In the NFL, School Is Out

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 19, 2007

There will be at least one head coaching vacancy in the NFL to be filled after this season, and probably more. But don't expect franchise owners and general managers to look to the college ranks for prospective coaches.

Not after what NFL teams have experienced in recent seasons with Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban and Bobby Petrino.

Petrino's abrupt departure from the Atlanta Falcons last week, 13 games into his inaugural season as an NFL head coach, may have closed the college-to-pro coaching pipeline, at least temporarily. There already had been wariness because of the failures of Spurrier with the Washington Redskins and Saban with the Miami Dolphins. Now the pursuit for the next Jimmy Johnson, the former college coach turned two-time Super Bowl winner for the Dallas Cowboys, perhaps has been put on indefinite hold.

"I just don't see anyone going that route right now," one NFL general manager said this week, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he didn't want to be viewed as snubbing college coaches in general. "There have been too many high-profile instances lately where it just didn't work out."

Spurrier went 12-20 for the Redskins in 2002 and 2003 before resigning by telephone, with the news coming out while he was on a golf course in Florida. He took a year off and then went back to the college ranks at South Carolina. Things were supposed to be different with Saban and the Dolphins because he was a former NFL assistant and a Bill Belichick protege. But he went 15-17 in two seasons before resigning in January to go back to college at Alabama, after saying repeatedly he intended to remain with the Dolphins.

The Falcons hired Petrino from the University of Louisville on Jan. 7, four days after Saban's exit in Miami, luring him to the NFL with a five-year, $24 million contract. They wanted an offensive guru to polish the game of quarterback Michael Vick and make things click in Atlanta.

But Petrino never got to coach Vick, who became mired in a scandal related to his participation in a dogfighting operation. The Falcons traded Vick's highly regarded backup, Matt Schaub, to the Houston Texans before learning they'd be without Vick, and Petrino was left to try to make his offense work while rotating Joey Harrington, Byron Leftwich and Chris Redman at quarterback.

Still, Falcons officials said they hadn't lost confidence in Petrino and were eager to start off with something resembling a clean slate next season, perhaps armed with additional salary cap room from the $19.97 million in bonus money the club is attempting to retrieve from Vick, who has been suspended indefinitely by the NFL.

But on Dec. 11, a day after Vick was sentenced to 23 months in federal prison and the Falcons lost a Monday night game to the New Orleans Saints to drop their record to 3-10, Petrino resigned to take the coaching job at the University of Arkansas. Falcons owner Arthur Blank said at a news conference last week that team officials felt "betrayed" and "let down" after receiving assurances from Petrino that he would stay.

The Falcons named their defensive backs coach, veteran NFL assistant Emmitt Thomas, their interim head coach. It is thought that San Francisco 49ers assistant Mike Singletary, one of the coaches who interviewed for the job last offseason before the Falcons hired Petrino, could be the front-runner to get the head coaching job after the season.

Singletary is among the NFL assistants and former NFL head coaches who will be at or near the top of the wish lists compiled by any teams that make coaching changes this offseason. The hot young coordinators at this point include Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, the former NFL backup quarterback who has made things work in Dallas with quarterback Tony Romo and wide receiver Terrell Owens, and New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who has the low public profile that comes with working for Belichick but is overseeing an offense that is close to breaking the league's single-season scoring record.

Former NFL head coaches who could get calls from teams include Bill Cowher, Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Mariucci and Dennis Green. Cowher, who resigned from the Pittsburgh Steelers after last season, reportedly has told the Falcons he plans to take another year off from coaching before making his return. But some in the league wonder if his answer could be different in the coming weeks if a club with a more attractive job comes calling. Schottenheimer was ousted by the San Diego Chargers after posting a 14-2 regular season record last season.

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