NFL coaches are starting to migrate to Power Five jobs, but will more follow?
That was the word used to describe Lovie Smith’s decision to accept the job at Illinois. Mike Golic, who hosts ESPN’s Mike and Mike, couldn’t believe that new athletic director Josh Whitman could get a candidate with 11 years of NFL coaching experience to come to Champaign.
Similar reactions were had by two of the most highly regarded columnists in the business. Chicago Tribune columnist David Haugh, who covered Smith for nine years when he was the head coach of the Chicago Bears, didn’t believe it at first. Longtime Indianapolis-area columnist Bob Kravitz — the guy who broke the Deflategate story — couldn’t believe it, either.
“It surprised me because usually college takes from college,” Kravitz said. “You rarely see this kind of move.”
Kravitz is right. There are only five former NFL head coaches currently leading college programs.
- Nick Saban (Alabama)
- Jim Mora (UCLA)
- Mike Riley (Nebraska)
- Jim Harbaugh (Michigan)
- Lovie Smith (Illinois)
Three of those coaches are now in the B1G. They all happened in the last 15 months, too. Harbaugh and Smith made splashes at their programs that rank among the biggest in college football in recent memory. Both went through the wringer in the NFL and were worshipped upon their returns to college.
Could more Power Five schools rope in NFL coaches like Michigan and Illinois did? To take a closer look at that question, it’s worth noting that no two coaches think exactly alike.
“You’ve got to take this as a case-by-case basis,” Haugh said. “To generalize it would be a mistake.”
But Harbaugh and Smith did have similar circumstances surrounding their departures from the NFL and arrivals in college. Both were let go after being put through the NFL wringer. Both walked into situations that were homecomings of sorts. Both were promised personnel freedom and received major financial backings from their administrations.
They also took over programs coming off bowl-less seasons. There are different expectations at Illinois and Michigan, but both were hired to rebuild programs with an important ingredient that they didn’t have in the NFL.
“I think that’s a big part of it,” Kravitz said. “I think that college ADs and presidents understand that if you have a program that’s been down for a significant amount of time, it’s going to take three, four, five years to turn it around unless you’re Jim Harbaugh.”
So why would Harbaugh, who had a proven track record for rebuilding teams, not hold out for another NFL job after his first one ended because of front-office disagreements? Consider a few of these numbers.
From 2006-15, 40 percent of Super Bowl coaches were later fired, Harbaugh being one of them. Even the elite NFL coaches don’t necessarily have staying power. That doesn’t include casualties like Smith, who was fired after two years in Tampa Bay in spite of the fact that he tripled the team’s win total in his second season.
During that same stretch, only two national championship game coaches (three if you count Jim Tressel, who technically resigned from Ohio State) were fired.
There’s more of a middle ground in college than in the NFL, Kravitz said, which is what creates that dynamic.
“It takes a while to recruit up to the standard that you want,” Kravitz said. “Whereas in the NFL, you can go from last to first in the blink of an eye and every owner believes there’s no reason his guy can’t completely resurrect a franchise in the space of a year or two.”
Haugh also referenced the front-office restrictions. In the NFL, coaches have to work around 53-man rosters, salary caps and egos. But in college, coaches get to recruit and sign off on every player that suits up.
For some coaches, that might be an attractive option. We’ve certainly seen Harbaugh embrace the recruiting aspect. Smith already shared his excitement for recruiting the state of Illinois better than the program ever has.
Still, it’s not for everybody.
“You talk to some NFL coaches and the last thing that they’d want to do is get on the road begging some fricken 17-year-old to come to Champaign or Bloomington or wherever,” Kravitz said. “I think some do like the idea. You can really tough lives and help young men become grown men when you’re in the college atmosphere. I think that really appeals to certain guys’ mentality.
“But I do think it’ll be a case-by-case basis. I couldn’t see Bill Belichick ever wanting to recruit some snot-nosed 17-year-old, but I think there are other guys who would really embrace that kind of opportunity.”
According to Haugh, there are a few coaches in the NFL right now who he thinks would translate well to the college game.
“If I were the athletic director at whatever university and I had a blank checkbook, I would ask permission from the Baltimore Ravens to interview John Harbaugh, I would hire him,” Haugh said. “He’s the next guy in line. Mike Tomlin is another great example. When (former Bears offensive coordinator) Adam Gase was a guy that was being speculated, I wrote that he would be a guy that if I were an athletic director, I’d pursue him.”
It didn’t always use to be that easy. A school like Illinois, which finished 13th in the B1G in attendance in 2015, threw $21 million at Smith and $4 million for him to hire assistants.
Even though that sounds like big money, Smith’s $3.5 million annual salary is just above the $3.26 million average for Power Five coaches (according to USA Today). That’s only $1.59 million less than the average salary for an NFL coach.
The most well-paid coaches in the NFL in 2015 were Sean Payton and Pete Carroll, both of whom earned $8 million. Harbaugh and Saban — former NFL coaches — made the most money among college coaches at just over $7 million.
The money being thrown at Power Five coaches continues to increase in spite of the fact that ticket sales dropped for the fifth straight year. Then what’s the equalizer?
The SEC Network generated $527 million in 2015 and each of its schools got a $32.7-million cut. B1G schools also got $32-million apiece from the Big Ten Network, and that could exceed $40 million by 2022.
Schools like Illinois are better positioned to take big-money risks on NFL coaches because of that TV money. That isn’t changing anytime soon, either.
“I think the gaps are going to continue to close because the TV revenues are going to skyrocket,” Haugh said. “Everything goes in cycles. There’s been a cycle of hiring young and up-and-coming guys. You’ve got a lot of Adam Gase hirings out there and you’ve got a lot of other guys getting jobs that might raise an eyebrow, but they’re stars in the profession and they’re not going to demand huge salaries.
“You have colleges that might be going after guys like Lovie Smith and trying to reinvent themselves at the college level who are going to command a higher salary. I can see that number coming down in the NFL and going up in colleges, in terms of cash.”
So if the money is there, the patience is there and the opportunity is there, what’s holding back Power Five programs from plucking disgruntled NFL coaches left and right? Well, it’s one thing to throw money at a coach. It’s another for him to buy in to taking on a new challenge, albeit on a smaller scale.
As Haugh and Kravitz said, every case is different. The B1G’s recent trend of landing former NFL coaches could be short-lived. On the flip side, Smith’s deal reflects a sign of the times. There are rewards he’ll reap at Illinois that he never did in the NFL.
Perhaps others will notice the path of Harbaugh and Smith. Maybe they’ll cause more NFL coaches to step back and consider what they could do at a Power Five program, though not every AD can pull off what Whitman did.
Just don’t be shocked if some do.