The Top 10: college football coaches

Any time a list like this is made, there will be disagreement about who goes where. This list is rooted in empirical evidence as much as is possible, but as always there is a strong element of subjectivity present. Coaches are evaluated not only on their wins and losses, but on the contexts in which those came, and their overall impacts on the game.

***Honorable Mention:

– Pop Warner: 0.733

– Ara Parseghian: 0.710

— Johnny Vaught: 0.745

– Bo Schembechler 0.775

– Joe Paterno: 0.749

– Bobby Bowden: 0.740

– Steve Spurrier 0.718

10. Barry Switzer


Schools: Oklahoma (1973-1988)

Record: 157-29-4

Winning Percentage: 0.837

National titles: 3 (1974, 1975, 1985)

Conference titles: 12

AP Top-5 finishes: 10

Overall impact: 

Before Barry Switzer was the Sooners head coach, before he won a Super Bowl with the Dallas Cowboys in 1995, he was one of the game’s most prolific offensive coordinators. In 1971, Switzer’s Sooner’s set an NCAA rushing record of 472 yards per game on average in his innovative Wishbone offense. In today’s game, averaging more than 250 rushing yards per game is nearly unfeasible. In 1973 Switzer took over as head coach, and presided over the most dominant era of Sooner football in program history. His teams had a vice grip on the Big-8 conference, winning the championship for eight times in his first eight years as head coach. Switzer owned Red River Rival, Texas, to the tune of a 10-5-1 career record. His 3 national titles in 16 years cement him as Oklahoma’s greatest coach ever.

9. Tom Osborne


Schools: Nebraska (1973-1997)

Record: 255-49-3

Winning Percentage: 0.836

National titles: 3 (1994, 1995, 1997)

Conference titles: 13

AP Top-5 finishes: 10

Overall impact:

For 25 years Tom Osborne was the head coach of the Nebraska Cornhuskers. In those 25 seasons, only once did the Huskers finish outside the top 15 in the AP Poll. Osborne and Switzer have nearly identical stats as head coaches. The things that set Osborne apart are the longevity of his career, and his sheer dominance in the mid 90s, culminating in the Huskers crushing defeat of Peyton Manning and the Vols in the 1998 Orange Bowl for the national championship. Osborne’s innovative option offenses, combine with his freakish offensive lines, redefined offensive football in the latter half of the 20th century.

8. Urban Meyer


Schools:  Bowling Green (2001-2002), Utah (2003-2004), Florida (2005-2010), Ohio State (2012-2018)

Record: 186-32

Winning Percentage: 0.853

National titles: 2 (2006, 2008)

Conference titles: 7

AP Top-5 finishes: 8

Overall impact:

Urban Meyer is one of the most polarizing coaches in college football history. He’s one of the only modern greats to never sell out and sample his wares in the NFL, but also is marred by his continual flip flopping from school to school. Meyer has coached greats like Tim Tebow, Alex Smith, and Ezekiel Elliot. He brought the spread offense forth from the margins of the MAC to the primetime South Eastern Conference. Quite frankly, his innovative offensive philosophies, combined with his prioritization of speed on defense, set the blueprint for success in college football for the past decade. Meyers inability to stick with one job, and the perceived brevity of his career are the only things keeping him from climbing higher on this list.

7. General Robert R. Neyland


Schools: Tennessee (1926-1934, 1936-1940, 1946-1952)

Record: 173-31-12

Winning Percentage: 0.829

National titles: 4 (1938, 1940, 1950, 1951)

Conference titles: 7

AP Top-5 finishes: 5 *** (The AP Poll began 12 years into Neyland’s career)

Overall impact:

In Knoxville, General Neyland is more than a football coach. He is a symbol, the embodiment of a bygone era of prosperity and athletic dominance. Neyland’s 1939 team is the last team in history to go unbeaten and unscored upon (it was not awarded a national championship). Neylands win total would doubtlessly be higher were it not for his several absences to serve his country. General Neyland was only Captain Neyland when he became Tennessee’s head football coach in 1926. Two stints of service saw him rise to the rank of general before recording back to back national championships in 1950 and 1951, on the backs of legends like Doug Atkins, Hank Lauricella, and Tim Priest.

6. Pete Carroll


Schools: USC (2001-2009)

Record: 97-19

Winning Percentage: 0.836

National titles: 2 (2003, 2004)

Conference titles: 7

AP Top-5 finishes: 7

Overall impact:

Of the coaches on this list, Pete Carroll has the fewest wins, fewest years coached, and is tied for the fewest championships, and yet he nearly cracks the top 5. Carroll’s sample size in the college game is not the largest, but the eventual Super Bowl Champion’s short time at USC was so prosperous that it would be malpractice to exclude him from the top 6 on this list. In 9 years at USC, Carroll won 7 PAC-10 championships, 2 BCS National Championships, and had 7 top 5 finishes. He coached two Heisman trophy winners in Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush. Carroll led his teams to 7 BCS bowl games in 9 chances, and won six of them. His near decade at USC stacks up against any given 10 year period of success had by any other coach in collegiate history. Had he not fled the NCAA for the NFL, who knows where USC would be today.

