The Best College Football Coaches Who Did Not Go out on Their Own Terms
Many college football coaches leave their current place of employment on their own terms, whether moving to another job, moving to the professional ranks or retiring on top.
However, the vast majority of men who lead major college football programs are forced to leave for one reason or another. Those who fall in this category did not produce the desired results, but there are those who won consistently, yet soon fell out of favor and were forced to depart in an unwelcome manner.
These college football coaches should have gone out on their own terms, but did not.
10. Fred Akers (Texas, 1977-86)
Akers had the unenviable task of following the legendary Darrell Royal at Texas. Akers was Royal’s defensive backs coach for nine seasons before leaving to gain head coaching experience at Wyoming.
Following two seasons in Laramie, Akers was asked to return to Austin, and immediately the Longhorns were rolling again, finishing the 1977 regular season 11-0 and ranked No. 1, thanks to Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell.
Texas lost the Cotton Bowl and the national championship that year to Notre Dame, but the Longhorns returned to defeat Bear Bryant’s Crimson Tide in Dallas after the 1981 season. The Longhorns came within one point of winning the 1983 national championship, losing 10-9 in the Cotton Bowl to Georgia.
Akers was fired after a 5-6 record, the first losing record at Texas since 1956, the year before Royal arrived. Even more galling was that archrival Texas A&M defeated Texas in the season finale in 1985 and 1986 to clinch berths in the Cotton Bowl.
Akers went 86-31-2 in 10 seasons at Austin, and the Longhorns would not return to their former glory until Mack Brown arrived in 1998.
9. Johnny Majors (Tennessee, 1977-92)
Majors, an All-American at Tennessee, took Iowa State to its first two bowl appearances in the early 1970s, then went to Pittsburgh and won the 1976 national championship behind all-time NCAA rushing leader Tony Dorsett, who won the Heisman Trophy and then went on to a Hall of Fame career with the Dallas Cowboys.
In 1977, Majors left Pittsburgh and went back to Knoxville in an attempt to turn around his downtrodden alma mater, which had fallen further behind Southeastern Conference rival Alabama and was struggling to keep up with Auburn, Georgia and LSU.
It took a few years, but by 1983, Majors had the Volunteers winning consistently and playing in big bowl games. It all came together in 1985, when the Volunteers won the SEC championship and denied Miami a shot at the national championship with a resounding 35-7 victory in the Sugar Bowl.
Majors guided the Vols to back-to-back league titles in 1989 and 1990, but before the 1992 season, he was hospitalized and forced to undergo open heart surgery.
Phillip Fulmer, Majors’ longtime offensive line coach, took over on an interim basis and led Tennessee to a 4-0 start, including a big win over Florida. When Majors returned, the Vols lost to SEC lesser lights Arkansas and South Carolina, and calls for Majors to step aside in favor of Fulmer grew louder.
Majors was eventually forced to resign, and was not allowed to coach the Vols in the Hall of Fame Bowl vs. Boston College. He finished with a 116-62-8 record in 16 seasons on Rocky Top.
8. Lloyd Carr (Michigan, 1995-2007)
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Carr was thrust into the Michigan head coaching job only weeks before the 1995 season. Two seasons later, led by Charles Woodson, the first defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy, and steady quarterback play from Brian Griese, the Wolverines won their first national championship since 1948.
The Wolverines came within three points of reaching the BCS national championship game in 2006 after losing to then-No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus, but the storm clouds would gather quickly.
Michigan was denied a rematch with Ohio State in the BCS championship game, and then laid an egg with a poor showing in the Rose Bowl vs. USC. The 2007 season saw the Wolverines ranked No. 5 in the preseason, but FCS powerhouse Appalachian State came to the Big House and pulled off a 34-32 shocker—a loss that dropped Michigan out of the Top 25.
Seven days later, the Wolverines were crushed 39-7 at home by Oregon, and although Michigan recovered to contend for the Big Ten championship, the handwriting on the wall became clear for Carr after a loss in the regular-season finale to Ohio State.
