Predicting the Panther Head Coaching Candidates - the College Boys

Tom Pennington

In this series, we have looked at scenarios where the Panthers dipped into the Offensive and Defensive Coordinator ranks to find their next head coach. That's a traditional path for NFL teams, and Jerry Richardson is an owner who respects tradition.

But so far all tradition has gotten him is a few notable seasons laid on top of a history of futility. As a franchise, Carolina has a 133-158 record, and only one of of their coaches has managed to leave with a winning record. Maybe this time, the front office will do something different. Maybe they'll take a chance on a college coach.

Over the past few years, there have been three notable NFL coaching hires from the collegiate ranks. Pete Carroll in Seattle, Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco, and Greg Schiano in Tampa Bay. Each of them has outperformed expectations, and at the time of this writing, each has a winning record.

But college coaches have also tried the NFL and failed miserably. Carolina fans surely delight in remembering the Bobby Petrino experience in Atlanta. Big names like Steve Spurrier, Butch Davis, Dennis Erickson, Lane Kiffin, Lou Holtz, Dick MacPherson, and Mike Riley headline a long list of coaches who thought their games could translate to success at the next level. And all of them were wrong.

Predicting the Offensive Coordinator Candidates

They all had something in common--little or no NFL experience, both coaching and playing. At the pro level, the players are bigger, faster, and smarter. More important, the overall talent level of most teams is even, with maybe one or two playmakers being the difference. On every team, the talent is there, and coaching is what can make the difference between 12-4 and 4-12.

So when you talk about college coaches going pro, it's a good idea to keep that in mind. There will always be some who might work out, like Jimmy Johnson and Bobby Ross. But the odds are long.

Most fans don't think of that, though. They feel like a coach who's used to recruiting kids and winning 10 games a year with top tier talent will adjust well to a league where success often means going just over .500 and they're working with adults who are playing more for the money than for school pride. And history shows that's not the case.

Predicting the Defensive Coordinator Candidates

Here's a list of coaches who you might hear mentioned as NFL coaching candidates, but every one of them has little or no NFL experience, and probably won't be seen on an NFL side line any time soon. So in short, these are the guys I considered for the short list but eventually did not make the cut.

Les Miles (LSU) - Miles has two years experience as a position coach at the pro level, but he's too busy submitting Nick Saban's resume to every GM in the NFL who might be looking for a head coach to have time for interviewing. He's also got to know that the mad hatter act won't fly at the pro level. And the reality is, he loves LSU. He turned down his dream college job a couple years ago to stay in Baton Rouge, and he's not looking to leave for the NFL now. Besides, why should he? He already gets to coach NFL caliber talent, and doesn't have to deal with a salary cap.

Chris Peterson (Boise St.) - Peterson's got a nice offensive background, and has done some really good things at Boise State. He's turned down offers at Penn State, Stanford, and UCLA already though, so he's obviously not looking to make a move. Maybe an NFL position would entice him, but his lack of experience makes him a huge risk.

Brian Kelly (Notre Dame) - He's got a lot of good experience as a head coach, and he's won every place he's been. He's one of the few inexperienced guys who might get a real look from NFL GMs. But Notre Dame is a dream job for a college coach, if you're winning. And right now he's winning.

Gary Patterson (Texas Christian University) - There's no denying that Patterson's done a great job at TCU. And he's gotten more than his share of accolades from his peers. So it makes sense to think of him as a potential candidate for an NFL Head Coach position. However, he's already turned down the opportunity to coach in the SEC, so he's shown that he's not interested in coaching at the pro level right now.

Gene Chizik (Auburn) - Chizik is on this list for two reasons. First, he's the last coach who was able to win anything with Cam Newton. Second, I have a sense of humor. Chizik? Really??? Seriously, people look at him as a candidate, but he can't win unless he has way more talent than his opponent, and everyone knows it.

