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From College to the Pros: A Look at the CFB Careers of All 32 Current NFL Head Coaches


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On Thursday, the Washington Commanders hired Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, filling the NFL’s final opening among the head coaching ranks. 

The 2024 coaching carousel saw eight head coaching jobs switch hands, a full quarter of the league. The group features some interesting dynamics—five are first-time NFL head coaches and three are under 40 years old, continuing a trend of very young hires. Perhaps most interestingly, five are coaches with a defensive background vs. just three who coached offense. That comes after a very defense-oriented season in the NFL.

Years before leading NFL franchises, all 32 coaches were set on that path during their college careers. All but one—new Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Macdonald—played college football, with 18 of the 32 going to schools with FBS programs (Macdonald coached high school football while attending Georgia). Seven played at the FCS (formerly Division I-AA) level, two were in Division II, three played in D-III and two played for NAIA programs.

Newly hired Los Angeles Chargers coach Jim Harbaugh was the quarterback at Michigan under Bo Schembechler in the 1980s.

The Arizona Republic/USA TODAY Sports

It comes as little surprise that eight of the current NFL coaches were quarterbacks, but that number is matched by college defensive backs, making up a full half of the league between the two position groups. Six coaches are former wide receivers, four played linebacker and three played tight end. One offensive lineman and one defensive lineman round out the group, with no current NFL coaches coming from the ranks of running back, kicker or punter.

Some of these coaches became first-round picks and NFL stars. Others were minor role players in the bottom rungs of the multilayered world of college football. Here is how all of them fared at that level, before beginning their coaching careers:

Arizona Cardinals – Jonathan Gannon, Louisville safety (2001 to ’02)

After redshirting in his first college season, Gannon suffered a hip injury as a redshirt freshman that would ultimately end his playing career after just nine games. He remained at Louisville as a student and then graduate assistant through ’06, leaving the following year for a role with the Atlanta Falcons.

Atlanta Falcons – Raheem Morris, Hofstra safety (1994 to ’97)

Morris played safety for the now-defunct Pride football program, recording 141 tackles during his college career. He served as a grad assistant in ’98, and after a year at Cornell, returned as defensive backs coach from 2000 to ’01. The following year, he landed a quality control coaching job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the franchise that named him head coach seven years later.

Baltimore Ravens – John Harbaugh, Miami (Ohio) defensive back (1980 to ’83)

One of the NFL’s top coaches admits he had a “mediocre career” as a member of the RedHawks, but it helped set him on a path that culminated in a win at Super Bowl XLVII, where he beat his brother, Jim, and the San Francisco 49ers. He initially planned to head to law school after graduating, but was ultimately convinced to join his father’s staff at Western Michigan in ’84 instead. In 2014, he became the ninth coach added to Miami’s Cradle of Coaches plaza.

Buffalo Bills – Sean McDermott, William & Mary safety (1993 to ’97)

McDermott played defensive back for a program that has proven to be a true cradle of coaches. He was an all-conference contributor as a senior, playing opposite wide receiver Mike Tomlin during his career. He remained with the Tribe as a graduate assistant in ’98.

Carolina Panthers – Dave Canales, Azusa Pacific wide receiver (2000 to ’03)

Playing at the NAIA level, Canales’s college career was plagued by injuries, which cost him all but one game during the ’01 and ’02 seasons. After catching seven passes for 40 yards in ’00, he played a bigger role once healthy in ’03, catching 19 balls for 208 yards and a touchdown. He launched his coaching career the following year as offensive coordinator at his alma mater, Carson High School (Calif.) In ’09, he joined Pete Carroll’s strength and conditioning staff at USC, following him to the Seattle Seahawks in ’10.

Chicago Bears – Matt Eberflus, Toledo linebacker (1988 to ’91)

Eberflus, a Toledo native, walked on to his hometown college program, quickly entrenching himself as a key contributor on defense. He earned All-MAC recognition as linebacker in ’90 and ’91, playing for Nick Saban and then Gary Pinkel. He remained with the Rockets program as an assistant under Pinkel, following him to Missouri in ’01. He’s been in the NFL ranks since ’09 when he took the linebacker coaching job with the Cleveland Browns.

Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor played quarterback at three schools, finishing his career at Nebraska.

