Players who shine in the pros but were mediocre in college

A lot of the time a star pro player is obvious all they way though his athletic career, but in some cases you have players who were not standouts until they reached the pros. The pros are normally a big level jump over college in terms of overall skill and ability.

How do you have someone who was not a college standout become a pro star or superstar. What’s happening in those cases?

Dennis Rodman does not qualify, but he was unusual. His was not tracked too closely in high school and was only 5’6 his freshmen year of high school

He ended up attending Southeastern Oklahoma State and was good there, though certainly not playing for a major school. He ended up getting noticed at the Portsmouth tournament, a tournament for amateurs. He was noticed there and was drafted by the Pistons. He then became the top defensive player in the league.

Unusual, though not unheard of. I guess Scottie Pippin was also found in that tournament. It happens.

I do not know about too many college non-standouts that make the pros.

Kurt Warner is an interesting example. He went to a nothing college division 1-AA where he couldn’t even start until he was a senior. But tore it up then, Then he was undrafted, an released after an NFL tryout.

As pro he looked good at World League and Arena enough to become a back-up in the NFL. Trent Green got hurt, he took over a last place team from the year before. Where he became the league MVP.

As for what happened, I’m not sure anyone can explain it fully. My thought is it was mostly right guy at the right time. The era of open vertical offenses was starting, and he was a strong-armed ,fearless bomber from the pocket.

  1. More and better coaching. What techniques he is taught (or not), how he is motivated, etc.

  2. Different playing conditions. He may change positions. He may be in a different system.

  3. Time to physically develop. You should not underestimate what 5 years of gym time in college can do. It’s pretty common for some football players to add 30-50 pounds of muscle (e.g. 190-pound WR ends up a 240-lb TE). And of course, this continues into the pro career.

  4. Personal life. All kinds of things that affect how well anyone does their job. Family, relationships, etc. He might hate his college coach’s guts and loathe playing for him, but feel he can’t transfer. All kinds of stuff.

  5. The lifestyle of college and professional athletes are pretty different. Sometimes this works out poorly, as a guy who needed the structure and accountability and support provided in college melts down when he’s on his own and has lots of money. Sometimes, a guy thrives on the independence and the ability to focus on on thing. Some guys don’t spend any more time working on their skills than the coaches require. Some spend 10 hours a week working on their own. Some spend 20. I read a quote from a NFL player along the lines of “some guys get paid and decide ‘now it’s time to work,’ and other guys get paid and decide ‘now it’s time to party.’”

I think your premise is somewhat flawed. First, you almost never reach the pros if you were not a standout in college. Now plenty of very good college players go on to great pro careers, but very few of them are completely unheralded. The classic example of this is Tom Brady, who was drafted in the sixth round at pick #199. Even so, there were only 12 QBs drafted that year out of dozens of potential picks playing QB at a big school. He was the 8th QB selected, meaning there was little doubt he was a standout, even though he was drafted too low.

That said, the good to great thing happens sometimes for a few reasons:

  1. College sports are often fundamentally different than pro sports. The skills and attributes of a great college quarterback, for example, may not translate well to the NFL for a number of reasons. This means you will see plenty of people who did well in college suddenly able to exploit skills in the NFL they couldn’t in the NCAA.

  2. Many people mature and peak later. I think a lot of this is due to the dearth of professional level coaching and resources at many high schools and colleges. The first time many of these guys will gain comprehensive understanding of the sport, and the role they have to play is when they get to a good professional level environment.

  3. Success in professional sports at the highest level is more extrinsic than most people think. Like almost anything, once you are choosing between so many qualified people (some who make it and some who don’t), you are not really deciding between people with widely differing athletic skill sets and abilities. Much of it comes down to the situation the player finds themselves in, and luck. It’s much easier and more common to squander talent than to fully exploit it. I tend to think most exceptional athletes are just those who are put in positions where their natural talents are not wasted, and can be showcased. That variance is what allows “mediocre” college players to become pro superstars.

There’s the old joke “Who was the only man in basketball to hold Michael Jordan to under twenty points a game? Dean Smith.”

