Of all the former NFL head coaches to take over a college football program, the last one I expected was Lovie Smith. Having seen him work as the head coach of my Chicago Bears for years, then the head coach of our man Jeff Tyner's Buccaneers, he never seemed like the type to really relish in young talent, nor did he seem like the type who really enjoyed a big challenge. He's stoic and soft-spoken, and strikes me as the type who likes to get into bed around 8:30 with a Tom Clancy novel and a cup of warm tea.
Instead, Smith seems to be having more fun than he ever did in his twenty years in the pros. Perhaps the return to college football, where he began his career at Tulsa in 1983, has rejuvenated the poker-faced defensive tactician. Oddly enough, by Smith seeming to have so much fun, Illinois football now seems fun, too. Not that the yearly "Drive for Six (as in six wins)" wasn't a barrel of laughs, but there's a level of legitimacy that wasn't there before. The question now will be whether or not Smith can actually get results.
So what other NFL head coaches would we like to see in college football? Let's take a look at a handful.
Bill Belichick: Here’s an interesting tidbit you may not know about the stone-faced Patriots playcaller: he actually has some roots in college football. His father, Steve, was a noted assistant coach at three prominent universities: Vanderbilt (where little Billy was born), North Carolina, and Navy, where he was a scout for 33 years. Bill started watching film with his father when he was 10, getting accustomed early to not just seeing young talent, but seeing their strengths and weaknesses, and finding value in every player. After all, the US Naval Academy has stricter academic requirements for prospects, as well as height and weight requirements. Oh, also players have to literally join the Navy. That’s usually the big dealbreaker.
So it’s not any surprise that Belichick is a master at maximizing every player’s ability and making them fit into the “Patriot Way”. Now imagine what he can do with these teenage athletic lumps of clay we see today. Any school he’d join would immediately become the new “factory”, regardless of conference or program prestige. If you have the opportunity to play for a man who won four Super Bowls, you take that opportunity a thousand times out of a thousand. Also, uh, that football team is going to be AWESOME to watch.
Now, the sneaky-fun part about this? The coach-versus-coach showdowns. College football coaches are some of the most entertaining characters around, and to see such an anti-charismatic presence like Belichick go full-Terminator during, say, SEC media day, would be just as fascinating as any swaggering Spurrier press conference. against Saban. Belichick against Miles. Belichick against Meyer, Harbaugh, Briles, it goes on. Imagine the Dabo tears! Oh, it would be magnificent. Granted, it would be one thousand years of darkness and winter as Nick Saban and Bill Belichick would just trade the championship back and forth, but there’s no question it would be brilliant football.
Jon Gruden: As anybody who’s watched Gruden’s QB Camp specials on ESPN knows, he loves chatting with young quarterbacks. He likes quizzing them, needling them, complimenting them, educating them, and watching them. I have a feeling Gruden is much like myself when I was younger: fascinated by the quarterback position, and forever reading the backs of trading cards featuring backups and journeymen. I still search for Mike Tomczak and Dave Kreig jerseys on eBay. None exist.
Gruden, as a coach, is equal parts Jimmy Johnson and Chip Kelly. He has plenty of swagger and personality to get the players on his side and to inject fun into the game, while being incredibly dedicated and strict about his playcalling. These traits also play well in recruiting; he can win over any recruit’s mom in two minutes flat, while making every player feel important about their exact role in the coach’s scheme. Heck, Gruden can just bang that Super Bowl ring on the kitchen table and that letter of intent will get signed awful quick.
Now, if Gruden were to fail or simply not deliver upon expectations, oh man the venomous Deadspin articles and hilarious SB Nation .gifs would be for the ages. I can see Gruden winning the Little Caesar’s Bowl in his first season with some 8-4 MAC team, getting a giant bucket of Corona dumped on him, and way over-celebrating before a pair of 5-win seasons and a Sarkesian-esque tirade get him fired. Basically, Jon Gruden is entertaining, college football is entertaining, and the two combined would certainly have my attention on Saturday afternoons.
John Harbaugh: If you haven’t looked at the difference between the Harbaugh brothers, you’d think I had picked John just for the sake of having another wacky, media-friendly, yet brilliant coach running around causing chaos and stirring stuff up. On the contrary, John may be as brilliant as his brother (and has more Super Bowl rings), but his personality and outlook on the game is different. While Jim was setting records under center at Michigan, John was working his first coaching job after graduating from Miami of Ohio, heading up both running backs and outside linebackers for Western Michigan. After that he was the Tight Ends coach at Pittsburgh, then followed that up with a gig as special teams and secondary coach at Morehead State. He went on to coach special teams and defensive backs at Cincinnati and Indiana as well, before taking the same position with the Philadelphia Eagles, leading to his head coaching start with the Baltimore Ravens.
It takes a certain breed of coach to head up a special teams unit in college. You’re dealing with the hungriest guys, the youngest guys, and yes, the least talented guys. You’re going to find a fair share of characters in the unit, and very little of your job will be teaching X’s and O’s. Instead, you’re preparing men for what is the closest equivalent to running headfirst into battle, as they charge toward their opponent, engaging face to face after nearly a fifty-yard dash. It’s no surprise, then, that Harbaugh is lauded for his tight relationships with his players, and cultivating an air of familial respect and love in the locker room. They play for each other, they eat with each other, they share their lives with one another, and Harbaugh has turned strong relationships into success on the field, maximizing the performance of the players under his tutelage by maximizing their heart and their effort.
In the cold world of schemes and 500-page playbooks, where coaches are hailed as geniuses for being able to run their plans to perfection, Harbaugh would be such a breath of fresh air. He’s shown he can take young men, regardless of their talent level, and let them win races as wild horses, so to speak. Much like wild horses, they naturally travel in herds, and they may not be tame, but there’s nothing more beautiful in nature. Harbaugh makes some beautiful football, no matter the players.
Rex and/or Rob Ryan: KEGGER AT REXY’S BABY! Whereas Harbaugh can cultivate a familial atmosphere through players working together on the field, either brother is going to build bonds between his players with ice cold beer, hot grilled meats, and some nice, old-fashioned partying. We all know the fun we get to see the brothers Ryan have with grown men making millions of dollars. Now imagine him palling around with some hormone-fueled animals experiencing freedom for the first time in their life, surrounded by a campus of hot babes, tasty food, and in some cases, a lot of attention. The Ryan bros’ midlife crisis would be the absolute best.
Of course, they are still pretty dang good coaches, and their both very honest. In an FBS that’s full of coaches saying and doing whatever it takes to woo recruits and win over boosters, neither Ryan brother is going to dish out any BS, nor will they accept it. Both men started their careers with a dozen years in college football, from big programs like Oklahoma and Ohio State to schools like New Mexico Highlands University and Hutchinson Community College (go Blue Dragons!) They know how to motivate players no matter the spotlight, and they sure as hell don’t give a damn about the number of stars you have on Rivals.
It still comes back to the entertainment potential for me, though. In an already fun and character-driven sport like college football, the Ryans would absolutely thrive, and probably keep their jobs for longer than they should just by virtue of the attention they’ll bring to the team. You telling me neither of the brothers could turn UTSA into a powerhouse program? Come on. At the very least they’ll get one primetime Thursday night game on ESPN2, and that counts for something.