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Jets could target Matt Campbell, other college head coaches


The Jets’ head coaching candidates that we know so far all have lengthy NFL résumés, either as assistant coaches or, in the case of Marvin Lewis, as a former head coach.

But could the Jets go the college-coach route to fill the vacancy left by the firing of Adam Gase? Chances are we won’t find out until they are far down the road if they do, but general manager Joe Douglas said the Jets are open to the idea.

“I think we’re going to cast a wide net,” Douglas said this week. “I think there’s great coaches at the pro level and college level. If there’s a coach on the college level that meets that criteria of leadership, communication and collaboration, has a strong vision of what they want this team to look like and the identity of this team, I don’t think we’re going to shy away from that.”

One college coach came off the market on Friday when Jim Harbaugh re-signed with Michigan. Harbaugh was a different type of college candidate because he also had NFL experience as the head coach of the 49ers.

The college coaches who are generating the most buzz right now are Iowa State’s Matt Campbell and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald. Neither of them has NFL experience, but both have had success as program builders in college.

Campbell has been loosely linked to the Jets because the team wanted to talk to him two years ago when they hired Gase, but he declined the chance to interview. Two years later, some people believe he is more ready to make the jump to the NFL.

Matt Campbell
Matt Campbell
Getty Images

The 41-year-old is 35-28 in five seasons with the Cyclones. This season, they went 9-3 and won the Fiesta Bowl, a huge achievement for a program that has been one of the worst in college football. Before going to Iowa State, Campbell was 35-15 in five seasons as the head coach at Toledo.

It is unclear if the Jets truly want Campbell and if he would be interested in them. Some believe he will only make the jump to the NFL for the perfect situation. It is hard to describe the Jets as perfect for anyone.

The candidacy of college coaches for NFL jobs is usually secretive. They do not want their players or recruits to find out they are talking to the NFL. There is no formal request process either, like there is for NFL assistant coaches. That makes it more difficult for reporters to find out if a college coach is interviewing.

Campbell was not the only college coach the Jets looked at two years ago, before hiring Gase. They interviewed Matt Rhule and Kliff Kingsbury. Rhule, who was the Baylor coach at the time, came close to getting the job, but there were concerns about his staff. Rhule was hired last year by the Panthers and went 5-11 in his first year but drew mainly positive reviews. In 2019, the Cardinals hired Kingsbury, who had just been fired by Texas Tech. Kingsbury is 13-18-1 in his two years with Arizona.

The history of college coaches making the jump to the pros is mixed. Jimmy Johnson turned the Cowboys around after leaving the University of Miami in 1989. Pete Carroll has thrived in Seattle after his run at USC, but he had been an NFL head coach twice before that. Harbaugh, Tom Coughlin and Bill Walsh all had success after jumping from college.

The flip side is that college coaches Butch Davis, Bobby Petrino, Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier and Chip Kelly flopped at the NFL level.

The Jets have not hired a coach directly from the college ranks since 1976, when they tapped Lou Holtz from North Carolina State. Holtz went 3-10 and quit before his first season was over.

Could the Jets make that leap again?

“I think we’re looking for a person with great character and integrity,” Douglas said. “I think we’re looking for a person that’s going to have outstanding vision of what they want the identity of this team to be moving forward, and then what’s the detailed plan on how they want to achieve this identity, someone that’s a great communicator, a great manager.”


The Jets interviewed 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh for their head coaching opening on Friday. Saleh has already interviewed with the Falcons and Lions. He is scheduled to interview with the Jaguars and Chargers on Saturday.

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