The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

College football coaches in the NFL: The good, the bad and the Holtz

Urban Meyer lasted only 13 games in Jacksonville. (Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

Urban Meyer on Thursday morning became the latest coach to fail out of the NFL after finding great success at the college level, with the Jacksonville Jaguars firing him after only 13 games. Meyer, who won national championships at Florida and Ohio State, could not become that rare football bird: a coach who can re-create the success in the professional ranks. Because for every Jimmy Johnson, there is a Lou Holtz.

Here’s a look at the good, the bad and the Holtz.

Jaguars fire coach Urban Meyer amid season filled with controversy

The good

Jimmy Johnson

NCAA record: 81-34-3 in 10 seasons at Oklahoma State and Miami. Led the Hurricanes to the 1987-88 national title and lost only two games over his final three college seasons, by a combined five points.

NFL record: 80-64 over nine seasons with the Cowboys and Dolphins, with two Super Bowl wins in Dallas. (He almost certainly would have won three had he and Jerry Jones not gone through their divorce.) That win-loss record includes an 8-24 mark over his first two years with the Cowboys, when the franchise was being completely rebuilt. Johnson also led Miami to three playoff appearances in four years in the waning years of the Dan Marino era.

Why he succeeded: Johnson’s masterstroke 1989 trade of Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings ended up yielding Emmitt Smith, Darren Woodson and other players who made up the nucleus of the Cowboys’ 1990s imperial era. His detail-oriented approach propelled those players to victory.

Sally Jenkins: Nobody believes Urban Meyer. That’s why he’s failing.

Pete Carroll

NCAA record: 97-19 in nine seasons with two national titles at Southern California (14 of those wins were vacated by the NCAA). At one point under Carroll, the Trojans won 34 straight games, and the program produced three of the four Heisman Trophy winners from 2002 to 2005.

NFL record: 145-94-1 in a pro career that sandwiched his USC stint. Two Super Bowl appearances, with one Seahawks win. In his 17 seasons as an NFL coach, his teams have made the playoffs 11 times.

Why he succeeded: Carroll has made some savvy personnel moves — drafting Russell Wilson in the third round in 2012 and boldly making him the opening day starter; quickly realizing that his 2013 trade for wide receiver Percy Harvin was a mistake — and showed a willingness to shake up his coaching staff when necessary.

Paul Brown

NCAA record: Led Ohio State to a national title in 1942 and a 18-8-1 record in three seasons. Brown also won a state title as a high school coach in Ohio.

NFL record: 159-80-5. Brown led the Cleveland Browns to seven NFL championship game appearances in eight seasons between 1950 and 1957, winning three of them. Then, after a rift with owner Art Modell drove him from Cleveland, Brown led the Cincinnati Bengals to playoff appearances in three of their first six years of existence.

Why he succeeded: Brown popularized many of the innovations — full-time coaching staffs, college scouting, film study — that are part of the game today. While hardly a champion of social justice, Brown also was a pioneer of integration in pro football, becoming one of the first to sign Black players.

Bill Walsh

NCAA record: 34-24-1 in five seasons at Stanford. Walsh coached two seasons there in 1977 and ’78, returned to the NFL, then came back to coach the Cardinal for three more seasons from 1992 to ’94. His first stint was more successful. Walsh led Stanford to a 17-7 record and its only two bowl appearances over a 14-year stretch.

NFL record: 92-59-1 over 10 seasons with the 49ers, with three Super Bowl titles.

Why he succeeded: Walsh began incorporating his West Coast offense principles while a Bengals assistant under Brown and then unleashed their full capabilities in San Francisco, revolutionizing NFL offenses in the process.

Tom Coughlin

NCAA record: 21-13-1 in three seasons at Boston College. Led the Eagles to a win over No. 1 Notre Dame in 1993.

NFL record: 170-150 in 20 seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Giants, with two monumental Super Bowl upsets of the New England Patriots while coaching the latter. Coughlin also led the Jaguars to the AFC championship game in only their second year of existence — and then did so again three seasons later.

Why he succeeded: Though his intensity rubbed some players the wrong way, others seemed to thrive under his system.

The bad

Lou Holtz

NCAA record: 249-132-7 as coach of six programs, most famously Notre Dame, which he led to the national title in 1988.

NFL record: 3-10 for the Jets in 1976.

Why he failed: Holtz never played pro football, which hardly is disqualifying. But a minor red flag might have been Holtz’s admission that he had never once watched an NFL game before taking the Jets job after a successful four-year stint at North Carolina State. He also thought he could run the option with Joe Namath — at that point a 33-year-old quarterback with 63-year-old knees. Oh, and he also made the team sing a fight song after victories. To no one’s surprise, Holtz resigned with one game left in the 1976 season.

Bobby Petrino

NCAA record: 119-56 at four programs, with three top-six finishes at Louisville and Arkansas.

NFL record: 3-10 for the Falcons in 2007.

Why he failed: Without Michael Vick, who missed the season while under investigation for operating a dogfighting ring, the Falcons had little chance of success in 2007. After 13 games — and one day after assuring owner Arthur Blank he was staying in Atlanta — Petrino quit to become coach at Arkansas, infamously informing Falcons players via laminated notes taped to their lockers.

Steve Spurrier

NCAA record: 228-89-2 at three programs, winning the 1996 national title at Florida.

NFL record: 12-20 for Washington in 2002 and 2003.

Why he failed: Brought in as the NFL’s highest-paid coach, Spurrier tried to install the “Fun ‘n’ Gun” offense that worked so well with the Gators. It didn’t work: Spurrier seemed to grow increasingly uninterested in the job, and management’s decision to take away personnel control from him in his second season — particularly when it came to the team’s quarterback — sealed the deal.

Ranking Washington football seasons in the Daniel Snyder era from least to most fun

Nick Saban

NCAA record: 256-65-1 at Michigan State, LSU and Alabama, with seven national titles.

NFL record: 15-17 with the Miami Dolphins in 2005 and 2006.

Why he failed: Putting the words “Nick Saban” and “failed” in the same sentence seems weird now, but it’s true: Saban’s tenure leading the Dolphins was a failure. In hindsight, Saban said he struggled with the difference between recruiting players in college and drafting players in the NFL, namely because he has the pick of any player he wants in college but was restricted by draft order, the salary cap, roster needs, etc., in the NFL. Saban also passed on Drew Brees because of his shoulder issues at the time, instead signing Daunte Culpepper. He chose poorly.

Urban Meyer

NCAA record: 187-32 in 219 games at Bowling Green, Utah, Florida and Ohio State

NFL record: 2-11

Why he failed: Frankly, finding ways he didn’t fail is a difficult task, because his Jaguars tenure was a disaster from start to finish. One of his first moves was hiring Chris Doyle — who had been accused of mistreating players and making racist comments while at the University of Iowa — as Jacksonville’s director of sports performance. In October, he was caught on video at an Ohio bar with a woman who was not his wife, one day after his team had lost to the Cincinnati Bengals (he did not fly back to Florida with his players, which also was seen as a faux pas). As the season wore on, he reportedly was getting into arguments with players and calling his assistant coaches “losers,” the latter of which he freely admitted to doing. Then, on Wednesday, the Tampa Bay Times published a story in which former Jaguars kicker Josh Lambo accused Meyer of kicking him during a practice in August, which Meyer denied. That, apparently, was the last straw, and Jacksonville fired Meyer early Thursday morning.