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Ranking all 32 NFL head coaches by how much we'd like them in college football

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Some of these situations would be really fun. Many others would not.

Illustrations by James Dator

When Lovie Smith took the Illinois job, he became one of the most surprising names to enter the college coaching arena in a long time. The two levels do cross-pollinate, but usually you can spot coaches who are Just College Coaches and coaches who are Just NFL Coaches. Smith felt like a guy who was going to be in the NFL until he retired. His March arrival in Champaign was one of the crazier moves in years.

In light of this, I've compiled a list of NFL coaches I'd most like to see head down to college, with an ideal landing spot for each one. As always, please add constructive criticism and modifications in the comments.

1. Rex Ryan, Miami

Huge personality. Not afraid of bold claims. Propensity for falling short in spectacular fashion. Interesting tattoos.

This ACC man in charge of Miami is a college football writer's fever dream. This would end with his staff being charged with recruiting violations, and he would respond by taking his shirt off and challenging the NCAA to a physical fight.

2. Chip Kelly, Texas

Just come home to college, Chip. We still love you. I'm sure a personality like yours will enjoy having to glad-hand with a bunch of unhinged oil barons who have experienced their favorite team hitting the skids at the same time they've lost a substantial portion of their net worth. Anyway, have fun!

(He was actually rumored for this job a few years ago, he's joked about returning to coach "North Texas State," and there was his ... other experience involving the state.)

3. Bill Belichick, Alabama

We've seen lots of emotionless coachbots try to make it in college. Some make it work, others don't. There's plenty of reason to believe Belichick would win, but that's not why he's so high.

He's this high because I would be hospitalized from laughing at a picture of Belichick replacing his former assistant Nick Saban in order to nae nae with a five-star recruit. This has to happen at Alabama. It's the only place that feels right.

4. Pete Carroll, Ohio State

An effervescent young man at the bright age of 64, Carroll reinvented himself in college once before and revived his flagging career. After incredibly successful runs with USC and the Seahawks, the 1979 Ohio State defensive backs coach returns to the Buckeyes, where he can get a fresh reset on the "WHAT'S YOUR DEAL?" rivalry with Jim Harbaugh.

5. John Harbaugh, Penn State

Some school is going to try to recreate the buzz Michigan's gotten. A school with high expectations and a history -- recent or not, it doesn't matter -- of success. This seems like a Penn State maneuver.

6. Bruce Arians, Oregon

The world's coolest dad will look extremely fashion-forward while coaching in Nike rec specs that simulate the illusion of movement.

7. Jay Gruden, Tennessee

Message board rumors about Gruden's brother taking the Tennessee job have been a staple of the college football Internet for nearly a decade. Considering the Vols' luck, the time they finally manage to reel a Gruden in, it would be Jay.

8. Andy Reid, LSU

Tiger fans are used to a coach who views clock management as a theoretical concept, so what's another? Watching them melt down about the team's run/pass ratio flipping on its head would be an absolute delight. Reid won't say nearly as much goofy stuff as Les Miles does, but this would be a quiet masterpiece.

9. Mike Tomlin, Florida

Tomlin is a young guy (44) who somehow exudes discipline and attitude at the same time. He also once tried to trip another team's player by wandering off the sideline, and all that just feels like Florida.

10. Mike Zimmer, Kentucky

The Vikings' coach, who could charitably be described as short-tempered, was Bobby Petrino's defensive coordinator during his brief stint as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. As the reader may recall, that ended both poorly and abruptly. Years later, Zimmer was still pretty hacked off about it.

"When a coach quits in the middle of the year and ruins a bunch of people’s families and doesn’t have enough guts to finish out the year, I’m not a part of it," Zimmer said. "And you can put that in the Arkansas News Gazette. I don’t really give a (bleep). He’s a coward, he ruined a bunch of people’s lives, a bunch of families, kids, because he didn’t have enough (guts) to stay there and finish the job. And that’s the truth. Most people in football have enough courage about him and enough fight to stick it out and not quit halfway through the year. It’s cowardly."

The Illinois native strikes me as the type of man who would take a job just to keep an eye on his former boss. And I like that.

11. Hue Jackson, San Diego State

The man has worked for Daniel Snyder and Petrino, was fired by the Raiders after leading them to arguably their best season since 2002 in his first year and is currently saddled with the Cleveland Browns.

Let's send him somewhere warm, low-pressure and pleasant for a change. He's from Los Angeles and is a former USC coordinator, so this could be a great hire, should it ever somehow become possible.

12. Bill O'Brien, Colorado

The Texans' coach did an admirable job keeping Penn State afloat, but really did not care for the fan base's ... well, let's say eccentricities. Bill deserves another ride in the college ranks at a place where even if things go badly, nobody will really get on your case.

