Things for Eagles to ponder if they consider a college head coach

Posted: December 10, 2012

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were 3-1 in 2011 before their season unraveled - sound familiar? - and they lost their last 10 games to finish 4-12 in a free fall that prompted a coaching change. The front office began a wide-ranging search that neared completion in January, when Oregon's Chip Kelly appeared ready to accept the job.

When Kelly declined, the Buccaneers regrouped and landed former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano.

"I knew it was going [in Kelly's direction] when I was involved with them, and quite frankly, I wanted the job, so I wasn't happy," Schiano said. "But then when the thing changed a couple hours later, I was more happy."

Schiano has already improved on last year's win total and has Tampa Bay at 6-6 entering Sunday's game against the Eagles. Jim Harbaugh transformed the San Francisco 49ers from 6-10 in 2010 to 13-3 in 2011 during his first season after leaving Stanford.

These are intriguing samples for Eagles fans to analyze. Tampa Bay's coaching search featured college head coaches, a route that has produced mixed results in recent seasons. In four weeks, it's likely the Eagles will start a similar search. And it's expected Kelly will be among the most popular names for the job.

With Harbaugh's success and the turnaround Schiano is beginning with Tampa Bay, the stigma attached to college coaches in the NFL is beginning to dissipate.

But there are also cautionary tales, such as Steve Spurrier's failed tenure with the Washington Redskins and Bobby Petrino's brief and disastrous foray with the Atlanta Falcons.

Buying in

Schiano was not a complete outsider to the NFL, having worked as an assistant with the Chicago Bears from 1996 to 1998. He called that experience "the biggest thing" in his understanding of the NFL. Eleven seasons as the head coach at Rutgers also allowed Schiano to be the chief decision-maker, although he coached players ages 18 to 22.

"In the National Football League, I have a 21-year-old rookie and I have a 37-year-old safety," Schiano said. "You have a lot of guys at different stages of life."

Schiano also noted the marked difference in the number of players he coaches. An NFL team has 53 players on the active roster and eight on the practice squad. College football coaches have 85 scholarships to distribute before factoring in walk-ons.

"With 61 guys, you can really have individual [work]," Schiano said. "We had double that at Rutgers. . . . It's fewer, and there's more challenges to setting a plan for each one, but when there's less guys, it's easier to do that."

NFL teams also do not have the rigid limits on practice hours that college teams do. Players arrive at the team facility in the morning and do not need to worry about class schedules or NCAA restrictions. A college coach's schedule also includes recruiting responsibilities and even fund-raising requirements. Schiano said he can devote extra time to "football and personnel."

To persuade players to buy into his system, Schiano said, they needed to know he cared and was committed to making them better. But the environment he created is also specific to his personality, and could be traced to his roots.

"Schiano's much more fiery, he's a much more intense person," said Eagles practice squad guard Julian Vandervelde, who was with the Eagles last year and spent September in Tampa Bay. "You see that in his interviews. He's the same way on the practice field. He's a yeller and a screamer. That's what works for him."

Vandervelde described the Eagles as a "professional atmosphere," and said coach Andy Reid "lets his players be players." He said the Buccaneers have more of a "college environment."

"It's a very, very different environment, almost the exact opposite of the environment here," Vandervelde said. "I don't have a preference for either one, as long as they're letting us play football."

Vandervelde said that the key is winning, and that the players' opinion of Schiano would likely be different if they were 2-10, not 6-6.

System issues

A key when hiring a college coach is to hire the coach's mind, philosophy, and personality - not his scheme. Spurrier brought an offense that dominated college football but was less effective in the NFL. Petrino arrived from Louisville in 2007 with plans to coach Michael Vick. When Vick was imprisoned, Petrino's plan and system fell apart, and he did not last a full season.

Kelly has thrived at Oregon with an up-tempo offensive system built on speed and the play count, and his innovative mind is what's most celebrated. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick even hosted Kelly to discuss his style, according to a Boston Globe article in October. The Patriots score a league-high 35.8 points with a league-high 883 plays and feature Oregon influences.

"I think it could work [in the NFL]," Eagles linebacker Casey Matthews, a former Oregon linebacker, said of Kelly's offense. "I don't see why it couldn't. It's pretty tough to stop. Even when you have it down, teams will start getting tired quick. They're not used to that pace."

Matthews discussed Kelly in general, and was in no way connecting him to the Eagles job. But the point is that concerns about how that system could translate to the NFL should be squashed when you consider the Patriots and understand the reputation that Kelly has, even though he has never coached in the NFL. Similar arguments about NFL readiness could be applied to other college coaches - whether it's Stanford's David Shaw or Penn State's Bill O'Brien, who both have NFL experience - based on the culture they created with their programs.

One reason coaches can adjust more quickly in 2012 is access to information. Schiano remembers when game film was on 16mm tape with only three versions available. Now, any fan can access game video, and plays can be broken down.

College coaches do not have time to try to adjust to the NFL game. They need to win early - both to get their locker room to buy in, and to keep their job long enough to prove a college coach can work in the NFL.

"Make sure that's what you want first. I love it, but it's not for everybody," Schiano said. "Make sure you have your ducks in a row as far as how you're going to do things, because you don't have a lot of time."


Hits and Misses

FOUR WHO WORKED

Jimmy Johnson, right: The standard- bearer of college coaches taking NFL jobs rebuilt the Cowboys and won two Super Bowls.

Jim Harbaugh: The 49ers will make the postseason for the second consecutive season under Harbaugh after an eight-year drought.

Dennis Green: He led the Vikings to the playoffs eight times in 10 years after leaving Stanford in 1991.

Tom Coughlin: The two-time Super Bowl winner with the Giants started his NFL head-coaching career when he left Boston College and turned the expansion Jaguars into a playoff team from scratch.

FOUR WHO MISSED

Steve Spurrier: The 'Ol Ball Coach went 12-20 with the Washington Redskins after his offense proved to work better with Florida in the SEC than in the NFL.

Bobby Petrino: He went to Atlanta to coach Michael Vick, and left for Arkansas after 13 miserable games and Vick's off-field issues.

Nick Saban: The best coach in college football went 15-17 in two seasons with the Miami Dolphins.

Mike Riley: An underrated college coach, Riley had a forgettable three-year stint in San Diego.

- Zach Berman


Contact Zach Berman at zberman@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @ZBerm.

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