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A Real Stretch
Peter King
December 06, 2004
Why do so many coaches who look like geniuses in college seem to lose their faculties in the NFL? Going pro isn't easy, but here's how it can be done
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December 06, 2004

A Real Stretch

Why do so many coaches who look like geniuses in college seem to lose their faculties in the NFL? Going pro isn't easy, but here's how it can be done

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Last week Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz signed a three-year contract extension to stay in Iowa City. Ferentz, a former offensive line coach with the Browns and the Ravens, also made sure he retained the right to jump to an NFL head-coaching job. But while he'd certainly make more money in the pro game--and would likely be on the short list for a team or two this off-season--he's not interested in going to the NFL. For now. "Bigger isn't always better," Ferentz said last Friday. "We've got five kids, and I want my kids to know where home is. That can be hard in the NFL now. There are very few Bill Cowhers and Jeff Fishers anymore, guys in the same place for 10 years."

For many college coaches, the NFL looms as the ultimate career goal. In practical terms it is: The Browns seem certain to part ways with former Miami coach Butch Davis, who is signed through 2007, and he'll get most of the $12 million he's due when he's let go. But the pro game has besmirched its share of college stars. Steve Spurrier lost his genius hat somewhere between Gainesville and the Beltway. He was a 12--20 failure in his two-year Redskins run and last week returned to his college roots, taking the South Carolina job. Davis, 24--36 in his fourth year in Cleveland, has been the victim of poor personnel choices--by him and by his front office--and has suffered from player unrest. Dennis Erickson, who won two national titles at Miami, is coaching the worst 49ers team in a generation. To further underscore how different the pro and college games can be: Pete Carroll was a .500 coach with the Jets and the Patriots before going to Southern Cal, where, in his fourth season, he's trying to win his second straight national championship.

This winter NFL vacancies could be siren songs to Carroll, Notre Dame's Ty Willingham and LSU's Nick Saban, who turned down the bright lights of Chicago last year to stay in Baton Rouge. The five caution flags we'd wave in front of any coach thinking of movin' on up:

1) Bolt when you hear the words "hands-on owner." A good number of college coaches trip up in the NFL because they've never dealt with a superior whose primary concern is the bottom line. Probably a third of the league's owners-- Tom Benson of the Saints, Dan Snyder of the Redskins, San Francisco's John York and others--micromanage to the point where they might challenge spending $75,000 on the backup tight end's bonus. What you want to hear from an owner is, "It's your show, and I'm going to let you run it."

2) Make sure you're happy with your G.M. or personnel guru. Saban won't say this, but he turned down the Bears' job because he didn't have final personnel say, and he didn't have faith in G.M. Jerry Angelo. Smart move. Ferentz is smart about this too. He likely wouldn't take a pro job unless a trusted scouting friend-- Scott Pioli of the Patriots or Phil Savage of the Ravens, for example--were running the personnel show. Davis learned about late owner Al Lerner's blank-check mentality in 2001, but no team in recent years has gotten such poor production from high draftees.

3) Don't think you don't have to sweat the details.Spurrier failed because he didn't adjust to some of the simplest differences between the pro and college games, like the complexity of NFL strategy. Said an assistant on his Washington staff, "Steve was bored by blocking schemes to protect the quarterback, so all he'd ever say [to offensive line coach Kim Helton] was, 'Block 'em up. Gotta block 'em up.' You can't ask the line coach to do that without getting other offensive coaches involved--and being involved yourself."

4) Master the salary cap. Erickson's in trouble because the 49ers are trying to extricate themselves from a $28 million cap hole, the result of bad recent signings. A newcomer to the NFL should resist the lure of fast, sexy signings and return to financial ground zero--as the Patriots did when Bill Belichick came to New England. They erased a $10 million cap deficit in Year One.

5) Create the same collegial atmosphere as the one you've just left. "It can be done," said Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi. The most underrated reason for New England's winning two Super Bowls in three years is that the players feel like an integral part of the whole. Bruschi is one of several players who have signed below-market contracts to join or stay with New England in the last two years. Draft players who aren't looking for a limo ride to the stadium; sign free agents you're sure will be team guys.

In short, college coaches, the grass ain't always greener in those pro stadiums, though the money may make it look that way.

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