Ranking the 8 Best BCS Coaches Who Never Played Division I Football
In every football player’s life, there comes a day when he realizes his career as a football player has ended.
Some never make it past high school football, while others reach the Pro Football Hall of Fame. All have to choose how to continue their lives once playing football is no longer an option.
The following men have such a passion for football that they have become head coaches at BCS programs despite never playing college football at the Division I level.
When these men were playing, Division I was divided into Division I-A and Division I-AA. Today, these groups are called FBS and FCS, respectively. None of the coaches on this list played at either level.
With that said, I have ranked who I believe are the eight best head coaches of BCS programs that never played Division I football.
Note: The coach’s experience as a college football player appears at the head of each slide in italics.
8. Dan Mullen (Mississippi State)
Ursinus College (1992-3), Centennial Conference (Division II)
Dan Mullen should have Mississippi State consistently in the Top 25 discussion for the first time since Jackie Sherrill roamed the sidelines in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Mullen followed Urban Meyer from Bowling Green to Utah to Florida before earning the head coaching position in Starkville in 2009. Under Meyer, Mullen tutored quarterbacks at Bowling Green and Utah. He took over offensive coordinator duties once the pair hit Florida in 2005.
Mullen put together top 25 recruiting classes for the Bulldogs in 2009 and 2013, according to ESPNU. These classes have led Mississippi State to three consecutive bowl games (2010-12).
In a loaded SEC, Mullen and the Bulldogs could struggle to get more than eight or nine wins in a season, but most other college football programs would love to be in that position.
7. David Cutcliffe (Duke)
David Cutcliffe is best known for coaching both Peyton Manning and Eli Manning in college. But after 2012, he should get recognized for his other coaching achievements.
This past season, Cutcliffe led the Duke football program to its first bowl game since 1994.
A six-win season might not sound like a successful one, but at Duke, it is. The Blue Devils have not won a bowl game since the 1961 Cotton Bowl, but Cutcliffe might be the coach who leads the program to its next bowl victory.
Peyton and Eli still seek advice from Cutcliffe, so that should convince everyone of his coaching abilities. As Andrew Beaton of dukechronicle.com put it:
Both are now Super Bowl MVPs and will make a combined $40 million for the 2013 season but came back and asked Cutcliffe to coach them as if they were freshmen in college again.
Pretty amazing for someone who played zero college football, you think?
6. George O'Leary (UCF)
George O’Leary has led the University of Central Florida to six bowl games in the last eight seasons. Even though the Golden Knights entered FBS-level football in 1996, the program had never reached a bowl game at that level before O’Leary arrived in 2004.
Under O’Leary, UCF moved from the MAC to Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference. During that time, the Golden Knights earned their first-ever Top 25 ranking in the AP poll (in 2010), have won 10 games three times and have won two bowl games (all in the last three seasons).
Prior to his time at UCF, O’Leary coached Georgia Tech. Under O’Leary, the Yellow Jackets finished in the Top 25 of the final AP poll every season from 1997 to 2001. Even though O’Leary left in 2001, the program has gone to a bowl game every season since 1997.
O’Leary has a knack for leading immediate turnarounds. At UCF, O’Leary went 0-11 in his first season (2004), but 8-5 in his second (2005). At Georgia Tech, O’Leary turned a 1-10 team in 1994 to a 6-5 team in 1995 (his first full season as head coach).
5. Butch Jones (Tennessee)
Ferris State University (1987-9), Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (Division II)
If you believe Butch Jones’ success as a head coach has been basically a ride on the coattails of Brian Kelly, I understand that argument. Jones’ ability to maintain that success after Kelly left the programs is more convincing for me of Jones’ coaching ability, however.
Jones was the head coach after Kelly at both Central Michigan and Cincinnati. In 2009 at Central Michigan, Jones did something Kelly did not: lead the Chippewas to a Top 25 ranking in the AP poll. In fact, no coach had ever done that before Jones, and it has not happened since.
Following that season, Jones became the Bearcats' head coach. In 2011 and 2012, Cincinnati won bowl games.
Jones turned his successes following Kelly into a head coaching job at Tennessee. Now, we will really learn how much of the success was Kelly and how much was Jones, considering Kelly has been at Notre Dame since 2010.
4. Hugh Freeze (Ole Miss)
Hugh Freeze started off both his tenures at FBS schools hot. Because of this, Freeze has “upgraded” his job status before settling at one place.
In 2011, Freeze’s only season as head coach of Arkansas State, the Red Wolves went 10-3 after going 4-8 in 2010.
In 2012, Freeze’s only season as head coach of Ole Miss (so far), the Rebels went 7-6 after a 2-10 season in 2011.
This seems like a great hire for an SEC team that has not finished a season ranked in the Top 10 of the final AP poll since 1969.
3. James Franklin (Vanderbilt)
East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania (1991-4), Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (Division II)
In just two seasons as Vanderbilt’s head coach, James Franklin has already turned the program around.
This past season, the Commodores earned their first Top 25 ranking in the final AP poll since 1948. Also, Vanderbilt played in bowl games in consecutive seasons (2011-12) for the first time in program history.
Franklin has brought the Commodores back to BCS respectability via the recruiting trail. He gathered the No. 22-ranked recruiting class of 2013, according to ESPNU. So far, Vanderbilt has ESPNU’s No. 24-ranked Class of 2014.
With Franklin in charge, the days of Vanderbilt being an SEC doormat appear over.
2. Jimbo Fisher (Florida State)
Salem College (1985-6), West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (Division II)
Samford University (1987), Division III Independent
Jimbo Fisher’s connection with the Bowdens began long before he joined Bobby on the Florida State coaching staff.
Fisher played under Terry Bowden at both Salem College (now Salem International University) and Samford University. At Samford, Fisher established himself as one of the program’s greatest quarterbacks when he won the Division III National Player of the Year award in 1987.
He then returned to Samford to coach under Terry after playing the 1988 season with the Arena Football League’s Chicago Bruisers, and then followed Terry again to Auburn.
The connection with Bobby began in 2007, when Fisher became the Seminoles’ offensive coordinator and “head coach in waiting.” Fisher became the head coach at Florida State in 2010.
Since taking over as head coach, Fisher has led the Seminoles to three straight bowl wins and a Top 25 ranking in the final AP poll every season.
Fisher’s recruiting skills have landed Florida State top 10 classes every season, according to ESPNU, with the No. 1 overall class in 2011.
1. Brian Kelly (Notre Dame)
Assumption College (1979-82), Northeast 7 Conference (Division II)
Despite leading Notre Dame to an embarrassing loss to Alabama in the 2013 BCS National Championship Game, Brian Kelly is still one of college football’s elite coaches. Kelly, undoubtedly, has returned Notre Dame to the elite group of college football programs.
In 2012, the Fighting Irish earned their first No. 1 ranking in the AP poll, and their first Top-Five finish in the final AP poll (No. 4) since 1993 (finished No. 2).
Prior to arriving in South Bend, Kelly turned around the Cincinnati program. In 2007, his first full season as coach, the Bearcats earned their first Top 25 ranking in the AP poll since 1976. Cincinnati also finished with its first Top 25 ranking in the final AP poll ever (No. 17).
The next two seasons, Kelly led Cincinnati to BCS bowls, but lost both.
Prior to arriving in Cincinnati, Kelly coached Central Michigan. In 2007, the Chippewas recorded their first 10-win season since 1979.
If you need more proof of Kelly’s coaching excellence, he led Grand Valley State to back-to-back Division II national championships in 2002 and 2003.
As always, thanks for reading, and check me out on Twitter at @MCarroll_Philly!