Ranking the Best College Football Coaches Since 2000
It's not easy being a major college football coach. The pressure to win—fueled by huge television contracts and overbearing fans and boosters—can shorten the tenures of even the most talented coach and give them serious stress on the side.
The best coaches are paid exceedingly well, but they earn it. Those who succeed at the highest level deserve their spots at the top of the game's hierarchy.
Who are the best of the best, though? Based on national championships and games won, number of 10-win seasons and league championships, the following 10 are the top college football coaches since 2000.
10. Gary Patterson
When Dennis Franchione left for Alabama following the 2000 season, TCU officials quickly elevated Gary Patterson to the head coach role. Smart move.
Patterson has lifted the Horned Frogs from the former WAC into the Power Five, with stops in Conference USA and the Mountain West along the way.
Following a 6-6 debut season, TCU went 10-2 and earned a C-USA title in 2002. It then followed that up 11-2 mark in 2003. The Frogs also went 11-1 and won a league title in their inaugural Mountain West campaign in 2005, and they added 11-win seasons in 2006 and 2008.
The 2008 campaign started a run of four consecutive seasons with at least 11 wins. The pinnacle was 2010, during which the Horned Frogs went 13-0 and finished the season with a Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin. TCU also went 12-1 in 2014, just missing the first College Football Playoff and winning a share of the Big 12 title, and 11-2 in 2015.
During his 16-plus-year tenure at TCU, Patterson is 149-54 and has won six league titles across three different conferences. That's elite by any means.
The Rose Bowl typically pairs Big 10 and Pac-12 teams, but TCU's appearance in 2011 was a rarity in a good way. The Horned Frogs entered the game against Wisconsin out of the national-title picture but seeking respect with a 12-0 record and Mountain West championship in their back pocket.
They earned it against the 11-1 Badgers. TCU led 14-13 at the half and had the upper hand in a defensive struggle. With two minutes remaining, Wisconsin scored to cut the lead to 21-19, but the Horned Frogs stopped the two-point conversion and claimed the victory, sealing Patterson's first unbeaten season at TCU.
Why he's here
Without Patterson, TCU might be stuck in the Group of Five.
The Horned Frogs were good under Franchione, but Patterson made them nationally relevant with eight seasons of at least 10 wins. That success attracted the attention of the Big 12, which took in TCU and gave it a spot in the Power Five. The Frogs proved their worth with a share of the 2014 league title.
Patterson is one of the nation's best coaches, without question.
9. Steve Spurrier
Over the last 17 years, Steve Spurrier made multiple moves within the SEC and the NFL. While the way his college coaching career ended left something to be desired, it's easy to see why the Head Ball Coach should be considered one of the top coaches of the recent era.
In 2000, he was entering his final two seasons at Florida. The 2000 Gators won the SEC and finished 10-3, and 2001's group followed with a 10-2 record. Spurrier left and spent two ugly seasons in the NFL, going 12-20 with the Washington Redskins. After his ill-fated stint in Washington, Spurrier resurfaced at one of the game's coaching graveyards at South Carolina. What he did there was remarkable.
Spurrier led the Gamecocks to bowls in five of his first six seasons and had no losing records. From 2011-13, he put together the best stretch in program history, with three consecutive 11-2 seasons and postseason top-10 finishes.
South Carolina slipped in his final two seasons, going 7-6 in 2014. With the Gamecocks off to a 2-4 start in 2015, Spurrier stepped away from an eventual 3-9 finish.
Still, his accomplishments at both SEC East programs shouldn't be understated. From 2000-15, Spurrier went 106-54 with five 10-win seasons.
South Carolina's most impressive run in school history hit its pinnacle in the 2014 Capital One Bowl.
The Gamecocks held off Wisconsin for a 34-24 victory, capping an 11-2 season and finishing a program-best No. 4 nationally.
Given the program's history of mediocrity, three consecutive 11-win seasons was a testament to Spurrier's coaching ability.
Why he's here
Spurrier's South Carolina tenure ended in ugly fashion, but he did impressive work there and at Florida in the latter stages of his career.
Spurrier could coach and win anywhere, and doing so with the Gamecocks makes him one of the best coaches in recent college football history.
