Super Bowl post-mortem: What can we learn from Pete Carroll, Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer about winning as a college coach in the NFL?

Here’s a list of every Super Bowl winning coach. After last night, four total titles have been won by three men who share a similar distinction — winning a Super Bowl and a college national championship. Those three men? Jimmy Johnson, Barry Switzer, and now Pete Carroll. So, an incredibly exclusive club has as many total titles as Chuck Noll (4), who has the most individually. There’s obviously a huge narrative about “college coaches” vs. “pro coaches,” as in college coaches are seen primarily as recruiters and program managers — you get the best talent and you’re going to win — whereas the idea of an NFL coach is more nuanced. These three guys proved you can win at both levels — perhaps Johnson and Carroll moreso, because Johnson was 1-15 his first season and helped build that team, whereas Switzer inherited the back-end of Johnson’s run. That’s all essentially splitting hairs. There’s something else to consider.

Johnson (and his successor, Dennis Erickson) got violations for the Miami football program; Barry Switzer’s final year at Oklahoma involved players even being arrested; and it’s widely thought that Carroll went to the Seahawks/NFL to avoid possible NCAA sanctions at USC. 

Broadly speaking, then … if you’re an NFL owner/GM eyeing up college coaching talent, the only model for success at the highest level is basically this: find a coach who’s had a scandal or needs to otherwise be airlifted out of his current situation and toss him into the NFL ring. That’s not exactly how Johnson went from Miami to Dallas, but the broader theme holds.

Obviously the interesting repercussion of all this would be Chip Kelly; he never won a national title at Oregon, although he came close. In his first year in the NFL, his team made the playoffs. The Redskins seem like a bit of a wreck, and the Giants/Cowboys may be a few pieces away, so it’s possible he could put together a little run of playoff appearances in Philadelphia (it’s also possible that he could be fired before making another playoff game; that’s how the NFL rolls sometimes). Could he end up being a good hire for the same broad reason that Johnson, Switzer and Carroll were?

Bill O’Brien might be another example — he was clearly looking to escape Penn State and sanctions connected to his predecessor (also a name that’s impossible to follow in that area of the country). And right now, he has a decently-talented but underperforming team — and the No. 1 pick in the draft. He could make a move too, theoretically. In the AFC South right now, you basically just need to be better than the Colts.

Some of the best college coaches of our time — Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier, et al — head to the pros and don’t get it done. But the three that have headed there and won it all at the next level do have that one thing in common: maybe their ethics weren’t completely elite when they were back in college. So maybe that’s the formula owners should be looking at: save a guy and he’ll save your franchise at the same time.

By the way, Carroll vs. Kelly — Eagles vs. Seahawks — will be played in Philly next year; we just don’t know the date.

Ted Bauer

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