13. Ron Rivera, Auburn

Rivera used to be one of the stodgiest coaches in a league full of stodgy coaches. Not only has the Panthers' coach shown the ability to change, he actually looks like he has fun once in a while. Throw in a couple fake punts and trick plays, and baby, you've got yourself a stew goin'. Auburn is a team that's showed itself to be on the more creative end of the spectrum, so that seems like a cozy fit.

Also, he knows Cam Newton, which was a key line on Gus Malzahn's resume as well.

14. Sean Payton, Idaho

No need to change color palette, and the West Coast native can continue wearing visors indoors for some indecipherable reason. It's a perfect fit.

15. Marvin Lewis, Nebraska

The Bengals have won at least 10 games in each of the past four seasons, which would be enough to keep Husker fans happy until it suddenly isn't.

16. Dirk Koetter, Boise State

The Buccaneers' new coach is just taking the long road back to Boise, where he started dinging screen passes as a head coach back in the late '90s. And honestly, it just feels right having a guy named Dirk running things up there.

17. Dan Quinn, South Carolina

The Falcons' coach likes to yell about defense, used to coach some Florida Gators and has showed a strong aptitude for snatching defeats from the jaws of victory. A seamless transition from the current regime.

18. Gus Bradley, Washington State

Tries hard. Seems like a good guy. Isn't very good. He used to be the defensive coordinator for the Seahawks and hails from way up north, so maybe he should head back to the Pacific Northwest.

19. Mike McCarthy, Minnesota

I bet he wants to turn heel on Packers fans in the worst way.

20. Jason Garrett, Kansas

After coaching for the past five-plus years in the insane jet engine wash that is Jerry Jones' Dallas Cowboys, Garrett deserves to go somewhere nice and quiet. Go Jayhawks.

Plus, Kansas is commonly referred to as the Princeton of the Big 12. No, it's not.

21. Todd Bowles, Michigan State

Quiet. Constantly scowling. Competent. Defense-minded. Green. The Jets' coach is basically Mark Dantonio already.

22. Chuck Pagano, Western Kentucky

Pagano actually worked as an assistant coach at the college level for over 15 years, so this isn't as silly as it might sound. He probably isn't as good a coach as his NFL record would indicate, based on the division his Colts play in, which makes him a perfect fit for somewhere like WKU. It's not a far move from Indianapolis, and he can keep pounding away at Conference USA competition that makes the AFC South look like a meat grinder.

23. Doug Pederson, Louisiana Tech

Pederson started his head coaching career at Calvary Baptist in Shreveport, La. Now that he's been hired by the Eagles, how long until he wants to go back, rather than deal with the legions of Philly fans irate with him for no reason whatsoever?

24. Ben McAdoo, FCS Northeast

I don't think anyone knows anything about the new Giants coach, so let's just put him with one of the cupcake teams you used to mash to bits in non-conference games during your dynasty runs on NCAA Football (RIP).

25. Adam Gase, Rice
and
26. Mike McCoy, Rice

They'll take turns coaching games and see how long it takes for anyone to notice. Rice's low profile gives these AFC West rivals the best chance of making it to Year 2 before getting found out. Yes, they technically look different, but I challenge anyone to pick them out of a lineup, let alone tell the two apart.

27. Jack Del Rio, Fresno State

The former USC linebacker is mentioned each time that school's job comes open (you could bet on it in 2013 and 2015), and the thought engenders a whole lot of deep sighing from Trojans fans.

But I think the Raiders' coach has an enthusiastic inner-meathead that could thrive at the college level. I think he's dying to let it loose, too. Be brave, Fresno State. Few power programs would take a chance, but you stand to reap the rewards of forward thinking. But probably not.

28. Gary Kubiak, NC State

He just won the Super Bowl with the Broncos and has been around the NFL for a long time. Despite all that, he is just kind of there as a coaching property. I could see him settling in at NC State and going 7-5 a few times before the bottom falls out and he slinks back to the league to become a coordinator.

HOWEVER, there is an alternate timeline where the affable, milquetoast Kubiak goes back to his alma mater, Texas A&M. I find this significantly more entertaining, because there's a good chance he'd walk into that high-strung beehive and get run out of town after two mediocre seasons. You can move that scenario into the teens instead of 28th.

29. John Fox, an NAIA school three years away from shuttering its program

At this point, the coach of the Bears just needs a place to consistently get some naps in.

30. Mike Mularkey, Florida International

The school that hired the original Ron Turner will have its chance to hire the new one.

31. Jim Caldwell, Rutgers

DID YOU KNOW? Jim Caldwell was the coach at Wake Forest for eight seasons. No really. The Lions' coach was there for basically the 1990s. Sleepily wasting the better part of a decade feels like an upgrade for Rutgers.

32. Jeff Fisher, Iowa

Seven wins a year will make you richer than your wildest dreams in Iowa City.