Re-ranking the 20 best coaches in college football
Who is the best coach in college football? Saban? Harbaugh? Urban? Or someone else altogether?
Is it the coach that wins the most? Gets the most out of his players? The guy who routinely has his team unexpectedly in the title race? Or the one who wins it the most?
There is no perfect answer, but here is our best look, at the best coaches in the sport.
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Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
Some will focus on Kelly's 2-5 record this year as proof that he's not a good coach, and shouldn't sniff the Top 20. But look at the bigger picture; like the fact that Notre Dame was one game away from making the College Football Playoff last year. Or that Kelly's six 8+ win seasons are as many as the previous three head coaches at Notre Dame combined. Or that he's won everywhere he's ever coached, from Grand Valley State (three DIII national championships) to Cincinnati, where he won at least 10 games in each of his final three seasons. Or that the Irish's struggles this year might be more about a sudden talent drain (with six players selected in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft last spring) than poor coaching.
Something is up with the Irish and Kelly this year and the two sides seem to be growing more distant by the week. But proceed with caution, Notre Dame fans. Kelly is the best coach you've had in 20 years.
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P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan
Is it entirely too early to have Fleck on this list? Maybe. But considering that his team keeps improving every year that he's been in Kalamazoo (from 1-11 in 2013 to a 7-0 start this year), that he's had the No. 1 recruiting class three straight years in the MAC, and that he's picked up big wins along the way (most notably Northwestern and Illinois this year) he's done everything you could ask of a mid-major coach.
Give him another year or two and its guaranteed he'll be higher on this list. Likely at a different job altogether.
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Bret Bielema, Arkansas
Remember the episode of "Seinfeld" where Jerry calls himself "Even Steven" and no matter what he does, no matter how high or low he gets, he always ends up Even Steven? Isn't that kind of what life with Bret Bielema as your football coach is like? With Bielema at Arkansas, you're going to win about eight or nine games, never dip below seven, beat one or two teams you probably shouldn't, and have a bunch of fun along the way. Never more. Never less. He's Even Steven.
Looking at Bielema's overall resume, his three straight Rose Bowl appearances should get him higher on this list. But remember, two of those came in the years before Urban Meyer arrived at Ohio State, one overlapped with the Rich Rodriguez tire fire at Michigan, and a third in 2012 when Wisconsin actually finished third in their division, but Ohio State and Penn State were both on probation. A lot of Bielema's success in Madison had to do with timing more than anything else.
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Ken Niumatalolo, Navy
It's hard to win at the Naval Academy. From academics and recruiting, to the fact that most freshmen suffer drastic weight loss their first summer at the school because of training, it's just an entirely different beast altogether.
Now, take what happens with 12 basketball players, multiply it for 85 football players and it's also what makes Niumatalolo's run at the Naval Academy that much more impressive. The fact that he has won eight games in six of seven seasons in Annapolis (and 10+ twice) is one of the most underrated coaching accomplishments in all of college football. At 4-1 and he seems to have them on track to do the same this season.
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY SportsTommy Gilligan
Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
In the preseason, Sumlin was on the hot seat and the program appeared to be regressing after a second straight eight-win season -- and with two star quarterbacks transferring out of the program.
Flash-forward just seven weeks and things are totally different in College Station. Not only are the Aggies off to a 6-0 start, but the program that was "regressing" doesn't look nearly as bad. For all the talk about the team taking a "step back," Sumlin has still won at least eight games every season since he arrived in 2012. The only other active SEC coach to match that mark? Nick Saban at Alabama.
Jimbo Fisher, Florida State
Fisher has won over 75 percent of his games, three ACC titles and a national championship. Obviously, those credentials are pretty unimpeachable.
