The 25 Best Head Coach/Quarterback Combos in College Football History
In the history of college football, 1869-2012, there have been many great coach and quarterback combinations. This list contains what I believe are the 25 greatest of these combinations.
Statistics are not really a good indicator of determining who belongs on this list. Instead, I have prioritized how these combinations stacked up against their competition.
Remember, this is a list of great head coach and quarterback combinations. Sometimes great quarterbacks and great coaches stand alone, but both need to have been great to make this list.
I only included combos that stayed together for the duration of the quarterback’s career at the school, except if the quarterback got much better after a new coach arrived.
I have ordered the list chronologically, going from earliest to most recent.
As always with these lists, narrowing down to 25 was the hardest part. Feel free to debate the list in the comments section below.
With that, let’s start the list.
Dutch Meyer and Sammy Baugh, TCU, 1934-36
The Sammy Baugh Trophy has gone to the top passer in college football since 1959. Since Baugh was such an all-around athlete, perhaps it’s fitting that the award goes to a “passer” rather than a “quarterback.”
However you choose to label Baugh, he remains one of the all-time greats. Many have called him one of the best football players of all time for his contributions at both the collegiate and professional level. Of course, we’ll focus on his career at TCU, where Dutch Meyer was his coach.
Baugh never won the Heisman or the national championship, but he finished fourth in the Heisman voting in 1936. That year, the Horned Frogs finished 16th in the first-ever final AP poll.
During their three seasons together, TCU went 29-7-2 and won a Sugar Bowl and a Cotton Bowl. Considering the era in which Meyer and Baugh led the Horned Frogs (fewer games, fewer bowls), that’s very impressive.
After Baugh left college, Meyer inherited Davey O’Brien and had continued success at TCU, where he stayed until 1952. Meyer, though, was not as successful after Baugh and O’Brien (see next slide) moved on.
Meyer still has the most games coached and second-most wins in TCU history.
Dutch Meyer and Davey O'Brien, TCU, 1935-38
The Davey O’Brien National Quarterback Award goes to the best quarterback in college football after every season. When you get an award named in your honor that goes to the best player at your position like O’Brien did, you must have been pretty good.
O’Brien sat behind Sammy Baugh on the depth chart at TCU for two seasons before becoming the starter in 1937. Along with coach Dutch Meyer, O’Brien led the Horned Frogs to the 1938 national championship. That season, O’Brien became the first player ever to win the Heisman, the Maxwell Award and the Walter Camp Award in the same season.
Though O’Brien should be remembered for his 1938 season, 1937 wasn’t so bad, either. Meyer, O’Brien and TCU finished 16th in the final AP poll.
To give you an idea of how much O’Brien brought to the program, TCU went 3-7 in each of the two seasons following his departure.
Frank Leahy and Johnny Lujack, Notre Dame, 1942-43 and 1946-47
Frank Leahy and Johnny Lujack won three national championships in four years together at Notre Dame, and all that winning automatically qualifies them for this list. Better yet, Lujack won the 1947 Heisman.
Perhaps more impressively, Lujack left Notre Dame to fight in World War II during the middle of his college career. Lujack returned after the war without having missed a beat.
Leahy won four national titles in 11 seasons at Notre Dame. The Irish finished in the Top Three of the final AP poll an additional four times under Leahy.
Tommy Prothro and Gary Beban, UCLA, 1965-67
Sometimes frequent winners are more remembered for a huge loss. That’s exactly what has happened with Gary Beban and Tommy Prothro of UCLA.
They won the 1966 Rose Bowl and finished with a Top Five ranking in the final AP poll twice. Though the Bruins finished 1967 unranked, they did have the No. 1 ranking heading into their showdown with USC.
That game, which some consider the greatest game in the history of the rivalry, pitted Beban of UCLA against O.J. Simpson of USC. Simpson and the Trojans won the game, 21-20, but Beban walked away with the Heisman that year.
Before winning the Heisman in 1967, Beban finished fourth in the 1966 voting.
In all three of his seasons as quarterback, Beban led the country in a few offensive categories. Beban ran the ball more than he passed it, but he was equally adept at both.
