Best coaches to lead your program

Here’s the drill:

You have to hire a head coach right now to lead your program for the next several years from among the 120 current coaches.

Forget about what happened in the past and forget about legendary status — you wouldn’t hire Joe Paterno to build a franchise — you want a guy who can be the head man for a long time. OK, so maybe you just want a coach to win right away, but you need a guy who can go on the recruiting trail tomorrow, bring in the talent and then be there to win with the players he brings in. That’s why age is a factor and why so many big names are ranked low.

This is NOT a list of the best head coaches in college football. This is a ranking of the coaches you’d want to lead a program for the next five years or more.

15. Bret Bielema, Wisconsin

Career record : 49-16

The only question is recruiting ability. Barry Alvarez was able to load up with enough top-shelf talents to build Wisconsin into a powerhouse, and while Bielema is getting the guys who fit what he and the program want to do, at some point, it would be nice if he could get a few more four- and five-star guys. On the hot seat three years ago, Bielema came through and proved he could make Wisconsin a national title-caliber monster. Now it’ll be about consistency. Outside of being badly outcoached in the Rose Bowl, 2010 was special. Now Bielema has to do it again.

Hot seat status: In 2009, it was a prove-it season after a disastrous 2008, and Bielema needed to come up with a big year to keep his job. However, he just got a contract extension.

When will the change come? Ten years. Bielema’s just 41, and he’s going to get a few big offers if he has a few more solid years. Wisconsin is big, but he could get an even higher-profile gig with a little more success.

14. Troy Calhoun, Air Force

Career record: 34-18

It’s been forgotten, but Fisher DeBerry was struggling at the end of his great run at Air Force. It’s not like Calhoun stepped into a turn-key situation — he rebuilt the program. The former Falcons quarterback has been severely underrated, doing more with less than any coach in college football. Only Army and Navy have the recruiting restrictions Air Force has, yet Calhoun has succeeded without a lot of fanfare (outside of being named the 2007 Mountain West Coach of the Year).

Hot seat status: None. He could have a long DeBerry-like run if he wants it.

When will the change come? Within five years. Calhoun’s too good and too young — only 46 — to not have millions thrown at him. With time spent as an NFL assistant, he could make the jump to the next level if he’s not taking over a major program — possibly in the Pac-12.

13. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame

Career record: 179-62-2

As if being the head coach at Notre Dame isn’t fun enough, Kelly had a few other interesting twists and turns to deal with. The deaths of students Declan Sullivan and Elizabeth Seeberg will always be attached to the Kelly era no matter how much success he has, but a four-game winning streak to close things out, including victories over USC and Miami, ended up sweeping the off-the-field issues under the rug. Football-wise, Kelly was able to overcome the adversity, including the loss of starting QB Dayne Crist to injury, to get everyone excited when the season could’ve easily gone in the tank. With the winning streak, the bowl victory, and the strong recruiting class, the needle is pointed up.

Hot seat status: He’s not under any more pressure than any other Notre Dame head coach would have to deal with. After what happened last year, all will be fine as long as he wins.

When will the change come? At least ten years. He really is a terrific coach, and he’s going to show why with a strong 2011.

12. Jim Tressel, Ohio State

Career record: 241-79-2

Yeah, yeah, yeah, there’s going to be scorched earth and sanctions of some sort when all is said and done, and the NCAA is hammering him for withholding evidence in the Terrelle Pryor Tattoo Five scandal, but there’s a reason the guy is having a harder time getting fired than George Costanza from the New York Yankees. There’s no questioning Tressel’s ability to amass talent — OK, so there’s some question — and there’s no questioning his ability to come up with consistently great teams. He’ll turn 59 at the end of the regular season and still has another ten years and 100 wins in him if he’s able to weather the storm. As crazy as this might sound, he could conceivably catch Joe Paterno for all-time wins if he sticks around for another 15 years,

Hot seat status: Double secret probation. He owns Ohio State University, and the school is still standing by him even after the NCAA has said there were major violations in the recent scandal. Originally the school only wanted to suspend him for two games, but it’s still a coin flip on whether or not Tressel will end up surviving. The bigger problem might be a losing streak of any sort. Buckeye fans aren’t going to forgive two 8-4 years in a row if there’s a loss to Michigan along the way.

When will the change come? Sometime in the next five years. The skeletons will start to come out on a regular basis and there will be one big down year that will be just enough to suggest that it’s time for a change.

11. Bo Pelini, Nebraska

Career record: 30-12

Mark, or Bo to everyone else, might be Mr. Coach when it comes to his glare, toughness and intensity, and he might only have one speed in the way he handles his business. But Pelini is doing a great job of restoring the glory to the Big Red. Only 43 years old, he has all the makings of a legend if he can do a little bit better job of bringing in some top talents. While he has been a good recruiter, he hasn’t loaded up nationally like a Huskers coach needs to do.

Hot seat status: Zero. He’s the coach the program desperately needed after the Bill Callahan era.

When will the change come? 2025. He played at Ohio State and might be in the mix for the job whenever Jim Tressel is done, but  until then, Pelini won’t be going anywhere.

