As a rule, college coaches do about as well in the National Football League (NFL) as fillies do in the Kentucky Derby. Pro football was a humbling experience for successful college coaches Bud Wilkinson, John McKay, Dan Devine and Frank Kush. Bear Bryant's name might have been on the list if he hadn't had second thoughts about taking the Miami Dolphins job in 1970. The same goes for Joe Paterno, who almost accepted an offer from the New England Patriots a few years later.
These are the odds Steve Spurrier is bucking as he prepares to bring his Wild West Show to the NFL's Washington Redskins. For every Jimmy Johnson, there have been 10 Mike Rileys, a half-dozen Dennis Ericksons. As successful as Spurrier has been at the University of Florida -- and Duke University before that -- it's still reasonable to wonder whether he can pull it off at the pro level.
In the NFL, he'll have to wait his turn in the draft, just like everybody else, instead of dipping into Florida's bountiful talent pool every year. Also, there aren't any Vanderbilts or Kentuckys in the league (though the Cincinnati Bengals are close).
Still, my money's on Spurrier. He might not win two Super Bowls like Johnson, but I'd be surprised if he didn't at least have a Don Coryell-type career in the NFL. And wasn't pro football a better place in the 1970s and 1980s with "Air Coryell" around?
That's what "Steve Superior" has going for him that so many other college coaches don't: a thorough understanding of the passing game. And in the pros, as Bill Walsh will tell you, you don't run to set up the pass, you pass to set up the run.
Actually, Spurrier already has shown he can pull it off at the pro level -- that is, if you consider the United States Football League (USFL) the pro level. In his three seasons with the Tampa Bay Bandits in the early 1980s, he went 35-19 and made the playoffs twice. And that was his first head-coaching experience, after a brief period as a college assistant. But he held his own against the likes of George Allen, Marv Levy, Jim Morn, Walt Michaels, Jack Pardee and John Ralston, among others, all of whom have had their moments in the NFL.
It has mystified me why an NFL club didn't hire Spurrier right then, why he had to settle for the decidedly unglamorous Duke job. After all, when he was in Tampa, he upstaged -- and outdrew -- the Buccaneers. "Bandit Ball" was so much more exciting than the three yards and a cloud of dust running game McKay's Bucs used.
Most good college coaches have failed in the pros because they took a college approach to offense. That was certainly true of Devine, McKay, Lou Holtz and Tommy Prothro. Barry Switzer, who presided over the Dallas Cowboys' demise, ran the wishbone at Oklahoma. Ron Meyer, who got two NFL shots, made a name for himself with the Pony Express backfield of Eric Dickerson and Craig James at Southern Methodist University. Neither was a good bet to become the next Paul Brown.
But coaches like Johnson, who had a high-octane offense at the University of Miami, have greater possibilities in the pros. And Spurrier falls into that category. It's not that they're averse to running the ball, they just like gaining their yardage in larger chunks. If Spurrier's a little more insistent about it, maybe it's because he was a quarterback and, on the sideline, thinks like a quarterback. …