Ara Parseghian and Joe Theismann, Notre Dame, 1968-70
Joe Theismann might not immediately come to mind when thinking about the greatest quarterbacks in Notre Dame history, but what he accomplished with coach Ara Parseghian was good enough for this list.
In their three years together, the Irish finished in the Top Five of the final AP poll every season, one of which was a second ranking in 1970. That season, Theismann finished second in the Heisman voting.
Parseghian joins Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy as one of the three greatest coaches in Notre Dame history. In 11 seasons there, Parseghian won two national championships (1966, 1973) and finished in the Top Five of the final AP poll seven times.
LaVell Edwards and Jim McMahon, Brigham Young, 1977-81
In the past 15 years, we have heard the term “BCS buster” describe a program not in a BCS conference that gets into a BCS bowl game. If the BCS had existed during the time LaVell Edwards and Jim McMahon spent together at BYU, they would be BCS busters.
In 1980 and 1981, the Cougars finished 12th and 13th in the final AP poll, respectively. They also finished 20th in 1977, while McMahon was on the roster but not yet a starter.
McMahon took a medical redshirt in 1979, the middle of his college career, but still managed to break all kinds of FBS passing records. In 1980 and 1981, McMahon finished fifth and third in the Heisman voting, respectively. McMahon led the nation in quarterback rating both years.
With McMahon out of college football for over 30 years now, many of those passing records have fallen. Because McMahon and Edwards made an elite pair in the era which they were together, though, they make this list.
One cannot mention BYU football without thinking of Edwards. Edwards has the sixth-most wins of any FBS coach if you disregard sanctions placed on coaches’ win-loss records, and every one of those wins came at BYU.
Jimmy Johnson and Vinny Testaverde, Miami (FL), 1984-86
Vinny Testaverde failed in his chance to win a national championship, but he somewhat made up for it with a Heisman. Jimmy Johnson was gunning for a national championship three times, but he somewhat made up for it by winning one. These guys know a lot about FBS consolation prizes, but in coming up short, they did enough to make this list.
Before winning the Heisman in 1986, Testaverde finished fifth in the 1985 voting. Testaverde is still the Hurricanes’ leader in quarterback rating, which says a lot considering the number of great passers the program has used. The guy could play.
Unfortunately, this pair will be remembered for collapsing in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl against Penn State. Had they won that game, their place on this list wouldn’t have caused me to rethink it many times. In the end, I went with Johnson and Testaverde because they built on what Howard Schnellenberger started: one of the sport’s greatest dynasties.
Johnson got that championship the year after Testaverde left.
LaVell Edwards and Ty Detmer, Brigham Young, 1988-91
Detmer won the 1990 Heisman after finishing ninth in 1989 and before finishing third in 1991. In both 1990 and 1991, Detmer was a consensus All-American, won the Davey O’Brien Award and won the WAC Offensive Player of the Year award.
Of the great BYU quarterback trio (Detmer, Jim McMahon and Steve Young), Detmer was the best passer, as he had the highest quarterback rating of the three. Also, when Detmer left BYU, he held a few FBS passing records that have been broken since.
Dennis Erickson and Gino Torretta, Miami (FL), 1989-92
Gino Torretta didn’t have the best numbers compared with other quarterbacks that played during “The U” dynasty, but he and Dennis Erickson brought Miami to a 2-1 record in national championship games. Winning matters here.
With Erickson and Torretta in charge, the Hurricanes finished in the Top Three of the final AP poll every season. Torretta also won the Heisman in 1992.
Erickson has put together a great coaching career in FBS, but his most success came with Torretta at Miami.
Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel, Florida, 1993-96
Danny Wuerffel ran Steve Spurrier’s “fun and gun” offense to perfection over four seasons at Florida.
1995 and 1996 were especially strong years for Wuerffel, who led FBS in yards per pass attempt and passing touchdowns both years. In 1995, Wuerffel also had the highest passer rating in FBS.
Wuerffel won the Heisman in 1996 and finished third in the 1995 voting.
