The NCAA 10: Top Coaches Who Could Play
The old saying goes, “those who can’t do, teach.”
Is that true when it comes to college football coaches?
I was surprised to learn that of the 119 Division I (or FBS, if you'd rather) head coaches there are only six who never played college football.
They are: David Cutcliffe (Duke), Paul Johnson (Georgia Tech), Mark Mangino (Kansas), Mike Leach (Texas Tech), Charlie Weis (Notre Dame) and George O’Leary (Central Florida). Although, if you give him enough time I think O’Leary might be able to come up with a little playing experience for the old resume, if needed.
It makes sense that there would be a fair number who either never played, or at best road the pine. However, what I found was that there were also plenty who could play and who had some stellar college (and a few NFL) careers. How they rank (as collegiate players) is as follows:
10. Mike Gundy, QB, Oklahoma State (Head Coach: Oklahoma State)
Gundy was a 4-year starter for the Cowboys and in 1988 (back when he was just 21, and not quite a “man”) he helped lead OSU to a 10-2 mark and a Holiday Bowl thumping of Wyoming, 62-14. In that Junior campaign he was second in the nation in QB efficiency at 158.2, behind only Washington State’s Timm Rosenbach and ahead of Heisman finalists: USC’s Rodney Peete and UCLA’s Troy Aikman. He was 153-236 for 2,163 yards, 19 TDs and 12 Ints.
Granted, he was given the gift of handing off to the likes of Thurman Thomas and Barry Sanders (who won the Heisman in 1988) but he graduated as the all-time leader in passing at both Oklahoma State and in Big 8 history.
9. Frank Solich, FB, Nebraska (Head Coach: Ohio)
Known as “fearless Frankie” while with the Cornhuskers, Solich was an All Big 8 selection in 1965 and the first Nebraska player to rush for over 200 yards in a single game. He was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated that year, and was later inducted into the Husker Hall of Fame.
8. Stan Brock, OT, Colorado (Head Coach: Army)
Brock was a Sporting News All-American in 1979 for the Buffaloes, on his way to becoming a first round draft pick (#12 overall) of the New Orleans Saints. He would parlay that into a long and successful 16-year NFL career.
7. Sylvester Croom, C, Alabama (Head Coach: Mississippi State)
As captain, he helped Bear Bryant and the Crimson Tide to three SEC titles (as well as a National Title in 1973) and was an All-American center in 1974.
6. Rick Neuheisel, QB, UCLA (Head Coach: UCLA)
In 1983, his senior year with the Bruins, Neuheisel was fifth in the nation in QB efficiency at 142.5 (just ahead of UNLV’s Randall Cunningham and behind the nation’s leader, BYU’s Steve Young). He was 163-236 for 1,947 yards, 9 TDs and 10 Ints, while leading UCLA to a 7-4-1 mark and garnering Rose Bowl MVP honors, beating #4 Illinois 45-9.
5. Turner Gill, QB, Nebraska (Head Coach: Buffalo)
Gill led the Cornhuskers to an amazing 28-2 record as a starting QB. He finished #4 in the Heisman balloting in 1983 to his Nebraska teammate, RB Mike Rozier, on their way to a #1 ranking and a heartbreaking 31-30 loss to Miami for the National Championship. It was Gill’s pass, on a two-point conversion to win the game, that was deflected with just seconds remaining.
SIDE NOTE: What Gill has already accomplished with the Buffalo football program has been nothing short of miraculous. He didn’t land the coveted Nebraska gig last year, but he should be on plenty of short lists this time around. K-State, UW, are you listening?
4. Jim Harbaugh, QB, Michigan (Head Coach: Stanford)
As a Junior in 1985, Harbaugh led Michigan to a 10-1-1 mark and led the nation in QB efficiency at 163.7. He was 139-212 for 1,913 yards, 18 TDs and 6 Ints. He then followed that up with a senior campaign in 1986 that would see him finish third in the Heisman voting (behind winner QB Vinny Testaverde of Miami and just ahead of Oklahoma LB Brian Bosworth). He would also end up second in the nation in QB rating at 157.0 while leading the Wolverines to an 11-2 mark and the Rose Bowl.