8. Chris Petersen
Last fall, the nation found out what the Pacific Northwest already knows: Chris Petersen can flat-out coach.
In his third season at Washington, he led the Huskies to a Pac-12 title and a College Football Playoff berth before falling to Alabama in the Peach Bowl. It was confirmation for those who watched Petersen's magic at Boise State.
In eight seasons at Boise, Petersen built a program that was one of the best Group of Five teams and one that could hang with the nation's best. In 2006, his debut season, the Broncos went 13-0, won a WAC title and stunned Oklahoma in a wild 43-42 Fiesta Bowl that was one of college football's all-time great games.
The Broncos put together seven consecutive seasons with at least 10 wins, two undefeated seasons and five campaigns of at least 12 wins. They also took home a pair of Fiesta Bowl trophies and earned significant respect from more powerful programs.
Petersen left Boise State for Washington in 2014 and went 15-12 in his first two seasons. But the Huskies were significantly better last fall, going 12-2 and winning a Pac-12 title. It was a sign even bigger things are ahead for Petersen at Washington.
Boise State found its way into the national spotlight in 2006, and in the Fiesta Bowl, the Broncos made sure they wouldn't be forgotten.
Boise went toe-to-toe with an 11-2 Oklahoma team and didn't back down. Trailing 35-28 with 18 seconds left, the Broncos ran "Circus," a hook-and-lateral play that turned into a game-tying 50-yard touchdown.
In overtime, the Broncos trailed 42-35 and faced 4th-and-2 at the Sooner 5-yard line. Quarterback Jared Zabransky went left while the snap went to receiver Vinny Perretta, who threw to tight end Jared Schouman for a touchdown.
Zabransky then used the "Statue of Liberty" play on the ensuing two-point conversion and handed off to running back Ian Johnson, who ran in untouched for a stunning 43-42 victory.
If Petersen wasn't on college football's radar before, he was now.
Why he's here
Petersen has spent only three seasons as a Power Five head coach, but he has established himself as one of the most consistent and successful coaches in college football.
His success in 2016 shows he has the potential to win a national championship with the Huskies.
7. Les Miles
LSU fired Les Miles four games into the 2016 season, so he's currently looking for the next act of his coaching career. While the Tigers couldn't surpass their former coach, Nick Saban, in the battle for SEC West superiority, Miles did some great things in Baton Rouge.
After putting together a 28-21 record in four seasons at Oklahoma State, Miles moved to LSU in 2005 once Saban left for the NFL's Miami Dolphins.
In his first season, the Tigers went 11-2 and won the SEC West championship. After another 11-2 record in 2006, LSU had a season to remember in 2007. Despite two regular-season defeats, the Tigers won the SEC, made the BCS National Championship Game and thumped Ohio State, 38-24, to win the national title.
In 2011, the Tigers finished the regular season 13-0, including a 9-6 overtime win over then-No. 1 Alabama, won the SEC and made the BCS National Championship Game again. This time, Alabama hammered LSU, 21-0, to win the national title.
Miles' struggles to find a consistent starting quarterback caught up with him in 2016, when the school fired him after four games with a 2-2 record. But his 114-34 record at LSU, national title and seven 10-win seasons are nothing to scoff at.
The 2007 college football season was one of the craziest in recent memory. On the final weekend of the regular season, losses by Missouri and West Virginia caused upheaval in the BCS standings, and Ohio State and LSU wound up as the BCS National Championship finalists despite a combined three losses.
LSU entered the game 11-2 but quickly showed it belonged. The Tigers jumped all over the Buckeyes with a second-quarter blitz, outscoring Ohio State 21-0 and taking a 24-10 halftime lead. LSU never looked back and rolled to a 38-24 win, earning Miles his first (and only) national championship.
Why he's here
Miles is one of college football's great characters, with his folksy interviews, his penchant for eating grass from sidelines and fearless play-calling in difficult situations.
While his tenure with LSU ended poorly, there's no questioning his track record and his 142-55 record in 15-plus seasons as a head coach. It wouldn't be surprising if he landed elsewhere and enjoyed similar success at his next stop.
