When San Francisco and Seattle face off Sunday night in what many are already calling the game of the year in the NFL, both coaches, who have taken their struggling franchises quickly back to the top, were pacing Pac-12 sidelines just five years ago. Couple that with Chip Kelly's stunningly successful implementation of the hurry-up offense being the highlight of the league's opening night of Monday Night Football, and one can get the quick impression that the Pac-12 is becoming a training ground for the NFL's best coaches.
It wasn't long ago that many had ultimately dismissed the ability of college coaches being able to succeed in the NFL, but with the recent successes of Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh and the potentially impending success, and revolutionizing of NFL offenses, by Kelly, could shoot that theory to shreds. Maybe, that theory should be tweaked to suggest that college coaches cannot succeed in the NFL... unless they come from the Pac-12.
When compared to college coaches who have come to the NFL, from the SEC, including current living god Nick Saban and Steve Spurrier, the Pac-12 looks superior to the greatest conference in college football in at least one aspect.
It could be easy to simply gloat about how the conference has produced such excellent NFL coaches in recent years. Or, simply suggest that it was random that two of the league's top coaches, and one of the hottest at the moment, came from out West, but the answer as to why it happened may actually lie in the unique way that the men demanded that they be allowed to run their operations.
All three former Pac-12 coaches run their programs closely to that of a college football program, insisting on controlling as much about the team and personnel as they possibly can. Their teams seem to take on the overall image of the coaches, and greatly resemble their former Pac-12 teams. Jim Harbaugh has a big, physical team with power up front and a dangerous dual-threat quarterback, Pete Carroll has a talent-loaded team with a focus on defense and Chip Kelly has a lightning quick offense led by a quick quarterback and talented running back.
It's as if nothing has changed.
It's an interesting strategy that the former Pac-12 coaches are employing, and it might be the recipe for success for college football coaches moving to the NFL, especially since one can point to the fact that Carroll failed at New England with the standard NFL approach but is now excelling. The ability to be able to fully employ the strategy was also likely why Kelly conducted such a back-and-forth courtship the past two January's in regards to whether or not he was going to go to the NFL. It's likely that Kelly knew that full control on personnel was the key to be able to succeed in the way that his former Pac-12 rivals Harbaugh and Carroll had before him.
Outside of their insistence on handling their teams like CEOs, the culture and lack of style in the Pac-12 might be another reason why the trio of former Pac-12 coaches is having so much success at the next level. The conference doesn't have an overall image or style like the SEC or Big Ten do, allowing coaches to implement unique strategies that better prepare them for the diverse, and ever-changing flow of the NFL. Maybe it is just because the Pac-12 is out on the progressive West Coast, but Pac-12 coaches have more freedom to experiment with more inventive strategies and approaches and that helps them when they step up to the next level.
Now, one has to wonder, especially if Kelly can maintain his opening game success throughout the season, if NFL teams are going to start looking at the Pac-12 as a training ground for coaches. There has already been buzz building about a potential future jump by David Shaw to the next level, and interest could build for Jim Mora if he continues his success at UCLA, in hopes that he could pull a Pete Carroll and succeed in the NFL after failing the first time. Mark Helfrich could also quickly become a hot commodity if he can keep the Oregon machine humming at Chip Kelly speed and Kelly's offense can continue to set the NFL on fire. Time will only tell.
So, it might not be much longer before we have a new crop of former Pac-12 coaches that start to turn heads in the NFL, but in the meantime, sit back and enjoy the current alumni experience success almost equal to that of what they had in the Conference of Champions.