N.F.L. Coaches Now Reach for Next Level: College

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University of Hawaii Coach Norm Chow can recall when, as an N.F.L. assistant coach, he had less sway than the players did. CreditEugene Tanner/Associated Press

In the early days of his first season in the N.F.L. as the Tennessee Titans’ offensive coordinator, Norm Chow was in a meeting in which, he recalled, coaches and players were bantering with a rookie, chiding him to pay closer attention. When Chow joined in, the rookie, a recent high draft pick, responded that he had a direct line to the owner.

A veteran player approached Chow after the meeting and told him, “Don’t forget it.”

That was professional football, where players can outrank coaches, and ultimately both answer to ownership. Now Chow is in college football, as the head coach at the University of Hawaii, and he knows that life “absolutely does not” work that way. In college, the head coach frequently has more power than the star quarterback, the athletic director, the university president, even the governor.

Chow, like many coaches in high-level college programs, is the state’shighest-paid state employee.

The difference was illustrated vividly last week when Jim Harbaugh, one of the most successful coaches in the N.F.L. in recent years, opted to leave in favor of the University of Michigan, his alma mater. Harbaugh’s base salary — $5 million annually for seven years with 10 percent increases after three and five years — eventually will amount to more than he was earning with the San Francisco 49ers.


Nick Saban coached the Miami Dolphins, left in 2006, before moving to Alabama, where he has won three national titles. CreditJ. Pat Carter/Associated Press; Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Harbaugh was 44-19-1 in four regular seasons with the 49ers, and he led them to a Super Bowl. But he and team ownership mutually decided to part ways.

“It’s football, but it’s two different worlds,” said Butch Davis, who has been a head coach in college, at Miami and North Carolina, and in the N.F.L., with the Cleveland Browns.

As college football is ascendant, Harbaugh’s trajectory is increasingly popular. Two of the most accomplished college coaches in recent years, Southern California’s Pete Carroll and Alabama’s Nick Saban, arrived at their programs after unsuccessful stints in the N.F.L. (Carroll is back in the N.F.L., where he won a Super Bowl last season at the helm of the Seattle Seahawks.)

“At some point in time in my career,” Saban told reporters, “I sort of viewed it as the ultimate challenge — to be an N.F.L. head coach.”

Saban won a national title as Louisiana State’s head coach before going to the Miami Dolphins for two seasons. With the Crimson Tide, who lost to Ohio State, 42-35, in the first College Football Playoff semifinals Thursday night, he has added three more titles.

Moving to college from the N.F.L. seems counterintuitive on its face. The N.F.L. is the more popular league. In most cases, coaching in the N.F.L. means more money, although as college football has become ever bigger and richer — a case in point is the College Football Playoff, whose television contract is worth $7.3 billion over 12 years — this has become less true.

With his new contract, Harbaugh joined five other college coaches at the $5 million annual threshold, according to USA Today’s college financial database, and there are 28 — nearly an N.F.L.’s worth — whose salaries are at least $3 million.

Still, coaching grown men on the professional level as opposed to young adults in college can be a boon, rather than the burden that Chow portrayed. Mike Riley, Nebraska’s new head coach, recalled arriving as an N.F.L. head coach for the San Diego Chargers in 1999 and finding an ally in the star linebacker Junior Seau.


Jim Harbaugh left the San Francisco 49ers, left, for his alma mater, Michigan, where basketball fans greeted him last week.CreditMarcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press; Duane Burleson/Getty Images

“I leaned on him for help and direction for the entire team,” Riley said. “He had the respect of everybody in that organization. He was a valuable person for me.”

Most of all, N.F.L. coaching is a more straightforward job, focused on X’s and O’s and, in some cases, personnel. College coaches must do all that and also recruit year-round, which includes spending a lot of time in the living rooms of talented 17-year-olds, urging them to take their scholarships without being able to offer extra inducements like signing bonuses. Once players arrive on campus, they need to learn how to balance football with academic obligations, and without parental supervision.

Both Chow and Mark Whipple, the head coach at Massachusetts, said they held meetings on Thursdays to work on players’ academics.

“You’re not doing that in the N.F.L. on Thursdays,” said Whipple, who has been a quarterbacks coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Browns.

Of the differences between coaching at the college and professional levels, Whipple added: “You might have to have a little more patience in college, just because you’re dealing with younger kids, not as mature. The N.F.L. players — they want to get better. They know if they can get a couple years more on their contract, there’s nowhere else they can make that kind of a living.”

A closer look at the dynamics of each job reveals that in many ways, the college job seems more appealing, particularly for coaches who enjoy being the face of their programs, do not mind working extremely hard and prioritize control above all else. That tends to be the personality of most football coaches, including Harbaugh.

Carroll once went virtually an entire N.F.L. season in the 1990s without speaking to one of his owners, Leon Hess of the Jets. Carroll later became the coach of the Patriots, but after failing to make the playoffs in the 1999 season, he was fired by the owner, Robert K. Kraft. Seeking a situation in which he would hold more power, Carroll then made the move to U.S.C.

“Wherever I ended up next, my job would be to coach every part of the organization and be sure that we all had one heartbeat, one voice,” he wrote in his 2010 book “Win Forever.” He decided to return to the N.F.L., he wrote, after also receiving the title of vice president for football operations and the power to hire the Seahawks’ general manager.


Mark Whipple guided Cleveland Browns quarterbacks, including Colt McCoy, then took over at the University of Massachusetts. CreditJason Miller/Getty Images; Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

An N.F.L. team is allotted one first-round draft pick — one selection among the 32 top incoming players — per season. In college, by contrast, there is nothing to stop top coaches from scooping up many top prospects. Alabama signed six of the top 32 recruits from the high school class of 2014, according to Rivals.com.

In college, as opposed to the N.F.L., talented coaches can turn programs around relatively quickly. This prospect should hearten Michigan fans frustrated with the Wolverines’ play in recent years. Stanford went from four wins in Harbaugh’s first season there to 12 wins in his fourth, and final, season.

“In the N.F.L., it’s hard to go get a quarterback,” the former coach Davis said. Referring to Harbaugh, he added, “In college, he may get three quarterbacks next year.”

While the players’ immaturity might seem a nuisance, college coaches speak sentimentally of the opportunity to make a difference in a young person’s life.

“I really developed a passion, love for college football and having an impact on helping young people,” Saban said.

When a reporter suggested Tuesday that Harbaugh, a former Michigan quarterback whose father was an assistant there, could have eventually made more money by staying in the N.F.L., Harbaugh dismissed the notion without denying it.

Rather, he seemed — to use an adjective not often used to describe football coaches — happy. Known for his intense personality, Harbaugh appeared uncharacteristically loose.

In the past several months, as Michigan’s athletic director, Dave Brandon, resigned and the coach, Brady Hoke, coached himself further into lame-duck status, it was widely thought that the Wolverines’ job was Harbaugh’s for the taking. Still, many did not expect him to accept it. But those who understood the pull of coaching at an alma mater knew otherwise.

“Every Michigan alum I’ve ever played for, they love Michigan,” said Matt Hasselbeck, a backup quarterback for the Colts who is in his 16th season in the N.F.L. “They love the Maize and Blue. They love everything about it, whether it’s football, hockey, women’s sports. They’re all in.”

Pressed on why he returned to the college ranks, Harbaugh said: “It was a decision I basically made without a list, without a pros-and-cons approach. Something I dreamed about, that I felt it was time to live.”