Are the Players or the Head Coach More Responsible for a Team Success?

Lisa HornePac-12 and Big 12 Lead WriterMay 8, 2013

Alabama head coach Nick Saban
Alabama head coach Nick SabanStacy Revere/Getty Images

Alabama head coach Nick Saban's teams have won three of the last four BCS titles. He has done that with top-ranked recruiting classes. So logic dictates that Saban's success is due to the enormous talent he has stockpiled. 

But do the players predicate a program's success? Or is it the coach? 

In 2004, Utah made BCS history. The 11-0 Utes, a Mountain West Conference team, were the first non-BCS school to play in a BCS bowl. Their head coach was Urban Meyer

Recruiting sites were just starting to gather data on high school prospects when Meyer was at Utah, so team recruiting rankings were sparse. But at no time was Utah ever listed in 247 Sports' composite team rankings. Still, Utah beat Big East champion Pittsburgh 21-7 in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl. 


Meyer then took the 2006 Florida Gators to the BCS title game, where they beat Ohio State 41-14. The Gators won their second title under Meyer two years later when they beat Oklahoma 24-14. Meyer left Florida in 2010, and after a one-year stint as an analyst at ESPN, Meyer became the head coach at Ohio State.

His 2012 Buckeyes went 12-0, but the team was not eligible for postseason play due to NCAA sanctions resulting from football players receiving impermissible benefits during the Jim Tressel era. The last time Ohio State had an undefeated season was in 2002.

Meyer was clearly the common denominator in his teams' successes at Utah, Florida and Ohio State. And he's not the only one to put together such an impressive streak.

Nick Saban coached at LSU from 2000-2004. In his fourth year, the Tigers won the 2003 BCS championship. A year later, he left LSU to become head coach of the Miami Dolphins. In his two seasons there, his teams went 15-17. Then, in 2007, Saban returned to college as the head coach at Alabama.

In his first year, the Crimson Tide team finished 7-6. The following year, they showed marked improvement, going 12-2. Then Saban's 2009, 2011 and 2012 teams were all crowned BCS Champions. 

Some will claim that Saban won because of his top-ranked recruiting classes in 2010 and 2011. But the players in those classes were either not yet enrolled at Alabama or were underclassmen when Alabama won its three titles.

Perhaps more revealing would be how teams fared four years after having a top-ranked recruiting class.

LSU had the top-ranked recruiting class of 2009. That class would have been comprised of redshirt juniors or seniors in 2012, and the Tigers finished that season 10-2, losing to Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. 

Notre Dame had the No. 1 class in 2008, but the Irish would end the 2011 season at 8-5. Florida had the top-ranked class of 2007, but the Gators finished 8-5 in 2010. USC had the No. 1 class in 2006, but its 2009 team went 9-4. 

The point is that elite players can help a team, but they don't translate to BCS success. More often than not, the head coach is a more reliable predictor of BCS success. 

Boise State head coach Chris Petersen has never had a Top 20 recruiting class—his best was a No. 54 in 2011. Yet Petersen took his 2006 Broncos to a 13-0 season, including a 43-42, overtime Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma.

Most analysts didn't point to talent as the reason for Boise State's success. It was generally assumed that Petersen coached up the talent he had. And that's probably why Petersen's name is consistently rumored to be on every athletic directors' short list when a job opening occurs. 

It's not just about recognizing talent at the high school level—it's about developing that talent as well. 

Charlie Weis was Notre Dame's head coach from 2005-2009. Weis had three Top 5 recruiting classes, including the No. 1 class of 2008. Yet Weis was dismissed from Notre Dame with a 35-27 record because he failed to develop that 4- and 5-star talent into elite teams.

Florida State's last four recruiting classes have all been ranked in the Top 10, yet the Seminoles have failed to punch their ticket to the BCS title game. The Seminoles' best showing under head coach Jimbo Fisher has been a 2013 Orange Bowl victory over Northern Illinois.

Fisher has only been at Florida State for three years, but expectations have been high due to the exceptional talent on the team. If a BCS title-game berth doesn't materialize this season, Fisher's job could be in jeopardy. 

Without great coaching, most elite high school players will not develop into elite college football players. Many 5-star athletes turn into college football busts, while lightly recruited players turn into superstars.

Central Michigan tackle Eric Fisher was taken as the No. 1 overall pick by Kansas City in the 2013 NFL draft. Fisher couldn't even muster a 1-star rating as a high school prospect. Were the scouts wrong about him? Maybe, but clearly Fisher was coached up in college.

A head coach is the reason for a team's BCS success. Former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton may be an exception to our premise, but generally speaking, the head coach deserves the credit.  

Saban may be blessed with incredible talent, but his style of coaching lures that talent to Alabama.

He is the one who creates well-disciplined teams. He is the one who demands perfection in every game. He is the one who keeps sending his players off to the NFL. 

And he is the one who keeps winning BCS titles. 


All recruiting rankings courtesy of 247 Sports