We see it all the time in football—college coaches with innovative offensive minds or longstanding track records as leaders of young men making the leap into the NFL. It’s a little less publicized, but the reverse scenario also happens with great regularity—NFL coaches heading (back) to the college ranks either to rehabilitate their value, or head back to a place where they feel like can make more of a difference.
It can be an interesting dynamic, because while certain players have realistic NFL dreams while playing college football, others are there to put in their time on the field and pursue academic goals outside of the game. In the pros, every single player on the roster is there to make a living and advance in their careers.
Former Super Bowl winning head coach Barry Switzer was known for joining the Dallas Cowboys in the middle of their 1990’s championship run, but made a name for himself coaching the Oklahoma Sooners in the 1970’s and 1980’s. From 1975-1988, Switzer’s teams only missed a bowl game once, and he had a unique vantage point working with kids just out of high school for so long.
“The (NFL) player might be in camp one day and on the waiver wire the next one, and the coach will never speak to him or see him again the rest of his life,” Switzer professed. “A college coach sees every player---when you recruit a player, you’ve got him for life. You can wrap that up with one sentence.” Via LA Times
Taking Switzer’s sentiments one step further—the coach just doesn’t see every player, he usually sees every player’s parents. Certain guardians meet with coaches having the expectation that he’ll turn their son into a Heisman trophy winner, while others could care less about their child’s athletic achievements, and perhaps are more interested in the majors a university has to offer, or whether their child will be able to handle themselves being away from home for the first time.
Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll has also had significant experience at both levels, leading the University of Southern California Trojans football program to impressive heights from 2001-2009. Carroll also alluded to the more transient nature of the NFL, and the greater sense of community displayed in the college game.
“Here(in the NFL), it’s more on the player. You don’t feel so terrible(if the player gets in trouble) because the players are grownups,” Carroll remarked. In college, they make everybody feel responsible for it. The (athletic director), the president, the head coach, everybody feels responsible.” Via LA Times
While the pressure to win at a big time college football program is not that much different from trying to win in the NFL, there are little moments that remind coaches and players in the collegiate ranks that the game isn’t the end-all be all, and there’s still some youthful innocence present.
Towards the end of October 2019, the University of Illinois football team was a modest 4-4 on the season. Despite not quite being a contender in the Big 10 that season, former Fighting Illini head coach Lovie Smith recalled a point before their game against Rutgers that made him smile. Smith coached the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers prior to his stint in Champaign, Illinois.
“It was our band,” Smith recalled, after hearing music outside the window of his office. “They came to the house, stood outside and played the school fight song. That doesn’t happen in the NFL.” Via Washington Post