Editor’s Note: Jim Reineking is an editor for NFL.com. Here’s his take on Jimmy Johnson and the greatest coaches in both college and the NFL.
“Jimmy Johnson: A Football Life” debuts on NFL Network tonight at 8 p.m. ET.
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired Greg Schiano — who had lifted Rutgers from a football afterthought into a perennial bowl game participant — to be their head coach earlier this year, he became the latest in a long line of coaches to find success in college and then make the leap into the NFL.
Schiano can only hope to attain the level of success currently being enjoyed by Jim Harbaugh, whose San Francisco 49ers are taking aim at a Super Bowl. Harbaugh’s NFL success is rare. Most college coaches struggle to adjust to the professional game and become further examples of the dramatic differences between coaching kids out of high school and coaching grown men.
A who’s-who list of college football coaching icons attempted to find success in the NFL. Most failed miserably. Here’s a sampling of some of the most prominent :
» Nick Saban
» Bobby Petrino
» Dennis Erickson
» Butch Davis
» Steve Spurrier
» John McKay
» Bud Wilkinson
» Lou Holtz
» Frank Kush
» Dick MacPherson
» Gene Stallings
That aforementioned list combined for 15 national championships as head college coaches, but only five winning seasons as coaches in the NFL.
Jimmy Johnson — the subject of the latest installment of “A Football Life” — was an exception, and tops this list of the greatest coaches in both college and the NFL.
College(s): Oklahoma State, Miami
NFL: Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins
After starting his head coaching career at Oklahoma State, Johnson was hired by the University of Miami to replace a legend, Howard Schnellenberger. At Miami, Johnson turned the Hurricanes into college football’s most polarizing program. Characterized by a free-wheeling, trash-talking style, the ‘Canes dominated college football under Johnson, winning a national title in 1987.
Two years later, Johnson landed in Dallas to replace another legend, Tom Landry. That move was unpopular in Dallas, and trading the team’s best player at the time — Herschel Walker — to the Minnesota Vikings didn’t help alleviate the pressure. The blockbuster trade set in motion a chain of events that helped the Dallas Cowboys recapture their “America’s Team” aura with the same attitude of the Hurricanes. A bevy of draft picks allowed Johnson to build a team that would win three Super Bowls in four years. Of course, Johnson wasn’t around for that third championship, having been unceremoniously ousted following a second consecutive Super Bowl win following the 1993 season. In 1994, Johnson was replaced by another college coaching legend, Barry Switzer, who had led Oklahoma to three national championships. After the Switzer-led Cowboys won Super Bowl XXX, a dynasty with so much long-term promise fizzled away. The Cowboys have just one playoff victory since 1996.
College(s): Ohio State, Great Lakes Navy
NFL: Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals
Before becoming one of the NFL’s greatest innovators, Brown led Ohio State to its first national championship in 1942. In 1946, Brown took over the Cleveland Browns and started one of the greatest stretches of success in pro football history. After winning every championship in the four-year run of the All-America Football Conference, the Browns merged into the NFL in 1950, asserted their dominance with an opening weekend upset of the defending NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles, and then went to six straight NFL championship games — winning three. In the process, Brown helped the NFL evolve and ultimately come of age in the 1950s.
College(s): Miami (Ohio), Cincinnati
NFL: Los Angeles, Rams, Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers, Houston Oilers
Gillman’s tenures as coach earned him a place in both the college football and Pro Football Hall of Fame. Gillman went against the commonly accepted trends of his era, suggesting that games can be won with a dynamic forward-passing attack rather than a grind-it-out, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust running game. In Gillman’s first year as an NFL coach — 1955 — he led the Rams to the NFL championship game, where they lost to Brown’s powerful Cleveland team. Five years later, Gillman helped the fledgling American Football League earn its wide-open reputation by establishing the Chargers as one of the dominant franchises of the league’s formative years, winning the AFL title in 1963.
College(s): Muskingum, West Virginia Wesleyan, Marietta, Washington & Jefferson, Virginia, West Virginia
NFL: Philadelphia Eagles
Neale, who is a member of both the college football and Pro Football Hall of Fame, was a college coach for nearly three decades before earning a post with the Eagles in 1941. With Hall of Fame end Pete Pihos and Hall of Fame running back Steve Van Buren, Neale built the Eagles’ first championship teams. The Eagles’ first title came in a famous 7-0 win over the Chicago Cardinals in a blizzard, and that title was followed up by a 14-0 championship win over the Los Angeles Rams in 1949. Neale’s Eagles are the only team to win back-to-back championships in shutouts.
College(s): Boston College
NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Giants
Coughlin left Boston College to become the first coach in Jaguars history, and then led Jacksonville to the AFC Championship in just its second season of existence. The Jaguars — with two AFC Championship appearances in their first five years — were the most successful expansion franchise in league history under Coughlin. Coughlin’s tenure in New York has been even more impressive, winning two Super Bowls — including one that halted the New England Patriots’ run at perfection in Super Bowl XLII.
College(s): Whittier College, San Diego State
NFL: St. Louis Cardinals, San Diego Chargers
The roots of “Air Coryell” were planted with the Aztecs, and later came into full bloom in the NFL. Coryell first returned the Cardinals to prominence in the mid-1970s, and later developed a score-a-minute offense in San Diego led by Hall of Famers Dan Fouts, Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow. While Coryell has earned a place in the College Football Hall of Fame, he has yet to land in Canton.