When Steve Spurrier came to the NFL and promptly failed, it's no surprise it took a while for another NFL team to take a chance on a creative college coach. It's actually surprising it happened as quickly as it did.
Chip Kelly is the latest experiment. The Philadelphia Eagles took a chance on a brilliant offensive mind who has never been in the NFL before. As recently as 2006 his biggest job had been offensive coordinator at New Hampshire. Based on his resume, it's a really atypical hire for a NFL team to make.
Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh came from college and now coach perhaps the two strongest teams in the NFL, but that was different. Carroll had been in the NFL before and there was virtually no "can a college coach make it?" debate with Harbaugh, because everyone knew he was a natural for the pro game.
Kelly is a unique case (even different than Doug Marrone, who came to the Buffalo Bills from Syracuse but was known in NFL circles from his time with the New Orleans Saints), and his hiring makes the Eagles one of the most fascinating teams of this NFL season. And there are many college coaches who should be invested in his success.
There are many instances of college coaches failing in the pros. Bud Wilkinson, Lou Holtz, Frank Kush, Spurrier – they were legends in college and face-planted in the pros. The NFL has always been fairly conservative. A team takes a chance on a college coach, he fails, and every team's next call is to a retread head coach or a coordinator on a successful NFL team from the previous season.
That's why Kelly is important. If he succeeds, it might make other teams more willing to look seriously at college coaches. Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin was mentioned by National Football Post as the most likely coach to be next in the college-to-NFL pipeline – and there have been numerous reports that the Eagles were after Sumlin this offseason before Kelly took the job. But let's see what happens with the Eagles first.
Sumlin would be a great candidate, despite no NFL experience. Like Kelly, he's a creative offensive mind who also has the personality to handle the pro game. Sumlin isn't the only college coach who would be an interesting fit in the NFL. Here are five more that we think could be very good NFL coaches if given the chance (and if they want to go, which isn't a given for any of them):
• Bill O'Brien, Penn State: O'Brien is an obvious candidate because, like Marrone, he has a strong NFL background having come from the Patriots. And O'Brien is dealing with a lot of stuff at Penn State that probably isn't too enjoyable. O'Brien's contract curiously has a much smaller buyout if he jumps to the NFL than if he leaves for any other job.
• David Shaw, Stanford: Shaw spent nine years as a NFL assistant, worked under Harbaugh at Stanford, and has done a tremendous job filling Harbaugh's shoes at Stanford. If he has another good season with sophomore quarterback Kevin Hogan (another name NFL fans will be familiar with soon), he should be an enticing option.
• Chris Petersen, Boise State: Petersen's case reminds me a lot of Brad Stevens, a great college coach who surprisingly passed up many offers to leave Butler but eventually got a job with the NBA's Celtics. Most people can't figure out why the very talented Petersen hasn't left Boise. Maybe he's waiting for the really big offer.
• Urban Meyer, Ohio State: Everywhere Meyer goes, he wins big. He has no NFL experience, but his incredibly talented Florida teams weren't much different than NFL teams (insert jokes about arrests here).
• Nick Saban, Alabama: We saved the most interesting for last. Saban bombed miserably with the Dolphins. His controlling personality did not work nearly as well in a NFL building as it does with 18-to-22 year-old players. And in the NFL, you can't just be a recruiting monster and go into every season with the best roster. But he's on a track to be arguably the most successful college coach of all time. He's won two college titles in a row, is a heavy favorite to win an unprecedented third straight this season, and at some point maybe he gets bored and wants to see if he'd be better in the NFL a second time around. Maybe he's learned from his mistakes (and if the Dolphins signed Drew Brees instead of Daunte Culpepper, maybe this conversation is completely different). If Saban puts out the word that he's interested in trying the NFL again, he would make for a very interesting discussion for teams that have a vacancy.