Ranking the Top 25 College Football Coaches Heading into 2014

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistMarch 20, 2014

Ranking the Top 25 College Football Coaches Heading into 2014

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    Where do Clemson's Dabo Swinney (left) and Urban Meyer of Ohio State fall on our list of the 25 best coaches in college football?
    Where do Clemson's Dabo Swinney (left) and Urban Meyer of Ohio State fall on our list of the 25 best coaches in college football?Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    College football coaches are some of the most well-paid individuals in this country, earning millions of dollars to pace a sideline and wear a headset.

    If only it were that easy.

    The job of a college coach involves so many different factors, both publicly and privately, and is a year-round gig that requires hundreds of hours on the road recruiting for future teams while still making numerous appearances in the local community to keep the fans satiated.

    In order words, those six- and seven-figure salaries are usually well-earned.

    Most college coaches do a great job, but some do it better than others. Here's our ranking of the 25-best college football coaches in the game today.


    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

25. Craig Bohl, Wyoming

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    BRUCE CRUMMY/Associated Press

    Career record: 104-32

    One of the most successful coaches at the FCS level in recent memory, Bohl made the jump to big-boy football this offseason when he accepted the job at Wyoming after 11 years at North Dakota State.

    Though the difference in levels is significant, what Bohl did at North Dakota State is hard to discount. He's coming off three consecutive FCS national titles, each of which came with teams that began the year with a momentum-building road win against an FBS opponent.

    Bohl, 55, was a defensive assistant at various FBS schools before going to NDSU, where, along with a solid defense, he put together a dominant, pro-style offensive scheme that he hopes to install at Wyoming.

24. Mark Hudspeth, Louisiana-Lafayette

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Career record: 93-33

    Hudspeth has had his name mentioned for numerous head-coaching opportunities over the past three years, but he has instead stuck with his current gig of turning Louisiana-Lafayette into a mid-major power.

    In three seasons at the helm of the Ragin' Cajuns, the 45-year-old Hudspeth has logged a 9-4 mark each year, with every season ending in the same way: with a victory in the New Orleans Bowl.

    A former Division II head coach who also spent time as an assistant at Navy and Mississippi State, Hudspeth is likely to be on the short list again this fall for any vacancies that open up, especially considering that ULL is loaded and considered to be the runaway favorite to win the Sun Belt Conference.

23. James Frankin, Penn State

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    John Beale/Associated Press

    Career record: 24-15

    Franklin is putting the pieces in place for his first season at Penn State after three wildly successful years at Vanderbilt, a school not known for sustained football prosperity.

    One of the fast risers in the coaching game, the 42-year-old Franklin was at one time in line to succeed Ralph Friedgen as Maryland's head-coach-in-waiting, but he opted to go out on his own to take the Vandy job in 2011. He then led the Commodores to three straight bowl games, a first in school history.

    Franklin takes over a Penn State team that is halfway through a four-year postseason ban and scholarship reduction period as penalty for the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

22. Charlie Strong, Texas

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Career record: 37-16

    Strong helped move Louisville back onto the national landscape in his four seasons there, but now he's moved on to an even bigger challenge: returning the Texas program to the level of greatness expected by its devoted fan base.

    Though he had Teddy Bridgewater as his quarterback at Louisville, Strong is more known as a defensive coach. In fact, the Cardinals ranked second in the nation in scoring defense (12.2 points per game) in 2013, per NCAA.com.

    As good as he was in four years at Louisville, though, Strong's legacy will likely be tied to what he does during his new gig with the Longhorns.

21. Gary Patterson, TCU

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    David Purdy/Getty Images

    Career record: 120-44

    The last few years have put a small blemish on Patterson's solid career, which has seen him elevate TCU from a hopeful mid-major into a nationally recognized program.

    Since taking over the Horned Frogs for their 2000 bowl game (after Dennis Franchione's departure to Alabama), Patterson has overseen the program's move from the Western Athletic Conference to Conference USA to the Mountain West and now to the Big 12.

    And while the team's tenure in the Big 12 hasn't fared as well as the others—TCU is 6-12 in conference play and bottomed out at 4-8 this past season—it's still easy to see how much impact he's had on the program.

    Patterson is a defense-minded coach that, regardless of the team's overall struggles of late, still manages to put forth some of the best defensive teams in the nation. It was defense that got the Frogs into the Fiesta Bowl and Rose Bowl in back-to-back years, and it will be defense which will eventually help them move up the Big 12 ladder.

