Skip to main content

The Top Ten College Coaches Most Likely to Succeed in the NFL

Dantonio Urban


Last week we examined the top ten NFL head coaches most likely to succeed in college football. Now it's time for the inverse.

As always, this isn't the only ten college coaches that would succeed in the NFL, just the ten most likely. Or, alternately, the ten that would receive the most interest from The League.

10. Mark Dantonio: Dantonio is perpetually overlooked on lists like this, which is fine. He's more comfortable that way. This is a man with five seasons of 11 or more wins in his last six tries. He beat back Harbaugh and Urban on the road last year. You think the AFC South is going to faze him?

9. Lovie Smith: Jeff Fisher is entrenched in the NFL Coaches' Club despite finishing .500 or below in nine of his last 11 seasons. Rex Ryan hasn't won so much as nine games since 2010. Mike Mularkey got the Titans' full-time job despite winning four of his last 25 games. Jack Del Rio got the Raiders job despite four straight .500 or below seasons in Jacksonville. Jason Garrett has averaged an 8-8 mark in five of his full seasons in Dallas, yet feels no heat. If Lovie gets the Illini playing in January again, he'll be fielding offers again within minutes.

8. Bob Stoops: Many thought he'd jump ship by now but, with brother Mike running the defense and Lincoln Riley running the offense and another Big 12 title in his coffers, Stoops seems primed for a mid-career renaissance after six straight seasons without seriously threatening for a national title. Still, Stoops is only 55, and his kids will be out of the house sooner rather than later.

7. Pat Fitzgerald: Fitz has never forwarded a desire to leave Evanston. Which simultaneously admirable and a shame, because the Northwestern legend has a natural talent for winning people over. He's done it at Northwestern, and he'd do it in an NFL locker room.

6. Jim Mora: It says something about the depth of the coaching roster in college football that a coach with two different stints atop NFL organizations and a successful four-year run at UCLA, all before his 55th birthday, doesn't crack the top five.

5. Urban Meyer: Most college lifers are so because the NFL won't have them. Not so for Urban. A 17-6 mark at Bowling Green, an undefeated season at Utah, two national titles at Florida, a national title and two undefeated regular seasons at Ohio State, and a career .851 winning percentage. And he's only 51. Cue the anonymous NFL executives: "Yeah, but can he win with that offense?"

4. Brian Kelly: The top coach on this list without a lick of NFL experience, Kelly carries himself like an NFL coach. Many in the college game are surprised he hasn't jumped yet, myself included. 

3. David Shaw: They keep asking, and he keeps turning them down. Many in the media assumed Shaw would play the Larry Coker to Jim Harbaugh's Butch Davis, but Harbaugh never led the Cardinal to three Pac-12 titles in four seasons.

2. Jim Harbaugh: The fact that Harbaugh is on this list in the first place, even 15 months later, is astounding. The Niners' trajectory over the last half-decade -- from 6-10 the year prior to Harbaugh's arrival, to the NFC Championship Game, the Super Bowl, the NFC Championship Game, an 8-8 season, a new coach, a 5-11 bottom out, and then another new coach -- will be the subject of Malcolm Gladwell's latest piece Jed & Trent: How to Let Your Ego Get in the Way of Your Organization's Best Interests.

1. Nick Saban: His two-year run with the Miami Dolphins was, in no other words, a bust. Saban went 15-17, missed the playoffs in both of his seasons and, most egregiously, passed on the opportunity to sign Drew Brees. But make no mistake: the moment Saban allowed Jimmy Sexton to raise the bat signal that he was ready to conquer his final frontier, Mr. Process would move to the front of the line for every opening.