The Jacksonville Jaguars are on the doorstep of a promising new era in the franchise's history. The most recent step in that march towards playoff contention is zeroing in on former Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer to man the sidelines and lead the franchise going forward. This will be Meyer's first jump up to the NFL level, following in the footsteps of a number of great college coaches before him. What remains to be seen, however, is how this transition to the professional ranks will ultimately treat Meyer.
The history of college coaches who make that initial leap into the NFL is a mixed bag. To paraphrase a quote from the Academy Award-winning film Forrest Gump: College coaches in the NFL are like a box of chocolate. You never know what you're gonna get.
For the purposes of our conversation here today, we're going to highlight a number of prominent college head coaches, who made the move that Meyer is in the process of doing right now or close to it. We'll then categorize them on how they did once they reached the NFL and then ultimately make our prediction on where we think Meyer will fall once his NFL career-career comes to a close.
Best case scenario
- Jimmy Johnson, Cowboys (1989-1993) and Dolphins (1996-1999)
- Jim Harbaugh, 49ers (2011-2014)*
- Pete Carroll, Seahawks (2010-present)*
- Barry Switzer, Cowboys (1994-1997)
The cream of the crop here for Meyer to aspire to be is Jimmy Johnson. Unlike Harbaugh and Carroll, who had previous NFL experience before coming out of the college ranks to rejoin the NFL, Johnson was truly green to the pros when he accepted the gig of being Dallas' next head coach in 1989. He had a tremendous career at the University of Miami, leading the program to a National Championship (1987) and won the Walter Camp Coach of the Year award (1986), but had no prior history in the NFL, similar to Meyer. Johnson finished his NFL coaching career with two Super Bowl titles and an 80-64 record. If Meyer comes close to that, the Jaguars should be thrilled.
Again, both Harbaugh and Carroll at least dipped their toes in the NFL waters prior to finding success coming out of college. For Harbaugh, he was the quarterbacks coach for the Raiders in the early 2000s before going back down to the college ranks and eventually elevating back up as the head coach of the 49ers. Nevertheless, he found success when he arrived in the Bay Area, leading the Niners to a Super Bowl appearance, and was named NFL Coach of the Year in 2011.
As for Carroll, he almost doesn't fit on this list due to his immense history in the NFL before becoming the head coach at USC and eventually landing with the Seahawks. He spent years as a coordinator and a head coach throughout the league before finding his footing at USC, winning two national championships and heading back up to the NFL with Seattle. As it relates to Meyer and his new job with Jacksonville, Carroll's path may be too different to really glean anything from it.
Barry Switzer, however, is a coach that Meyer can look towards as well. He had no prior NFL history before taking over for Johnson in Dallas and was able to win Super Bowl XXX while owning a 40-24 record in the regular season and a 5-2 mark in the playoffs.
- Bobby Ross, Chargers (1992-1996) and Lions (1997-2000)
- Chip Kelly, Eagles (2013-2015) and 49ers (2016)
- Butch Davis, Browns (2001-2004)
- Dennis Ericsson, Seahawks (1995-1998) and 49ers (2003-2004)
Bobby Ross did spend four seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs in the late 70s/early 80s as an assistant, but if Meyer can have similar success to Ross once he signed on with the Chargers after a stellar career at Georgia Tech, good times are ahead in Jacksonville. Ross went 77-68 at the NFL level and never had a losing season in San Diego. The Chargers also made the playoffs in three of his five seasons with the club, including a trip to Super Bowl XXIX during the 1994 season.
Meanwhile, if you look at how Chip Kelly, who had no prior NFL experience, performed early on with the Eagles, that also can be considered solid. While he currently has an NFL head coaching record of 28-35, he was above .500 at 26-21 during his tenure in Philadelphia, which included two 10-win seasons. Once he became head of football operations, things fell apart for Kelly, who was also abysmal in San Francisco. That said, as it relates to how we're projecting Urban Meyer, who will not serve as the GM, going to the Jaguars, that early success by Kelly out of the gate is promising.