10. Bronco Mendenhall, BYU

Career record: 56-21

Mendenhall might be the best kept secret in college football. After four straight 10-win seasons, he struggled last year early on before a late rally and a bowl win to turned the season around. A terrific defensive mind, Mendenhall’s teams are always aggressive and always tough, while he’s doing a solid job of recruiting the offensive talent needed to make the attack standout.

Hot seat status: None. He restored the glory at BYU, and the football faithful have no interest in losing him.

When will the change come? In five years. He’s only 45 and will get several big job offers over the next few seasons, but he appears to love being at BYU. Now that the program is an independent, he’s ushering in a new era and should be able to be in the mix for BCS games with just a few key wins a year — and no mistakes against the layups. However, there will be a too-good-to-pass-up offer in the near future (watch out when Oregon State, his alma mater, eventually comes calling).

9. Les Miles, LSU

Career record: 90-38

The Mad Hatter might seem like he has a lucky horseshoe up his sleeve, but Miles was successful at Oklahoma State, has a national title at LSU, and for all the close calls and strange finishes, he wins. A phenomenal recruiter, Miles is doing a great job of keeping most of the top talents at home in the state’s fertile recruiting ground, and while he and his staff might not be turning enough five-star prospects into NFL stars, the production is there at the collegiate level. The record is all that matters, and he’s 62-17 at LSU with four seasons of 11 wins or more. Just as impressive, under Miles LSU is 5-1 in bowls.

Hot seat status: Shockingly, the burner is on. Despite the success, the back-to-back rough years in 2008 and 2009 (combined 17-9 record) didn’t sit all that well with the LSU faithful. And yes, despite an 11-2 mark last year, the poor play of the offense didn’t help his cause.

When will the change come? Within five years. The Michigan job is filled, so he’s not going back to his alma mater, but don’t be shocked if Miles and LSU struggle a bit, at least by the high standards of SEC West title or bust. Five years from now, the school might be looking to buy out a contract that runs out in 2017 if Miles can’t get back to the SEC Championship Game.

8. Chris Petersen, Boise State

Career record: 61-5

Dirk Koetter started the great run, Dan Hawkins continued it, and then Petersen blew the lid off the program. As real as it gets, there’s absolutely nothing phony whatsoever about a coach who has every reason to be posturing and positioning for one of the premier jobs in college football. Petersen still might jump ship at some point for a job that’s too good to pass up, and he has earned it. There are few coaches in sports better at keeping his team focused on the task at hand. The "one game at a time" cliché never works better than when Petersen is using it.

Hot seat status: He’ll be the Boise State head coach for the next thirty years if he wants to be.

When will the change come? Within the next five years. Petersen might be a true believer, but he’s only going to be 47. If Boise State isn’t able to make a bigger jump than the Mountain West, it’ll be time to see what he can do with a huge budget and a major program.


7. Bobby Petrino, Arkansas

Career record: 64-24

The Atlanta Falcons sure love him, and the bridge to Louisville is still in ashes, but there’s no denying that Bobby Petrino might be the best college football coach without a championship. In just seven years as a college head coach, he has led the way to three double-digit win seasons and five seasons with nine wins or more. Petrino took what John L. Smith started at Louisville and made it better, and stopped Arkansas from sliding once the Houston Nutt era fizzled out. And last season, led by Ryan Mallett, Arkansas earned a 10-3 mark and a berth in the Sugar Bowl.

Hot seat status: None. Petrino has a home for the next several years no matter what.

When will the change come? He’s still at Arkansas? The Larry Brown of football coaches has a reputation of always having one eye on the next move, and while Petrino’s making close to $4 million a year and appears to be happy, he’s only 50, and Hogs fans will always be a little worried that a late-night-down-low-Auburn-meeting type of job interview is on the horizon.

6. Chip Kelly, Oregon

Career record: 22-4

Which team in the 2011 BCS Championship Game likely has more staying power? No, Oregon doesn’t have to play in the SEC West, but it has an offensive system that doesn’t necessarily need a Cam Newton to succeed, and the defense relies on fast, active players that seem to flock to Eugene. Kelly might come across as arrogant and way too cocky in his up-tempo system, and rightly so. Considered to be merely a D-IAA type who happened to have a nice offensive mind, Kelly proved to be so much more last season. Remember, it wasn’t like the Ducks came out and blew everyone away after the opening kickoff. The coaching staff made the right adjustments at halftime, and the results favored Oregon. A lot of that stemmed from Kelly, who always seemed to remain calm, cool, and again, cocky, knowing that eventually the trickle would turn into a full-blown flood. Kelly has the system, Oregon has been cemented as the cool place to play — thanks to Phil Knight — and the recruiting classes are bringing in the top-shelf talent.

Hot seat status: As long as Kelly stops using certain recruiting services, the statue will be unveiled in 2023.

When will the change come? As long as there isn’t any fallout from Complete Scouting Services, Kelly will be around for more than 15 years. Kelly is going to turn 48 this season, and there aren’t any other places for him to go. He’s not a pro coach, and Nike, uh, Oregon, is always going to make sure he’s paid well enough to be happy.

