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A Coach's Decision

Xs and Os come easy. It's whether to ply their trade in the college or professional ranks that wrangles the country's top coaches
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Haysbert, Nov/Dec 2006

(continued from page 1)

In other ways, though, the professions have about as much in common as horse racing and drag racing. "The reason coaching in the pros is not good for me is because I enjoy other things in life besides football," says Steve Spurrier of the University of South Carolina, who left his status as a living legend at the University of Florida for two years of discontent with the Washington Redskins before returning to college football last season. "I like to travel, spend time with my children and grandchildren. The lifestyle of an NFL coach is not a lot of fun."

In the pros, player procurement works differently than it does in college. "We have the chance to recruit six or seven number-one draft picks every year," Carroll says. "You get a shot at one in the NFL." Even if you have the opportunity to get a player you want, it might not be whom the owner wants. "The biggest difference I found, I was not in charge of the team," Spurrier says. "Before the second season, the owner had picked all the players. He even changed the quarterback."

And pro players are different from college players. They've gone from being students to millionaires, from playing for fun to supporting a family—or at least a lifestyle. They don't want a mentor, and a coach can't afford to be one. "In college athletics, you have a tremendous impact on their lives," says Dennis Erickson. Erickson has won at every stop in a college career that has spanned a quarter-century, including two national championships at the University of Miami, but he couldn't manage a winning season in six years with the Seahawks and 49ers. Now he's back to teaching fundamentals at the University of Idaho, where he started. "In the National Football League, you develop relationships, sure, but it's a business," Erickson says. "If they can't get the job done, you cut them. And if they get into trouble, it's their problem."

The college ranks are littered with coaches who left successful programs for a run at the NBA or NFL and failed. Other coaches, such as Jack Ramsay, who won an NBA title with the Portland Trail Blazers, and George Seifert, who won a Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers, managed greater success coaching professionals than they did with amateurs.

A few, notably football's Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer (who won national championships in college and Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys) and basketball's Larry Brown (who won the NCAA Tournament at the University of Kansas and the NBA championship with the Detroit Pistons), have succeeded at the highest level at both disciplines. "Larry Brown could have been the greatest college coach ever," says John Calipari of the University of Memphis, who followed his own success at the University of Massachusetts with an unfulfilling tenure coaching the New Jersey Nets. "He's a college coach who happens to be coaching in the NBA. He succeeds only because he's so good. But he's the exception."

Most coaches, by dint of personality, predilection and skill, are better at one than the other. Yet every year, a handful of NBA and NFL teams turn to coaches who have won in college to resuscitate struggling franchises. And every year, a handful of college coaches accept the challenge. They like the idea of coaching at the highest level, or the freedom from operating within an academic environment in which their sport is only a fraction of the full experience.

And many are enticed by the paycheck. "If anybody tells you money's not a factor, they're lying to you," Calipari says. "If someone's going to pay $5 million a year, or for Larry Brown, $10 million, and you say it has nothing to do with money, you're bullshitting."

"The financial aspect of it is huge," admits Erickson. "The difference isn't as much as it was 10 years ago, but it's still a difference. But for me, the biggest reason was to try and win the biggest prize in American sports. If you look back, you say that I probably shouldn't have done it. But I'm glad I did."

It's no secret the odds were against him, as they're against every college coach who tries to make the jump. "Tom Izzo asked me about the Atlanta [Hawks] job," says Calipari, referencing the coach who has led Michigan State University to four Final Fours and a national title and won four National Coach of the Year awards. "I said, 'Tom, you're going to lose, and I've got a question: can you get a better job than you've got right now?' He said, 'I'm in my dream job already.' And I said, 'You'd better consider that.'"

Nevertheless, a chosen few enter willingly each year and hope that their experience will be different. Occasionally, it is.

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