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Which college coaches could make leap to NFL? Here are 10 candidates

Pete Thamel
·5-min read

The financial crunch in college athletics has led to predictions of limited turnover in the college coaching space. Whether that comes to fruition or not may depend on the results of the rest of the season.

Around the coaching industry, the most likely source of a blue-blood or high-end job opening around college football will come from the NFL plucking a high-profile coach. There are already jobs open in Atlanta and Houston. The Jets job is inevitable, the Jaguars job a high probability and Detroit is not far behind those two. In total, expect six or seven NFL head-coaching positions to open this year, as there’s always a surprise.

The issue looming over the NFL coaching cycle right now is a distinct lack of new blood, which is why Adam Gase has been recycled into infamy in his own division. There are certainly some promising assistants in the NFL— Kansas City’s Eric Bieniemy, San Francisco’s Robert Saleh, Baltimore’s Greg Roman and Buffalo’s Brian Daboll are among them. Some organization always appears ready to microwave Josh McDaniels’ head-coaching career. Heck, even former LSU co-coordinator Joe Brady is expected to get some buzz in this cycle.

But there’s no front office in the NFL that will claim the coaching pipeline is flush, which could lead to more team owners and general managers looking to college. The spark Matt Rhule has brought to Carolina and the success Kliff Kingsbury has brought to Arizona will only incentivize franchises to look to the college ranks.

With the era of autocrat coaches cycling out and an emphasis on connection and relationships, bringing in college coaches could be more appealing as franchises attempt to evolve with the times. Here are the coaches most likely to be targeted. (We dove into Jim Harbaugh’s chances earlier.)

Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley looks on before the first half of the Peach Bowl during the 2019 season. (AP)
Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley looks on before the first half of the Peach Bowl during the 2019 season. (AP)

Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma

He’d be atop this list anyway, with his assembly line of Heisman candidates at quarterback and play-calling gifts. But Kingsbury’s early success will only make Riley more attractive, as the branches of their coaching tree overlap significantly. He’s shown no significant interest in the NFL, but would likely be the league’s first call.

Ryan Day, Ohio State

Day is only in his second season as head coach at OSU and doesn’t have a wandering eye. But Day’s play-calling chops, NFL experience in Philadelphia and San Francisco and general demeanor are attractive to the NFL. Don’t expect him to bite for at least another half-dozen years, as he has one of the three best jobs in college football.

David Shaw, Stanford

It has never been a matter of if the NFL is ready for Shaw. It’s more if Shaw is ready to go back to the NFL. (Fun fact: He was the Raiders QB coach in the infamous “Snow Game” with the Patriots.) It will always be hard to pull Shaw from his alma mater, but perhaps the uneven results of the past few years make it tempting.

Matt Campbell, Iowa State

His name emerged in the New York Jets’ search last year, and he’s been a buzzy name in front office circles this season. He’ll also be the favorite to go to Michigan if Jim Harbaugh exits Ann Arbor, so he could end up with options aplenty. He doesn’t have as big of a name — or paycheck — as some college coaches, but the NFL intrigue is there.

James Franklin, Penn State

He’d be higher on this list if he weren’t 0-3, as that could be a tough sell to a fan base. Franklin was close to getting the Texans job when Bill O’Brien landed it prior to the 2014 season. There’s been plenty of NFL interest, and the $5 million buyout won’t scare NFL teams.

Dan Mullen, Florida

Nearly half the teams in the NFL have head coaches who are offensive play callers. Mullen fits that mold and has perhaps the best track record of developing quarterbacks in college football the past 15 years: Alex Smith, Tim Tebow, Dak Prescott and Kyle Trask. Could he fit the paradigm of modern coach/play callers?

Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern

He’s in the same category as Shaw, as there’s been plenty of unrequited love from the NFL over the years. Fitzgerald’s first and only love has been the Wildcats. It’s hard to see that changing, as he’s turned down both the NFL and elite college jobs consistently.

Brian Kelly, Notre Dame

He’s maintained he wants to finish his career at Notre Dame, and at 59 his NFL window may be nearly shut. But it’s hard to ignore the persistent success Kelly has had on such a big platform. He nearly went to the Eagles in 2013, but the NFL interest hasn’t been as consistent the past few years.

P.J. Fleck, Minnesota

He’s one of the few coaches in the sport to have both played and coached in the NFL (Harbaugh, Herm Edwards and Karl Dorrell are the only ones among the Power Five). Fleck fits the energetic paradigm of a modern coach, where motivation and connection are becoming more coveted. His track record of obliterating the modern standards for winning at Western Michigan and Minnesota will be intriguing.

Luke Fickell, Cincinnati

This may be down the road, but he fits the mold of Tennessee’s Mike Vrabel, who happens to be Fickell’s best friend. The archetype of a defensive-minded, leader of men will also be intriguing to NFL team owners. Would an NFL franchise hire a Group of Five coach?

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