Butch Davis (24-35 NFL record) seemed to have the Browns moving in a solid direction after nearly missing the playoffs during his first season leading the club and then reaching the postseason with a 9-7 record in 2002. However, things fell apart after that, going 5-11 in 2002 and then was forced to resign in 2004 after a 3–8 start. For the purposes of Meyer, he'll look to replicate that initial build but hopefully stay clear from that collapse that Davis endured.
As for Ericsson, he's another coach that truly is following a similar path to Meyer, tasting his first piece of NFL action by being hired as head coach of the Seattle Seahawks in 1995. His tenure is probably better characterized as mediocre than solid as he owned a 31-33 record upon reaching the NFL and during his stint with Seattle, which included three 8-8 campaigns.
- Nick Saban, Dolphins (2005-2006)
- Steve Spurrier, Washington (2002-2003)
While Nick Saban is considered the greatest head coach in college football history, the NFL wasn't all too kind to him. He initially earned his stripes as the DC of the Cleveland Browns before making waves at the college level, winning a national title at LSU before jumping back up to the NFL by accenting the head coaching job for the Dolphins. Saban spent just two seasons in Miami and finished with a 15-17 record.
Steve Spurrier is another all-time great, who just couldn't find similar success at the NFL level, owning a 12-20 head coaching record in the pros. Similar to Saban, Spurrier spent just two seasons in the NFL after being hired by Washington in 2002. His first year, Spurrier was able to go 7-9, but then went 5-11in 2003, which was tied for the second-worst record in the league. One of the notes that Spurrier has since made while reflecting on his less-than-stellar tenure in Washington was that he wasn't the main decision-maker and couldn't configure the roster how he saw fit, which is a massive change from how most of these college coaches operated at that level.
Worst case scenario
- Lane Kiffin Raiders (2007-2008)
- Bud Wilkinson, Cardinals (1978-1979)
- Bobby Petrino, Atlanta Falcons (2007)
- Mike Riley, Chargers (1999-2001)
If you're the Jaguars, you don't want Meyer falling into this category. This group of coaches were/are strong at the college level, owning a combined 442-223-4 record. At the NFL level, however, these coaches combined for a 31-79.
Kiffin became the youngest head coach in the NFL's modern era (since 1946) when he was hired in 2007, but it hardly passed with flying colors. He went just 5-15 over the season and a half he was leading the organization. He was reportedly almost forced to resign after his initial 4-12 season and 2008 brought with it a messy divorce between the two sides.
Mike Riley never had an above .500 squad with the Chargers and finished his tenure with 14-34 head coaching record, which included a 2000 season where San Diego went 1-15 and had a -171 point differential. He was fired after going 5-11 the following season.
Bobby Petrino had prior NFL experience before taking the Falcons head coaching job in 2007, but that didn't help him much as he didn't even last one season. He resigned from the organization in early December to become the head coach at Arkansas and finished with just a 3-10 NFL head coaching record. As for Wilkinson, the three-time National Champion went just 9-20 in the NFL as head coach of the St. Louis Cardinals and lasted just two seasons.
Where will Urban Meyer fall?
So where does this all leave Urban Meyer? Which tier will he ultimately fall under? For the Jaguars, that's the multi-million dollar question. The good news for owner Shad Khan is that Meyer is set up for success as he's about to begin his tenure. Unlike Kiffin with the Raiders in 2007 when he was married to the ultimate draft bust in JaMarcus Russell, Trevor Lawrence is looked at as the most polished quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck. The hardest part to any rebuild of a franchise has essentially already been checked off the list with the Jaguars owning the No. 1 pick and Lawrence already declaring for the draft. Unlike, Spurrier in Washington, Meyer is getting hired before the Jaguars have found a GM, which would suggest that he'll be involved in that decision and start that partnership on a strong note.
Along with those technical pieces of the masthead coming together and Lawrence's arrival imminent, Jacksonville also has the most cap space in the NFL this offseason, multiple draft picks beyond the top overall selection, and a young roster that already has some intriguing players. With all that going for Meyer, a three-time national champion, it'll be hard for him to not find some sustained success with the Jaguars so long as they hit on their picks and free-agent signings along with the head coach staying healthy, which was something that derailed his tenure at Ohio State in 2018.