John Reed/USA TODAY Sports

Cincinnati Bengals – Zac Taylor, Wake Forest, Butler C.C., Nebraska quarterback (2002 to ’06)

Among the younger coaches in the league, Taylor’s college path hues more closely to modern players in the transfer portal era. After two seasons as a backup at Wake Forest, Taylor made his way to Butler Community College in Kansas before finishing up at Nebraska from 2005 to ’06. 

As a senior, he threw for 3,197 yards, 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions, leading the Huskers to a 9–5 record and Big 12 North title. He had brief cups of coffee playing for the Buccaneers and CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers before entering coaching in ’08.

Cleveland Browns – Kevin Stefanski, Penn defensive back (2000 to ’04)

Stefanski had a very successful Ivy League career, making a pair of all-conference teams and winning the conference three times with the Quakers, with the ’03 team going 10–0. After going undrafted in ’05, he joined Penn’s support staff before entering the NFL coaching ranks a year later.

Dallas Cowboys – Mike McCarthy, Scottsdale C.C., Baker tight end (1984 to ’86)

After a year of community college ball, McCarthy matriculated to Baker University, earning all-conference honors and serving as captain of the ’86 team, which made the NAIA D-II national championship.

Denver Broncos – Sean Payton, Eastern Illinois quarterback (1983 to ’86)

Before engineering the prolific Drew Brees–led passing attack with the New Orleans Saints, Payton found himself slinging the rock for the EIU Panthers. A three-time All-American at what was then the Division I-AA, Payton threw for 10,655 career yards and 75 touchdowns—records later broken by Jimmy Garoppolo.

He briefly played professional football in the Arena Football League, the CFL and as a replacement player for the Bears during the ’87 NFL players strike. He began his coaching career in ’88.

Detroit Lions – Dan Campbell, Texas A&M tight end (1995 to ’98)

Campbell is one of a few current NFL coaches who also had a lengthy playing career in the league, suiting up for the New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys, Saints and his current team, the Lions as a blocking tight end. Before being selected in the third round of the 1999 draft, Campbell played at Texas A&M, catching 27 passes for 314 yards and three touchdowns across his four seasons. 

Green Bay Packers – Matt LaFleur, Western Michigan, Saginaw Valley State quarterback (1998 to ’02)

After beginning his career in the MAC, LaFleur transferred to D-II Saginaw Valley State, leading the Cardinals to the playoffs in all three of his seasons with the program. He is third in program history with 7,699 passing yards and 67 passing touchdowns. After a brief indoor football career, he returned to SVSU as an assistant in ’03.

DeMeco Ryans was a standout linebacker for Alabama before being drafted by the team he’d eventually coach, the Houston Texans.

Icon Sportswire/IMAGO

Houston Texans – DeMeco Ryans, Alabama linebacker (2002 to ’05)

A bona fide college and NFL star before entering coaching, Ryans broke out as a senior with the Crimson Tide, winning SEC Defensive Player of the Year along with first-team All-SEC and unanimous All-American honors. In his final season, he recorded 76 tackles (11.5 for loss), five sacks and an interception. He became a second-round pick by the Texans in ’06, the team that he now leads.

Indianapolis Colts – Shane Steichen, UNLV quarterback (2003 to ’06)

Steichen was never a full-time starter for the Rebels, appearing in 23 games across four seasons. He threw for 2,755 career yards, 22 touchdowns and 20 interceptions and added a dynamic on the ground, with 399 rushing yards and five scores. He entered coaching as a graduate assistant at his alma mater in ’07, jumping to the NFL in ’11.

Jacksonville Jaguars – Doug Pederson, Northeast Louisiana quarterback (1987 to ’90)

As a player, Pederson is best known as a longtime Brett Favre backup in multiple stints with the Packers. Before that, he starred at Northeast Louisiana—now Louisiana-Monroe—during the school’s stint at the D I-AA (now FCS) level. He remains the program’s single-game passing leader after a remarkable 1989 performance against Stephen F. Austin in which he tossed for 619 yards and five touchdowns.