Kevin Sumlin (Texas A&M) - He's still putting his stamp on A&M's program, and at this point he has less than a year of experience as a Head Coach. So far, he looks like he has a promising future, but there's no way he's ready for the NFL.

Bob Stoops (Oklahoma) - Stoops already makes more than your average NFL coach, so why would he want to leave? Also, given his record in big games, he would be quickly exposed at the pro level, and deep down he has to know it.

Pat Fitzgerald (Northwestern) - Fitzgerald is another up-and-comer, but he's just too young and too inexperienced to make the jump. His only exposure to the pro game was a year on the bench in Dallas, and it was during the Barry Switzer years, so the idea of pro football coaching would be completely new to him.

Bret Beilema (Wisconsin) - Beilema wins with a power game that ought to translate well to the NFL, and he does it without the regular influx of five star recruits that you see at Alabama and USC. But his team has been good, but not consistently great under his tenure, and he's only 2-4 in bowl games. It's not likely he will really be on any NFL GM's short list of candidates. With that said, he's one name that might surprise people, should he decide to make his interest known.

There are also a couple of other names that fans like to bring up. These two would be good candidates to make the jump, but for various reasons it's not likely.

Bill O'Brien (Penn State) - Like Kelly, O'Brien is also on a lot of short lists for NFL Coaching candidates who are currently in the college ranks. Unlike Kelly, O'Brien is probably staying put. For one, he has an incredibly expensive buyout clause in his contract, designed to be a major deterrent to potential NFL suitors. Can anyone really imagine JR paying a buyout to get an unproven coach?

Still, O'Brien has 19 years of coaching experience, with five at the pro level. From 2007-2011 he coached Wide Receivers, Offensive Line, and Quarterbacks under Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots.

O'Brien has his roots on the offensive side of the ball, and as a coordinator at the college level his teams were nothing special. Regardless, at Penn State he's shown that there is more to the job than just X's and O's. He inherited an extremely tough situation, and has managed to lead his team to a 7-4 record.

O'Brien is described as "tough" and "organized", but he's also known for his integrity, so don't look for him to leave the kids he's recruited any time soon.

David Shaw (Stanford) - Shaw has some solid NFL experience, serving nine years on the Ravens and Raiders coaching staffs. He's only in his second year as a head coach at Stanford, but he's been very successful both in that role and in his prior role as Offensive Coordinator. Of course, having Andrew Luck on your team doesn't hurt, but he's been just as effective without him.

Before taking over as Head Coach, Shaw was Stanford's offensive coordinator for four seasons, during which his unit set school scoring records twice. Stanford was the ninth-highest scoring team in the nation in 2010, averaging 40.31 points a game. Shaw's play calling in the red zone helped Stanford convert on a national-best 57.6 percent of its scoring opportunities inside the 20-yard line.

Shaw is a strong offensive mind in the mold of Jim Harbaugh, which makes him an attractive candidate for any NFL squad. However, prying him away from Stanford won't prove easy. He played college ball there, and describes the position as his dream job. It's extremely unlikely that the Panthers or any NFL team could lure him away right now. And even if they could, with only two years of head coaching experience, he's probably still a little raw.

So that leaves us with just a few coaches who are a real threat to make the jump. Not all of them have the NFL experience you might want, but for some reason you can honestly see an NFL GM taking a shot with them. And one or two of them might be very successful.

Here are the candidates, with a little information about each:

1. Chip Kelly (Oregon) - Kelly is everyone's favorite candidate to go to the next level. He's already turned down the Buccaneers, but the temptation to coach at the highest level coupled with a looming NCAA investigation into recruiting violation will probably see him leaving the Ducks this year.

In four seasons at Oregon, he's captured three Pac-10 titles, played for the National Championship, and set several offensive records. He started there at Offensive Coordinator in 2007, and took over in 2000.

Kelly is outstanding at setting up practices that force players to operate efficiently in the midst of noise and confusion, and he's got great organizational skills. If he could attract a staff with strong NFL experience, he may be able to translate his fast-break offense to the pro level.