5. Mack Brown, Texas

Career record: 219-108-1

Much maligned early in his Texas tenure for not being able to win the big game, Brown, helped by Vince Young, validated his career and quieted all the doubters by winning the 2005 national title and going back to the BCS Championship Game in 2009. However, the 5-7 mark in 2010 quickly took the bloom off the rose … and it’s not fair. Until last year, all Brown has done is win nine games or more in every season, including his final two seasons at North Carolina, since 1995. Before last year, he won ten games or more 11 of 14 years, and again, until last year, Brown had Texas on a 1990s-like Florida State run from 2001 to 2009 — going 101-14 with five top-five finishes. But there was 2010. After his first losing season since going 1-10 at UNC in 1989, Brown needs to come up with a big year or things will start to get interesting.

Hot seat status: Suddenly a bit toasty. It’ll take another bad year before he’s in real trouble, and Brown would be hired in a heartbeat by another big-time BCS school if he was let go, but with all the talent amassed and all the expectations, 5-7 isn’t acceptable in Austin.

When will the change come? In 10 years. Brown will turn 60 in late August, Texas will rebound and buildings and streets will eventually be named after the coach who turned Texas back into a national superpower. His .802 winning percentage at Texas is better than legendary Darrell Royal’s (.774).

4. Gary Patterson, TCU

Career record: 98-28

The Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin only validated an already phenomenal run. Patterson has done wonders with TCU over the past decade with the peerless way he takes decent talents and turns them into stars. Even though he’s always in the discussion for every new opening, he has turned down job after job, and why not? TCU was this close to playing in each of the past two BCS Championships, and there doesn’t appear to be any slowing down.

Hot seat status: Considering the success on the field, and being helped by being the one top program without a blemish in the Sports Illustrated article on criminals in college football, no coach has more job security.

When will the change come? Maybe never. Patterson blew off other offers in the past, and with TCU about to join the Big East, he’s not going to leave now when the program is officially going big-time.

3. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State

Career record: 10-4

He waited his turn and was patient, and now he has Florida State close to being a true superpower again. More than anything else, Fisher’s dominating as a recruiter as he quickly upgraded the talent level into championship status. A top offensive mind, young, and on the verge of becoming one of the big names of the coaching world, he’s a rising star to rebuild a program around.

Hot seat status: None. Expectations are sky high and soon nothing less than an ACC title will be acceptable, but for now, all is right with the FSU world.

When will the change come? In more than ten years. Fisher’s not going anywhere.

2. Bob Stoops, Oklahoma

Career record: 129-31

One of college football’s elite head coaches, Stoops has produced winner after winner despite the constant battles with Texas in the nasty Big 12 South, and isn’t helped by a parade of upwardly mobile assistant coaches flowing through the program. No, there hasn’t been a national title in more than a decade, but the Sooners are in the hunt each and every year and are fixtures in BCS bowl games. How good has Stoops been? Since winning it all in 2000, OU has won 11 games or more in nine of 11 seasons while winning or tying for eight Big 12 South titles. Known as a defensive coach, his teams have been defined by offense, including the 2008 juggernaut that was among the best in college football history. While Stoops might not have the mythic status of Bud Wilkinson (.826 winning percentage) and he might not have the folk-hero status of Barry Switzer (.837 winning percentage), an .806 winning percentage puts Stoops among the giants.

Hot seat status: Absolute zero. There wasn’t any pressure after a dud of a 2009, and it would take something truly disastrous to get anyone thinking about forcing him out.

When will the change come? In more than 15 years. He has been rumored for several jobs, and it was supposedly a rock-solid lock that he was going to take over at Notre Dame when Charlie Weis was fired, but he has adamantly said he wants to stay. At more than $4 million a year, and turning 51 during the season, Stoops isn’t going anywhere.

1. Nick Saban, Alabama

Career record: 134-53-1

He’s the Bill Belichick of the college football world, becoming the gold standard of coaching … and the gold standard of curmudgeons. It’s easy to forget that Alabama was merely decent before Saban came in and almost instantly turned the program into a superpower again. With two national titles at two schools, and more titles on the way in the near future, everything is rolling for the Tide and for Saban. The talent is flowing, the wins are coming and it’ll be a shock if the team is out of any preseason top five over the next several years. The only way the fun will stop is if there are sanctions of some sort, and Saban is even ahead of the game on that with complaints about the “pimp” element. No, he’s not quite a legend yet — he still needs another decade of success to be able to file his application to be added to the Mount Rushmore of college football coaches — but he’s on his way.

Hot seat status: They just unveiled a statue of the guy. While he has built up enough points to afford a few clunkers, if he’s not winning big on a regular basis, and if losing to Auburn becomes an annual event, it wouldn’t take too long before the pressure would tighten things up.

When will the change come? In 2021. Turning 60 on Halloween, he still has another decade-plus left in him. Saban isn’t leaving Alabama anytime soon. The NFL is out, and what other college gig would he possibly be interested in?