But how much of Fisher's success is based on simply having more talent than the other team? It's stunning how often his team has come out flat and seemingly unprepared over the last two-and-a-half seasons, only to rally and hold on to win. Furthermore, what was the last "signature" win of Fisher's time in Tallahassee? When Sean MacGuire filled in for a suspended Jameis Winston against Clemson back in 2014? Now compare that with the catastrophic losses since then, including Oregon in the 2014 playoff, Houston in last year's Peach Bowl and Louisville this year.
I'm not saying Fisher is a "bad" coach, obviously. His credentials just aren't as airtight as many might think.
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Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss
No matter what you think of how (ahem), Freeze may have acquired some his players, you can't argue with the results once he's gotten them to Oxford. Freeze and Ole Miss have won a staggering 19 games in the last two years, as he's taken one of the worst Power 5 schools in the country over the last two decades, and turned them into arguably the SEC's second best program over the last three years.
For all the talk about the spectacular (and controversial) 2013 recruiting class, let's never forget that Freeze's best piece of coaching might have come the year before, when he turned a 2-win team into a 7-win team that also appeared in a bowl game. This guy can coach.
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Kyle Whittingham, Utah
While Whittingham's most memorable coaching exploit was probably taking an undefeated Utah team to the Sugar Bowl and beating Nick Saban's mighty Alabama Crimson Tide, his most impressive one might be what he's done in the Utes' first five years in the Pac-12. There, he has taken a program built to win the Mountain West (which Utah was, as recently as 2010) and completely re-invented it, turning the Utes' into a Pac-12 title contender despite having few geographical or recruiting advantages that most of the conference has.
The fact that the Utes are headed for their third straight nine-win season (and potential Pac-12 South title) just six years after joining the league, is one of the most underappreciated feats in all of college football.
Tom Herman, Houston
My first inclination when putting this list together was that the Tom Herman narrative had spun too far out of control, that he's the Justin Bieber of college football who was given too much soon.
Then I remembered that Herman won a national championship as a coordinator at Ohio State before finding immediate success at Houston with 19 wins in his first 21 games. He's already got two signature wins (over Florida State last year and Oklahoma this year) and proven to be one of the most dynamic recruiters in all of college football, bringing in a haul last year that included several players with prominent Big 12 offers.
So maybe I was wrong on Herman. At this point it's only a matter of time until he moves higher on this list, regardless of whether he stays at Houston or not.
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Mark Richt, Miami
Richt has reinvented both his career and his image since arriving in Coral Gables. He was fired at Georgia for not winning enough and the that the program had plateaued under his watch. Now, he's quickly turned Miami around (at 4-2) all while Georgia has completely collapsed without him.
Maybe instead of questioning Richt for only winning nine games in a season, we should have appreciated the fact that he won nine games in the toughest conference in college football over a decade.
Gary Patterson, TCU
TCU's defense has gotten progressively worse the last few years (they're currently giving up 30 points per game this season), and defense is supposed to be Patterson's calling card.
But we can't let a slow, 4-2 start this season completely overshadow everything Patterson has done over the past 15 years in Ft. Worth. He owns a staggering 10, 10-win seasons since arriving in 2001 and just two years ago had the Horned Frogs on the verge of a playoff berth. They might have made it last year too, if a string of brutal injuries hadn't stopped them in their tracks (although they still finished with 11 wins).
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Bob Stoops, Oklahoma
Oklahoma is a program that always seems to underachieve when expectations are the highest -- and blow those same expectations out of the water when they're lower. Like this year, when Oklahoma came into the season ranked No. 3 nationally and got off to a 1-2 start, only to bounce back and now appear to be in the driver's seat for another Big 12 title.
But if we've learned anything from what has happened at Georgia since they fired Mark Richt, it's that you need to be careful when wishing away a consistently really good head coach. It's easy to say "there's a better guy out there." But considering that Stoops has won 10 Big 12 titles in 19 years, is that really true?
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Mark Dantonio, Michigan State
Like Patterson, Dantonio is a guy who has fallen on many of these lists since the start of this season, after a lackluster start has the Spartans at 2-4, and very likely to miss a bowl game this season.