Carr announced his retirement following the loss to the Buckeyes, but he went out in style when his Wolverines upended Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow and Florida in the Capital One Bowl.
Despite having no head coaching experience before taking the helm of the Wolverines, Carr went 122-40 in 13 seasons.
7. Pat Dye (Auburn, 1981-92)
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Dye took over Auburn in 1981, when the Tigers were mired in an eight-game losing streak to archrival Alabama and coming off probation for violations by former coach Doug Barfield.
Dye played at Georgia for Wally Butts, coached under Bryant at Alabama and had success as a head coach at East Carolina and Wyoming before coming to the Plains.
Dye’s second Auburn team beat Bear Bryant’s last Alabama team in 1982, and the Tigers had the upper hand over their hated Iron Bowl foe for much of the 1980s. Auburn came within a whisker of winning the 1983 national championship, and the Tigers won three consecutive SEC championships in 1987, 1988 and 1989.
In 1990, Dye and Auburn were devastated when tape recordings implicated former player Eric Ramsey, indicating he had been paid by a booster and an assistant coach. The story was picked up by 60 Minutes, and although Dye was not personally implicated, he was charged with failure to stop the payments.
Dye was forced out as athletic director in 1991, and in 1992, he was forced to resign his coaching position. Ironically, Alabama won the national championship in Dye’s final season on the Plains.
Auburn was soon hit with severe NCAA sanctions. The Tigers were yanked off television for 1993 and were banned from the postseason in 1993 and 1994.
This would prove costly for Dye’s successor, Terry Bowden, who led Auburn to an 11-0 season in 1993 with mostly Dye’s talent, but Auburn was stuck watching the SEC championship game and bowls at home.
Auburn went 99-39-4 in 12 seasons under Dye, who is Auburn’s third-winningest coach behind Shug Jordan (176) and Mike Donahue (106).
6. Charles McClendon (LSU, 1962-79)
A former All-American at Kentucky under Bear Bryant in the early 1950s, McClendon served as chief defensive coach for Paul Dietzel during the Bayou Bengals’ 1958 national championship season, then took the top spot when Dietzel left for West Point in 1962.
In 18 seasons at LSU, McClendon led the Bayou Bengals to a 137-59-7 record, a Southeastern Conference championship in 1970 and five consecutive nine-win seasons from 1969 through 1973.
LSU twice denied teams undefeated seasons in bowl games under McClendon: In 1965, the 7-3 Tigers defeated 10-0 Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl, denying the Razorbacks a second consecutive national championship, and in 1967, 6-3-1 LSU ousted 10-0 Wyoming, led by Jim Kiick, in the Sugar Bowl.
McClendon’s sin was his inability to beat Alabama. Then again, every other coach in the SEC committed the same sin while Bryant coached the Crimson Tide.
McClendon defeated the Tide only twice—in 1969 and 1970—and in 1973, a 9-0 LSU team lost 21-7 at home to the Crimson Tide in front of a national television audience on Thanksgiving night.
When LSU suffered through seasons of 5-5-1 in 1974 and 4-7 in 1975, the Cajuns had seen enough.
In 1976, “Cholly Mac” was told he would be fired following the end of his contract in 1978, although he was later given an extra year, and exited after the 1979 season.
LSU’s football program entered an extended dark period following the McClendon departure, which began when Bo Rein, McClendon’s successor, died in a mysterious plane crash only 19 days after McClendon coached his final game and 42 days after Rein was named to the LSU position. The Bayou Bengals never really recovered until Nick Saban arrived in 2000.
5. Don James (Washington, 1975-92)
Don James groomed future coaching giants Nick Saban and Gary Pinkel during four successful seasons at Kent State, then came to Washington in 1975 in an attempt to pull the Huskies out of the second division of the Pacific-8.
The Huskies went .500 in James’ first two seasons, but by 1977, Washington found itself in the Rose Bowl for the first time in 14 seasons, thanks to the exploits of an undersized quarterback named Warren Moon. The Huskies surprised Michigan 27-20 to finish seventh in the final polls.
