Ranking Every College Football Conference by Their Head Coaches
As we close in on two weeks until college football’s national signing day, the game’s coaching carousel seems to have ground to a stop, at least at its highest levels.
This winter, 14 college programs changed head coaches, down from 21 a year ago. For the second consecutive offseason, no college coaches jumped to the NFL, and the college game made a huge gain with Michigan’s hire of former San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh. Yahoo! Sports' Pat Forde says there were winners and losers from this round of change.
Now that the dust has settled, it’s an excellent time to examine which FBS league has the best collective group of coaches. Leagues were ranked by the success their coaches have experienced on a national level, as well as the top-to-bottom talent and potential they possess.
10. Sun Belt Conference
The Sun Belt is a hard league to pin down. It’s a mix of up-and-coming young coaches and coaches getting their second (and maybe last) chance to be a head coach. Louisiana-Lafayette’s Mark Hudspeth has led the Ragin’ Cajuns to four consecutive nine-win seasons and four New Orleans Bowl wins.
At Arkansas State, Blake Anderson is in a spot that traditionally launches coaches forward: This season, he was the first ASU coach in five years to return for a second season. Willie Fritz is 54 but had a very impressive debut at Georgia Southern, going 9-3 in the Eagles’ first FBS season.
South Alabama’s Joey Jones led the Jaguars to their first bowl bid. But you also have well-traveled coaches like Louisiana-Monroe’s Todd Berry and Texas State’s Dennis Franchione and untested coaches like Scott Satterfield at Appalachian State and Troy’s Neal Brown. All in all, it’s an uneven group, as one might expect from the Sun Belt.
9. Conference USA
Conference USA is a strange amalgam of former Sun Belt teams, new FBS members and refugees from other leagues like the former WAC and the MAC.
C-USA’s coaches reflect its membership. The league does have a former national champion in Larry Coker, who won a title with Miami before being fired and resurfacing at Texas-San Antonio. Former Iowa State coach Dan McCarney also landed in Texas, at North Texas, to be precise.
At Marshall, Doc Holliday looks like an up-and-coming leader after guiding Marshall to a 13-1 record and a C-USA title this season. Sean Kugler has also done a nice job of rebuilding UTEP, taking the Miners to a bowl this season.
And at Rice, David Bailiff has done a capable job with a C-USA title in 2013. Skip Holtz led Louisiana Tech to a solid season and a bowl win over Illinois this season. But for every Holtz, the likes of Ron Turner at Florida International drag the league down.
8. Mid-American Conference
The Mid-American Conference is a mid-major conference, but that doesn’t mean it can’t have fun with the big boys every once in a while. The MAC features a strong collection of coaches and has proven itself as an excellent jumping-off point for bigger jobs.
Rod Carey has picked up right where Dave Doeren left off at Northern Illinois, keeping the Huskies among the nation’s top mid-major programs. Ball State’s Pete Lembo has become a perennial candidate for bigger jobs and figures to make the leap to a Power Five program sooner rather than later.
Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck is a rising young star as well. But the league also has coaches on the back end of their careers, like Akron’s Terry Bowden and Ohio’s Frank Solich. Overall, it’s an interesting league.
7. Mountain West Conference
Nationally, the Mountain West can’t stand up top-to-bottom with the Power Five leagues, but the MWC gained serious respect in the Fiesta Bowl with Boise State’s win over Arizona. There were concerns following Chris Petersen’s departure for Washington, but Bryan Harsin showed that Boise won’t miss a beat.
Utah State’s Matt Wells is also an underrated coach, leading the Aggies to 19 wins in his first two seasons. Wyoming’s Craig Bohl had his struggles in his first year in Laramie, but three consecutive FCS titles at North Dakota State speak highly for his coaching acumen.
At Air Force, Troy Calhoun has shown that he has the ability to run the option offense well, bouncing back with a 10-win campaign in 2014. UNLV made an interesting gambit to turn around its struggling program by hiring successful local high school coach Tony Sanchez, and Colorado State made a solid hire in Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo when Jim McElwain was plucked by Florida. However, the Mountain West’s coaches don’t match up, as a whole, with elite leagues.
6. American Athletic Conference
While the American Athletic Conference was a clear loser in the realignment shuffle that robbed the former Big East of its best teams, forcing it to backfill with former Conference USA programs, it has a very solid roster of coaches and had an excellent coaching carousel with young, up-and-coming assistants tabbed to run AAC programs.
