So, this isn’t necessarily a discussion of the Cleveland Cavaliers parting ways with head coach John Beilein but more of a discussion of how college coaches have not panned out in the professional level.
Now to start with Beilein, I was actually stunned in the first place he would leave Michigan to begin with. The guy is 67 years old and honestly I didn’t pen him as being one of those coaches later on that would try the NBA. Beilein when he arrived at Michigan turned the Wolverines program from being a mediocre Big Ten squad to being near atop of the conference and making fans reminisce a bit of the old days of the Fab Five. When the Cavaliers came calling and he listened it was stunning because it just didn’t seem like it would be a fit especially in today’s NBA. And the feeling came to fruition as Cleveland is 14-40 in 2019-2020 while Beilein looked like he was in way over his head with the Cavaliers. So we can chalk up another head coach who did not pan out in the pros. And it made me think of other head coaches in basketball and football who were great on the college level but could not translate into success at the pros. So for every Jimmy Johnson and Larry Brown, there are about 5 Bobby Petrinos and 5 Rick Pitinos. But I will go with the notable ones of modern times (which eliminates Lou Holtz in his one year with the New York Jets in 1976).
JERRY TARKANIAN (UNLV TO THE SAN ANTONIO SPURS): Tark the Shark is a controversial figure in college with methods that would infuriate the NCAA and became a lightning rod for controversy pretty much allowing players at UNLV to succumb under improper benefits or bringing in guys with checkered pasts. However, nobody will ever deny Tark the Shark was a great college basketball coach. However, after a year off of college basketball, the San Antonio Spurs hired Tarkanian to run the team led by David Robinson. After quarreling with owner Red McCombs about how he wanted to run the team, and a slow start for San Antonio, the Spurs fired Tarkanian after a 9-11 start. Tarkanian went back to college and coached at his alma mater at Fresno State, but probation for the Bulldogs would follow him after he retired.
JOHN CALIPARI (UMASS TO THE NEW JERSEY NETS): Today John Calipari (albeit controversially) is known as one of college basketball’s elite coaches. And many feel his methods of bringing guys into programs are questionable. With that said, he has been an amazing head coach for nearly 30 years now. However, Calipari left UMass to try his chances in the NBA by coaching the New Jersey Nets. After a “meh” first year in 1996-1997 where New Jersey went 26-56, the Nets made a move in the draft getting Keith Van Horn compiling him next to Jayson Williams on the frontcourt to be a formidable tandem. New Jersey made the playoffs under Calipari in 1998 before being swept by the Bulls but the next season was a disaster. Calipari lost starting point guard Sam Cassell and New Jersey floundered to 3-17 before Calipari got the ax. After spending one season in Philadelphia as an assistant to Larry Brown, Calipari went to Memphis and then Kentucky building powerhouses wherever he went.
RICK PITINO (KENTUCKY TO BOSTON CELTICS): Now it isn’t lost on me that Pitino had success when he was with the Knicks in the late 80’s winning a division title with them in 1989 before he went back to college. When Pitino went back to Kentucky, he built a powerhouse squad that was always a threat to win a national championship, getting to the Final Four three times in five years, including a National Championship in 1996. Rumors always persisted late that Pitino was ready to make the jump back into the NBA with the Boston Celtics not just being the head coach but president of basketball operations. Boston in the mid-90’s was an epic disaster of a basketball franchise, a far cry from the glory years of Bird-Parish-McHale. The hope was that Pitino would take over and that the Celtics would draft first overall to get Tim Duncan, which would set up another great Boston dynasty. Instead, nope. Boston got the 3rd pick, used it on Chauncey Billups (and later traded mid-season of his rookie year), drafted Kentucky player Ron Mercer and traded for another Kentucky standout in Walter McCarty. However, it didn’t work as Boston failed to get into the playoffs in each of PItino’s 4 seasons and Celtics fans were more disgusted with him than his predecessor ML Carr. Pitino left Boston midway in the 2000-2001 season and returned back to college basketball with Louisville where we all know how that ended up.
