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Jump from college to pros can be tough for coaches

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Recent posts by Kevin Fishbain

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By Kevin Fishbain

New 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh has a tough task in front of him, despite a good football pedigree and success in the college ranks. Not only does he inherit a team without a proven quarterback, he is looking directly in the eye at a long history of failure.

The transition from college coach to professional coach is not an easy one. Nearly every coach coming from campus had struggles in Year One. Even Jimmy Johnson, who won a national title at the University of Miami and two Super Bowls with the Cowboys, started his pro career with a 1-15 record in Dallas in 1989.

Here's how the last 10 coaches fared when going from working with a college team one year to an NFL team the next. The record for their first pro season is in parentheses.

Pete Carroll (7-9) — Following 15 years in the NFL ranks, Carroll dominated in college, leading USC to two national championships and four Rose Bowl wins, before returning to the NFL with the Seahawks. Despite a subpar 7-9 record, Carroll was lucky enough to spend his first season coaching in one of the worst divisions in league history, leading Seattle to the NFC West title. The Seahawks then pulled off one of the bigger upsets in NFL history, defeating the defending-champion Saints in a wild-card game before losing to the Bears in the divisional round.

Bobby Petrino (3-10) — After leading a 12-1 Louisville team to victory in the Orange Bowl, Petrino decided to make the jump to the NFL. However, he did not stick around for the entire 2007 season. Following a 34-14 loss to the Saints in Week 14, Petrino resigned from his position, leaving notes for his players in the locker room and becoming a punch line for his poor form in leaving Atlanta. He left to take over at the University of Arkansas, where he currently is the head coach.

Lane Kiffin (4-12) — In the rare jump from college coordinator to pro head coach, Kiffin lasted one-plus seasons in Oakland after six seasons with USC. Kiffin, known for his high-octane offenses at USC, watched the Raiders finish 25th in the league in total offense as three different quarterbacks started games, including JaMarcus Russell, one of the bigger NFL draft busts of all time. Kiffin was fired four games into the 2008 season and returned to the college ranks in '09.

Nick Saban (9-7) — After a rocky 3-7 start, the Dolphins won their last six games under the ex-LSU coach in his first season. But he couldn't resolve the QB issues that plagued his team following the decision to sign Daunte Culpepper instead of Drew Brees in free agency prior to the 2005 season. He returned to the SEC, this time to coach Alabama, following a 6-10 season.

Steve Spurrier (7-9) — The "Ol' Ball Coach" made the Gators a perennial power in 12 seasons at Florida before trying his luck in the pros with the Redskins. Behind three different starting QBs, the 'Skins went 7-9 in his first season, then 5-11 in '03 before Spurrier left the NFL and eventually returned to the SEC with South Carolina.

Butch Davis (7-9) — Following an 11-1 season at the University of Miami with a roster loaded with NFL talent, Davis took over the Browns in 2000. He lasted four seasons in Cleveland, highlighted by the franchise's only playoff appearance since returning to the league — a 9-7 season in 2002.

Mike Riley (8-8) — The Chargers made a surprising hire of Riley in 1999 after a pair of average seasons at Oregon State. He did well his first year, at .500, but compiled a 6-26 record over his final two seasons, including 1-15 in 2000. After one more year as an NFL assistant, Riley returned to Oregon State in '03 and he is still the Beavers' head coach.

Steve Mariucci (13-3) — A longtime NFL assistant with the Packers, Mariucci was hired at Cal in 1996. Following one season leading the Golden Bears, the coach moved across the bay to take the head job with the 49ers. He led San Francisco to the playoffs four times in six seasons.

Dennis Erickson (8-8 and 7-9) — Erickson made the jump from college to the NFL­ — twice. After going from the University of Miami to the Seahawks in 1995, the coach had four solid seasons in Seattle but could never make the postseason. After returning to college at Oregon State, the 49ers came calling in 2003, though that lasted only two seasons before he was fired after a 2-14 mark in '04.

Rich Brooks (7-9) — Following a Rose Bowl loss in his 18th season at Oregon, Brooks came to the NFL and got off to a 4-0 start in the Rams' first season in St. Louis. But they finished 7-9, giving up more than 26 points a game. Brooks lasted just two seasons before joining the Falcons' staff as an assistant.


PFW associate editor Eli Kaberon contributed to this story.

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