the Detroit Lions, Bobby Ross took the San Diego Chargers to a Super Bowl berth.

Jimmy Johnson won two Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys, and Barry Switzer won another. But Johnson is a rare guy, one with not only excellent coaching skills, but also some indescribable component of his personality that compelled his teams to play hard for him. He also is an incredible evaluator of football talent.

Still, in his second go-round as an NFL coach, with the Miami Dolphins, he couldn't repeat his Dallas success. And not to diminish Switzer's accomplishments, but he basically won a title with the team Johnson left behind.

Such success stories, however, have been overshadowed by the dismal records in recent seasons of high-profile college coaches who have moved to the NFL and experienced mind-boggling lows.

And the brief, flawed tenure of Petrino, who forever will be regarded as a guy who cut and ran, and who definitely appeared to be in over his head in the NFL, probably will dissuade a lot of league owners from even considering the resumes of college coaches when they have vacancies to fill.

For whatever reason, college coaches making the jump to the NFL often don't realize the importance of people skills, and how winning the hearts and minds of their players is so intertwined with winning games.

Even worse, the owners and general managers doing the hiring, most of whom have been around the game for a long time, don't comprehend the significance of motivational skills, either. But the disconnect often is a real one, and it is not just limited to coaches who move from the college game into the NFL.

Arguably, the most difficult things for Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs to deal with when he returned to the NFL in 2004 after an 11-year hiatus were the increased speed of the game and the way in which the defenses attacked the quarterback. But a Hall of Fame tactician such as Gibbs doesn't forget how to coach even after 11 years away from the battle and is smart enough to adjust.

Far more difficult for Gibbs has been embracing the reality that player maintenance has become as critical as game-planning.

So if Gibbs has struggled to come to grips with that, it only makes sense that men with far less exposure to the NFL will have problems, too.

If I was looking to hire a coach and wanted to run a want ad for the job, it would include the notation, 'College coaches need not apply.' I mean, you hate to be exclusionary, but their track record lately just [stinks].

-- An NFL team owner, speaking anonymously to ESPN.com

Right or wrong, Davis was viewed by his Cleveland Browns players as deceptive. On the other hand, Carroll was criticized for being overly chummy with players. Spurrier was too stubborn. Players in Miami respected Saban, who had been a defensive coordinator in the NFL and knew the ropes, but they saw him as a martinet. Petrino, it has been widely reported, was incredibly aloof and bereft of the most basic communication skills.

The Atlanta players agree that, while Petrino's playbook and game plans were ponderous even by NFL standards, their departed coach had a sharp mind, terrific football insights and a knack for play calling.

"But," Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall said, "the man just couldn't relate. I'm not saying a coach has to be a guy you want to go out and have dinner with, but he's got to strike some chord of respect with you. And [Petrino] couldn't do that."

Owners who might be considering a coaching change and who read the reports that came out of Atlanta this week, with players publicly ripping Petrino, clearly will have pause when they begin thinking about any potential college candidates.

In the wake of the Petrino debacle, ESPN.com surveyed six owners and general managers and asked what current college coaches might be good fits in the league. The name most often cited, without any prodding, was Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who does have previous NFL experience.

Said an owner whose team will not be changing coaches but who always is evaluating potential candidates for down the road: "There's never been a trend toward hiring college coaches for our game, and there sure won't be one now. For the most part, we kind of skew toward our own, guys who have come up through our ranks. That's the way our team has done it, and it's the way most are going to do it. Whatever fascination there's been with the college guys it's been minimized the last few years. That was the case before the [mess] in Atlanta, and it's definitely going to be even more the case now.

"If I was looking to hire a coach and wanted to run a want ad for the job, it would include the notation, 'College coaches need not apply.' I mean, you hate to be exclusionary, but their track record lately just [stinks]."

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.