During their time together, the Gators finished in the Top Five of the final AP poll three times and seventh in 1994. The 1996 season ended with a national championship for Florida after losing the title game the year before.
In Spurrier’s 12 seasons at Florida, the Gators never finished worse than 13th in the final AP poll, but his best stretch came with Wuerffel under center.
Spurrier continues to coach at the FBS level at South Carolina.
Phillip Fulmer and Peyton Manning, Tennessee, 1994-97
Peyton Manning never won the Heisman at Tennessee, but he got close three times. In the voting, Manning finished sixth in 1995, eighth in 1996 and second in 1997.
When Manning was the clear No. 1 quarterback for coach Phillip Fulmer, 1995 to 1997, Tennessee finished in the Top Nine of the final AP poll every season.
Oddly enough, the Volunteers won the national championship the year after Manning graduated. When Manning played, though, he had the program knocking on the door. While he just missed many opportunities to win big in college, Manning made this list.
Fulmer, meanwhile, became the second-most successful coach in Tennessee history.
Joe Tiller and Drew Brees, Purdue, 1997-2000
Even with all the offensive trends in college football moving towards the passing game, Drew Brees still holds some Big Ten passing records more than a decade after he left college.
In 1999 and 2000, Brees finished fourth and third in Heisman voting, respectively.
During their time together, Brees and coach Joe Tiller led the Boilermakers to a Top 25 ranking in the final AP poll every season. 1997 was the first year since 1980 that happened at Purdue.
Brees still holds the conference records for completions, passing yards and passing touchdowns.
In Tiller’s 11 seasons at Purdue, the four years with Brees under center were his best. Brees helped Tiller become the longest-tenured coach in Purdue history.
Bobby Bowden and Chris Weinke, Florida State, 1997-2000
Chris Weinke closed out Bobby Bowden’s dominant period at Florida State, where the Seminoles finished in the Top Five of the final AP poll every season from 1987 through 2000.
Weinke delivered Bowden his second national championship in 1999 and won the Heisman in 2000. In their four seasons together, the Seminoles finished in the Top Three of the final AP poll three times and the Top Five all four times.
Of the quarterbacks who played for Florida State during that dominant period, Weinke was the best. Weinke is arguably the most prolific quarterback in ACC history.
Bowden has the second-most wins among FBS coaches all-time, if you disregard sanctions placed on coaches' win-loss records.
Frank Beamer and Michael Vick, Virginia Tech, 1998-2000
Michael Vick was a superb quarterback in college, but he really makes this list for the impact he made on the quarterback position. Frank Beamer did not teach Vick how to be athletic, but he helped develop Vick into the first overall pick of the 2001 NFL draft.
In Vick’s two active seasons at Virginia Tech (he redshirted in 1998), he and Beamer led the Hokies to two Top Six rankings in the final AP poll. The pair lost the 2000 Sugar Bowl, which was the de facto national championship game.
Vick finished third and sixth in the Heisman voting in 1999 and 2000, respectively.
Beamer remains the face of the Virginia Tech football program. The lifelong Hokie has the sixth-most wins among FBS coaches all-time, if you disregard sanctions placed on coaches' win-loss records, and every one of them came at Virginia Tech.
Larry Coker and Ken Dorsey, Miami (FL), 2001-02
Ken Dorsey and the Miami Hurricanes were great with Butch Davis as head coach, but they became one of the best teams in college football history once Larry Coker arrived in 2001.
Dorsey had some extremely talented teammates that made his job easier, but a football team can’t reach its potential without the quarterback playing his best. Coker brought out that potential in the team, but especially in Dorsey.
Dorsey finished third and fifth in the Heisman voting in 2001 and 2002, respectively. In both of their seasons together, Coker and Dorsey led the Hurricanes to the national championship game. If not for one of the most controversial calls in college football history, Miami might have won both titles.
Once Dorsey left, Coker stayed at Miami until 2006. Coker experienced success with the program, but never as much as he had with Dorsey.
Even today, Coker has the coaching magic. In 2012, Coker coached the UTSA Roadrunners to an 8-4 record in their first FBS season.
