10 NFL coaches who went back to college
If he takes the Michigan job, Jim Harbaugh won’t be the first coach with a winning NFL record to have left for his alma mater.
Choosing to leave an NFL job for a college one is rare. That’s what Michigan is attempting to convince San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh to do, reportedly offering him a deal that would make him the highest-paid college coach in the country.
It’s easy to think of reasons for an NFL head coach to decline an opportunity to move to the college ranks. But there is some precedent on the Wolverines’ side. And of the following 10 coaches who went straight to college from the NFL, only two did so with a winning record in the league, like Harbaugh’s. Both of those did so to return to their alma maters, like Harbaugh could.
This list doesn’t include coaches like Steve Spurrier, Pete Carroll, Mike Riley, Rich Brooks, or Jim Mora, each of whom had at least a year between his NFL head coaching departure and his return as a college head coach.
Where he left: Green Bay Packers 1971-74, 25-27-4
Where he went: Notre Dame 1975-80, 53-16-1
A former successful college coach with Arizona State and Missouri, Devine was hired to replace Phil Bengston, Vince Lombardi’s replacement in Green Bay. He made the playoffs in his second year, but was unable to repeat that. He resigned in December of 1974, taking over for Ara Parseghian at Notre Dame and winning the 1977 national championship with quarterback Joe Montana.
Where he left: New York Jets 1976, 3-10
Where he went: Arkansas 1977-83, 60-21-2
After four straight bowl games and three ranked finishes with NC State, Holtz was hired by the Jets prior to the 1976 season. He resigned with one game remaining. He had three ranked finishes and one conference title at Arkansas before getting fired for a 6-5 season. He later won a national title with Notre Dame.
Where he left: Seattle Seahawks 1995-98, 31-33
Where he went: Oregon State 1999-2002, 31-17
A two-time national champion at Miami, Erickson could never crack the eight-win mark in the NFL. He was fired by Seattle after his third .500 season in four years. In 1999, he led Oregon State to its first winning season in 29 years, and the Beavers won their first-ever share of the Pac-10 championship in 2000. He left OSU for the 49ers head coaching job, and was fired again after a 9-23 record.
Where he left: San Diego Chargers 1998, 3-7
Where he went: Hawai’i 1999-2007, 76-41
Jones was the interim head coach of the Chargers when Hawai’i hired him, but he was reportedly the top candidate for the full-time position. Inheriting a team that had lost 18 in a row, Jones orchestrated what was one of the biggest turnarounds in college football history, going 9-4 with a share of the WAC title in his first season. Hawai’i won at least 10 games three times during Jones’ tenure.
Where he left: New York Jets 2000, 9-7
Where he went: Virginia 2001-09, 59-54
A longtime NFL assistant, Groh left the NFL after a successful first season as a head coach. The former defensive end at Virginia left for his alma mater, saying:
The University of Virginia is my school. I wore that jersey and it means a great deal to me. My mom lives there and my dad is buried there. At the end, all those things were too much to deny. I realize there will be some criticism of this. But only I know my heart.
The Cavaliers saw early success, with four straight bowl games. Virginia had one winning season over the next four years, however, and Groh was fired after a 3-9 2009.
Where he left: Oakland Raiders 2002-03, 15-17
Where he went: Nebraska 2004-07, 27-22
In Callahan’s first season in Oakland, he reached the Super Bowl. In his second, he was fired. His tenure at Nebraska went somewhat differently: in his first season, he led the Huskers’ first losing season in more than 40 years, following that with two winning seasons. He was fired after a 5-7 2007.
Where he left: Miami Dolphins 2000-04, 42-31
Where he went: Pittsburgh 2005-10, 42-31
Wannstedt led the Dolphins to back-to-back playoff appearances in his first two years. Then the disastrous 2004 struck, when he resigned after a 1-8 start. He then took the job at Pitt, his alma mater. After sitting at home without a bowl in each of his first three seasons, Pitt won 19 games over the next two years, finishing 2009 No. 15 in the AP Poll. Wannstedt resigned after a 7-5 2010.
Where he left: Miami Dolphins 2005-06, 15-17
Where he went: Alabama 2007-Present, 91-16
Saban left LSU for the Dolphins after winning two conference championships and a national title in five years. He recorded a 9-7 mark in his first year in Miami. After a 6-10 2006, Saban resigned to take the Alabama job. The Tide have won three of the last five national championships and are the top seed in this year’s College Football Playoff.
Where he left: Atlanta Falcons 2007, 3-10
Where he went: Arkansas 2008-11, 34-17
Petrino was hired by the Falcons in January 2007, less than half a year after signing a 10-year extension with Louisville (at the time, he said he was “making a statement” that he was staying). After saying in November he had not considered leaving the Falcons, he resigned in December and took the Arkansas job. Petrino posted two double-digit win seasons at Arkansas before being fire amid scandal.
Where he left: Oakland Raiders 2007-08, 5-15
Where he went: Tennessee 2009, 7-6
Kiffin was one of many Raiders coaches fired by Al Davis, dismissed after a 1-3 start to his second season. He became the youngest FBS head coach in the country when he was hired by Tennessee. Kiffin was hired by USC after his only season with the Volunteers, and was fired midway through his fourth season with the Trojans.