From College Gridiron to NFL Glory: Masterful Coaches Who Transcended the Game
College football coaches worked hard to advance their mentoring abilities to the professional level. Here are a few more coaches that transitioned to the NFL from collegiate football.
Even though the Johnson-Jerry Jones relationship only lasted for five years, leaving us with many what-ifs, the former Miami Hurricanes championship-winning coach made them matter. The Cowboys, who had been a 20-year contender until the late 1980s, moved from 1-15 in 1989 to the 1990 playoff race, constructing a powerhouse when such surges were more difficult. The following three years for Johnson: 36-12, seven playoff victories, and two Super Bowl victories. The majority of the Johnson-built team’s heart went on to win Super Bowl XXX. Despite their lack of dominance, Johnson led the Dolphins to three playoff appearances and two divisional rounds in four seasons.
McKay left his 16-year position at USC, where he helped the Trojans win three national championships, to manage the NFL’s ultimate fixer-upper. With his first Buccaneers club widely regarded as the worst in league history, McKay began his time with the franchise 0–26. Although McKay’s 44-88-1 NFL record does not scream a success story, the quotable head coach guided the 1979 Buccaneers to the NFC Central title and conference championship game behind a No. 1-ranked defense. Two more playoff appearances occurred in the nine years that followed, but McKay’s role in planning the original Buccaneers’ reconstruction was a significant accomplishment.
Neale, who played outfield for the Cincinnati Reds and started on their 1919 World Series squad, carved out one of the more intriguing careers in sports history while working as a part-time football coach. Neale coached collegiate baseball for over 20 years after his baseball career ended in 1924. When the Eagles recruited him in 1941, they reached the pinnacle of their franchise. Under Neal, Philly won back-to-back championships, led by Hall of Famers Steve Van Buren and Pete Pihos, and is still the only club to accomplish this feat — the first in a fabled snowstorm. Neale (63-43-5) also into the Canton Hall of Fame.
Following a stint at USC, one of McKay’s assistants also attempted the NFL. After his first eight seasons as the Trojans’ head coach were successful, Robinson decided to take the helm of the NFC’s SoCal squad in 1983. When Robinson joined the NFC, the 49ers, Bears, Giants, and Washington were all on the verge of historic runs. His Rams, though, was a factor. Robinson, an offensive-minded coach, led two teams with very different offenses to the NFC title games: the 1989 squad that relied heavily on passing, and the 1985 team that Eric Dickerson led. The Rams qualified for the playoffs six times in Robinson’s nine seasons and won four postseason games.
Ross, a Chiefs assistant with a brief career, coached colleges for 10 seasons between 1982 and 1991. The 1990 national championship was split by his Georgia Tech squad with Colorado (long live the UPI poll). Ross quickly caught a lost Chargers team. The 1992 Bolts are still the first team to go from 0-4 to the playoffs, and two years later, Ross led the Chargers to their first Super Bowl despite the club’s lack of an A-list quarterback (Stan Humphries). Ross’ late-’90s Lions teams were solid, and although they did not provide a comparable turnaround in Detroit, they twice made the playoffs. The Lions were pretty awful for a while after he was fired in 2001.
L. S. Saban
Two AFL titles were won by Nick Saban’s distant relative, who led the Bills to their pinnacle. Lou Saban’s career detoured through Boston following a three-year stint at Western Illinois. The Patriots sacked him after his second season (1961), but in 1962 he was hired by the Bills to become their head coach. Two years later, Buffalo defeated the Chargers in a repeat of the championship, ending Sid Gillman’s potential dynasty. The latter contest is the most recent shutout victory in an AFL or NFL championship. His record was affected by Saban’s Broncos (95-99-7), but he went back to Buffalo and was present for O.J. Simpson’s rise to fame in the middle of the 1970s.
Under Shaw, the Eagles reemerged as a major force. Shaw spent more than 20 years in Nevada, Santa Clara, and California until being sacked by the 49ers in 1954, despite having a 71-39-4 record in San Francisco. Shaw then ended up in the Air Force. Shaw turned his second shot into success, leading the Eagles to their biggest victory. Before Nick Foles shocked the Belichick-Brady hegemony fifty-seven years later, Vince Lombardi’s Packers were the only team to be defeated by Shaw, Norm Van Brocklin, and company in the playoffs. Shaw only served as the Eagles’ head coach for three seasons before retiring with Van Brocklin. The stay ended up being active.
Stram, more known for his catchy one-liners, took an unusual step to land the work that propelled him into the Hall of Fame. Stram, who had never been the head coach of a collegiate team, used his two seasons at Notre Dame and one at Miami to become the first HC of the Dallas Texans. The addition of Lamar Hunt helped the club win the AFL championship in 1962, and although they changed their name to the Chiefs shortly after, Stram’s teams had a legendary skill roster. Following the Chiefs’ appearance in Super Bowl I, a six-Hall of Fame defense demolished the Vikings in Super Bowl IV. Although Stram failed the Saints, his 15-year career with the Texans and Chiefs was Hall of Fame-caliber.
Switzer is better famous for his wishbone-fueled Oklahoma domination than for being the architect of some of the NFL’s most memorable coaching news conferences. However, the Cowboys chose the three-time national champion Sooners to take Jimmy Johnson’s position after his 1994 divorce from Jerry Jones. Switzer, who took over a solid squad, seldom receives credit for the Cowboys’ Super Bowl XXX victory, but the affable manager had a 45-26 record in his final four seasons before stepping down. Switzer led the Cowboys through considerable turbulence to help the club win their most recent title after Johnson’s coordinators had left by 1995.
When college coaches enter the NFL, a new universe emerges. College football coaches must consider their players’ eligibility and ensure that they adhere to NCAA regulations. However, NFL coaches are subject to other rules, such as those pertaining to CBAs between the league and the players’ union.
Both fields are played for the love of the sport, and coaches are excited to guide their teams toward championship dreams.