The NFL coaching carousal is like a game of Musical Chairs. The only difference is when the music stops (aka, someone is fired) there’s a chair left for everybody, though nobody ever gets the comfy confines of the same chair 2 consecutive times. Currently there are 6 empty chairs in the NFL, which is low considering each of the last 5 off-seasons has seen 7 head coaching changes. Despite the fact the search for a head coach in the NFL these days is usually one big recycling regime, there are some very intriguing names in college football who should expect some inquiries this impending off-season.
Last season saw only one coach make the leap from college to the pros (Southern Mississippi head coach Tom Monken departed to become the Buccaneers offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach), and while the NFL is always a threat to pinch coaches from the collegiate level, that hasn’t happened since Chip Kelly left the University of Oregon to take up the head coaching role in Philly (and we know how that turned out).
Here’s a list of the top 5 current college coaches who could make a splash at one of the current NFL openings:
1. Jim Harbaugh: Head Coach of Michigan.
Coach Harbaugh is number 1 on this list because he’s the most recent of these candidates to have held an NFL head coaching role. Harbaugh seems to make whatever team he goes to better over night, possessing an almost magic-like ability to turn crap teams into, at the very least, competitive. After taking a mediocre 49’ers team to 3 NFC Championship games and a Superbowl appearence in his 4 years in San Fran, Harbaugh has now taken a Michigan team that finished 5-7 under former coach Brady Hoke to back to back 10 win seasons. Though notoriously intense and capable of flaming out quickly in any given coaching location, Owners and GM’s would be backing up truck fulls of money if Harbaugh even hinted about maybe returning to the NFL.
Possible Fit: Denver. Loaded defense with a very intriguing young QB (Paxton Lynch) could tempt Harbaugh away from Ann Arbour.
2. Nick Saban: Head Coach of Alabama
The Master. If this were a list in order of most likely to return to the NFL, Saban would be dead last. Every off-season his name comes up, and every off-season he returns to Alabama to continue his legendary status in the college ranks. Why would he want to leave? 10 years at Alabama with an all-time record of 114-18 and 4 National Championships in 9 years (with a possible 5th coming next Tuesday) is quite a statement. Saban has full control over a football program he has helped turn into a college juggernaut, and is on just as good money as any coach in the country earning an estimated $6.9 million per season. He has coached at the professional level before, of course, taking the Miami Dolphins to a combined 15-17 over two short lived seasons (Amazingly, Saban suffered his only losing season as a head coach at Miami in 2006 when the team finished 6-10). A return to coaching in the NFL could only be described as “unfinished business” for a man who has everything he could want at the University of Alabama.
Possible Fit: Buffalo. Sammy Watkins said recently he believes the Bills need a “strict” coach who can change the culture in the Buffalo locker room. Tick and Tick. Saban can’t play QB though.
3. Brian Kelly: Head Coach of Notre Dame.
Kelly has been at Notre Dame for 7 seasons now, and has done a fantastic job over that span with a win-loss record of 59-31. Though 2016 was a disappointing year for Kelly and Notre Dame (the Fighting Irish finished 4-8), there’s no doubt Kelly can coach and would be an ideal fit for an NFL franchise searching for a leader at the head coaching position. Kelly has done his time in the college ranks, coaching Grand Valley State before moving on to Central Michigan, then landing at the University of Cincinnati. Kelly’s resume inlcudes take Notre Dame to the National Championship game in 2012. A slight issue for some Owners may be that Kelly lacks the burning desire to coach at the next level, being on record as saying “it’s not a dream of his to coach in the NFL”. Kelly did interview for the Philadelphia job in 2012 before the Eagles hired Chip Kelly.
Possible Fit: Jacksonville. A roster with good young talent on defence, with a young (albeit polarising) option at QB.
4. Jimbo Fisher: Head Coach of Florida State.
Fisher has been head coach at FSU for 7 seasons now, and has turned the program into a national powerhouse. With a record of 78-17 over those 7 seasons, Fisher certainly has his name in the discussion for a possible NFL coaching role, running a pro-style offense and regularly churning out defensive talent into the NFL. Having spent the entire 21st century coaching at big time programs (Offensive coordinator at LSU from 2000-2006, FSU 2007-present), and being a graduate from the school of Nick Saban-ism, owners and GM’s are sure to be circling. Fisher has stated in the past that coaching in the NFL is not his “end-all ambition”, however also stating that he’d “never say never”.
Possible Fit: LA. An extremely talented defense with an offense that has some pieces to work with including a young QB that the franchise is tied to for the foreseeable future. Fisher has the personality for the big time role.
5. Urban Meyer: Head Coach of Ohio State
Having begun his coaching career at Bowling Green University, Meyer moved his way way up the college ranks from Bowling Green to the University of Utah, coach Meyer then landed at Florida, before eventually signing on to become head coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes in 2012. In his 5 years at OU, Meyer has an impressive record of 61-6, including a Nation Championship at the end of the 2014 season with an Ohio State team that many experts thought wouldn’t challenge for a national title for another season or two, given the relatively young age demographic. Thanks to his relative young age (52) and the fact Meyer has now seen an entire class of his own recruits move through the University, it may be possible for someone to poach Meyer from OU, given the right circumstances and financial reward. He did confirm in December 2015 that he had been contacted about a possible head coaching role in the NFL, though Meyer declined and opted to stay at OU. Could an NFL owner give Urban Meyer an offer too good to refuse? That’s perhaps what it may take to oust Meyer from one of the most sought after head coaching jobs in the NCAA.
Possible Fit: San Diego. Meyer could get the best out of a team with undoubted talent just about everywhere on the roster and a criminally underrated QB.