The Philadelphia Eagles rolled the dice this year when they lured Chip Kelly from Oregon to take over for Andy Reid. I wonder if they would have made the same choice if they had looked at previous college coaches who stepped into the big show? Desperate NFL teams who look to the college ranks for a new head coach usually find themselves still on the short end a few years later. That long, sad list includes such NFL failures as John McKay (Southern Cal to Bucs), Steve Spurrier (Florida to Redskins), Lou Holtz (N.C. State to Jets), Rich Brooks (Oregon to Rams), Bobby Petrino (Louisville to Falcons) and, yes, even Nick Saban (LSU to Dolphins).
Having success at both levels puts Jim Harbaugh in exclusive company, but still a notch below the two most successful men who made the transition. Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer are the only two coaches who won national championships in the college ranks and then took an NFL team to a Super Bowl victory. Since both won with the Dallas Cowboys, you can parse their varying degrees of success. Johnson took over Jerry Jones' new toy and built it into the champions of back-to-back Super Bowls XXVII and XXVIII. Switzer had been retired from Oklahoma for six years when his good buddy Jones asked him to come in as caretaker of Johnson's dynasty. But with Aikman, Emmitt and Irvin, even Les Miles could have taken that team to the dance.
Another candidate for the Johnson-Switzer wing is Pete Carroll, depending on what his Seattle Seahawks do in coming years. Carroll's USC Trojans won the 2005 national championship, later vacated in the Reggie Bush fiasco, and finished second to Texas in 2006. If he wins a Super Bowl, he would join Johnson and Switzer. A coach whose career is closer to Harbaugh's current stage is Dick Vermeil, who also had success in college but did not win a national championship. Vermeil took two teams to Super Bowls, losing Super Bowl XV with the Eagles and winning Super Bowl XXXIV with the Rams.
Jim Harbaugh has been successful wherever he has been. After coaching San Diego to consecutive Pioneer League championships in 2005 & 2006, Jim Harbaugh moved to Stanford in 2007 and led the Cardinal to two bowl berths. His final team won the 2011 Orange Bowl and was ranked No. 4 in the final BCS standings. Some say that was luck, but it was definitely Andrew Luck who helped make Harbaugh a good college coach. Signing with the 49ers, he picked up where he left off in college, taking the team to the conference championship game in 2011 and now to the Super Bowl.
A victory Sunday would burnish Jim Harbaugh's reputation as a coach who can win at any level, but if you asked him he probably would prefer one other honor. Being the most successful coach in his own family.
My new book, "Where the Water Kept Rising," is now available in local bookstores, at Amazon.com and at my website: www.JWMillerSports.com