But it's impossible to argue Dantonio's overall credentials at Michigan State -- winning 11+ games in five of the last six seasons, including two Big Ten titles and a College Football Playoff last season. The fact that he's also owned Michigan and is the only Big Ten coach to have any success against Urban Meyer (Meyer's only two Big Ten losses have come to Michigan State) proves that Dantonio is as good as just about anyone in the game.
David Shaw, Stanford
What's the only thing harder than building Stanford into a Pac-12 power? Maintaining that championship level after Jim Harbaugh left town for the NFL.
But that's exactly what Shaw has done in 5+ seasons in Palo Alto. He's taken Harbaugh's foundation and is building upon it. It has led to a staggering four 11+ win seasons in five full years, which includes three Pac-12 titles and three Rose Bowl berths. The fact that he's done it at one of the most challenging academic schools in the country, only makes Shaw's feat that much more incredible.
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Dabo Swinney, Clemson
Clemson was of the most underachieving programs in all of college football for the better part of three decades before Swinney took it over full-time.
I've never seen a program grow more organically than Clemson has. Under Dabo, the Tigers have taken gradual steps from bowl team to conference title contender, then to routine conference favorite to national championship contender.
There aren't many coaches that you can say it's a matter of "when" not "if" they win a national championship, but based on everything we've seen the last several years, Dabo Swinney seems like one of them.
Getty ImagesRob Foldy
Chris Petersen, Washington
Petersen took an already elite Boise State program to another level, then kept them there for another half-decade. Then he left for Washington -- a program that has been the fringes of national relevancy since the early 2000's -- and coached them into the national championship conversation less than three years later. Even more impressive is that Petersen has done it his way, booting off troublesome guys and building the Huskies around team-first players dedicated to the program.
Petersen has won big at two different places, and done it in two completely different ways. Not many guys can say that.
Bobby Petrino, Louisville
We need to get past the whole "Bobby Petrino may be a good coach, buuuut..." narrative and just admit the guy made a mistake and acknowledge that he's one of the two or three best coaches in the game.
Petrino has won everywhere he's went and has been able to do it most places quickly, getting Louisville to the Orange Bowl in year four, Arkansas to No. 3 in the country by his fourth year in Fayetteville and the Cardinals back in the Top 10 nationally. What's even more impressive is how quickly his programs have crumbled after he left; Louisville went from 12-1 in his final season in 2006 to 6-6 the year, and Arkansas from 11-2 to 4-8 in the first season after he left Fayetteville.
Sometimes it isn't just about how good you are, but what happens when you're gone.
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Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
There's no need to get into the nitty gritty with Harbaugh; his resume speaks for itself. He took Stanford from arguably the worst Power 5 school in the country to a Top 5 team, then went to a Super Bowl two years later with San Francisco. He's already got Michigan in the thick of the playoff conversation a year-and-a-half after arriving at in Ann Arbor. Whether you love Harbaugh or hate him, the guy is a superstar.
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Urban Meyer, Ohio State
Meyer has been around for so long and has won so much that we kind of take for granted how great he's been. He was the original BCS buster at Utah, then won a ho-hum two national championships at Florida, efore coming to Ohio State. Meyer is 56-4 since he took the reigns in Columbus. WHAT? HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE.
In any other universe, Meyer would be No. 1 on this list. The only thing that's keeping him from the top spot...
Getty ImagesJamie Sabau
Nick Saban, Alabama
Saban stats at Alabama read more like hieroglyphics than actual football numbers. A 107-18 record overall. 61-12 in the SEC. 10+ wins eight straight seasons. Six division titles. Four SEC titles. Four national championships. And that doesn't even include what he did at either LSU (where he won an additional national championship), Michigan State or Toledo.
At this point, the question isn't whether Saban is the best coach in college football. It's whether he's the best of all-time.