College Football's 10 Best Coaching Turnarounds of the Modern Era
This was actually a tougher list to compile than I had anticipated. The top spot was pretty clear for me, but there were a number of coaches to consider for the remainder.
Some notables considered but not on the list:
Frank Beamer (Virginia Tech), Howard Schnellenberger/Jimmy Johnson (Miami FL), Urban Meyer/Kyle Whittingham (Utah), and Houston Nutt/Dan Hawkins/Chris Petersen (Boise State).
Note: Coaches that have restored dynasties, such as Pete Carroll, Mack Brown, and Bob Stoops, were not considered. It’s not to demean their accomplishments, but rather because these are traditionally strong programs.
Comments, oversights, and feedback are always welcome.
10. Greg Schiano, Rutgers
Rutgers won a national title—in 1869. Then there was a five-year period in the 1970s when the Knights played good football (going 52-15 from 1975-1980). In between these times, there has been nothing.
Schiano arrived for the 2001 season and struggled in his first two years while trying to recruit and build both depth and talent. His past four years at Rutgers have produced 34 wins and four consecutive bowl berths.
From 1981-2001, the Scarlet Knights had no bowl bids, and they managed winning seasons just four times. Schiano’s 2006 teams was only the program’s second 10-plus-win season in its 139 years of football.
9. Jeff Tedford, California
Prior to Tedford, Cal had two periods of major success in its history. The teams of the 1920s actually went 46-0-4 during one span.
In the late 1940s, Pappy Waldorf led the team to three consecutive Rose Bowls.
The modern era had been less kind for the Golden Bears prior to Tedford. From 1958-2001, Cal participated in six bowl games. Tedford currently has a streak of six consecutive bowl games.
He has never posted a losing season with the Bears, but prior to his arrival Cal had eight straight teams finish .500 or less.
Tedford has also won a share of the Pac-10 title. It is Cal's first conference championship since 1975.
8. Gary Barnett/Randy Walker/Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern
Okay, so technically it is not one coach, but the Northwestern program under these three has become respectable. Northwestern has played in just seven bowl games in its history. Six of the seven have come under the guidance of Barnett, Walker, and Fitzgerald.
Prior to the Rose Bowl berth for the 1995 season under Barnett, the Wildcats had not been bowling since 1949. Northwestern has three conference titles (two are shared) during this period. The team is tied with Penn State for third most titles in the Big Ten since 1995.
Northwestern had just two winning seasons from 1963-1994. Since 1995, the Wildcats have posted three seasons with nine or more victories, as well as a total of six winning seasons.
7. Steve Spurrier, Florida
Okay, so the Gators are not as historically bad as some of the teams on this list, but consider that prior to 1990, Florida had the same number of SEC championships as Vanderbilt—zero. Bear Bryant once said about Florida, “There’s a sleeping giant down there.”
Spurrier’s first offensive series at Florida: five plays, 70 yards, 1:50, and a touchdown.
It was the start of something big. Twelve years later, as Spurrier said goodbye, the Gators had six SEC titles, one National Championship, and were a perennial Top 10 program.
It took a brash young Spurrier and his newfangled offense to poke that giant and make it a real beast.
6. Paul Johnson, Navy
Of course, there is history with Navy. Roger Staubach led very successful teams in the 1960s, and George Welsh, prior to departing for Virginia, was successful in the late 1970s.
Still, Navy had appeared in just three bowls from 1980-2001. In addition, the team had just two winning seasons (1996, 1997) from 1983-2001. They were 87-155-2 during that span.
In his final five seasons with the Middies, Johnson guided the team to a 43-19 record, complete with five straight bowl berths. In addition, his 2007 squad was the first Navy team to beat Notre Dame since 1963.
5. Jim Grobe, Wake Forest
As leader of the Demon Deacons since 2001, Grobe has the highest winning percentage of any Wake coach since D.C. Walker (1937-1950). His conference championship in 2006 was only the second in school history.
From 1960-2000, Wake Forest had nine winning seasons. With Grobe at the helm, the Deacons have posted five winning seasons in this decade. He is also responsible for four of the nine bowl bids ever received by the program.
4. Gary Patterson, TCU
TCU football in the early part of the 20th century was excellent. In the 1930s Sammy Baugh and Davey O’Brien dominated, and from 1925-1938, the Frogs were 115-24-14.
From that time forward, football became a struggle for TCU. From 1970-1999, TCU managed five winning seasons.
Enter Gary Patterson. In just eight seasons, he is third all-time in coaching victories at the school. Patterson has seven winning seasons in eight years. His Frogs have finished in the Top 25 in six of his eight years.
Five times his teams have finished with at least 10 victories. In the history of the program, there were only two 10-win seasons before Patterson.
3. Bobby Bowden, Florida State
Part of me did not want to include this because of the extended period of success of Bowden. Part of me did not want to include this because I am a Gator fan, but in the end, the fact is that prior to Bowden, FSU was irrelevant.
The Noles had played football for only 29 seasons before Bowden took over in 1976. Until that point there had been seven bowl berths in school history. Bowden’s team has participated in 27 consecutive bowls.
The numbers are staggering: the unprecedented 14 straight top four finishes, two National Championships, two Heisman winners, 13 consecutive ACC titles, and a conference record of 113-23 since joining the ACC.
2. Dennis Erickson/Mike Riley, Oregon State
Again, this was about more than one coach (and Riley is on his second stint). Nonetheless, the turnaround of the Beavers has been jaw-dropping.
Despite some success in the 1960s, the Oregon State team was one of the worst in football from 1970-1998, going 73-242-6 during that time. Included was a stretch in which the team managed just one win per season in four out of six years (1990-1995).
Since beginning football in 1893, the Beavers participated in just eight bowl games. From 1999-2008, Erickson and Riley have led the Beavers to eight more appearances.
Being ranked in the final polls of the past three seasons is also a first in school history. The 2000 squad’s Pac-10 title was just the second in school history.
1. Bill Snyder, Kansas State
When asked about Snyder’s work at Kansas State, former Sooner coach Barry Switzer stated, “He should be named coach of the century.” The facts support this.
Bill Snyder (1989-2005) Career Wins: 136
Kansas State 1938-1988 Total Wins: 127
Bill Snyder Bowl Games: 11 (consecutive)
Kansas State 1938-1988 Bowls: 1
There are a ton of other statistics that could be offered, but those two clearly demonstrate the change that Snyder made during the Manhattan Miracle years. Clearly, it is the greatest turnaround in college football history.