Bob Stoops and Jason White, Oklahoma, 1999-2004
When Bob Stoops and Jason White were together at Oklahoma, the Sooners were arguably the best team in the country.
White played two full seasons and parts of five seasons, but the Sooners were an elite program for all of them. In 2003-04, White’s two full seasons, he was the most honored quarterback in the country.
White won the 2003 Heisman and the 2004 Maxwell Award. In both 2003 and 2004, White was the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year and won the Davey O’Brien Award as the nation’s most outstanding quarterback.
Oklahoma won the national championship in 2000, went to four BCS bowl games and finished every season within the Top Six of the final AP poll between 2000 and 2004.
Stoops is still at Oklahoma, but he has not been able to replicate the success the program had with White on the roster.
Pete Carroll and Matt Leinart, USC, 2003-05
Even though we now know this era of USC football was wrapped in scandals, Pete Carroll and Matt Leinart make this list from a competition standpoint.
In their three years together, the Trojans went 2-1 in national championship games. They finished no worse than second in the final AP poll.
Leinart won the 2004 Heisman, and he finished sixth in 2003 and third in 2005. The southpaw re-wrote the Pac-10 (at the time) passing record books, and he held them for almost a decade, when fellow Trojan Matt Barkley broke them all.
You could argue this winning was done unfairly, but you cannot deny the winning that Carroll and Leinart did together.
June Jones and Colt Brennan, Hawaii, 2005-07
While surfers in Hawaii were hanging 10 from 2005 to 2007, June Jones and Colt Brennan were hanging six on many opponents. The production from 2006-07, in particular, might not happen in Hawaii ever again.
Brennan has the highest completion percentage among qualified FBS quarterbacks since 1977. That pinpoint accuracy helped lead Hawaii to the 2008 Sugar Bowl, which is still the only postseason game the Warriors have played outside of their home state.
2005 was not a great year for the team, but Brennan led FBS in passing yards and passing touchdowns. Brennan did the same in 2006, which was Hawaii’s first 11-win season since 1992.
The country took notice of Brennan’s work out on the island, as he finished sixth and third in the Heisman voting in 2006 and 2007, respectively.
Jones’ last two seasons with Brennan were the only two seasons in his coaching career that he earned a Top 25 ranking in the AP poll for any week.
Jones continues to coach in FBS with the SMU Mustangs.
Mike Leach and Graham Harrell, Texas Tech, 2005-08
Graham Harrell was the perfect fit for Mike Leach’s “Air Raid” offense. Together, they put up video game numbers with a one-dimensional playbook at Texas Tech.
Harrell was amazingly accurate for how many times he threw the ball, as he has the third-highest completion percentage among qualified FBS quarterbacks since 1977.
With Harrell under center, Leach led the Red Raiders to a Top 25 ranking in the final AP poll three times. Their 2008 season was the best, as Texas Tech was ranked as high as second and Harrell finished fourth in the Heisman voting.
Opponents knew the pass play was coming every time, but they couldn’t stop it. Since Harrell and Leach made predictability work while setting records doing it, they got on this list.
Leach continues to coach in FBS with Washington State.
Mack Brown and Colt McCoy, Texas, 2006-09
Mack Brown and Colt McCoy failed in their chance to win a national championship at Texas, but they set all kinds of records together at the school.
McCoy leads the Longhorns in total offense and places second among FBS quarterbacks in wins. Brown has the second-most wins in school history for a coach, and McCoy played no small part in that.
McCoy finished second in the Heisman voting in 2008 and third in 2009. In both seasons, McCoy was a consensus All-American and won the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award.
In their four years together, the Longhorns finished in the Top Five of the final AP poll twice, the Top 10 three times, and finished 13th in 2006.
Almost four years later, Brown has stayed, and Texas is still looking for a serviceable replacement to McCoy.
Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow, Florida, 2006-09
People knew about Urban Meyer from returning Bowling Green to relevance and turning Alex Smith into the first overall pick of the 2005 NFL draft at Utah, but Tim Tebow helped Meyer become a coaching superstar.
In their four years together, Meyer and Tebow won two national championships and finished third in the final AP poll another year.
