Looking at the top NFL Head Coaching candidates from the college ranks

head coaching candidates
We look at the best head coaching candidates at the college level.

It may be too early to think about head coaching candidates for next season… but that never stopped us from needlessly speculating anyway. With that in mind, I’m going to break down the best coaching candidates into four categories.

  1. Former Head Coaches
  2. Experienced Coordinators
  3. College Coaches
  4. Dark Horses

Today let’s focus on:

College Coaches

Hiring an experienced college coach for your NFL team is no longer en vogue — and it’s expensive to boot. However, teams will always flirt with the idea of finding the next great coach from the college ranks.

For this, I’m ignoring some coaches that seem excessively unlikely to bite at the NFL apple right now — guys like Nick Saban, Jimbo Fisher, and Urban Meyer, for example. They have their programs rolling to 10+ win seasons year after year and most likely don’t want to hop off that gravy train.

(1) Jim Harbaugh, Michigan

With that in mind, I almost consider crossing off Jim Harbaugh as too unrealistic of a candidate. He probably wants to stay at his alma mater in Michigan now that he has the Wolverines rolling once again.

But then again: maybe that’s the justification why he would leave. He’s achieved a lot in Ann Arbor already and has the program back in the top 10 conversation. He could theoretically leave with his head held high.

best fit: The only NFL option that may intrigue Jim Harbaugh would be a reunion with Andrew Luck in Indianapolis. I still think Harbaugh would say “no,” but he’d at least have to consider it.

(2) David Shaw, Stanford

David Shaw, Harbaugh’s successor at Stanford, is unlikely to leave his perch as well. After all, like Harbaugh, he’s coaching at his alma mater and “dream job” himself.

However, the idea of Shaw jumping to the NFL isn’t as ridiculous as it may be with other college coaches. He had been an assistant in the NFL for 8 years prior to returning to the college ranks.

Shaw’s game management but err on the conservative side, but he’s an extremely player and media-friendly presence that could thrive as a head coach for a long long time. He’s still only 45 years old.

best fit: Like Harbaugh, the Indianapolis Colts jump out as the most likely fit. Remember: Andrew Luck didn’t leave for the NFL when Harbaugh did, even though he was eligible and a likely #1 pick. He stayed for another year to play under Shaw. Perhaps he’d even prefer Shaw’s attitude to Harbaugh’s as a long-term fit in Indy.


(3) Mark Dantonio, Michigan State

Mark Dantonio may not bring a lot of excitement with him, but he runs one of the most professional clubs in college football. His QBs like Kirk Cousins and Brian Hoyer are a testament to that.

Dantonio’s achieved quite a bit of success at a school where the deck may be stacked against him from a talent perspective, but there are some signs that the end could be near. The Spartans went 3-9 last year — by far their lowest record since he arrived in 2007.

It’s hard to imagine an NFL embracing a college lifer like Dantonio, but one may see subtle shades of Bill Belichick in him. Dantonio previously worked under Nick Saban — who previously worked under Belichick himself.

best fit: Despite his success, Mark Dantonio may not be a hot national name. However, if the job with the local Detroit Lions opens up, I can see him being discussed.

(4) Kirk Ferentz, Iowa

Kirk Ferentz reminds me of Mark Dantonio in many ways. They both run conservative, professional programs that don’t get a lot of headlines but earn raves in coaching circles. Countless times you’ll hear about his Iowa players coming into the NFL as well-coached as any in the country.

Like Dantonio, Ferentz may be eyeing a new challenge after being in Iowa since 1999. And like Dantonio, he has even stronger ties to NFL-fave Bill Belichick: Ferentz coached under him, and his son Brian works for Pats now.

best fit: Ferentz had been linked to the Cleveland Browns in the past. While it’s an entirely new brain trust there, it could be the type of outside-the-box hire that leads to success.

(5) P.J. Fleck, Minnesota

Wait, who? For those who don’t follow college, Fleck is among the hottest young coaches in the country at 36 years old.

The wildly charismatic coach led Corey Davis and Western Michigan to a 13-1 record last year and parlayed that into a job with Minnesota. He also has some NFL experience, working as a WR coach for Tampa in 2012.

At first glance, it’s outrageous to think he would be ready for an NFL job anytime soon, but all it takes is one owner to take a wild swing: after all, the Raiders once hired Lane Kiffin, then a 31-year-old offensive coordinator at USC.

Other names of note

BRIAN KELLY (NOTRE DAME): Brian Kelly has almost as many NFL coaching rumors as wins at Notre Dame. He’ll need to have a strong season to continue to hear his name mentioned, either in NFL circles or as the coach at ND.

PAT FITZGERALD (NORTHWESTERN): If P.J. Fleck is a little too green for you, Fitzgerald may be a slightly safer bet. The 42-year-old has the Wildcats playing well, given their expectations.

DAVID CUTCLIFFE (DUKE): Peyton Manning‘s college coordinator has maintained a close relationship with him over the years. Now 62, I don’t see Cutcliffe landing an NFL head coaching job anytime soon, but I could certainly see him taking a step back from the recruiting grind and taking a job as a coordinator instead. Tampa HC Dirk Koetter and Tampa’s OC Todd Monken made a similar move themselves.

GREG SCHIANO (DC at Ohio State): Another favorite of Bill Belichick, Schiano may have gotten a raw deal at Tampa Bay where he inherited a “franchise QB” named Josh Freeman. He’s a better coach than his reputation suggests, although another college job is the more likely proving ground for that.


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