NFL teams have been looking at college coaches to fill their head coaching vacancies more than ever. In each of the past three seasons, at least one coach made the jump to the NFL after years of working at the collegiate level. Urban Meyer is the most recent college coach to take that route, and although he hadn’t coached any football at all for two years prior to becoming Jacksonville’s head coach, his last stint was still in college. Prior to Meyer, it was Baylor’s Matt Rhule to the Carolina Panthers and Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury to the Arizona Cardinals. College coaches have become commendable commodities consuming NFL cultures, so it makes sense that oddsmakers would create lines for certain college coaches to jump to the NFL.
Per OddsChecker, there are three college coaches making waves in NFL coaching rumor circles: Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, and Alabama’s Nick Saban. Fickell is being given the most likely odds at +333 implying a 23.1 percent chance to find a head coaching job in the NFL. Harbaugh is being given +350 odds, or a 22.2 percent chance. Saban is listed at +800, or 11.3 percent.
Now, if you’re like me, you’re probably thinking “Huh? Nick Saban and Jim Harbaugh? Yeah, they’re great coaches, but they’re not going to the NFL.” Those odds aren’t insane by any means, but listing Saban and Harbaugh as two of the three most likely college coaches to become NFL head coaches seems improbable to say the least.
Saban’s short stint as head coach of the Miami Dolphins between 2005 and 2006 ended with a 6-10 season and a 15-17 overall record. Within three years after returning to the college football scene, Saban won a national championship. He currently earns nearly $10 million a year and has a booster club that literally pays off his debts. He’s widely regarded as the premier coach in NCAA football and has said on multiple occasions that he does not want to go back to the NFL.
Sure, there have been dozens of coaches who’ve said one thing and then turned on their word faster than Littlefinger on Game of Thrones (i.e.: Lincoln Riley and Brian Kelly), but Saban’s words seem more sincere. Maybe it’s because he’s actually spent time in the NFL and realized that it’s not what he loves. Maybe it’s because he has invested too much into the Alabama football program to turn away from it now. The point remains that Saban has shown zero interest in returning. He’s been there, done that. There’s no need to reopen old repressed memories of having to face Tom Brady and Bill Belichick twice every year.
Harbaugh makes more sense to return to the NFL on a surface level. Not only did he help the San Francisco 49ers reach Super Bowl XLVII, but Harbaugh also won the Coach of the Year Award in his inaugural season, a feat that he duplicated in college this year. He had a combined record of 44-19-1 across four seasons and never fell below .500. He’s also only been out of professional coaching since 2015. It’s been a while, but not nearly as long as it’s been for Nick Saban, so it’s likely he could make the transition without experiencing a long adjustment period. However, Harbaugh’s coaching style is much more fit for a collegiate setting.
Don’t get me wrong. There were dozens of problems with the 49ers organization at the time of his departure. There was dysfunction between Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke as well as a tumultuous offseason in 2014 that saw 14 of the organization’s 25 most important people leave the team. However, another issue during Harbaugh’s time with the 49ers that often gets overlooked is how he pretty much lost the locker room in his fourth and final season.
Harbaugh ultimately denied that report and even blasted Deion Sanders for coming out with it. However, the report seemed truer and truer by the day. In the midst of an 8-8 season, Harbaugh’s popular team mantra “Who’s got it better than us? NOBODY!” seemed untrue and even somewhat patronizing after players looked at the standings. Harbaugh’s motivational tactics and demeanor became stale with some of the team’s veterans. His players had grown tired of him as their coach after just four years.
Wait a minute! Four years! That’s exactly the length of a typical collegiate athletic career. Sure, there are instances involving redshirts and medical redshirts that can allow a college athlete to be part of a university’s sports program for up to six years, but four years is the usual length of a college stay for most athletes. Harbaugh’s coaching style is fit for the collegiate level. That’s where his style works best. So, why would Harbaugh want to go back to the NFL the same year he reaches the college football playoff for the first time? The same year he records the biggest win of his collegiate coaching career, especially when making the move would require him to have to work with a General Manager and a President of Player Personnel again? That went over so well the first time, I’m shocked Harbaugh wasn’t dying to have even less control of his roster.
As a collegiate coach, Harbaugh has much more control over his team than he would as an NFL head coach. He likes control. He thrives on building his team the way he needs to. He doesn’t need that. He’s got it all at Michigan. In January, the university extended Harbaugh through 2025, and that was before he helped lead the Wolverines past Ohio State for the first time in ten years. He’s not going anywhere.
There are likely going to be a lot of open head coaching positions in the NFL this offseason. Matt Nagy, Mike Zimmer, Urban Meyer, Vic Fangio, even interim Raiders’ head coach Rich Bisaccia could all lose their jobs after the end of the regular season. It’s very likely that one or more college coaches get asked to become NFL head coaches. Harbaugh and Saban will likely get some offers as well, but there’s no way either of them will take them.
Don’t get it twisted. They’re both staying in college for now.