Not US sports or college, but Marcus Trescothick played much better at International (top flight) cricket then he ever did as a Domestic player.

Remember that the tools that make for success in an NFL quarterback aren’t always the same as those that lead to success in college, and vice versa.

Suppose a 6’4", 225 kid with a cannon for an arm had been signed by Florida during the Tim Tebow years. Florida would have made Tebow the starter (quite rightly), and let the guy who actually had the tools to be an NFL star carry a clipboard for 4 years.

A more concrete example? In the 80s, Barry Switzer’s starting quarterback at Oklahoma was Troy Aikman, a future Pro Football Hall of Famer. But Switzer eventually benched Aikman because he preferred the option offense to the pro style passing game Aikman specialized in. Now, Aikman transferred successfully to UCLA, and things worked out fine for him. But remember that a college coach

  1. Decided to bench a future Hall of Famer for Jamelle (Who?) Holloway, and
  2. That was probably the right decision!

As you say, he wasn’t THAT mediocre in college. I think the classic example is actually his onetime backup, Matt Cassel, who threw something like 30 pass attempts in four years but got drafted anyway (and made the Pro Bowl, to boot). I understand he had a good workout on pro day, but still…

Speaking of the Patriots… in 2001, they signed Stephen Neal as an undrafted Free Agent out of Cal State, Bakersfield. Neal was a champion wrestler in college, but DID NOT play football. The Patriots were impressed by his footwork as a wrestler, and thought it might translate to being an offensive lineman. After a year on the practice squad, learning to play football, he became an Offensive Guard, played for 10 years, winning 2 SB’s, and although not a standout, he did make a couple of pro bowls.

Presumably this might be more common in baseball, where college is less of a critical path to the pros.

The best example I can think of goes back to Swen Nater, who played C in the NBA and ABA for and had a good career for 10 years after hardly ever getting off the bench in college. He was stuck behind Bill Walton at UCLA for 4 years. Nowadays a player like that would either transfer to another school or just go pro, but back then in the early 70s that wasn’t done so much.

Swen Nater at

But Nater was still recognized as a top talent… he was drafted at the end of the 1st round… compared to Tom Brady, in football, who wasn’t drafted until round 6, or 181st overall.

Wiki list of players who made the jump.
Notice how many are from before 1960.
MLB has the minor leagues for development.

Going back a ways Green Bay QB Bart Starr (17th round draft choice) started 10 playoff games, winning 9, including 3 pre-merger championships and the first two Superbowls.

Baltimore QB John Unitas (9th round draft choice, cut pre-season) started 8 playoff games, winning 5, including 2 pre-merger championships and 1 Superbowl.

This happens less and less as even 3 year-olds will have Youtube channels showing their basketball shooting skills, but a good candidate for this is Scottie Pippen, who wasn’t recruited in high school, went to Central Arkansas State as a 6-1 freshman, leaving four years later having grown an additional 7 inches.

Though Pippen dominated in his league, CAS was not even an NCAA school, playing in the lesser-known NAIA, which gave him almost no national recognition. Back then, finding kids was more of a constant crawl through various gyms and making phone calls from pay phones about the kids you just saw. One of these calls got through to Bulls GM Jerry Krause, who went to a couple of CAS games himself, liked what he saw and did his damnedest to downplay Pippen’s potential among the rest of the NBA.

The Bulls drafted him, IIRC, 5th in the 1987 draft.

ETA: He was actually drafted 5th by Seattle, then traded to Chicago for… Olden Polynice? WTF? Did Seattle burn the GM responsible for that trade in effigy every time Pippen made the All Star team or won an all-defensive team award?

That’s because in the 1950’s, the “bonus-bay” rule was in effect, which mandated that an amateur signed for a bonus that was above a certain amount of money, had to be assigned to a major league roster. It was done to keep rich teams from signing every hot prospect. 2/3rds of that list you link to are “bonus babies.”

Fifth, in fact. And technically the Sonics drafted him and sent him to the Bulls in a pre-arranged trade. But anyway can you can see the Bulls had a very high opinion of him.