Kansas City Chiefs – Andy Reid, Glendale C.C., BYU offensive tackle (1976 to ’80)

Reid was originally recruited out of community college to the Cougars by legendary coach LaVell Edwards in order to secure a commitment from his friend and teammate Randy Tidwell, as detailed by the Deseret News. Injuries hampered Reid’s career, but his time under Edwards proved valuable. After a year as a BYU graduate assistant in ’82, he served in a variety of assistant role across college football before breaking into the NFL on Mike Holmgren’s Packers staff in ’92. 

Las Vegas Raiders – Antonio Pierce, Mt. San Antonio, Arizona linebacker (1997 to 2000)

Pierce began his career in the community college ranks before making the jump to the Pac-10, where he became a reliable performer on the Wildcats defense. As a senior in 2000, he earned all-conference honorable mention honors, but still went undrafted in the spring. He developed into an NFL stalwart with Washington and later a Pro Bowler for the Giants, playing until ’09. 

Los Angeles Chargers – Jim Harbaugh, Michigan quarterback (1982 to ’86)

The ultimate Michigan Man began his Wolverines journey in ’82, enrolling at the school a few years after his father finished his tenure as its defensive backs coach. He started during his final three seasons, finishing with 5,214 passing yards, 31 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. As a senior, he finished third in Heisman voting, losing to Miami QB Vinny Testaverde. He was the No. 26 pick in the ’87 draft, playing through the 2001 season before entering coaching a year later.

Sean McVay is among the many great coaches to pass through Miami (Ohio), and is immortalized with a statue on campus.

James Weber/The Enquirer/USA TODAY Network

Los Angeles Rams – Sean McVay, Miami (Ohio) wide receiver (2004 to ’07)

A converted high school quarterback and defensive back, McVay was a role player for the RedHawks, catching a total of 39 passes for 312 yards as a college player. He quickly turned to coaching, joining Jon Gruden’s Buccaneers staff as an offensive assistant in ’08. Like John Harbaugh, he has a statue in his alma mater’s Cradle of Coaches plaza.

Miami Dolphins – Mike McDaniel, Yale wide receiver (2001 to ’04)

McDaniel walked on as a wide receiver with the Bulldogs, while receiving an academic scholarship to the Ivy League school, per The Athletic. He did not accumulate any stats during his college career, but his passion for football remained. After his career, he joined the Broncos as an intern in ’05, returning to his hometown team for which he was a ballboy over a decade earlier.

Minnesota Vikings – Kevin O’Connell, San Diego State quarterback (2003 to ’07)

Appearing across four seasons at quarterback for the Aztecs, O’Connell threw for 7,689 career yards, 46 touchdowns and 34 interceptions, adding 1,312 yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground. The dual-threat QB, who was a second-team All-Mountain West selection as a senior, was taken in the third round of the ’08 draft by the Patriots, bouncing around the league for five years before entering NFL coaching in ’15.

New England Patriots – Jerod Mayo, Tennessee linebacker (2004 to ’07)

The last team Mayo was a part of before the Patriots was the Tennessee Volunteers. In three post-redshirt seasons, he racked up 236 total tackles and 6.5 sacks, earning All-SEC honors as a junior. He left school a year early and was the No. 10 pick in the ’08 NFL draft. After eight seasons as a linebacker for the Patriots, he returned in ’19 as an assistant coach and this offseason replaced the legendary Bill Belichick.

New Orleans Saints – Dennis Allen, Texas A&M safety (1992 to ’95)

Allen played for longtime Aggies coach R.C. Slocum during a particularly strong stretch for the program, starting 21 games in the secondary as a junior and senior. The team had a 41–6–1 record during his time on campus, making two Cotton Bowls and winning the ’95 Alamo Bowl. After a brief stint with the Bills, he returned to College Station, Texas, as a graduate assistant in ’96.

New York Giants – Brian Daboll, Rochester safety (1993 to ’95)

One of the few NFL head coaches who played at the D-III level, Daboll was a successful defensive back for the Yellowjackets, finishing with six career interceptions. Three came in the same game in ’95—a 9–5 win over Case Western Reserve which was sealed with his third and final pick in the end zone on what could have been a game-winning touchdown pass. 

Daboll joined the coaching ranks in ’97, as a volunteer assistant at William & Mary, where his future boss with the Bills, McDermott, was in his final season as a player.

