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Insider

Will Chip Kelly be back in college?

1/16/2013

One year ago, it was a false alarm. One year later, it's setting off alarms in Eugene.

Chip Kelly is headed to the NFL.

Now we enter that time-honored tradition of the pro football world breaking down the move as if the coach has graduated from elementary school to medical school, jumping from the stone age to the space age. Already they are talking as if he will leave the college game forever, never to lower himself so much as to return (more on that shortly).

But this time around, such analysis isn't standing on the rock-solid platform it once enjoyed. Why? Because the list of coaches who have made a successful move from campus to the shield has grown at a rapid rate over the past two seasons.

Not so long ago, the list of college coaches who transitioned to The League with some success was pretty much a two-man roster: USC-to-Tampa Bay's John McKay and Miami-to-Dallas' Jimmy Johnson. But rookie head coach Greg Schiano, the Buccaneers' Plan B when Kelly turned them down, has improved the team from 4-12 to 7-9 one year removed from Rutgers. And in only two years, Jim Harbaugh has rescued the San Francisco 49ers from a woefully generic decade and turned them into a Super Bowl contender.

However, that won't stop the pro football loyalists from at least attempting to rain on Kelly's parade into Philadelphia, no doubt bringing up the names of the biggest recent college-to-NFL flameouts.

So, what names are you most likely to hear brought up as warning signs to Kelly and the Eagles? Let's take a look at the five coaches to which Kelly is most likely to be compared, and see what their similarities tell us about Kelly's chances to succeed in the pros, and whether we'll ever see Kelly back as the head coach of a college football program.

Pete Carroll

College record: 83-19

NFL record: 60-57

There are actually three chapters to this one, and each one improves his story. Carroll was a college guy who went to the pros, ended up inheriting two different NFL head jobs -- Jets and Patriots -- took over at USC, won like crazy, stirred up a storm of controversy and then returned to the NFL with Seattle. He's still there. After a pair of 7-9 seasons, he improved to 11-5 this year for his second playoff trip in three years. Two years ago, he upset defending Super Bowl champ New Orleans. This year he finished second in the NFC West.

Kelly similarity: After seven BCS bowl berths in nine years, including five Rose Bowls, Carroll's departure from USC for Seattle was widely seen as a man who was getting off campus before it was burned to the ground by the NCAA. As soon as word began to spread about a Kelly move to Tampa one year ago, similar murmurs started making the rounds as Oregon was under fire for its ties to alleged street agent Willie Lyles. Those allegations have never been anywhere near as serious as the ones levied at USC at the time of Carroll's resignation, but still, having to answer ceaseless questions about Lyles and having to continually talk about what the NCAA may or may not do to Oregon took a toll on Kelly. "College coaching should be fun," Carroll told me last year. "But there's a lot of that sucks the fun out of it."

As our Pac-12 blogger Ted Miller wrote one year ago amid the first volley of Kelly-to-NFL reports: "Kelly is a football savant who loves coaching and watching film -- and watching film and coaching. College coaching includes a lot of non-coaching responsibilities, including the NCAA, recruiting and boosters, etc. That has never been Kelly's cup of Joe."

Rich Brooks

College record: 128-154-4

NFL record: 13-19 (two seasons)

It's easy to forget now how bad Oregon Ducks football was before Brooks started building the foundation for success that Kelly has taken to the next level. When he took over in 1977 there hadn't been a winning season in Eugene since 1969 and no bowl games since 1963. After winning the school's first outright conference title in a century and earning a trip to the Rose Bowl in 1995, he was named the first head coach of the just-moved St. Louis Rams. There he went 7-9 and 6-10 over two years. Brooks was fired, and after a defensive coordinator stint with the Atlanta Falcons, he took over at Kentucky and eventually led the Wildcats to their finest run of success since Bear Bryant was in Lexington.

Kelly similarity: This one is as obvious as a giant Day-Glo yellow O, though the program Kelly leaves now is light-years ahead of what Brooks left in '95. According to Brooks, that might make the transition even more painful.

"Any good coach feels stress because they put that stress on themselves to produce results," said Brooks. "But there's no question that the NFL stress is a different type. It can be a bit cold. I think, looking back, the difference in cultures was larger than I had anticipated. In McKay's day, they would give you the time you needed to fix things. Not anymore. At Oregon and Kentucky both it took time to get thing turned around, and they gave me that time. In the pros they want results from the second you walk in the door, no matter how unreasonable."