BOBBY PETRINO (LOUISVILLE TO THE ATLANTA FALCONS): Bobby Petrino has been blasted by everyone with a pulse for the past 15 years. And for good reason as this was how it started. Petrino signed a 10 year contract extension with Louisville after the 2006 season. Six months later he left Louisville to coach the Atlanta Falcons. Now Petrino was thinking he would have ended up with superstar quarterback Mike Vick, but Vick was imprisoned and wasn’t around. So Petrino went from having Mike Vick to a tandem of Joey Harrington and Byron Leftwich in Atlanta. Petrino’s tenure as coach was a disaster as it seemed he had no control over the Falcons players. The players didn’t seem like they wanted him there and near the end of the season when the Falcons were 3-10 Petrino left for Arkansas. What was so disgusting about it was Petrino promised owner Arthur Blank he would stay in Atlanta to coach and then 24 hours later accepted a job with Arkansas while leaving a 4-sentence laminated letter to the Falcons players. Petrino had some success at Arkansas (including a Sugar Bowl appearance), but karma has a funny way of working things out as Petrino was fired for not fully disclosing the truth of a motorcycle accident where he and a female assistant coordinator were involved (and he was having an affair with). Of course, some people will never learn.
NICK SABAN (LSU TO THE MIAMI DOLPHINS): Many possibly thought Saban would have joined the ranks of Jimmy Johnson of finding great success in college AND the NFL. However, one reason why Saban even today is still vilified by some was his issues of upping and leaving programs. He left a sour taste in Michigan State’s fans mouths when he left the Spartans for LSU in 1999. After building a powerhouse program at LSU, Saban left for the Dolphins after the 2004 season. Saban started off well in 2005, getting Miami to a 9-7 record after being 4-12 in 2004. And hope was abound in Miami and Saban wanted Drew Brees to take over at quarterback. Saban wanted Brees but Miami’s medical staff was skeptical Drew’s shoulder would ever be the same. So Brees opted to go with the Saints for more guaranteed money and Miami traded a second round pick for Minnesota’s Daunte Culpepper. It was something that I think bothered Saban in Miami and probably put a major strain on that relationship. Then 4 games into the 2007 season Culpepper was injured, the Dolphins struggled on offense, and Brees becomes a New Orleans hero. Miami goes 6-10 but in the final month of the season, Saban was plagued constantly with questions of him leaving the Dolphins to coach at Alabama, who had an opening. After a month of denial, Saban left the Dolphins for Alabama, thus also giving him a label of a guy who couldn’t stick around with one team for a lengthy period of time. However it seemed like in his two seasons, Saban was really a college style head coach that at points Dolphins players didn’t seem to embrace too much with. But things have changed at least on Saban’s end where he is still at Alabama and probably for the remainder of his coaching career and has probably become the greatest coach of his era in college football. Maybe it was his possible interesting relationship with the Dolphins braintrust that really doomed him from the NFL.
STEVE SPURRIER (FLORIDA TO WASHINGTON REDSKINS): Steve Spurrier was that head coach everybody wanted to beat. He talked the talk when he was with the Gators but more importantly he walked the walk. His fun n gun offense propelled Florida as the team to beat in the SEC for pretty much a decade. His comments towards rivals Florida State, Georgia, and Tennessee made him a lightning rod of hate for fan bases of those programs while running the scores up on teams. After thinking he did all he could do with the Gators including a national championship, Spurrier thought he could take his coaching style to the NFL as the free spending Redskins gave him the keys to the car and restore them back to prominence. However, Spurrier’s style in the NFL of fun n gun was a disaster as teams blitzed the snot out of the Skins, who were pretty much a pass only squad primarily composing of Florida players at QB and WR (and most of them were second string caliber guys). And prior to the 2002 season, Spurrier tried to do his thing of talking a lot towards Eagles, Cowboys, and Giants but instead had a heavy taste of his own medicine of teams trying to run the score up on him. It wore thin after the second year as Spurrier was shown the door in Washington after being 11-21. He went back to college in South Carolina, pretty much humbled.