Kelly is also quoted as saying, "I look for a quarterback who can run and not a running back who can throw. I want a quarterback who can beat you with his arm." At the NFL level, there are few Quarterbacks about whom you can really say that. But Cam Newton certainly fills the bill, and may be enough to make Carolina a fairly tempting place. Assuming the Panthers are interested, of course.

2. Jim Tressel - The former Ohio State head coach actually interviewed for the Indianapolis job last year, and since he's pretty much banned from College coaching for the next four years he has to be considered a candidate.

People will look to Pete Carroll as evidence that a major college coach can succeed in the NFL, forgetting the experiences that Saban and Petrino had just a few short years ago. The difference is that Pete Carroll was an NFL assistant for 15 years and had a year as teh head coach of the Jets before he went to USC. He didn't go to the NFL, he returned to it.

Tressel, on the other hand, came to Ohio State from a Division I-AA school. At the time, people laughed at Ohio State for even looking at a guy like that, much less hiring him. He responded with a 106-22 record with seven Big 10 championships. He did it with a spread-type offense, but there's no reason why he wouldn't shift to a more power-type offense with spread elements like the one he used with Beanie Wells at Ohio State.

If he decided to make the leap, he would have to hire great assistants with NFL backgrounds to be successful. But as an organizer, motivator, and tactician he does have the skills to compete in the big leagues. And he's the kind of guy who knows all of this, and would work without ego to make it happen. The only question is whether anyone will give him a chance.

3. Bo Pelini (Nebraska) - As college coaches go, Pelini should be a serious candidate for any NFL position given the success he's had at Nebraska. In 2008, he took a squad that had gone 5-7 the year before and returned them to national prominence, with a 9-4 record that was the highest among all 28 Division 1A teams with new head coaches that year. Since that year, the Huskers have finished in the top 25 consistently.

Pelini comes from the defensive side of the ball, and ha nine years experience as a position coach for the 49ers, Patriots, and Packers before becoming a college level Defensive Coordinator. At Nebraska, he runs a two gap scheme on defense that critics say is too complex for a collegiate team, but which works well at the next level.

On offense, the Huskers seem to favor a short passing game with a read-option rushing scheme. That won't fly in the NFL, so Pelini would have to be sure to get an offensive coordinator with solid NFL experience, similar to what John Fox did when he hired Dan Henning. The other concern about Pelini is his temper, he's known for his occasional explosions. Still, that may be something a young team needs.

He would also have to become a better gameday coach. Under his command, Nebraska is known for winning the games they're supposed to, but they rarely play above their talent and don't often upset opponents when they're in the underdog role. But right now, Pelini's got them in first place in the Legends division of the Big Ten, and looking forward to a championship showdown with Wisconsin.

4. Nick Saban (Alabama) - Like Pete Carroll, Saban has coached at the NFL level, and like Carroll, he didn't do so well the first time around. As the head coach of the Dolphins in 2005-2006, he went 15-17. That's not the disaster it sounds like though, the two years before and after his reign had a combined record of 5-27.

Coaching the Crimson Tide is one of the premier jobs in college football, and Saban has not only restored the program to national prominence, he's won two National Championships there and is in the hunt for a third. There's not a lot more that he can accomplish at the College level. And it's been pointed out by a few broadcasters that he just doesn't look like he's really having fun there any more. So it's not far fetched to think he might be interested in a return to the pro level--the competitor in him might demand it at some point.

Saban's also been a Defensive Coordinator at the NFL level, so that would satisfy any kind of unspoken conditions Jerry Richardson would place on a prospective coach (all of his coaches to date have been former DC's), and he's from the Bellichick coaching tree, which gives him not only a record of winning, but a nice pedigree.

Given another shot at the pros, it's very easy to see Saban building on his experience at Miami and finding success at the next level.

So those are the four I would include on my short of college coaches. Vote for your favorite and the winner will be included in our final poll to determine the CSR member preferred next head coach for the Carolina Panthers.

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