The west end of the league will be a lot of fun with offensive-minded coaches like Chad Morris at SMU, Phillip Montgomery at Tulsa and Tom Herman at Houston. They join talented coaches like Justin Fuente, who led Memphis to a 10-win season and bowl win over BYU.
At Cincinnati, Tommy Tuberville is a veteran coach who has experienced success at every stop. In Orlando, Central Florida’s George O’Leary is a cagey veteran who led the Knights to a BCS bowl win in 2013. Ruffin McNeill always has exciting, fun-to-watch teams at East Carolina, and 2014 was no exception.
Bob Diaco struggled through his first season at UConn, while Curtis Johnson took a step back at Tulane following a 2013 bowl trip. Matt Rhule showed big improvement in his second season at Temple, going from 2-10 to 6-6. The same couldn’t be said for Willie Taggart, who might be over his head at South Florida with just six wins in two seasons.
5. Big 12 Conference
With 10 members, the Big 12 has fewer members than any other Power Five league, but it still has depth in its coaching ranks.
While Bob Stoops gave his Oklahoma staff a makeover following a disappointing 8-5 season, he is now the nation’s second-longest-tenured coach and is 168-44 at OU with a national title in 2000, eight Big 12 titles and 12 10-win seasons. In 23 seasons spanning separate tenures at Kansas State, Bill Snyder has 187 wins and two league titles.
Art Briles’ Baylor team fell just short of the College Football Playoff this season, but he has built a strong program with back-to-back league championships. Former Southwest Conference rival TCU has also been an excellent addition to the Big 12, as this season’s 12-1 record under Gary Patterson showed.
At Oklahoma State, Mike Gundy is 84-44 with a Big 12 title under his belt, and at West Virginia, Dana Holgorsen enjoyed a bounce-back season this fall. Charlie Strong had his struggles in his first season at Texas, but as his Louisville tenure showed, the man can coach. Kliff Kingsbury’s honeymoon at Texas Tech is over following a 4-8 season, and at Iowa State, Paul Rhoads is on the hot seat after going 5-19 in the last two years.
4. Atlantic Coast Conference
In recent years, few leagues have taken more heat nationally than the ACC, but the league is trending upward. Florida State garnered national respect with its BCS National Championship and eventually stretched its win streak to 29 games before suffering a Rose Bowl rout at the hands of Oregon.
And while he has gained attention for his colorful interviews, Dabo Swinney can coach, leading Clemson to four consecutive 10-win seasons with an ACC title. While Frank Beamer and Virginia Tech have slipped following eight consecutive 10-win seasons, Beamer is the nation’s longest-tenured coach with 231 victories and seven league titles.
In his second stint at Louisville, Bobby Petrino showed he’s still one of the nation’s top coaches, guiding the Cardinals to nine wins. Duke’s David Cutcliffe is among the nation’s most underrated coaches after guiding the Blue Devils to back-to-back bowls and nine-win seasons, an impressive feat in Durham. Following several down years, Paul Johnson showed he and Georgia Tech are still a force to be reckoned with after an 11-win season capped by an Orange Bowl win over Mississippi State.
Al Golden needs a big year in 2015 following a 6-7 season, and the same goes for Larry Fedora at North Carolina. Following Paul Chryst’s departure, Pitt made one of the best hires of the coaching carousel in luring Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi to lead the program.
Boston College isn’t an easy job, but Steve Addazio has shown his chops in leading back-to-back bowl trips. At Syracuse, the jury is out on Scott Shafer. Dave Doeren showed significant improvement at NC State, and across the state at Wake Forest, Dave Clawson faces a difficult rebuild after riding a MAC title with Bowling Green into the job last year.
3. Pac-12 Conference
The Pac-12 doesn’t have any current national championship coaches on its roster, but it’s hard to argue with the talent that the league has amassed, from the top of the standings to the bottom.
At Oregon, Mark Helfrich hasn’t missed a beat in taking over for Chip Kelly, going 24-4 in two seasons and taking the Ducks to the inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship Game. Stanford took a step backward this season at 8-5, but David Shaw is one of the nation’s most respected head men with a pair of Pac-12 titles in his back pocket.
At Arizona State, well-traveled Todd Graham has back-to-back 10-win seasons, and in Tucson, Rich Rodriguez had a breakout third season, guiding Arizona to 10 wins and a Fiesta Bowl. At UCLA, Jim Mora Jr. looks on the verge of a national breakthrough following 29 wins over the last three seasons. And look out for Steve Sarkisian as he guides Southern California back from probation.