Nick Saban

College record: 153-55-1

NFL record: 15-17 (two seasons)

Saban zigzagged between college and the pros from 1987 to 1995, when he left his post as offensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns to become head coach at Michigan State. Ten years later, after leading LSU to a national title, he took over the Miami Dolphins. After nearly making the playoffs in his first season, his QB-less team went 6-10 and he (in)famously bolted for Alabama. Many in the NFL world believe he was on the cusp of good things in Miami, but his handling of his departure was such a disaster it has overshadowed his near-legendary reputation for scouting talent. Even he admitted as much leading up to his return to Miami for the BCS title game.

"I do regret a lot about that situation," he told me in November.

Oh by the way, everything has worked out very nicely down in Tuscaloosa.

Kelly similarity: There is a theme developing here, from Brooks and Saban to the next two on this list. And that's why the NFL analysts' chatter about leaving the college game behind forever is so mystifying. Whether Kelly even realizes it, there's a safety net in the back of his mind. Whether you have success in the NFL or you don't, you can always go back again. Having a rough go of it in the pros might forever alter your chances of landing a job in the NFL again, but they don't hold such grudges in the college ranks.

"There are 32 NFL head-coaching jobs," says Brooks. "There are what, 120 in Division I college football? All that athletic directors care about is what you did in college. If your resume is solid enough, there should always be a second chance out there somewhere."

Which brings us to ...

Bobby Petrino

College record: 74-26

NFL record: 3-10

Compared to how the NFL looks at Petrino, its feelings for Saban are downright warm and snuggly. From 2003 to 2006 he finally delivered on the promises of Howard Schnellenberger and turned Louisville football into a national power, never winning fewer than nine games per year over four seasons and taking the Cardinals to victory in the Orange Bowl.

When he took over the Atlanta Falcons, the offensive-minded coach thought he'd have Michael Vick under center. But when the dogfighting controversy hit, Vick was gone. Soon Petrino was, too, leaving for Arkansas with three games remaining in the NFL season and informing the Falcons players by posting a note in the locker room. Everything in Fayetteville was going swimmingly until the Motorcycle Crash Heard 'Round The South.

Kelly similarity: Both Petrino and Kelly are universally praised for their high-speed offensive minds, particularly when it comes to reactionary "outside the box" wrinkles. Both are also known for their quirky personalities, genius laced with unpredictability and impatience. For Petrino, that never translated when it came to dealing with pro personnel. The "you have to do what I say because I'm the head coach, period" dictatorship powers that come with the college job don't work with pro players, certainly not when it comes to first-time coaches.

Kelly's eccentric ways fall on the side of likability much more than Petrino's, but as one NFL scout put it to me, "There's a bit of a cookie-cutter expectancy when it comes to NFL coaches and how they handle their business. Kelly will have to be willing to give in to that a little. It sounds like total BS, but it is a big part of the job."

Steve Spurrier

College record: 208-77-2

NFL record: 12-20

No one has ever made the college-to-pro jump amid more hype -- or cash -- than the Head Ball Coach. After a 10-2 campaign in his 12th season at Florida, he accepted the biggest (at that time) head-coaching contract in NFL history (five years, $25 million) to take over the hapless Washington Redskins. But after posting 7-9 and 5-11 records, he was fired, and one year later returned to college with South Carolina. NFL believers still point to Spurrier, considered one of the most innovative coaches in college football history, as the end-all-be-all proof that "college guys" can't get it done in the pros.

Kelly similarity: At Oregon, Kelly has always been viewed as an offensive innovator, much as Spurrier was at the height of his Florida powers. And like Spurrier, Kelly has been tagged as a pass-happy coach, when in reality they both love to run the ball, albeit outside of traditional sets. Like Petrino, Spurrier had to learn the hard way that pro players don't just do whatever you tell them because your name is on the office door, just as longtime NFL assistants -- whom Spurrier hired to aid in his transition -- don't like straying from the "NFL way" of operations.

"It's all like dominoes in that everything gets real complicated really fast," Spurrier recalled earlier this year, specifically referring to his penchant for benching QBs midgame. In college that has always been his modus operandi. In the NFL it created firestorms within the media and in his own locker room. "There are a lot more concerns than just football. A lot of egos and personalities you have to keep track of all the time. That takes a lot of patience. Not all of us are born with that. I wasn't."

Was Chip Kelly? Stay tuned.

Other names that will come up: Dennis Erickson, Lou Holtz, Frank Kush, Dick MacPherson, Mike Riley, Bud Wilkinson