Professional and collegiate football are entirely different games.
The professional athletes are faster. The schemes are more complex. Recruiting is no longer necessary, and luring free agents under the promise of success and money is imperative.
It will be different territory for former UF and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who’s making the jump from the college level to the NFL to coach the Jacksonville Jaguars. The move doesn’t have a high hit rate for those who have tried, and Meyer isn’t inheriting a wealth of talent in Duval.
When an NFL team hires a coach from the college level, the results don’t exactly scream success. To start, let’s look at who I’d say are the only two successful coaches to make the jump: Jimmy Johnson and Jim Harbaugh. (I’m not counting Pete Carroll because he had experience as an NFL head coach before moving to Southern California.)
Johnson was 81-34-3 in the NCAA across his head coaching career, and he translated that success to the pro level with an 80-64 overall record and two Super Bowls. Harbaugh’s record before taking the 49ers job wasn’t stellar — he was just 29-21 at Stanford — but he adapted well to the next level, going 44-19-1 with San Francisco and taking the team to the Super Bowl in 2012.
Other examples aren’t as kind.
Oregon’s Chip Kelly made the playoffs once with the Eagles after coaching Oregon but only lasted three years. Louisville’s Bobby Petrino didn’t even last an entire season with the Falcons in 2007, leaving the team after a 3-10 start to the season. Alabama’s Nick Saban left the Miami Dolphins after going 15-17 through two seasons and clashing with players.
Meyer isn’t the first former Florida coach to move on to the professional level. Steve Spurrier tried his luck in Washington but only lasted two years. He finished his professional head coaching career at an abysmal 12-20, though he did have the best record in the AAF in 2019.
But what gives college coaches so much trouble at the next level? To start, college coaches have players on scholarship instead of coaching players on contract in the pros. This gives a college coach a much greater sense of control over the student-athletes they deem worthy of scholarships than the NFL players who are getting paid millions of dollars by the team itself while unionized. College coaches also typically recruit their players themselves by visiting them and building a relationship with them. In contrast, pro coaches have to work with the team’s general manager to draft players (and they may not be able to draft the players they want).
The general shift from total control to a more scheme-focused approach is what has tripped up college coaches in the past, and Meyer will look to adjust accordingly at the next level.
Meyer will certainly have lots of capability to improve the Jaguars’ roster — far more than most college coaches get when entering their first NFL season. He’ll have the most cap space in the NFL, including 11 total draft picks and the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 draft. He’ll almost certainly use the first pick to draft Clemson phenom Trevor Lawrence.
It’s a ton of firepower, but it probably won’t be enough to get him more than six wins in Jacksonville next season.
To say the Jaguars have holes in the roster would be a severe understatement. Aside from a budding, young star running back James Robinson and solid producer at wide receiver in DJ Chark, the offense is ripe with depth issues and desperately needs more help on the offensive line and at tight end.
Linebacker Myles Jack is a cornerstone for the defense. Still, new edge-rushing talent and the defensive line are in desperate need of addressing — not to mention the young secondary needing to gain some experience.
Meyer can fix some of these problems through the draft and free agency, but it will be difficult for him to make an immediate impact in Jacksonville. The Jaguars could do a bit better than the Bengals did this year, a team that finished 4-11-1 in their first rebuilding year without the cap and draft picks Jacksonville has.
Urban Meyer could find success down the road with the Jaguars and buck the college coaches’ trend at the next level. It will be tough, and if that success comes, it certainly won’t come immediately.
Contact River Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @riverhwells