For Mike Sherman, being hired as Texas A&M’s football coach was like coming back home.
The former Green Bay Packers coach and most recently Houston Texans offensive coordinator worked as an assistant in College Station from 1989 to 1993 and from 1995 through the spring of 1997. Since then, things have changed - the Aggies were a Southwest Conference power back then but now are in the more competitive Big 12. That and other issues left the program in disrepair, and Sherman was summoned to fix it.
Sure, coaches can go home again, but the hard part is winning.
In the opening game, before a big home crowd that grew more sullen as the day dragged on, Sherman’s team lost to lightly regarded Arkansas State 18-14.
“On the list of disastrous college football openers Saturday, A&M’s ranked near the top,” a columnist wrote in the Dallas Morning News.
Things haven’t improved much. The Aggies are 2-5 with four home losses and Texas and Oklahoma still to come. Some boosters already are getting antsy. Fortunately for Sherman, whose Packers went 59-43 and made the playoffs four times in six years, he has a seven-year contract and a patient athletic director.
Sherman also has the challenge of adjusting from the single-mindedness of the NFL to the diverse college environment. It’s a different world even for someone like Sherman, who had multiple duties when he doubled as the Packers’ general manager for three years.
“You’re dealing with students and you’re dealing with alumni - all the things that go with this job that you don’t have to deal with being an NFL head coach,” he said.
The transition is not as publicized or considered as difficult as going from college to the pros. The recent NFL failures of anointed college geniuses Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban and Bobby Petrino - all safely back on campus now - were so spectacular that the league has soured on hiring college coaches for the foreseeable future.
The NFL is the pinnacle, where “coaches are at the top of our industry,” Southern Methodist coach June Jones said.
Armed with lofty credentials and deep insight, coaching college players should be a snap. That’s the theory, at least. In reality, the college environment entails its own set of issues and problems.
“I’m still getting acclimated,” said Sylvester Croom, who was an NFL assistant for 17 years before he was hired as Mississippi State’s coach in 2004.
One change often cited by former NFL coaches is the NCAA limit on the amount of time players can practice and attend meetings. In the NFL, football is a full-time job.
“You have to make adjustments in what you can and cannot get taught,” Sherman said.
Even subtle differences mean a lot, from the spacing of the hash marks to the phenomenon of “helicopter parents,” i.e. the ones who constantly hover over a program.
Bill Walsh did not have nearly the same success at Stanford as he did with the San Francisco 49ers. Then again, he didn’t have Joe Montana or Jerry Rice, either.
“The game itself is different,” Croom said. “The responsibilities as head coach at that level are totally different. There’s recruiting, fundraising, dealing with alumni and fans, dealing with the administration as far as housing, food, social. You’re responsible for all aspects of their lives. In the NFL, you’re not. In the NFL, you just coach football.”
Jones eased into it effortlessly. A former NFL player, assistant and coach, he instantly transformed the Hawaii program before leaving after last season to attempt the same thing at SMU, which visits Navy on Saturday.
“It wasn’t an adjustment for me at all,” he said.
But Jones is an exception; he barely had any college experience. While it doesn’t guarantee success, many college coaches with pro backgrounds, such as Virginia’s Al Groh, first worked extensively in college before going to the NFL. North Carolina’s Butch Davis, Arizona State’s Dennis Erickson and Kentucky’s Rich Brooks shuttled back and forth.
“If a coach [from the NFL] worked in college before, he has a pretty good sense of the environment,” Groh said.
Pete Carroll represents the gold standard in the NFL-to-college club. With New England and the New York Jets, Carroll coached to mixed reviews. Since going to Southern Cal in 2000, Carroll has skillfully parlayed tradition, location and vast resources with his buoyant personality to restore prominence to Trojans football. He rebuilt a dynasty that has won two national championships.
Other ex-NFL coaches and assistants have had a harder time. Former Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt inherited a winning program at Pittsburgh in 2005 and went 17-19 in his first three years. The Panthers have won five straight, so maybe Wannstedt finally is headed in the right direction.
It has been a bumpy ride at Notre Dame for Charlie Weis, the former offensive coordinator of the Jets and the Patriots. Ex-Dallas Cowboys coach Chan Gailey was fired last year after six seasons at Georgia Tech, where his teams never beat Georgia and couldn’t reach the Top 25. Former Oakland Raiders coach Bill Callahan had no success in four seasons at Nebraska. Both he and Gailey are back in the NFL as assistants.
The culture shock often transcends football. College coaches have twice as many players as in the NFL, and ideally they establish personal relationships with all of them.
“The big difference for Mike [Sherman] is that in the NFL, when a player has a personal issue, he doesn’t share it with the coach,” Texas A&M athletic director Bill Byrne said. “Because if he does, he’ll cut him.”
In the classroom and on the field, college kids “are in a whole different developmental stage,” Oregon State coach Mike Riley said. “You have to have different goals than in the NFL, which is first and foremost about winning. The more I’m in it, the more I realize it’s about personal development. And this is a great platform to do that. In college football, they need a lot of arms around them.”
NFL coaches spend most of their week “sequestered in a compound,” said Riley, who returned for a second stint as coach of the Beavers after leaving to coach the San Diego Chargers from 1999 to 2001. “Then you come out for the biggest show on earth. Then you go back. In college, you’re entering a different world. You have a responsibility to be part of the university, a responsibility to boosters and alumni.”
Probably the most severe climate change is recruiting, the master key to success in any college program. The NFL has a slew of scouts, personnel directors, general managers and vice presidents in charge of minute elements of the franchise - like drafting and signing free agents. In college, no one waits their turn, as in the draft, to sign recruits. At the big-time level, recruiting is a cutthroat, nationwide free-for-all involving thousands of high school players from every corner of the country.
“Bringing recruits in for a game this weekend was certainly a challenge for me,” Sherman said Monday.
Said Groh: “With the draft, you have other people doing it for you. You have two shops, a football shop and a scouting shop. In college, we’re both.”