New York Jets – Robert Saleh, Northern Michigan tight end (1997 to 2000)

The Dearborn, Mich., native was a four-year starter at D-II Northern Michigan. Per the Jets, who managed to compile his stats from his final three college seasons, he caught 45 passes for 494 yards and two touchdowns. He remained in his home state to begin his coaching career, landing an offensive assistant job with Michigan State in ’02. Three years later, he jumped to the NFL, as an intern with the Texans.

Philadelphia Eagles – Nick Sirianni, Mount Union wide receiver (1999 to 2003)

Sirianni played for one of college football’s great dynasties, starting for three seasons at D-III powerhouse Mount Union. The Purple Raiders captured three straight national titles in 2000, ’01 and ’02, three of the 13 the program has won since 1993. After an impressive senior season in which he put up 998 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns, he returned to the program as defensive backs coach in ’04. He played one season of indoor football in ’05 before turning his full attention to coaching.

Pittsburgh Steelers – Mike Tomlin, William & Mary wide receiver (1990 to ’94)

Now the entrenched Steelers coach, Tomlin started three seasons for the Tribe. He recorded 101 receptions for 2,054 yards and 20 catches, earning first-team All–Yankee Conference honors in ’94. He joined the staff at VMI as wide receivers coach a year later, but like so many other coaches on this list, he eventually made the move to the other side of the ball, becoming known as one of the NFL’s top defensive coaches.

San Francisco 49ers – Kyle Shanahan, Duke, Texas wide receiver (1998 to 2002)

The son of longtime coach Mike Shanahan began his college career at Duke before transferring to Texas, playing under Longhorns coach Mack Brown. He was a role player for the program, hauling in 14 career passes for 127 yards. The year after his graduation, Shanahan took a graduate assistant job at UCLA, jumping to the NFL with a quality control coaching job on the Buccaneers staff a year later.

New Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Macdonald did not play football past high school, but got involved in coaching during his undergraduate years at Georgia.

Mitch Stringer/USA TODAY Sports

Seattle Seahawks – Mike Macdonald, Georgia (did not play football)

The NFL’s new title-holder for youngest head coach took a very interesting path to landing the Seahawks job in January. Macdonald, a high school football and baseball player, did not play a sport in college, opting to enroll at University of Georgia. While working toward his undergraduate degree in finance, he coached running backs and linebackers at nearby Cedar Shoals High School. After graduating, he joined UGA”s coaching staff in ’11 as a defensive graduate assistant, receiving his master’s degree in sports management in ’13. The following year, he joined the Ravens staff as an intern, leading to a long stint under John Harbaugh (with a brief stop at Michigan as Jim Harbaugh’s DC). 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Todd Bowles, Temple cornerback (1982 to ’85)

Bowles landed the Buccaneers job after serving as Bruce Arians’s defensive coordinator with the team, winning Super Bowl LV along the way. Their relationship dates back to Bowles’s college days, when he played for Arians for three of his four seasons at Temple. The cornerback picked off seven passes across four collegiate seasons, before going undrafted in ’86. He caught on with Washington and played in the league until ’93.

Tennessee Titans – Brian Callahan, UCLA quarterback (2002 to ’05)

The son of former Raiders and Nebraska coach Bill Callahan, Brian landed the Titans job after a five-year stint as Bengals offensive coordinator. In college, he walked on at UCLA, serving as backup quarterback and holder on field goals and PATs. He served as a grad assistant after his graduation, eventually heading to coach high school football before entering the NFL ranks as a coaching assistant with the Broncos in ’10.

Washington Commanders – Dan Quinn, Salisbury State defensive lineman (1989 to ’93)

Quinn, who will have his second head coaching opportunity after filling the NFL’s final vacancy with the Commanders, was a two-sport star at D-III Salisbury. On top of his four-year stint with the Sea Gulls’ football program (for whom he served as captain twice), he was a standout track and field star. A captain with that team as well, his 168.8-foot hammer throw was a program record until 2012, according to the school. He crossed paths with a few other NFL coaches during his early career, serving as defensive line coach on the ’94 William & Mary team that featured McDermott and Tomlin. He and Tomlin coached together the following year on VMI’s staff, and in his following stop at Hofstra from ’96 to ’99, he overlapped with Morris’s playing career. Morris later served as his assistant with the Falcons, for whom he is now head coach.



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