20. Bronco Mendenhall, BYU

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    Jim Urquhart-USA TODAY Sports

    Career record: 82-34

    Mendenhall is more than just BYU's head coach; he's the face of the program.

    The son of a former Cougar, Mendenhall is a member of the Mormon Church that operates the school, and he fosters the church's values in the way he coaches the team.

    He's also been wildly successful in his tenure, leading the Cougars to a bowl game in each of his nine seasons at the helm. BYU has been independent for the past three seasons, but he's still managed to win at least eight games every year against schedules that have featured numerous big-conference opponents.


19. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Career record: 55-23

    At Houston and now Texas A&M, Sumlin has been known for three things above all else: offense, winning and prolific passers.

    Sumlin's tenure at Houston included two 10-win seasons in four years, with record-setting quarterback Case Keenum leading the charge. And both of his years at Texas A&M have featured explosive offensive numbers, with the mercurial Johnny Manziel at the helm.

    Now in the process of finding his replacement for Manziel, Sumlin faces the biggest challenge of his head-coaching career, according to B/R SEC Lead Writer Barrett Sallee. Both Keenum and Manziel were recruited by coaches prior to him, so if the Aggies' next quarterback fares just as well as those two, it will add credence to Sumlin's reputation.

18. George O'Leary, Central Florida

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Career record: 124-89

    Aside some unfortunate resume enhancement, O'Leary's career has been among the most solid in the country.

    His last five teams at Georgia Tech all went to bowl games. Then, after a short hiatus to the NFL—after accepting, but then losing, the Notre Dame job for falsifying his credentials—he's turned Central Florida into a power. UCF went 0-11 during his first season in 2004, but since then the Knights have six years of eight or more wins, capped by last year's 12-1 mark and victory over Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl.

    O'Leary's teams have risen and fallen at times at UCF, but he's never had a prolonged stretch of rough seas. The Knights might not be as good this fall without quarterback Blake Bortles on the field, but it's a good bet that they won't stay down for long.

17. Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State

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    Career record: 77-38

    While Gundy has internet fame for one of the best press conference rants in sports history, that is not the reason why he's managed to hang onto a job at a major college program for nine seasons. He bleeds Cowboy orange, dating back to his time as Oklahoma State's quarterback in the late 1980s.

    Gundy has transformed OK State into a national power, one that contends annually for the Big 12 title and is involved in national title conversations on a regular basis. Despite having to compete with in-state rival Oklahoma for recruits and attention, Gundy has won at least nine games in five of the last six seasons.

    He's also helped launch the careers of many FBS head coaches, including Tim Beckman (Illinois), Larry Fedora (North Carolina) and Dana Holgorsen (West Virginia)

16. Art Briles, Baylor

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Career record: 78-60

    While his overall winning percentage (.565) isn't as lofty as others on this list, how he's gone about winning ranks up there with the best.

    Briles took over a Houston program in 2003 that had fallen on hard times, but he proceeded to lead the Cougars to bowl games in four of the five seasons that he was there. That earned him a promotion to yet another reconstruction project, but this one with a far longer dormancy period than that of Houston.

    Before Briles arrived, the Bears hadn't been to a bowl game since 1994, but after a pair of 4-8 campaigns, Briles got the turnaround in motion and has since piloted the team to four consecutive bowl appearances, which includes last year's Big 12-winning team that played in the Fiesta Bowl.

    Baylor is now considered one of the nation's top programs.

15. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona

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    Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    Career record: 136-94-2

    Given another chance after his failed Michigan experiment, Rodriguez is proving his mettle by steering a mediocre Arizona program in the right direction.

    Rodriguez first gained fame at West Virginia, where in a seven-year span he went from coaching a 3-8 team to running a squad that earned two BCS bowl bids in three seasons with some of the most innovative offensive schemes around.

    His style and approach didn't work at Michigan, where, despite improving each year, he was let go after three seasons.

    However, he's been a perfect fit so far in the desert. The Wildcats have gone 8-5 with bowl wins in each of his two years there, as Rodriguez is the first coach to pilot Arizona to bowl games in his first two seasons. He's also shown a willingness to speak his mind (and flex his acting chops) in support of playing an up-tempo style.

14. Gus Malzahn, Aubun

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Career record: 21-5

    Malzahn has been a head coach at the college level for just two years, which is probably the only reason he's not ranked higher on this list. Give him another year or two, though, and he'll challenge for the top spot.

    After a quick trip to cut his teeth for a season at Arkansas State (where he breezed to a 9-3 record), Malzahn came back to the school where he previously served as the offensive coordinator for the 2010 national championship team, and he almost immediately returned Auburn to the top of the college ranks once again last season. The amazing turnaround caught nearly everyone outside of the program by surprise.