5. Woody Hayes


Schools: Denison (1946-1948), Miami of Ohio (1949-1950), Ohio State (1951-1978)

Record: 238-72-10

Winning Percentage: 0.761

National titles: 5 (1954, 1957, 1961, 1968, 1970)

Conference titles: 7

AP Top-5 finishes: 10

Overall impact:

Everyone remembers the punch – an altercation between Hayes and Clemson nose guard Charlie Bauman at the 1978 Gator Bowl. Bauman intercepted a pass and ran out of bounds and into the Ohio State bench. When Bauman got up, Hayes was ready with a stiff right to his esophagus While this sad chapter may now be the most read in Woody Hayes book, it does not overshadow an excellent career spanning three decades at Ohio State. Hayes was a tenacious recruiter with larger than life charisma, and was one of the first in major college football to recruit and start black athletes across the board. He ran a simple “3 yards and a cloud of dust” style offense, and out Jimmy and Joe’d his opponents.

4. Frank Leahy


Schools: Boston College (1939-1940), Notre Dame (1941-1953)

Record: 107-13-9

Winning Percentage: 0.864

National titles: 5 (1940, 1943, 1946, 1947, 1949)

Conference titles: N/A

AP Top-5 finishes: 9

Overall impact:

“Notre Dame does not kick field goals.” This quote best captures the essence of gridiron giant Frank Leahy. It was rumored that his teams practiced so long and so hard in the cold of South Bend, Indiana, that he only called practice when the quarterbacks’ hands began to bleed from taking snaps. What separated Leahy from many of the other old school rough and tumble ball coaches of the time was his willingness to innovate. In 1941, to much chagrin from fans and pundits alike, Leahy abandoned Knute Rockne’s legendary “box” offense for the more modern wing-T. This led to nine straight seasons without a loss, and four Heisman trophies (one stolen from Johnny Majors by notorious cavorter and gambler Paul Hornung). He only lost 13 games in 14 years as a head coach, and rattled off 5 national titles in a ten year span. For his time, Leahy was simply the greatest.

3. Knute Rockne


Schools: Notre Dame (1918-1930)

Record: 102-12-5

Winning Percentage: 0.881

National titles: 4 (1919, 1924, 1929, 1930)

Conference titles: N/A

AP Top-5 finishes: N/A

Overall impact:

The Four Horsemen, Touchdown Jesus, win one for the Gipper – Knute Rockne is so surrounded in lore that he is more myth than man at this point. At a place with more legends than losing seasons (Seriously. Rudy is a legend and he never even played.) Knute Rockne looms the largest.  The man who holds the highest winning percentage of any coach in college football history turned a little private catholic school in northern Indiana into the preeminent college football power of the early 20th century. Rockne and his fighting Irish brought the forward pass into the main stream on their way to four national championships and 100 wins in 13 seasons. Rockne was the first coach to understand the importance of media in sports, and doubled as a Barnham and Bailey ring leader, always welcoming the national spotlight on his burgeoning program. He had a flare for the dramatic, potentially fabricating the dying words of Notre Dame’s first All-American, George Gipp. Gipp died of strep throat before graduating from Notre Dame. In 1928, when locked in a halftime tie with Army, Rockne told his team that Gipp’s dying wish was that he should “one day when the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go win one for the Gipper.” The story became a movie, starring none other than an intrepid young actor named Ronald Reagan.

2. Nick Saban


Schools: Toledo (1990), Michigan State (1995-1999), LSU (2000-2004), Alabama (2007-present)

Record: 231-62-1

Winning Percentage: 0.791

National titles: 6 (2003, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2017)

Conference titles: 8

AP Top-5 finishes: 9

Overall impact:

He’s Darth Vader. No one likes him. His wife probably doesn’t like him. But dadgummit he wins football games. Saban is the CEO coach. Playing football at Alabama is a business transaction. In exchange for all of his effort, focus, and time, a young man is rewarded with a few championship rings and a multi-million dollar contract (and then he goes to the NFL and gets paid even more. Just kidding. Mostly.). If Knox County Mayor Glen Jacobs didn’t have a copyright on the nickname The Big Red Machine, it would aptly fit Saban’s Crimson Tide. Preseason discussions about who is going to win the SEC Championship have ceased. Alabama is a foregone conclusion, and that is no hyperbole. Saban has won the SEC 6 times since 2009 when he began his tyrannical reign in Tuscaloosa, and 4  out of the last 5. Alabama knows no equal in the 21st century of college football. They are the first bonafide dynasty since Tom Osborne’s Nebraska teams of the mid 90s. Before it’s said and done, and perhaps before this season’s snow melts, I have little doubt Saban will move to the top slot on this list.

1. Paul “Bear” Bryant


Schools: Maryland (1945), Kentucky (1946-1953), Texas A&M (1954-1957), Alabama (1958-1982)

Record: 323-85-17

Winning Percentage: 0.780

National titles: 6 (1961, 1964, 1965, 1973, 1978, 1979).

Conference titles: 15

AP Top-5 finishes: 13

Overall impact:

It’s hard for me to articulate how painful it is for me to give the top two slots on this list both to Alabama coaches. The fact that I’ve done so in spite of that apprehension is just one small testimony to the greatness that was Paul “Bear” Bryant. Bryant was an icon. Bryant scowling in his houndstooth hat is one of the most recognizable images in sport. He, or rather his likeness, made it into Forrest Gump for goodness sakes. No one not named Saban will ever match what Bryant was able to do for 35 years in the SEC. He won the most games. He won the most conference titles. He won the most national championships. Bryant is nearly peerless in the annals of college coaching history.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s