Washington was now a national player, and the Huskies weren’t going anywhere, as James guided Washington to four top-10 finishes between 1981 and 1990, including wins in the Rose Bowl in 1981 and 1990 and the Orange Bowl in 1984.
The Huskies peaked in 1991 behind quarterback Mark Brunell and defensive tackle Steve Emtman, going 12-0 and winning a share of the national championship.
It turned out James had only one more season on the sideline. Before the 1993 campaign, James resigned to protest sanctions leveled by the NCAA and Pac-10 against UW.
The Huskies were 153-57-2 in James’ 18 seasons. It can be argued Washington has come nowhere close to that glory, except in 2000 when the Huskies went 11-1 and won the Rose Bowl to finish ranked third. In 2008, the Huskies bottomed out, going 0-12 under Tyrone Willingham.
4. Barry Switzer (Oklahoma, 1973-88)
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Switzer was the ultimate players’ coach, willing to promote his athletes for awards at a time when many were loath to do so. The players returned the love by winning three national championships, 11 Big Eight championships and 157 wins in 16 seasons.
Switzer’s 157-29-4 record was slightly better than the 145-29-4 mark of the legendary Bud Wilkinson, who built the Sooners empire in the 1940s and 1950s.
However, turmoil always seemed to swirl around the Sooners. Switzer took over the program after OU received major sanctions for violations committed during Chuck Fairbanks’ tenure, costing the Sooners television appearances for two seasons and half of the 1974 national championship (the AP voted the Sooners No. 1, but the UPI Board of Coaches banned teams on probation from appearing in its poll).
Switzer later had to deal with the high-profile recruitment and disappearance of heralded running back Marcus Dupree in the early 1980s, and next with unpredictable linebacker Brian Bosworth, who was banned from the 1987 Orange Bowl for flunking an NCAA drug test.
Switzer was the Teflon football coach, the man who was charged time after time, only to see nothing stick.
In the weeks following the 1988 season, the Sooners became cover boys for Sports Illustrated, but not for the right reasons. Three players were charged with raping an Oklahoma City woman in the athletic dorm. Tight end Zarak Peters was shot by cornerback Jerry Parks, and starting quarterback Charles Thompson was charged with selling cocaine to an undercover FBI agent.
The Sooners were hit with major probation again in the spring of 1989, and by that June, Switzer finally decided he could not survive and tendered his resignation.
He resurfaced in 1994 as coach of the Dallas Cowboys, and won Super Bowl XXX with a team stocked by his good friend, Jimmy Johnson.
3. Woody Hayes (Ohio State, 1951-78)
To say Woody Hayes was volatile would be an understatement. He physically attacked more than one media member during his 28 seasons at Ohio State and even threw the sideline markers at an official near the end of the Buckeyes’ 1971 loss at Michigan.
Despite these outbursts, the Buckeye faithful were willing to look the other way, as Hayes won, won and won some more, piling up 205 victories and two national championships coaching in the Horsehoe.
Hayes was revered on the Ohio State campus, interacting with faculty members when most football coaches avoided them in droves, teaching classes and interacting with students across campus, helping OSU avoid the campus unrest that seemed to run rampant through the country in the 1960s.
The Buckeyes won the 1968 national championship behind a group of super sophomores, including Rex Kern, Jack Tatum, Jim Stillwagon and Bruce Jankowski. Ohio State did not win another national championship but continued strong into the 1970s, reaching the Rose Bowl five times between 1970 and 1975 and producing the only two-time winner of the Heisman Trophy, Archie Griffin.
On December 29, 1978, Hayes’ temper finally got the best of him.
Buckeye quarterback Art Schlichter was intercepted by Clemson middle guard Charlie Baumann near the end of the Tigers’ 17-15 victory in the Gator Bowl. Baumann was pushed out of bounds on the Ohio State sideline, where the Clemson player came face-to-face with Woody, who punched the opposing player through his face mask.
A melee ensued, and Hayes subsequently shoved one of his own players before he was ejected. Hayes was fired before the Buckeyes left Jacksonville, Fla., the next morning.