Tebow won the 2007 Heisman, finished third in 2008 and fifth in 2009. During that time, Tebow set the SEC career record for touchdowns: not passing touchdowns, but rushing touchdowns.
Tebow has become a polarizing figure in sports, but nobody can deny his dominance on the college gridiron. Meyer has moved on to Ohio State, where he'll immediately contend for national championships.
Bob Stoops and Sam Bradford, Oklahoma,
It’s a shame Sam Bradford got hurt in 2009, because he could have been even more of a college football legend. In the time Bradford did play for Oklahoma, though, he did enough to get on this list with coach Bob Stoops.
Bradford led the country in quarterback rating in both 2007 and 2008. In fact, Bradford was so efficient that he leads all qualified FBS quarterbacks since 1977 in the category.
In Stoops’ and Bradford’s two full seasons together, the Sooners went 0-2 in BCS bowls, one of which was the 2009 BCS Championship Game. Bradford did win something in his career, though: the 2008 Heisman.
In the Heisman campaign, Bradford threw 50 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. Wow.
Based on averages, not totals, Bradford is arguably the best quarterback in Big 12 history, and that conference has enjoyed some dominating quarterback play since its establishment in 1996.
Bradford got hurt in the opening game of the 2009 season, but eventually returned before ending his college career in the Red River Rivalry against Texas, which was the Sooners’ sixth game of the year.
Bradford was so good in college that he became the first overall pick of the 2010 NFL draft despite not having seen game action in six months.
Stoops remains at Oklahoma, but he hasn’t returned to the national championship game since. At least Stoops has cemented himself as one of the three most accomplished coaches in Oklahoma history (Barry Switzer, Bud Wilkinson) and won the national championship in 2000.
Kevin Sumlin and Case Keenum, Houston, 2008-11
I know I said statistics are not the best way to choose for this list, but you cannot ignore the most statistically productive quarterback in FBS history.
Case Keenum played three full seasons and parts of two others with Houston from 2007 to 2011, but really shined once Kevin Sumlin became the head coach in 2008. While together, Houston put up video game numbers on offense.
You might think the Cougars tried to go deep every play, but Sumlin called a balanced playbook. Keenum and Co. were just more effective through the air.
In Keenum’s three full seasons with Sumlin, Houston went to a bowl game every season. Keenum capped off his college career in 2011 by leading the Cougars to its first ranking in the final AP poll since 1990.
The record-setting passer finished in the top eight of the Heisman voting in both 2009 and 2011. Keenum didn’t come away empty handed in those seasons, though, because he won the Sammy Baugh Trophy as the nation’s most outstanding passer both years.
Sumlin has moved on to Texas A&M, where he coaches another quarterback who could appear on this list someday: Johnny Manziel.
Chris Petersen and Kellen Moore, Boise State, 2008-11
Chris Petersen built Boise State into a program known solely for its blue turf field into a program known for its football. Petersen developed a number of good quarterbacks there, but none were more successful than Kellen Moore.
In their four seasons together, the Broncos never finished worse than 11th in the final AP poll. During that time, Moore earned the most wins in FBS history (50) compared with just three losses. Say what you want about Boise State’s lack of competition when getting much of those wins, but it’s still impressive.
Moore finished in the top eight of the Heisman voting in his final three seasons. Petersen cemented his legacy as the greatest coach in Boise State history.
Moore proved that size doesn’t matter as long as you have ability, and kudos to Petersen for recognizing that.
Nick Saban and A.J. McCarron, Alabama, 2009-Present
McCarron has been a part of three national champion teams, as he redshirted in 2009. Since Saban made McCarron the starter for the Crimson Tide, the program is a perfect 2-0 in national championship games.
Though Saban already has cemented himself as one of college football’s greatest coaches, McCarron could not have made this list by himself. Saban might not have needed McCarron, but McCarron also made Saban better.
Some of you might say McCarron and Saban need to play out 2013 before being considered for this list, but their 2011 and 2012 seasons have already put them here with little debate. Winning matters more than anything in sports, and Saban and McCarron have done that.
As always, thanks for reading, and check me out on Twitter at @MCarroll_Philly!