Chris Petersen went just 8-6 in his first season at Washington, but it’s hard to argue with a 92-12 record and a pair of BCS bowl wins at Boise State. Across the state, Washington State’s Mike Leach has struggled at times, but his teams are always competitive offensively. Gary Andersen could be an upgrade over Mike Riley at Oregon State, and Kyle Whittingham enjoyed a bounce-back season at Utah.
Sonny Dykes led Cal to a four-game improvement this fall, but the jury remains out on Mike MacIntyre, 6-18 in two seasons at Colorado.
2. Big Ten Conference
This fall, the Big Ten went from national whipping boy to one of the nation’s best leagues, with a big boost from Ohio State.
In his third season in Columbus, Urban Meyer returned the Buckeyes to national prominence, going 14-1 and bolting through the College Football Playoff for a national championship. It was the third of his career, joining his 2006 and 2008 Florida titles, and Meyer is 38-3 at OSU. He is one of the nation’s best coaches and clearly the Big Ten’s best coach, but he isn’t alone.
He isn't resting on his laurels, either, as he told Bill Rabinowitz of The Columbus Dispatch following the title-game win over Oregon.
“Well, I think we’ll be very good,” Meyer said. “I think we have to watch for complacency in the program, and we’re going to watch that very closely.”
Michigan secured a huge upgrade from Brady Hoke when it landed alum Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh rebuilt Stanford to prominence and then made a Super Bowl and a trio of NFC Championship Games in four years with the San Francisco 49ers.
Harbaugh's relentless style should produce quick results in Ann Arbor. But first he’ll have to catch up with cross-state rival Mark Dantonio, who has built Michigan State into a national power with a 24-3 record, a league title and a pair of New Year’s Day bowl wins in the last two seasons.
Kirk Ferentz has drawn heat for Iowa’s recent slide, but he does own a pair of Big Ten championships and is college football’s third-longest-tenured head coach at his current position. Penn State’s James Franklin struggled at times in his first season at the Nittany Lions’ helm, but winning 27 games in three seasons with a trio of bowl wins at Vanderbilt can’t be understated, and as the Nittany Lions recover from NCAA sanctions, he’s perfectly positioned to improve his stock.
At Minnesota, Jerry Kill is one of the more underrated coaches in college football, with a career 152-99 record. He’s done impressive work with a Gophers program that was in the dumps upon his arrival four years ago.
Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald is coming off a pair of 5-7 seasons but is highly regarded. Paul Chryst is an excellent fit at Wisconsin, and while Mike Riley is something of an unknown away from Oregon State, he had an excellent run in Corvallis (with 93 wins) and should take advantage of Nebraska’s expanded resources.
Rutgers’ Kyle Flood took the Scarlet Knights to eight wins and a bowl win this season, and Randy Edsall has back-to-back bowl seasons at Maryland. Indiana’s Kevin Wilson and Purdue’s Darrell Hazell, as well as Illinois’ Tim Beckman, are on the clock.
1. Southeastern Conference
The Southeastern Conference will carry a two-year national-title drought into the 2015 season, but there’s a reason the league is the richest, most successful conference in America. Just look at its collective coaching talent. Among current head coaches, it has twice as many national championships (six) as any other single league.
Alabama coach Nick Saban has four to his name alone (one at LSU and three with the Crimson Tide), which is one more than the second-place conference combined (Ohio State’s Urban Meyer paces the Big Ten with three). Saban is a relentless coach and recruiter, but he’s far from alone.
Saban’s successor at LSU, Les Miles, has a national title and has kept the Tigers among the national elite. And don’t forget about Steve Spurrier, who won a national title at Florida and has done impressive work at South Carolina. While the Gamecocks were 7-6 this season, they were coming off a three-year run of 33-6 with three New Year’s Day bowl wins, a near-miraculous feat for what had been a coaching graveyard.
And that doesn’t even take into account the likes of Mark Richt, who is 136-48 at Georgia with a pair of SEC titles, or Gus Malzahn, who won a national title as an Auburn assistant and took the Tigers to the BCS title game in 2013. Dan Mullen and Hugh Freeze did yeoman’s work this season in the state of Mississippi, and Kevin Sumlin has Texas A&M positioned as one of the nation’s most exciting programs. Tennessee's Butch Jones also took a roster with 23 freshmen to a bowl this season, blowing out Iowa in the Taxslayer Bowl.
Bret Bielema is only 10-15 in two seasons at Arkansas, but he won a trio of Big Ten titles at Wisconsin. And Gary Pinkel has shown he can hang in the SEC East with a pair of division titles. Kentucky’s Mark Stoops is improving the Wildcats, and while Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason is the weak link, he’s one of the only ones in a league full of talented coaches.