2. Bobby Bowden (Florida State, 1976-2009)
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When Bowden came to Florida State in 1976, the Seminoles were a mess, going 19-37 from 1971-75, bottoming out with an 0-11 record in 1973.
Bowden brought a winning tradition from West Virginia, and he immediately built the Seminoles into a “giant killer,” one which would win anywhere, anytime. Following a 31-28 victory over Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl to end the 1987 season, the Seminoles finished third in the final polls, beginning a remarkable run of 14 consecutive seasons of top-five finishes.
The Seminoles did not reach the top of the mountain until 1993, when FSU overcame a November loss at Notre Dame to edge Nebraska in the Orange Bowl for the school’s first national championship.
FSU went 62-2 in the Atlantic Coast Conference between 1992 and 2000, but the Seminoles were not infallible, as evidenced in a 52-21 to Florida in the Sugar Bowl, which came only 34 days after a 24-21 victory over the Gators in the regular-season finale.
The Seminoles lost the national championship to Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl following the 1998 season, but FSU went wire-to-wire for the 1999 championship, defeating Michael Vick’s Virginia Tech Hokies in the Sugar Bowl.
A 13-2 loss to Oklahoma in the 2000 Orange Bowl marked the beginning of the end of the Seminole dynasty. FSU would watch in horror as Miami ripped off 34 consecutive wins over three seasons, and Florida claimed two national championships in three seasons under Urban Meyer.
Meanwhile, the Seminoles were slipping, and following their 12th ACC championship in 2005, Bowden’s teams were struggling just to become bowl eligible—and those postseason destinations were far less glamorous than Miami, New Orleans and Phoenix.
The heat was turned up on Bowden, and by the end of the 2009 season, the legendary coach announced his retirement, a retirement that was not his idea.
The Seminoles sent Bowden out a winner by defeating his former school, West Virginia, in the Gator Bowl. Bowden went 304-97-4 in Tallahassee and 377-129-4 overall.
1. Joe Paterno (Penn State, 1966-2011)
Joe Paterno gave his life to Pennsylvania State University. His first job after graduating from Brown in 1950 was as an assistant with the Nittany Lions, and he served as a lieutenant for 16 seasons before being promoted to succeed Rip Engle in 1966.
In 45-plus seasons in State College, Paterno won more games than any Division I coach (409), guided the Nittany Lions to national championships in 1982 and 1986, plus undefeated seasons in 1968, 1969, 1973 and 1994, and transformed the Lions from a regional independent into a national powerhouse competing in the Big Ten Conference. During his coaching career at PSU, Beaver Stadium’s capacity more than doubled from just over 46,000 to more than 107,000.
While SMU was given the death penalty in 1987, and Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, USC and Washington all found themselves facing major NCAA sanctions, Paterno’s program was always held up as a paragon of virtue, of how to win without cheating.
Penn State’s clean-cut image was never more on display than the lead-up to the Fiesta Bowl to determine the 1986 national champion. While the Nittany Lions attended a steak fry in coat and tie, their opponents, the Miami Hurricanes walked out of the dinner wearing combat fatigues. The Lions went on to oust the Hurricanes 14-10 in the ultimate good vs. evil matchup.
But all was not so clean. It turned out Paterno’s trusted chief assistant, Jerry Sandusky, was allegedly using his Second Mile foundation, a charity designed to help at-risk youth, as a cover for sexual abuse, even well after Sandusky retired from coaching in 1999, reaching a low point when former quarterback-turned-assistant coach Mike McQueary supposedly witnessed Sandusky in a shower with a 10-year old boy, yet did not report the incident to authorities.
When Sandusky’s transgressions were revealed in November 2011, Paterno’s empire on Mount Nittany began to crumble. It finally came to a stunning denouement on Nov. 9, when Paterno announced his intended retirement at the end of the season, only to be fired later that night by the university’s Board of Trustees, who also ousted PSU President Graham Spanier.
Paterno will not lose his place in the College Football Hall of Fame, but his legacy will have a far greater stain, the stain of keeping silent when so many boys needed him to speak out the most.