Bill Walsh and Jimmy Johnson did it successfully, coaching five Super Bowl winners between them. But it has become more obvious than ever that the road they traveled was a lonely one.
Bobby Petrino's recent move, from the Atlanta Falcons back to college, served as the latest clear reminder of how difficult it is for football coaches to make the trip in the other direction.
The game may look the same, and the field is still the same size. But it is a different game, nonetheless.
"In college, the players will do anything you want them to," said Seattle coach Mike Holmgren, who was an assistant coach at BYU and then with the San Francisco 49ers before becoming a head coach in the NFL.
College players, Holmgren said, are "worried about classes and their scholarships and then looking forward to the NFL in some cases, and what you say goes."
"I don't think it's ever that easy in (the NFL)," he added.
A long-time issue
Many people are under the impression it's a recent phenomena, created by the big-money, salary-cap and free-agency eras that have changed the face of the NFL. But, in fact, it goes way, way back. Walsh and Johnson are the only coaches since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 who arrived in the league directly from a head-coaching position in college and went on to win a Super Bowl.
And Walsh, who died last summer, deserves an asterisk on the transition because his college job (Stanford) was just a two-year interlude after a decade as an NFL assistant.
In a separate category, there's also Barry Switzer, who replaced Johnson at Dallas and had been out of coaching for five years at the time, following a successful college career. Johnson and Switzer are the only Super Bowl-winning coaches who were never an NFL assistant.
Yes, it's the same game -- but different.
It has been more than a decade, since Steve Mariucci went from the University of California to the 49ers for the 1997 season, that a college coach made the jump and even managed to leave the NFL with a winning record, let alone a championship.
And, like Walsh, Mariucci hardly was representative of the genre; he had been at Berkeley for only one year after spending the previous four years as Green Bay's quarterbacks coach.
Since then, Petrino, Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier, Butch Davis, Mike Riley (who coached two Grey Cup winners in Canada) and Dennis Erickson (in his case, for the second time) have tried and failed. Four of those six won national championships in college, but all of them left the NFL with a losing record. (Oakland's Lane Kiffin, who has a 4-10 record, came to the Raiders from a job as a college assistant.)
Aside from the Hall-of-Famer Walsh and Johnson, a handful of others made the jump and at least managed not to embarrass themselves. John Robinson (USC to the Rams), Dennis Green (Stanford to the Vikings), and Tom Coughlin (Boston College to the Jaguars) all took teams twice to conference championship games (but never to the Super Bowl). Bobby Ross, who went from Georgia Tech to the Chargers, made it to a Super Bowl following the '94 season, but lost to the 49ers.
Count Robinson among those who think the move is tougher now than when he did it in the '80s because no one has any patience anymore and the scrutiny is so much greater.
Door is closing
The cases of Saban last year, and Petrino this year, are expected to pretty much close the NFL coaching door to college coaches for the foreseeable future. Both of them walked out on their NFL teams to return to college jobs after saying in strong terms that they would not. That history may make NFL owners wary of hiring another college coach for awhile.
At least four factors are at work:
» Lack of autonomy: The atmosphere in the NFL is so different and the coach, no matter what his contract says, does not have the degree of autonomy that college coaches enjoy.
"In college, you have control of who you get, you have control of your whole situation, football-wise -- your recruiting, your travel -- everything," Erickson said. "When you get into the NFL, that's not the case. There's so many people you have to go through, a general manager, a personnel director, involved in the final outcome of what happens."
Erickson thought he had a chance in his first NFL job, with Seattle in the '90s, but, in retrospect, now concedes he didn't know what he was getting into when the 49ers hired him in 2003. He said he was misled about the team's salary-cap situation and its plans for the future.
» Ego plays a negative role: Successful college coaches may think they know more than they do. Surely that was one of the problems Saban had. Before the first of his two seasons with the Miami Dolphins, he was explaining that his previous experience as an NFL assistant would help him buck the odds and prove that a college coach could win in the pros.
"The systems that we learned in the NFL, as far as size and speed and athletic attributes for each position, and mental and physical characteristics to be successful, are all things that we use(d) in college. Most people don't do that," Saban said.
Spurrier was not a complete flop as a pro coach; he had a 35-21 record with the Tampa Bay Bandits of the United States Football League in the '80s, even before he got his first college head-coaching job. But, when he left the Redskins to return to college, he conceded that "one thing I learned (in the NFL), I learned a lot more humility."
» From king to pauper: Because college coaches deal with younger players, they are more able to rule with an iron hand, and more likely to command loyalty.
"In college, you're very much a king," Holmgren said. "The athletic director hired you, and normally stays out of the football thing. The president is your boss, but he's in academics pretty much, and leaves you alone to create your own kingdom.
"Then, you have the 18- and 19-year-olds and the old adage -- you say jump, they ask how high -- I think it's still there at the college level. Now, you take that feeling and that sort of control, and you come into our league and you're not the king. Really, the owners are the king, and you are accountable to more people.
"All these (coaches) have different personalities, but the old way -- my way or the highway -- that worked in high school or college to a certain extent, doesn't have much oomph to a guy who just signed a five-year, $60 million contract. It's a little bit of a bluff. You can't get your message across that way, so you have to figure out some other way."
That seems to be what happened in Atlanta with Petrino.
Defensive tackle Grady Jackson, who was cut by Petrino earlier in the season and now plays for Jacksonville, said Petrino "doesn't motivate you."
"He was accustomed to dealing with kids in college," Jackson said. "Now, he's dealing with grown men. That was the big thing right there."
» An uphill climb: College coaches coming to the NFL also face the same problem assistant coaches face when they are promoted. Generally speaking, the teams that change coaches are bad teams, and no matter a new coach's background, the job is going to be a tough one.
"You're so used to winning, because those that (get the jobs) have been successful, obviously, in college," Erickson said. "You're not used to getting beat, and all of a sudden, you're getting beat, and sometimes that's hard. I had a little trouble with that where you win every game (in college) and all of a sudden, you get in (the NFL) and you're going to lose a lot of games.
"That kind of affects you. But usually, you're not going into situations where they've had a great deal of success, or there wouldn't be a job. There's no gimmes. A lot of us have come out of really good programs in college, where you win and you win and you win. In that league there is no such thing (as a gimme) - unless you're at New England, I guess."
Veteran NFL writer Ira Miller is a regular contributor to NFL.com.