3. Pat Fitzgerald, LB, Northwestern (Head Coach: Northwestern)
One of the most decorated defensive players in college football history, Fitzgerald was a consensus All-American in 1995 and 1996, as well as a two-time Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year for the Wildcats, on his way to winning both the Bronco Nagurski and Chuck Bednarik trophies – twice. He was recently inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame
2. Chuck Long, QB, Iowa (Head Coach: San Diego State)
As a 4-year starter, Long put up huge numbers as a Hawkeye QB, finishing second in the nation in QB rating his sophomore year (160.4), seventh his junior year (147.1) and topping it off with finishing third his senior year (153.0). And after finishing seventh for the Heisman in his junior campaign, his senior season of 1985 would see him finish second in the closest Heisman voting ever (1509-1464 to Auburn RB Bo Jackson).
That season he threw for 231-351 for 2,978 yards, 26 TDs and 15 Ints. He was a consensus All-American and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1999.
And perhaps as no surprise to anyone, the only head coach currently toting around a certain stiff-armed piece of hardware (actually he gave it to the University to display), the #1 Coach Who Could Play…
STEVE SPURRIER, QB, FLORIDA (Head Coach: South Carolina)
Inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1986, the winner of the 1966 Heisman Trophy (over Purdue QB Bob Griese), led the Gators to a 9-2 mark and an Orange Bowl win, 27-12, over Georgia Tech. He was third in the nation in completions per game (the standard prior to QB rating) and finished 179-291 for 2,012 yards, 16 TDs and 8 Ints.
Jeff Tedford, QB, Fresno State (Head Coach: California)
Tedford finished eighth in nation in QB rating (136.4) in 1982, while leading the Bulldogs to 11-1 mark.
Howard Schnellenberger, TE, Kentucky (Head Coach: FAU)
Schnellenberger was a consensus All-American selection in 1955 for the Wildcats.
Shane Montgomery, QB, NC State (Head Coach: Miami (OH))
Montgomery was MVP of both the 1988 Peach Bowl and 1989 Copper Bowl.
Mark Richt, QB, Miami (Head Coach: Georgia)
Sandwiched between Jim Kelly and Bernie Kosar, he only got in as a starter when Kelly went down in 1982.
Miscellaneous Items of Note:
Not-so-surprising, there are five former Alabama players (Bobby Bowden-Florida State, Neil Callaway-UAB, Mike Riley-Oregon State, Sylvester Croom-Mississippi State and Dabo Swinney-Clemson)…somewhat surprising, there are three former UC-Davis players (Mike Bellotti-Oregon, Dan Hawkins-Colorado, Chris Petersen-Boise State)…kind of interesting, the Sun Belt Conference is loaded with former talent, from Schellenberger to: FIU’s Mario Cristobal (All Big East OT at Miami); Middle Tennessee’s Rick Stockstill (Florida State QB); North Texas’ Todd Dodge (Texas QB); Troy’s Larry Blakeney (Auburn QB); Louisiana-Monroe’s Charlie Weatherbie (Oklahoma State QB); and Louisiana-Lafayette’s Rickey Bustle (Clemson WR)…who knew?...and if you’re thinking of some top assistants or coordinators who had talent and could be landing top spots soon, scratch off Ryan Leaf (yikes) and look no further than USC’s Steve Sarkisian. The former BYU QB led the nation in efficiency in 1996 at 173.6 (ahead of Heisman winner Danny Wuerrfel and Peyton Manning)…or perhaps former Kansas great and NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Nolan Cromwell, who is now with Texas A&M…or Georgia’s Mike Bobo…or Pitt’s Matt Cavanaugh…
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