Bruner’s Beat: Kliff Kingsbury and the Failure of College Coaches in the NFL

- Bruner's Beat

by Evan Bruner

The Arizona Cardinals officially moved on from head coach Kliff Kingsbury on Monday after a disappointing 4-13 season. To many, Kingsbury’s firing seemed inevitable. He was a controversial hire from the start. His uninspiring 35-40 record as head coach at Texas Tech did little to ease skeptics about his football acumen. Other than coaching and helping develop Patrick Mahomes when he played for the Red Raiders, Kingsbury seemed to be underqualified. 

Through four years, Kingsbury’s tenure disappointed. Despite a playoff appearance in 2021, the Cardinals never reached the status of the NFC’s elite and are ultimately back to where they were when Kingsbury was first hired, bottom dwellers of the NFC West. This inability to maintain relevance, compounded with Kingsbury’s relationship with Kyler Murray reportedly souring in recent years, made the decision easy for Arizona’s front office.

Kingsbury certainly had his distinctive qualities as a coach, but he was unable to escape the fate suffered by many before him. The college coach that flops in the NFL is a tale as old as time, and no matter how long the list gets, teams appear to be more than willing to hire them. 

Urban Meyer, Matt Rhule, Chip Kelly, and Nick Saban are just some of the examples of great college coaches that were unable to conquer the NFL. With the exception of Jim Harbaugh, who coached the 49ers from 2011-14, there haven’t been any coaches in recent memory to make the immediate move from college to pro head coach successfully. 

No one can deny that coaches like Meyer, Saban, and Steve Spurrier have incredible football minds. Nonetheless, they all failed in an embarrassing fashion. The ever-expanding chasm between coaching at the collegiate and professional levels isn’t black and white, but there are observable differences between the two that make this discrepancy easier to understand.

What characteristics are the most important to being a coach? There are seemingly endless possible answers. Leadership, intelligence, innovation, ability to work with others are just a few that come to mind, but the answer is largely dependent on the level that’s being coached. Most high schoolers would find an NFL coach too intense and blunt, whereas a division one football team would find even the best high school coaches too rudimentary. Each age group and talent level comes with its own set of requirements, and it’s up to the coaches to accommodate those needs.

One of the biggest struggles for college coaches entering the NFL is the lack of control. At the collegiate level, head coaches can act as CEOs and have the final say on virtually every matter. This allows them to customize all aspects of their team to their liking. However, at the NFL level, a coach’s influence is more restricted. Few have a significant say in major personnel decisions like drafting and free agency, and the ones that do had to earn it. A college coach can install a scheme and make sure they only recruit players that fit that exact play style, but professional coaches have to install a scheme that fits the personnel, which can often inhibit creativity and innovation. This is a never-ending cycle, as the roster turnover from year-to-year forces coaches to make additional tweaks in the offseason. 

Additionally, the cultural differences between a college campus and a professional workplace have imposed challenges on coaches. College coaches meet most of their future players while they’re still in high school. This can create an almost parent-like bond between the two. Although most student-athletes are adults in the legal sense, by the time they enroll, they’re still adjusting to the adult lifestyle. But in the NFL, where most of the top players are in their late 20s and early 30s, discipline isn’t as integral to the coaching process, and too much of it could lose the locker room. 

In a way, many college coaches have been victims of their own success. Great success can create stubbornness and hinder creativity and innovation. When coaches like Saban and Meyer were at the peak of their powers, it would have been incomprehensible to make serious changes. But the surplus in talent that schools like Ohio State and Alabama have doesn’t exist at the pro level. Adaptability can be innate. Anyone can come up with a distinct coaching style, but only a select few can continuously build off that to adjust to their setting. 

There’s more than one way to find an NFL head coach, but some methods have much higher hit rates than others. Kingsbury is just the latest example of a college coach who flopped at the next level, and as the differences between college and professional coaching become more noticeable, it’s hard to see this trend reversing any time soon. 

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