    An offensive mastermind who less than a decade ago was holding court on high school sidelines, Malzahn is among the fastest risers in the college game. The Tigers might actually be better this upcoming season than when they reached the BCS title game in January, accelerating Malzahn's meteoric rise up the coaching ranks.

13. Gary Pinkel, Missouri

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    Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

    Career record: 175-100-3

    It took him a little to gain traction, but once Pinkel started winning at Missouri, he hasn't stopped.

    Save for a sub-.500 transition season as the Tigers made the move from the Big 12 to the SEC, Pinkel's teams in Columbia have managed to get better each year. The 2013 version was one of the biggest surprises in the country, winning the SEC East Division and then taking the Cotton Bowl over former rival Oklahoma State.

    Pinkel had put together a very successful mid-major run at Toledo, winning four Mid-American conference or division titles, but it's what he's managed to do at Mizzou that's put him high on this list.

12. David Shaw, Stanford

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    Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

    Career record: 34-7

    Shaw is one of the least experienced coaches on this list, having been in charge of Stanford for just three seasons. But what a heck of a trio of years it's been.

    Since succeeding Jim Harbaugh after the 2010 season, Shaw has continued Stanford's ascension into college football's elite. The Cardinal have won or shared the Pac-12 North division title every season, claiming the last two conference titles while reaching a BCS bowl game in all three years.

    And while Stanford faces a challenging season ahead with a tough schedule as well as the need to replace numerous starters and coaches, B/R's Kyle Kensing notes that Shaw has already shown his ability to handle adversity in the past, when he first took over the program after it had just lost star quarterback Andrew Luck and a host of other "irreplaceable" players.

11. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    Career record: 45-10

    Fisher was brought to Florida State with a clear mission: to eventually replace a legend and somehow keep his legacy intact.

    Mission accomplished.

    While Bobby Bowden's last few Seminoles teams were moving toward mediocrity, the team has been on nothing but an upswing since Fisher took over at the start of the 2010 season. Three of his four teams have played in the ACC title game—and the last two made a BCS bowl, including the 2013 version, which brought the school its first national title since 1999.

    An offensive coach throughout his career, he's made sure to surround himself with great defensive assistants, showing his understanding of the need for a balanced approach that has the program set up for long-term success, even as coordinators like Mark Stoops and Jeremy Pruitt have left for more lucrative deals elsewhere.

10. Jim Mora, UCLA

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Career record: 50-41 (19-8 in college)

    Mora only has two years under his belt at the college level, but so far that small sample size has shown the promise that made UCLA go after him in the first place.

    The son of former NFL coach Jim E. Mora, the younger Mora has shown the same kind of intensity that his father was known for with the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts. His passion to heat up the longstanding rivalry with USC has reinvigorated both fan bases, and he has helped to turn Los Angeles back into a college football town.

    Mora has also challenged for the Pac-12 South title in both of his years at the helm, reaching the conference title game in his first season, and he appears to be moving the Bruins' program back toward the level it was at during the 1980s.

9. Dabo Swinney, Clemson

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    Career record: 51-23

    Swinney has been at Clemson long enough that he's become as synonymous with the football program as Howard's Rock at the top of the hill inside Memorial Stadium.

    After five-plus seasons as an assistant, Swinney took over the Tigers midway through 2008, after Tommy Bowden quit. Since then, he's swiftly moved Clemson toward national prominence, including leading the team to three straight 10-win seasons and a pair of BCS invitations.

    This past January saw Clemson add the latest tombstone to its Graveyard of Honor after it beat Ohio State in the Orange Bowl, helping to cement Swinney's place in Tigers history.

8. Mark Richt, Georgia

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    Career record: 126-45

    Richt has been at Georgia since 2001, and during that time the Bulldogs have consistently managed to remain near the top of the college football mountain.

    Save for a 6-7 record in 2010, the Bulldogs have managed at least eight victories in every other season under Richt, who has made his mark by developing some of the best quarterbacks (both at Georgia and as an assistant at Florida State) of the past 20 years.

    The Bulldogs have actually been below averageby Bulldogs standards, at leastover the last few seasons. They didn't make a BCS bowl in an of the last six seasons, but unlike other traditional programs, Richt has managed to keep Georgia relevant on an annual basis.


7. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame

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    JOE RAYMOND/Associated Press

    Career record: 208-72-2

    Kelly has won everywhere he's been, and he's been a lot of places.

