Football is football as a wise man once said, but the differences between the NFL and college football extend beyond just the read option and different timing rules. The college football game requires a stomach for rubber chicken — whether it be on the booster circuit in Little Rock, at a recruiting’s kitchen table, or across campus with the faculty.
Jim Harbaugh has proven a masterful ability to toggle between the two games, playing for a Super Bowl one year and bunking overnight with a kicker recruit the next. Time will tell if new Illinois head coach Lovie Smith has the same ability — pajamas sold separately.
In honor of Smith’s arrival in Champaign, here are the ten active NFL head coaches that would adapt best to college football.
10. Gus Bradley, Jacksonville Jaguars: A rare NFL head coach with zero FBS experience — Bradley skipped from a job as North Dakota State’s defensive coordinator to Tampa Bay’s linebackers coach — Bradley is a whip-smart, likable coach stuck in one of the toughest gigs in professional sports.
9. Bill O’Brien, Houston Texans: Obviously we know O’Brien can win in college football. Let’s make sure his hypothetical return to the college game is at a place other than State College.
8. Bruce Arians, Arizona Cardinals: Arians would win over a college locker room the same way he did in Indianapolis and Arizona, and the same way he would if he was running a bagel shop, a school district or an airline. People want to succeed for him.
7. Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints: Charlie Weis proved schematic whiz kids can’t roll out of bed and win in at the college level, but something tells me Payton would put a tad more effort into team building than Weis did.
6. John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens: We know he has the DNA for it. Like his brother, Harbaugh marries a fanatical competitive spirit with the ability to relate and inspire every player on the roster.
5. Rex Ryan, Buffalo Bills: Rex won over the New York media without sniffing a Super Bowl. Do you have any idea how hard that it is to do? He’d be elected mayor of a place like Starkville or Blacksburg by his third day on the job.
4. Jason Garrett, Dallas Cowboys: No one walks away from his sport’s version of the Yankees/Lakers job, but part of me wonders if Garrett wouldn’t be happier on the college level. Garrett has a vision of building a program with team-first, character guys, but that vision runs secondary to Jerry Jones’ wildcatter impulses (see: the Greg Hardy signing or the near drafting of Johnny Manziel).
3. Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers: Short of perhaps Pete Carroll, there isn’t a better epitome of “player’s coach” in the game today than Tomlin.
2. Chip Kelly, San Francisco 49ers
1. Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks: I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something tells me these guys would revolutionize college football.