Eric Bieniemy, despite a reputation as one of football’s top assistants in recent years, will not be an NFL head coach in 2020. He might be a college one, though.
The Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator has emerged as a coaching candidate at his alma mater after former University of Colorado head coach Mel Tucker left the program to replace Mark Dantonio at Michigan State University. Per 9 News Denver’s Mike Klis, the Buffaloes have reached out to Bieniemy in hopes of bringing him back to the college where he ran for 3,940 yards as a tailback. He also spent the 2011 and 2012 seasons as the program’s OC.
It’s an interesting offer. Bieniemy has been a high value coordinator the past two seasons after working his way up from his job as Kansas City’s running backs coach. His offenses have ranked second and fourth in scoring in 2018 and 2019, respectively. His creativity was paramount to the Chiefs’ Super Bowl 54 victory.
Despite a stacked résumé, he hasn’t received serious consideration for a pro head coaching job. A move to Colorado would take him away from the NFL spotlight, but also give him a chance to lift his former program to new heights while proving himself as an all-around coach. A couple of seasons in Boulder could boost his value and clear the way to a $70 million deal like the one Matt Rhule got after turning Baylor around. On the other hand, it could tarnish his legacy and push him out of NFL coaching searches going forward.
Moving to Colorado’s top job would be a big risk for Bieniemy. Is it one he should take?
Why Bieniemy should take the Colorado job
It’s a head coaching job. If Bieniemy is sick of the low-key disrespect that’s come from getting passed over in NFL coaching searches, he can jump ship and call his own shots with a return to the Buffaloes. It would give him the opportunity to prove he’s capable of the role he’s been passed over for repeatedly the past two seasons.
He’d get a raise. While he’s making solid money as an assistant in Kansas City — though how much isn’t disclosed — he’d almost certainly earn a significant raise in a head coaching position. Tucker made $2.675 million in his sole season at Colorado. Bieniemy would be a higher profile hire and could demand an even bigger starting salary.
It’s Colorado, which means he has nothing to lose. This is not the national championship team Bieniemy played for in 1990. The Buffaloes are a Power 5 Conference team with few expectations. The once-proud program has had only one winning season since 2005.
The threshold for success in Boulder is pretty low. All Bieniemy would have to do to boost his reputation is get Colorado bowl eligible while guiding a creative offense capable of winning shootouts against Pac-12 teams. One eight-win season and a Foster Farms Bowl victory could be enough to shoot him to the top of future wish lists.
Hell, Tucker went 5-7 in his only season with the school, then failed upward to the Michigan State job (and, somehow, an annual paycheck of more than $5.4 million).
He’d have better job security at his alma mater. Colorado has traditionally given coaches who’ve shown signs of life a long leash when it comes to firings. Mike MacIntyre went 8-27 in his first three seasons in Boulder and was still retained for a fourth. His tenure lasted just under six years thanks, in part, to a 10-win 2016. Dan Hawkins had just one bowl appearance and zero winning seasons as Buffaloes head coach, yet still didn’t get axed until late in his fifth year.
All Bieniemy may have to do to keep his job in Colorado is produce a couple bowl appearances in his first five seasons. As long as he isn’t horrible — see the Jon Embree teams for which Bieniemy served as OC in 2011-12 — he’ll likely get the opportunity to stick around through the bulk of the 2020s.
Why Bieniemy shouldn’t take the Colorado job
Patrick Mahomes is not a Buffalo. Bieniemy’s playcalling looks great through the lens of a once-in-a-generation quarterback. Colorado does not have that. Steven Montez threw for more passing yards than anyone else in school history, but he’s set to graduate this spring. That leaves the position in the hands of three-star recruits Tyler Lytle (redshirt junior), Blake Stenstrom (redshirt sophomore), or Brendon Lewis (true freshman). They have nine NCAA passes between them.
Laviska Shenault Jr. and Tony Brown are no longer Buffaloes. A big part of Montez’s success came from a powered-up receiving corps that found ways to move the chains the past two seasons. Shenault used his time in Boulder to turn himself into a potential 2020 first-round pick. Brown took off in 2019 with 56 catches and six total touchdowns. Replacing either will be difficult. The strategies Bieniemy let loose upon the NFL may not work as well without Tyreek Hill or Travis Kelce-level targets downfield.
Who wants to spend all that time in recruits’ living rooms? The biggest difference between FBS and NFL coaching jobs is the time spent on the recruiting trail. Bieniemy will be tasked with tracking down blue-chip high school athletes and convincing them to play football for a program with zero Pac-12 championships and just one bowl game appearance since 2007. Instead of committing his full attention to developing his offense, he’ll have to sweet talk recruits and their parents throughout the offseason.
Colorado doesn’t get the media attention the Chiefs do. The reigning Super Bowl champion and their explosive offense will be the focus of several national NFL broadcasts in 2020. The Buffaloes, coming off a 5-7 season and playing most of their games on the West Coast, will not. Leaving Kansas City likely means ceding some of the attention Bieniemy’s earned the past two years. He can be a medium fish in a big coaching ocean, or a big one in a good-sized lake.
He’s probably just one year away from an NFL head coach job. Why not wait? Bieniemy’s hype has been building for two years. His stellar Super Bowl game plan brought up the legitimate question as to why he isn’t a head coach yet. Another successful season in Kansas City — which seems likely due to the Mahomes of it all — would only reinforce his claim as the top available coaching candidate on the market. It could also spur a potential bidding war that would double (or more!) his prospective Colorado salary. If he can just maintain the status quo for the Chiefs’ offense in 2020, he’s probably looking at a top job in 2021 (What’s up, Lions?).
Success as a college coach guarantees nothing in the NFL. Promoting NCAA head coaches to the pros is a crapshoot. Nick Saban’s record as an NFL head coach is 15-17. Bobby Petrino went 3-10 before abandoning the Falcons. Steve Spurrier’s fun-n-gun offense went 12-20 in Washington.
While others like Pete Carroll (who coached the Patriots decently, got fired, then rebuilt his image at USC before jumping to the Seahawks) and Barry Switzer won Super Bowls, the transition from college to the pros has been a shaky one for most head coaches. Bieniemy could revive Colorado’s program over the next five years and that still may not move the needle much for prospective employers.
Bieniemy made almost all the right decisions in his two-year stint calling plays under Andy Reid for the Super Bowl 54 champions. Now he’s got one more to make — and his choice will dictate how his future unfolds.
This may well be the toughest decision of his career. His alma mater has asked him to close the circle, going from star running back to head coach in order to lead Colorado back to prominence. But that move may ultimately keep him from a head coaching role in the NFL, either in 2021 or beyond.