6. Jimbo Fisher
Florida State was one of the nation's premier programs under Bobby Bowden, but the Seminoles slipped from national power to afterthought during the mid-2000s, with no 10-win campaigns and a trio of 7-6 records in his final six years.
When Bowden stepped aside following the 2009 season, offensive coordinator and head coach-in-waiting Jimbo Fisher stepped into the role. He found immediate success, leading FSU to a 10-4 record and ACC Atlantic Division title in 2010. Two years later, the Seminoles went 12-2, won the ACC championship and beat Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl.
The following year was even better. With redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston at the helm, FSU steamrolled its way to a 14-0 record and national championship, setting an NCAA single-season scoring record.
In 2014, FSU began the season 13-0, won another ACC title and made the College Football Playoff before falling to Oregon in the Rose Bowl. Florida State has won 10 games in each of the last two seasons, extending its streak of 10-win seasons to five years.
While Dabo Swinney and Clemson provide a formidable foe in the ACC Atlantic, Fisher has the Seminoles entrenched as a national power.
No one had pushed Florida State throughout the 2013 regular season, but Auburn came to play in the BCS National Championship Game.
The Tigers built a 21-10 halftime lead, and even after FSU rallied to take the lead in the fourth quarter, the Seminoles found themselves staring at a 31-27 deficit with 1:19 to go.
Jameis Winston wasn't frightened. He put together a seven-play, 80-yard drive and finished it with a two-yard touchdown pass to a leaping Kelvin Benjamin with 13 seconds left, sealing a 34-31 victory that earned Fisher a spot in college football's national champion club.
Why he's here
Fisher has only been a head coach since 2010, but he has quickly established himself as one of the nation's premier sideline leaders.
Florida State has won three ACC titles, a national championship and has six 10-win seasons in the coach's seven years. The Seminoles are 78-17 under Fisher's watch and should remain among the nation's elite while he is in Tallahassee.
5. Dabo Swinney
In 2008, Clemson and athletic director Terry Don Phillips took a major chance.
Following the program's only national championship in 1981, the Tigers had slipped into mediocrity under Tommy Bowden. Clemson was good but not great with Bowden—never able to win the big game or claim an ACC championship.
Midway through the 2008 season, the Tigers finally had enough, and Bowden resigned under pressure. The interim job went to a wide receivers coach named Dabo Swinney, who had never served as a college coordinator before taking the program's reins.
Swinney earned the role full-time by finishing the season 4-3, and he took Clemson to the ACC title game before falling to Georgia Tech in his first full season. After a disappointing 6-7 record in 2010, he reshuffled his staff by hiring offensive coordinator Chad Morris and implementing a fast-paced offensive scheme. The Tigers haven't looked back since.
Clemson has put together six consecutive 10-win seasons and won three ACC titles, sharing or winning five ACC Atlantic Division titles under his guidance.
The Tigers made the national title game in 2015, pushing Alabama hard before falling 45-40. A year later, they avenged the defeat with a 35-31 victory over the Crimson Tide, clinched with Deshaun Watson's touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with one second remaining.
Swinney has transformed Clemson's reputation, and he may only just be getting started.
Clemson hadn't won a national title since 1981, and the Tigers would have to earn their next championship the hard way. The Tigers trailed Alabama 31-28 in the 2017 national title game with just 2:01 left. Watson wouldn't let Swinney and the Tigers lose.
He strung together an impressive nine-play, 68-yard drive, putting Clemson in position to tie or win the game with seconds remaining.
There would be no need for a field goal. Watson found Renfrow for a two-yard touchdown pass with one second remaining, clinching a 35-31 victory and the program's first national championship in 35 years. In turn, that gave Swinney membership in an exclusive club of national title-winning coaches.
Why he's here
Swinney has only been a head coach since the middle of the 2008 season, but he has earned his spot on this list.
The enthusiastic, excitable coach has turned Clemson into a national brand. The Tigers have six 10-win seasons, three ACC titles and a national title.
Clemson is 89-28 under Swinney and is poised to be a national power for the foreseeable future.
4. Bob Stoops
Over the last 17 years, few programs have been more consistently successful than Oklahoma.
While the Sooners haven't won a national title since 2000, Bob Stoops took a program that had struggled following Barry Switzer's departure and made it nationally relevant again almost immediately.
Oklahoma hired Stoops, Steve Spurrier's defensive coordinator at Florida, in 1999. Following a 7-5 debut season, the Sooners broke through in 2000. Stoops authored a perfect 13-0 season that was capped with a 13-2 win over Florida State in the BCS National Championship Game, earning Oklahoma a national title.
Since 2000, Oklahoma has 14 seasons with at least 10 wins and six seasons with at least 12 victories. The Sooners lost in the BCS National Championship Game in 2003, 2004 and 2008, and they made the College Football Playoff in 2015 before falling to Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
The Sooners have won 10 Big 12 titles under Stoops' watch and have established themselves as the league's premier program. Stoops is 183-43 at OU since 2000, and he's showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Following Switzer's departure, Oklahoma struggled mightily. The Sooners went through three head coaches in 10 years, had no 10-win seasons and suffered through three consecutive losing seasons under John Blake.
Enter Stoops. He quickly turned around the program with a winning record in 1999 and a perfect season in 2000.
Oklahoma completely shut down a potent Florida State offense in the BCS National Championship Game, allowing only a safety in a 13-2 victory. It was far from the prettiest game or best offensive performance Stoops has had at Oklahoma, but it was good enough to win the national title.
Why he's here
Since 2000, Oklahoma has been a constant among the nation's top programs, with 10 conference titles and a national championship.
Stoops is known as "Big Game Bob," but the only thing keeping him from a higher placement on this list is OU's three national title game defeats and the 2015 Orange Bowl loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff. However, his record and consistency earn him a place among the nation's best coaches.
3. Pete Carroll
Pete Carroll hasn't been in college football for almost eight years, but the resume he built as Southern California's head coach from 2001-09 remains impressive. He took a program that had seen better days and restored it to national prominence.
The Trojans put together seven consecutive seasons of at least 11 wins and won a pair of national championships during Carroll's time at the helm. Only a furious Vince Young-led rally kept them from a third.
In 2002, USC went 11-2 and won the Orange Bowl. The following year, the Trojans went 12-1, with their only loss coming against Cal, 34-31, in triple overtime. The Trojans beat Michigan, 28-14, in the Rose Bowl and finished the season No. 1 in the final Associated Press rankings.
In 2004, USC was even better. The Trojans finished 13-0 and won the BCS National Championship, blowing away Oklahoma, 55-19, in the national title game. They began 2005 12-0 and led Texas, 38-26, in the fourth quarter of the BCS National Championship before Young led Texas to a pair of late touchdowns in a classic 41-38 comeback win.
From 2006 through 2008, the Trojans won at least 11 games, won the Pac-12 and won the Rose Bowl each season. In nine years at USC, Carroll was 97-19 with two national titles. That stands up among the nation's best, even if he has spent the last seven seasons coaching the NFL's Seattle Seahawks (and winning a Super Bowl).
In 2004, Carroll put together the only unbeaten season of his college career.
There was no questioning the Trojans' overall dominance, especially in the national title game against Oklahoma.
USC dismantled an unbeaten Oklahoma team, rolling to a 38-10 halftime lead and cruising to a 55-19 victory. It was the perfect cap for a national title season. A year after sharing a national championship, the Trojans stood alone atop college football.
Why he's here
Even though Carroll is now in the NFL, winning seven Pac-10 titles and a pair of national championships in nine years stands up against any coach in college football.
While there are question marks about how much success he would have had at Southern California after 2009 given the NCAA sanctions placed on the program, what he did while there was outstanding.
2. Urban Meyer
When discussing the nation's top college football coaches, it's impossible not to include Urban Meyer.
He made a meteoric rise from the MAC to win national championships at multiple programs and establish himself as one of the game's top sideline leaders.
Meyer went 17-6 in two seasons at Bowling Green and was even better at Utah, going 22-2 with a pair of Mountain West championships in two years there. That earned him the head job at Florida, which had struggled following Steve Spurrier's departure.
