The head-coaching search that began with rumors about one of the most high-profile college coaches in the country, Jim Harbaugh, has shifted to two lesser-known coaches: Matt Rhule and Kliff Kingsbury.
Both candidates are in play for the New York Jets, a star-crossed franchise that apparently doesn't care about the recent history of college coaches flopping in the NFL.
Since 2000, only two coaches have made a successful transition -- Harbaugh (Stanford to the San Francisco 49ers) and Bill O'Brien (Penn State to the Houston Texans). In both cases, they had some NFL experience, as Harbaugh started his coaching career with two seasons on the Oakland Raiders' staff and O'Brien studied for five years in the New England School of Belichick.
Others who took the same route -- NFL assistant to college head coach to NFL head coach -- failed on the professional level. We're talking about Nick Saban, Butch Davis, Bobby Petrino and Greg Schiano. Combined record: 53-83, with one playoff appearance (Davis). Steve Spurrier and Chip Kelly, neither of whom had NFL coaching experience, washed out in the league after being hailed as great offensive minds who were going revolutionize the game.
The great exception is Jimmy Johnson, but he worked his magic with the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL's Mesozoic era -- pre-salary cap in the early 1990s.
Rhule and Kingsbury?
Rhule sandwiched one season of NFL experience into his college coaching career. He was Tom Coughlin's assistant offensive-line coach for the New York Giants in 2012 before leaving for Temple and Baylor, his current job.
Kingbury's last contact with the NFL occurred in 2005, when he threw two passes for the Jets in a dismal season.
There's a reason why so many good college coaches have failed in the NFL. It's a different game and a different culture than college. Another important part of the job is building a good staff, and it's hard to do with limited NFL contacts. You have to learn the league, the personnel and the strategy, and that takes time. While Rhule and Kingsbury have admirable traits and project long-term potential, neither has enjoyed sustained success on the college level. Maybe the Jets believe they can grab one of them before he reaches his ceiling as a coach, but do they really want to expose their fan base to another transition period?
Between the two, Rhule is more qualified than Kingsbury because he has demonstrated the ability to flip bad situations, revitalizing the Temple and Baylor programs. He's an offensive-minded coach, which appeals to the Jets, but he also has experience on the defensive side of the ball. He played for Joe Paterno at Penn State and he spent a year around Coughlin, so he's had exposure to winning coaches.
One league source who knows Rhule described him as a "fiery disciplinarian. He's smart, he's intense and he's a good motivator. He's got personality for days, and it's real."
In other words, he's the opposite of former coach Todd Bowles -- and that's a good thing because the Jets need a dynamic presence to attack their losing culture.
The concern with Rhule is that he hasn't developed a quarterback, and that's kind of a big deal for the Jets. CEO Christopher Johnson made that clear last week when he discussed the vacancy. Their best chance to be a championship-caliber team is to maximize Sam Darnold's potential, underscoring the importance of having a quarterback whisperer on staff. That's just not his thing. A source from an opposing team, who has studied Rhule closely over the years, questioned whether he'd be the right fit for Darnold.
If the Jets could somehow swing a Rhule-Kingsbury ticket -- head coach and offensive coordinator, respectively -- now that would be a fascinating Texas two-step.
Kingsbury was only 35-40 in six seasons at the Texas Tech coach, but he knows quarterbacks and can claim Patrick Mahomes as one of his protégés. Defense? Forget about it. That's a foreign concept in the Big 12. Kingsbury would be the ideal coordinator because he sees the game from one side of the ball; he's not ready to be the leader of a billion-dollar franchise.
Rhule would run a balanced team, one that believes in defense and ball control. In an interview with Texas Monthly, he said, "I want to be the NFL team of the Big 12." He went 7-6 last season, including 4-5 in the Big 12. He was 1-11 in his first season at Baylor, as he inherited a program decimated by a sexual assault scandal that took down Art Briles. Rhule is admired in Waco, Texas, where he has restored pride in the football program.
Good for him, good for the school. But good for the Jets? History says he'd be a big gamble.