With the recent success of several coaches making the transition from college to pro including Pete Carroll, Jim Harbaugh and Chip Kelly, general managers all over the NFL will be eyeing potential candidates from the college ranks during the current NCAA season. One team has already fired its coach and numerous others are on the hot seat already. In a profession with an unusually high turnover rate, it is never too early to consider head coaching possibilities at the college level for the following NFL season.
One factor that could keep coaches in college is the increase in salaries at the college level. At $6.9 million per season, Nick Saban is currently making more money at Alabama than 27 NFL coaches. But the challenge of winning at the highest level of competition is always tempting so it would not surprise me to see a few of these coaches make the jump.
Kevin Sumlin – Only three years into his tenure at Texas A&M and Sumlin is already being mentioned for major college jobs as well as NFL openings. His track record speaks for itself. At Houston, he helped Case Keenum put up monster numbers for several years, then he took Johnny Manziel under his wing and helped him win a Heisman Trophy in their first year together at A&M, now Kenny Hill is carrying on the legacy impressively as well. As a former player, Sumlin has a reputation as a player’s coach in the mold of Mike Tomlin, but with more of an offensive mind.
He refused to take NFL interviews after last season, and A&M increased his buyout clause to $5 million which would make it difficult, but not impossible, for NFL teams to secure his services. The 50-year old Sumlin is young enough to wait a couple more years and try to win a national championship at the collegiate level before making the jump, but money talks and Sumlin will need strong earplugs not to listen.
Brian Kelly – In his fifth year at Notre Dame, Kelly and the Fighting Irish have their eyes on the playoff prize again after an undefeated 2012 regular season finished disappointingly. Quarterback Everett Golson is back from his year-long suspension and playing better than ever, and the defense has proven to be formidable as well, similar to 2012.
The Irish have tough road tests coming up against Florida State, ASU and USC but the 52-year old Kelly has been a coaching climber throughout his career and already interviewed for the head coaching position with the Philadelphia Eagles before Chip Kelly was hired. Five years is a more reasonable timeframe to fully rebuild a program and leave a defining legacy than three, so his chances of testing the NFL waters after this season are much higher. The better Notre Dame does this season, the more NFL interest Brian Kelly will generate.
Art Briles – Having been linked to the Washington coaching job this past offseason, Baylor’s coach remains a hot candidate in NFL circles despite being 58 years old. Pete Carroll left college for the NFL at a comparable age and has enjoyed great success in Seattle, and Briles himself has admitted to being intrigued by the idea of running his offense in the NFL. It has certainly made an impression at the college level, setting an NCAA record for points scored per game in 2013 and maintaining that pace this season.
The currently undefeated Baylor Bears have a legitimate chance to remain that way since there is no Big 12 championship game. Doing so would almost certainly secure them a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff, a stunning rise from a program that languished at the bottom of their conference for so many years. Briles completed a similar turnaround at Houston and the NFL would be the next logical step after making the transition from high school to college in 2000.
Dan Mullen – Part of the same regional coaching circle as Chip Kelly known as the New Hampshire mafia, Mullen earned his bones as Urban Meyer’s offensive protégé at Utah and Florida, then got his head coaching break in 2009 at Mississippi State. After years of posting respectable records but struggling against ranked opponents, the Mullen’s Bulldogs have elevated to an elite level led by the dynamic play of quarterback Dak Prescott.
A career record of 42-28 against the stiff competition of the SEC gives Mullen instant credibility, but a national championship run this season would garner exponentially more attention from the NFL. There are several tough games left on the schedule for Mississippi State, but excitement is growing each week in Starkville. Barring a major second half collapse by the Bulldogs, the 42-year old Mullen will have plenty of suitors calling come January.
David Shaw – Another accomplished college coach with an offensive background, Shaw’s NFL ties are actually more diverse. His father Willie Shaw was a longtime NFL defensive coordinator and Shaw himself worked in quality control for several years before coaching quarterbacks and wide receivers in Oakland and Baltimore. He succeeded Jim Harbaugh at Stanford and has maintained the same level of excellence. Because of his NFL background, Shaw has been mentioned for NFL openings for a few years, and not just as a Rooney Rule formality.
Both Bay Area teams may well be in the market for a new head coach this offseason, so Shaw could possibly even have the option of driving less than an hour north from Palo Alto and either returning to his family coaching roots with the Raiders or succeed Harbaugh again with the 49ers. Stanford has a long history of breeding successful NFL coaches from Bill Walsh to Dennis Green to Harbaugh, and Shaw has the pedigree to be next in line.