CHIP KELLY (OREGON TO THE PHILADELPHIA EAGLES AND THEN SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS): “Those who do not learn from history…” Kelly, who nearly perfected the spread and the quick-strike style offenses at Oregon left the Ducks to join the exciting Eagles teams of the mid 2010’s. With Mike Vick at quarterback, many hoped the Eagles offense would be stout. They were actually pretty stout…with Nick Foles at quarterback. The Eagles had their man with Foles after Vick went down and won the NFC East but losing to New Orleans in the Wild Card round. Despite a great start in 2014 at being 9-3, the Eagles fell apart down the stretch going 10-6, largely with injuries to Foles and having to rely on Mark Sanchez down the stretch, really doomed Philadelphia and failed to make the playoffs. The next season, Kelly moved what many were viewing their MVP in LeSean McCoy to Buffalo, which really ended up being his own downfall. Kelly then started shipping all the stars that helped them win a division title and finish 10-6 the next season such as McCoy, Jeremy Maclin, Foles, and others. Kelly’s offense was a mess which put strain on the defense by November where they were getting blown out by teams who were not in any form of playoff contention (Buccaneers, Lions) and he was shown the door for the mess he had made. Kelly joined the Niners in 2016 when they were pretty much in shambles and the only storyline had been Colin Kaepernick and the National Anthem. The team continued the trend of Kelly’s Eagles team in 2015 where they were just getting ran out of the building in games and finished dead last in defense. Needless to say he didn’t come back in 2017. Kelly had early success, but his ego like so many others really kept him from being a true success story in NFL but given his mentality of trying to run an NFL team like a college program, he proved he was not a fit for the pros. At all.
BARRY SWITZER (OKLAHOMA TO DALLAS COWBOYS): Okay, this one IS pushing it. Unlike everyone else on here, Switzer was given the keys to the top of the line Porsche in Dallas with the likes of Aikman/Smith/Irvin in their primes. We all know the story with Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones bickering which caused Jimmy to be ousted in Dallas. So Jerry hired Switzer, pretty much a “yes man” to him. Switzer garnered a lot of success at Oklahoma in his time there but also had been ridiculed for lack of controlling his players which netted some NCAA issues. And yes, Switzer helped the Cowboys to two 12-4 seasons including one with a Super Bowl attached to it. However, many viewed it as the Jimmy Johnson Cowboys that won it and not his. Is that assessment fair? Perhaps not, but many felt like that Dallas team in 1995 was a far cry from the ones in 1992 and 1993 when they flat-out dominated the NFL landscape. In 1996, with Dallas starting to reach infamy with off-the field issues with Michael Irvin and Kevin Williams, the pure arrogance of the likes of Deion Sanders, the Cowboys dynasty fell after a loss to the Panthers in the divisional round. The next year, the bottom fell out as Dallas fell to 6-10 as Switzer just flat-out lost control of the players and really, the franchise has never been fully the same. Again, was it Switzer’s doing? Perhaps not, but many feel like the minute that Switzer joined and just kept the status quo and let the “boys be boys and make sure my boss is happy” really ended Dallas’s dynasty which honestly could have been something similar to the New England Patriots as we have come to see.
In the end, coaches who tend to dominate the landscape in college will have egos and rightfully so. You can’t have an inflated ego if you aren’t a successful coach. But it also comes a time that the things coaches do that isn’t working on the next level, is that you have to change your methods and styles. College coaches think their styles will work in the pros but once they don’t they seem more driven to make sure it does and they continue to spiral down and the end result is a disaster for them and the franchise they were brought in to lead. And we will see more Beileins come and go, we will see more Spurriers come and go, but it will be somebody who will have to check their ego at the door in order for those teams to be successful with them under their watch.
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat