Championships themselves do not make a coach the best, neither does his salary. His win-loss record is important, but is not the measuring stick either. So in, no particular order, let's examine what separates a good or successful coach from one of the best.
1. Longevity - No coach embodies this more than Joe Paterno. Some coaches rose like skyrockets to win early championships, like Jimmy Johnson did at Miami. But if you ask people to name their top five or ten all-time best college coaches, few would name him because his light was gone too soon to the NFL.
To be great you must be a legend, and few would call the scant years Johnson was at Miami legendary. Jimmy was a great coach, but not one of the best; he was no legend.
The world may never see another Joe Paterno who stays so long at one school and puts his love for that school against any other ambition. Even if Penn State is your worst rival, to not love Joe Paterno is to not love college football.
2. Drive - Coaches, like Paul Bryant and Nick Saban, may not have as much in common as people think, but they have the same drive. They both ate, slept and worked at becoming better 365 days a year.
Coaches like that drive themselves harder than they do their players or even their assistants. They set the standard for work ethic and dare everyone around them to just try and keep up.
Tommy Tuberville was a good example at Auburn. He was as good an X and O coach as many, but simply did not have the drive that other coaches have to work and recruit as hard as they did. It eventually caught up to him.
3. Creating Togetherness - Again, Joe Paterno comes to mind. When a few of his boys went off the reservation and did some bad things, the entire team was punished, together cleaning the stadium. Win as a team, live as a team, be responsible for one another like a team.
No such behavior has popped back up at Penn State since then.
Another example was Lou Holtz, in his first year as the Arkansas Razorbacks' coach in 1977, stirring emotions so high that his heavily-underdog Razorbacks went and beat the team that would have won the National Championship with a victory, Oklahoma.
In that game he suspended his best two running backs, he told the boys that it was them against the world and that nobody gave them a chance but him. But he told them if they believed in themselves as a unit the way he did, that no one could beat them.
The 31-6 beating they gave Oklahoma that game was one of the worst bowl losses in their history.
4. Fairness - Holtz sitting out his two best running backs in the biggest game of the season for the Hogs was just one example of fairness. Coach Bryant sat out Joe Namath for the biggest game of the year, the 1964 Sugar Bowl. The Tide won anyway.
Namath said it was the single-most important act Bryant did to show him that it didn't matter the crime or the player. Rules were rules and all would abide by them alike or all be punished alike.
Instead of holding such a thing against him, Namath loved Bryant like a father and many years later, broke down in tears just mentioning his name at his NFL Hall of Fame induction.
5. Consistency - This is modeled better, perhaps, by Tom Osborne more than any other living coach. Yes, he's a former coach, but as long as lives, he will always be Coach Osborne to me and millions of others.
His teams never won fewer than nine games in a season, finished in the top 15 of the final Associated Press poll 24 out of 25 years (having finished 24th in 1990), and were ranked in every single weekly AP poll, barring one week in 1977 and two in 1981.
Other coaches have had impressive streaks, but few had the kind of consistency of Tom Osborne.
6. Being a builder - Some coaches inherit good programs and have good careers. Others build them, or in some cases, rebuild them.
Bobby Bowden came to Florida State when it was everybody's favorite homecoming team. To say it was a joke of a program would be an insult to joke programs. It had been a former girl's school.
He inherited a team that had won just four games in three years, yet his only losing season was his first in 1976.
He is the only coach in Division I-A football history to have enjoyed 14 straight seasons of 10 or more wins. His Florida State Seminoles finished an unprecedented 14 straight seasons in the top five of the AP College Football Poll, and won the college football National Championship in 1993 and 1999.
This is a building record that may never be duplicated again.
7. Making decisions and sticking with them - There are many coaches that come to mind on this one, and it's not about being a dictator or arrogant, but these were men who could make decisions and everyone knew that the decision was final.
A great example was Bo Schembechler. When he came to Michigan, he thought the team was too soft and instituted a regiment that even many assistants thought was too tough on the players. But Bo was not about to be swayed from his decision.
His first training camp in 1969 saw around 140 players enter, but just 75 emerge from the grueling camp to stay and embrace Schembechler's system. Every Michigan football player who played for Schembechler and stayed at Michigan for four years left Michigan with at least one Big Ten championship ring.
Later, when he was athletic director, the men's basketball coach, Bill Frieder, who led them to the NCAA tournament announced at the end of the season he was leaving for another school. Instead of letting him coach his team in the last games of the season in the most important games they had in years, Schembechler fired him on the spot.
People thought he was crazy, but he insisted that the coach of Michigan team be dedicated to Michigan first. His replacement came in and won all six of the tournament games and the 1989 NCAA Tournament.
8. The buck stops here - A great coach is one who gives all the credit for win and takes all the responsibility for a loss. A great coach doesn't blame the refs, a badly-timed fumble, or a cheap shot.
I can clearly remember more than once when an Alabama team was beaten by a bad call or a dumb turnover and watching Coach Paul Bryant lament to the camera that he hadn't done a good enough job in getting them prepared for this game and that the fans could be proud of their efforts because it was all his fault for not doing his job right.
The other example is Les Miles, who threw his team and his young quarterback under the bus last season in a game he clearly lost for his team. With no clock management skills whatsoever in that game, he was videotaped yelling, gesturing at the quarterback to spike the ball and when he did that with one second left to go, which ended the game, Miles later said in the post game press conference he didn't know why the quarterback spiked the ball.
A great coach can not only take the blame for his mistakes, but will also protect his players like a mother grizzly bear defending her cub.
9. Love your school - Many coaches, once they were at "home", would never give a thought to leaving. Many were offered better and higher-paying jobs in the NFL to leave, but once they were "home", they never left for pastures they thought were greener.
So many great coaches come to mind besides the obvious ones already mentioned above, like Woody Hayes or LaVell Edwards. And can you imagine Frank Beamer coaching anywhere else but for Virginia Tech?
10. Have Class - How can you teach class without first having it yourself?
"I have tried to teach them to show class, to have pride, and to display character. I think football, winning games, takes care of itself if you do that."
"I always want my players to show class, knock'em down, pat on the back, and run back to the huddle."
These are two great quotes from Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant.
"Success without honor is an unseasoned dish; it will satisfy your hunger, but it won't taste good." - Joe Paterno
"Today we lost a tough game, but I'm so proud of my men because they didn't lose their character or class and I'd rather lose with class than win in disgrace. Today was Michigan's day, my hat's off to them for a great effort. They are a great team with a fine coach and they deserved to win this game. We played a better team." - Woody Hayes
"I think class is a real critical part of any organization. It’s a word that I see, that comes up on our board when we do some of our traditional stuff here as a part of our university, as a part of our football tradition. I think class is an important part of what we try to do in terms of how we represent our state, our institution, and I want this program to always reflect class in how we go about doing things.
We expect it from the players, and if we don’t get it, we certainly do everything we can to correct it and change their behavior so that we do get it. And I think that that should extend to every part of the organization. Every part of the organization. I don’t care if you are a supporter, or you’re a fan, or whatever you do, the way you support the team should be done with class as well." - Nick Saban
Conclusion - There's no correct mix of these qualities that makes a coach one of the best. But there's also no reason to think a coach can be the best without at least a large dose of each of them.
Never confuse success with greatness. The two are separate and farther apart than the casual fan cares to see.
I'm interested in the comments you would make on this article and the coaches you have put on this list and the reasons why you would put them there.