    Starting with a lengthy stint at Division II Grand Valley State, followed by stepping-stone tenures at Central Michigan and Cincinnati before his current gig at Notre Dame, the 52-year-old has just one losing season on his resume—and that was back in 2004, his first year at the FBS level.

    Kelly continued Notre Dame's trend of having its new coach start off strong, but unlike Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis, he's (so far) managed to sustain it. The Fighting Irish reached the national title game in his third season, and this past year he still put together a 9-4 mark despite injuries and a suspended quarterback.

6. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State

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    Career record: 82-46

    Dantonio isn't just the best thing to happen to Michigan State's football program since the 1950s; he's a big part of what's keeping the Big Ten nationally relevant.

    The Spartans' Big Ten title last season might have knocked Ohio State (and the league) out of a shot at a national title, but it did help establish MSU as another big-time program to go with Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin. What makes the SEC and Big 12 so highly regarded is an abundance of top teams, and Dantonio has put MSU in that category.

    The team's Rose Bowl victory over Stanford was a throwback to old-school football, and while it was not sexy, it did earn Dantonio high praiseas well he and his assistants some sizable raises.

5. Steve Spurrier, South Carolina

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    Career record: 266-118-2 (219-79-2 in college)

    The elder statesman on this list, Spurrier's age (68) is about the only thing of his that can be considered old.

    Spurrier continues to operate with the same level of dedication and intensity as he did during his days at Duke or in the early part of his long Florida tenure. With the Gamecocks, he first established consistency, but over the past three seasons (all resulting in 11-2 campaigns), he's had South Carolina vying for both SEC and national titles.

    The Head Ball Coach is among the most colorful in the game, and it seems that no matter how old he is, he won't stop fighting...or trolling other schools and coaches.

4. Urban Meyer, Ohio State

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    Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    Career record: 128-25

    Like Notre Dame's Brian Kelly, Meyer has won every place he's beenthough on a much grander scale.

    Two very good years at Bowling Green led to him landing the job at Utah, where in his second year he helped coin the "BCS Buster" phrase by getting the outsider Utes into the Fiesta Bowl.

    That led to a major leap in prestige and responsibility at Florida, where he won two national titles and also unleashed Tebowmania onto the world.

    Now, following a brief hiatus, he's quickly returned Ohio State back to its old level of prominence, starting with 24 straight wins before a rare (for Meyer) two-game losing streak to end last season. Assuming he stays in Columbus for a while, it's almost a given he'll get the Buckeyes back into the national title game and probably win the school a championship.

3. Les Miles, LSU

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Career record: 123-45

    Miles was doing a solid, if not spectacular job coaching Oklahoma State when he was tabbed to replace Nick Saban at LSU.

    The coach known as the "Mad Hatter" took the challenge in stride, winning 11 or more games in three straight seasons and bringing the Tigers another national title after the 2007 campaign. LSU was back in the title game four years later, though it lost to Alabama and Saban.

    Miles hasn't been afraid to take chances while at the helm of one of the most high-profile programs in the nation, and while the moves haven't always paid off, that hasn't slowed him down. More than 50 of his players have been drafted into the NFL, including 13 in the first round, yet instead of rebuilding, Miles just keeps reloading.

2. Bob Stoops, Oklahoma

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    Career record: 160-39

    Stoops has been at his one and only head-coaching gig longer than anyone else on this list, and that first season in 1999 ended up being the worst of the lot.

    It's a pretty good career when going 7-5 is considered "bad," but Stoops is well aware of the expectations that hang over him and the Sooners, year in and year out. He won a national title in his second year on the job, but he has come up short in three tries since.

    Stoops has managed to win eight Big 12 titles, including an unprecedented three straight from 2006 to 2008. And though the "Big Game Bob" nickname stems from earlier in his career, his penchant for coming out on top in high-profile matchups (such as the Sugar Bowl against Alabama back in January) still surfaces. 

1. Nick Saban, Alabama

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    Career record: 180-74-1 (165-57-1 in college)

    Saban's coaching career would be blemish-free if not for his short stint in the NFL. But in a way, that time away from the college game made him that much better.

    He has four national titles under his belt, one at LSU and three at Alabama, including back-to-back championships following the 2011 and 2012 season. His 74-15 mark with the Crimson Tide is, in terms of winning percentage (.831) the best in school history, edging out Paul "Bear" Bryant's .824 win rate.

    Saban's greatness can be measured in many ways, including having the kind of pull that grants him the ability to suggest new rules without actually being on the rules committee.