Steve Spurrier is in a familiar place, with another top-10 finish in his rearview mirror and a touted recruiting class headed for South Carolina this fall.
Seven seasons into his third stint as a college head coach, Spurrier is cruising, the Ol' Ball Coach feeling a lot younger than 66. Sporting his trademark visor on autumn Saturdays, he beams over every "first" the Gamecocks program experiences. It's almost like he never left the campus life.
But, unfortunately for Spurrier, he can't completely erase the two seasons he spent coaching the Redskins (2002-03) after leaving behind the powerhouse he built at Florida. He went 12-20 in Washington before getting shown the door, joining a number of other college coaches over the years who failed to make the jump to the biggest stage.
Spurrier picked up the phone in his Columbia, S.C., office last week, and made one thing clear about the challenge facing former Rutgers, and new Bucs, coach Greg Schiano: At the next level, it's not always as simple as X's and O's.
"The Jimmys and Joes," Spurrier said, referring to players, "are the most important."
History is not on Schiano's side. Since 2000, eight college coaches have gone to the NFL: Spurrier, Nick Saban, Pete Carroll, Jim Harbaugh, Bobby Petrino, Dennis Erickson, Butch Davis and Lane Kiffin. Taking out Harbaugh, who recently won AP Coach of the Year for a 13-3 season in San Francisco and an NFC title game berth, the rest have combined for two playoff appearances and a .374 winning percentage (not including previous stints for Carroll and Erickson).
Schiano has said "football is football," but those college coaches who have tried the feat say there are some obstacles and pitfalls to avoid. There are adjustments in handling player discipline and game management.
"You just need a good playmaker at quarterback, and if you have that, you have a real chance," said Rich Brooks, a former Oregon and Kentucky coach who was fired after two seasons with the Rams (1995-96). "It's not rocket science. Football is football, but the pressures and the organization have a lot to do with your success or lack of success."
Dennis Erickson said there's not a big change between college and the NFL in fundamental techniques and scheme.
But Erickson said a key is to not to re-invent yourself.
Erickson was an innovator of the spread offense in his early college jobs and led Miami to two national titles (1989, 1991).
But when Erickson took over the Seahawks in 1995, the first of two NFL stints, he was convinced to skip the spread in favor of a more traditional pro offense. And after four seasons (31-33), and one ownership change, the two-time Sporting News College Coach of the Year was fired. He returned to the college game.
"You've just got to be yourself, but be flexible," Erickson said. "Do what you believe in, and I know (Schiano) will do that."
There will be game and practice management adjustments, Erickson said — from having fewer possessions in the NFL because the clock doesn't stop on first downs, to having fewer padded practices.
But it appears Schiano, known for his blitzing defense and a power running game with deep passes, will stick with his familiar script, and Erickson thinks his offense will "fit into the NFL pretty darn well."
QB is key
Brooks, who led Oregon to the Rose Bowl in 1994, didn't exactly inherit the "Greatest Show on Turf" in St. Louis the following season. Marshall Faulk was still a Colt. Kurt Warner was still bagging groceries. But Brooks jumped to a 5-1 start, before quarterback Chris Miller sustained another concussion, effectively ending his career. In 1996, Brooks had quarterback Tony Banks, one of five rookie starters.
"I went 7-9 and 6-10 without (Miller)," Brooks said. "And I was gone."
Carroll, on the other hand, had veteran Matt Hasselbeck help take the Seahawks to an AFC West title (at 7-9 in 2010) and the Pro Bowl-type season of quarterback Alex Smith was a catalyst in Harbaugh's successful first year.
"At any level you need a quarterback, but in the NFL it's just paramount," Brooks said.
The Bucs feel they have a franchise quarterback in Josh Freeman, but Erickson and Brooks also believe that it matters how much say Schiano has in personnel. In college, coaches handpick their roster in recruiting, but in the NFL, Brooks said "some of your assistants are hired for you, you have varied input into the draft," and can be limited in free agency.
Bucs GM Mark Dominik will retain authority over personnel moves, but said Schiano will be significantly involved and both will work to hire a staff.
"Usually, the organization doesn't give the head coach that much autonomy or authority," Brooks said. "It becomes very difficult and you have to get a great working relationship with all the working parts. There's a lot more working parts at the pro level than in college."
One of Schiano's strengths at Rutgers was instilling discipline, but he said that, in the NFL, enforcing it is not just on him, it has to be a "unified message."
And, "It doesn't work unless you have consequences."
That philosophy is much-needed for the Bucs, who had discipline issues on and off the field. But Brooks suggests there are times when management can limit the control coaches have over their enforcement.
"It definitely changes because in college, usually the coach is the least expendable person, and in the NFL, he's one of the more expendable persons," Brooks said. "You have 10-15 guys who are making more money than the coach is. … You have to be a little more diplomatic, learn how to get along with the players' idiosyncrasies.
"You really need to adjust to the players at that level, need to be firm but need to be fair and understand you're not talking to 17, 18 year olds, you're talking to grown men that, in a lot of cases, are going to be around a lot longer than you are."
Erickson said each coach has his own style, but it's important to lean on the leaders in the locker room to spread the message.
"I'm not sure you can rule with as much of an iron fist in the NFL," said former NFL offensive lineman Ross Tucker, who played for Spurrier in Washington. "Because in college, you can cut a kid basically. In the NFL, you're much more limited."
Whether Schiano bucks the trend of college coaches headed to the NFL remains to be seen. But Spurrier, an ex-Buc quarterback, is a big believer, as are Erickson and Brooks, all of whom are rooting for him.
"To me, the key is if you have good players, good coaching staff and a good quarterback — if you have all that in place, and good management, you can win," Spurrier said. "It doesn't matter if you came out of high school, college or the NFL."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.