He succeeded quickly at Florida, guiding the Gators to a national title in 2006. The team finished the season with a 41-14 rout of Ohio State in the BCS National Championship Game.
Two years later, he repeated the feat with a Tim Tebow-led squad, overcoming an early-season loss to Ole Miss to finish 13-1 after a 24-14 win over Oklahoma in the national title game.
Stress and burnout led Meyer to leave Florida following the 2010 season, but after a year off, he resurfaced at Ohio State. The Buckeyes have been nothing short of excellent under Meyer. In 2014, they made the first College Football Playoff, ripped Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and routed Oregon 42-20 to win the national championship.
Ohio State is 61-6 under Meyer's watch, and it has won at least a share of the Big Ten East title in each of the last four seasons.
The Buckeyes went 12-0 in 2012, but they were ineligible for the league crown due to NCAA sanctions connected to Jim Tressel's tenure. Regardless, Ohio State is one of the nation's premier programs with Meyer at the helm.
Florida entered the 2006 BCS National Championship Game as an underdog to Ohio State, and the Gators' start was less than auspicious.
Ted Ginn took the opening kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown, giving the Buckeyes a quick 7-0 lead. It would be all downhill from there for Ohio State, however. Using both Chris Leak and Tebow at quarterback, Florida blitzed the Buckeyes en route to a 34-14 halftime lead and eventual 41-14 victory.
The win was Florida's first national title since the 1996 season, and it showed Meyer was one of the nation's great head coaches.
Why he's here
Since 2001, Meyer is 165-29 with three national championships and five league titles, as well as a pair of College Football Playoff appearances.
He is an excellent coach who recruits well and built national-title winners at both Florida and Ohio State. Meyer's national titles sit behind only Nick Saban among active head coaches, and he's clearly one of the nation's top coaches.
1. Nick Saban
When he arrived at LSU in 2000, Nick Saban had a solid if unspectacular resume in six seasons as a college head coach at Toledo and Michigan State: 43-26-1, no 10-win seasons and a tie for one league championship.
What he has accomplished since then has established him as the best college coach in America, well worth the $11 million salary he'll receive from Alabama this year.
With five national championships and seven SEC titles, there's no questioning Saban's place atop of the college coaching hierarchy.
At LSU, he broke through with a 10-win season and SEC championship in 2001, but he was just getting started. In 2003, the Tigers went 13-1, defeated Oklahoma in the BCS National Championship Game and claimed a national title along with Southern California, which was ranked No. 1 by the Associated Press.
A year later, Saban jumped to the NFL for a two-year stint coaching the Miami Dolphins, where he suffered his only losing season as a head coach. But Alabama—which had wandered in college football's wilderness, going through four head coaches since its last national title in 1990—lured him back to the college game.
It was a brilliant hire. The Crimson Tide won 12 games in 2008, his second season, and followed that with a 14-0 record in 2009, capping the season with a BCS National Championship Game win over Texas. The Tide followed that with consecutive national titles in 2011 and 2012, and only Auburn's infamous "Kick Six" play prevented Alabama from playing for another title in 2013.
Alabama held off Clemson 45-40 to win the 2016 national title and fell to the Tigers 35-31 in a classic title rematch in January. Regardless, Saban stands alone as the nation's best college football coach with a 167-35 record since 2000.
Alabama is one of the nation's most storied programs, but the Crimson Tide fell on hard times following a national title in 1992 and Gene Stallings' subsequent retirement in 1996.
Over the next decade, Alabama had four losing seasons, a pair of NCAA probations and four head coaches. The Tide needed a savior, and Saban fit the bill.
Following his arrival in 2008, Saban quickly restored the roar in Tuscaloosa. He led the Tide to the BCS National Championship Game during the 2009 campaign, where they outlasted Texas 37-21, finishing off a perfect 14-0 season. It was official: Alabama was back among college football's biggest powers. And Saban was only just getting started.
Why he's here
There's no questioning that Saban is the gold standard among current college football coaches.
His driven, never-satisfied nature has brought Alabama back to national prominence, and his five national championship rings are two more than any coach working today.
It's impossible to argue that anyone but Saban is the nation's best college football coach, and he has positioned himself to be among the game's all-time greats.