Ranking the 10 Longest-Tenured Coaches in College Football
2015 was a year of change in college football coaching circles. Twenty-eight FBS head coaching positions changed hands, with the final move coming just days before national signing day when Southern Miss’ Jeff Monken left for an assistant coaching position with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
College football head coaching has never been known for its longevity or stability, and this offseason’s coaching carousel was especially harsh. Of the top 10 longest-serving coaches with a single institution, six either retired, were fired or changed jobs (or both). That made for a significant shakeup among coaches deemed to be the most stable.
For comparison, here's FootballScoop's national coaching tenure list entering 2015. Gone now are names such as Frank Beamer, Steve Spurrier, Mark Richt and Gary Pinkel.
We have a different group among the nation’s 10 longest-tenured head coaches, and we’re going to break them down for you. A note: Bill Snyder has spent 24 seasons as Kansas State’s head coach, but he is not on this list because he “retired” from 2006 to 2008 before replacing his replacement, Ron Prince, as the Wildcats’ head coach.
Just missing this list of ultimate longevity? Air Force’s Troy Calhoun, Alabama’s Nick Saban, Rice’s David Bailiff, Old Dominion’s Bobby Wilder (with time as an FCS head coach included) and Baylor’s Art Briles. Who made the list? Let’s break it down.
10. Michigan State Coach Mark Dantonio
Mark Dantonio is proof that patience pays off with head coaches. Michigan State hired Dantonio for the 2007 season despite a very average 18-17 record in three seasons at Cincinnati, and he didn’t exactly set the world on fire as the Spartans’ leader, either.
In his first three seasons at MSU, Dantonio was 22-17, including a 6-7 mark in 2009. Since then, however, he has established himself as one of the best coaches in the Big Ten and on the national scene. Over the last six seasons, the Spartans have won at least 11 games five times, with a 7-6 record in 2012 the only exception.
Michigan State is 36-5 over the last three seasons, with a pair of Big Ten championships and the program’s first College Football Playoff appearance. While the Spartans absorbed a 38-0 shellacking at Alabama’s hands, 2015 was still a landmark season for Dantonio’s program. His teams play tough defense and efficient offense, and look to be a force in the Big Ten as long as he roams the sidelines.
9. Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald
Pat Fitzgerald’s head coaching career began in most unfortunate circumstances. In July 2006, Northwestern coach Randy Walker died suddenly of a heart attack. It was mid-summer, and the Wildcats needed a leader. NU officials elevated Fitzgerald into the head role, and the program hasn’t looked back since.
There were some initial growing pains for Fitzgerald, who was the youngest head coach in FBS by five years when the team hired him in 2006. Northwestern went 4-8 in 2006 and 6-6 in 2007 but followed that up with five consecutive bowl seasons. In 2012, the Wildcats won the Gator Bowl, finishing 10-3 and taking the program’s first bowl victory in 64 seasons.
A pair of 5-7 seasons followed, but Northwestern bounced back in 2015 with a 10-3 record and a 6-2 Big Ten mark (the best of Fitzgerald’s tenure). As he begins his second decade in Evanston, Fitzgerald is firmly ensconced as the Wildcats’ sideline leader.
8. Middle Tennessee Coach Rick Stockstill
Middle Tennessee is one of the steadier programs in the “Group of Five,” moving from the Sun Belt to Conference USA during his 10-year tenure. Stockstill was hired in December 2005 and paid immediate dividends, leading the Blue Raiders to a share of the 2006 Sun Belt title in his first season.
Stockstill’s overall record is 64-61 with five winning seasons and five bowl games, but save a 2-10 mark in 2011, Middle Tennessee has won at least five games in every season of his tenure.
His best season was 2009, when the Blue Raiders capped a 10-3 season with a New Orleans Bowl win. Stockstill hopes to repeat that success in the coming years, and Middle Tennessee appears to have plenty of patience with him.
7. Oklahoma State Coach Mike Gundy
When Les Miles left to replace Nick Saban at LSU in January 2005, then-Oklahoma State athletic director Harry Birdwell didn’t look far for his replacement. One day later, he elevated offensive coordinator Mike Gundy to the head coaching role. It was the right move.
Gundy’s coaching acumen and facilities upgrades funded by booster T. Boone Pickens’ largesse have kept Oklahoma State highly relevant in the Big 12. The Cowboys went 18-19 in his first three seasons but have taken off in a big way since.
Oklahoma State is 76-28 since, with five 10-win seasons in the last seven years. The Cowboys’ best season came in 2011, a 12-1 campaign capped with a Fiesta Bowl victory over Stanford. This season, OSU began the season 10-0 before losing its last three games, including a Sugar Bowl rout at Ole Miss’ hands.
Gundy’s teams play a fast-paced style, and he can get fiery at times. But he’s clearly the right leader for the Cowboys’ program.
6. LSU Coach Les Miles
LSU made a wise decision in late November. Following a three-game losing streak that dropped the Tigers from national title contention, veteran head coach Les Miles was in real danger of losing his job. Cooler heads prevailed (at least for now), and Miles will remain as the Tigers’ leader. That’s great news for LSU fans and college football fans alike.
In his 11 years in Baton Rouge, Miles has emerged as one of the game’s most quotable, quirky characters. Sure, he rambles in press conferences and gnaws on blades of grass on the sidelines. But he wins, too. LSU is 112-32 under Miles, winning at least eight games in every season.
Miles owns a BCS national title (in 2007) and a runner-up finish in 2011. His teams have won at least 10 games seven times and own a pair of SEC championships. While the last two seasons have been disappointing, LSU consistently competes for SEC West titles in what is likely college football’s toughest division.
If LSU moves on from Miles or vice versa, it’d be a loss for college football. He’s in the right place at the right time, and it’s immensely fun to watch.
5. Ohio Coach Frank Solich
Nebraska fans are looking forward under Mike Riley, but one must wonder if they ever look back and wonder if the Cornhuskers’ leaders made the right call on Frank Solich. NU canned Solich in 2003 despite a 58-19 record in six seasons as Tom Osborne’s successor (including three 10-win seasons and a national runner-up finish in 2001).
Nebraska has yet to reach the level that Solich maintained following Osborne’s retirement, but Solich is doing just fine. In December 2004, he landed at Ohio and has been a solid leader for the Bobcats. In 11 seasons, Solich is 80-61 as Ohio’s head coach.
The Bobcats have made seven bowls under Solich’s watch, winning a pair. They’ve been bowl-eligible nine times, including seven consecutive seasons. The Bobcats lost the Camellia Bowl but finished 8-5 in 2015. At 71, Solich has earned the right to go out on his own terms, something he never got in Lincoln.
4. Utah Coach Kyle Whittingham
2015 was a year of change in Utah, thanks to BYU’s Bronco Mendenhall bolting for Virginia following an 11-year run. But in Salt Lake City, continuity is the name of the game. Kyle Whittingham has spent 22 seasons on Utah’s staff (11 as a defensive assistant/coordinator and 11 as head coach) and looks entrenched as the Utes’ leader.
When Urban Meyer left for Florida in December 2004, Whittingham was elevated to the head role, which was a smart transition. Utah has nine winning seasons under his watch and has moved from the Mountain West to the Pac-12. In 2008, the Utes finished 13-0 and won the Sugar Bowl, beating Alabama.
Utah has won at least 10 games four times, including this season’s 10-3 mark. A pair of 5-7 records in 2012 and 2013 raised eyebrows, but Utah rebounded by winning 19 games over the past two seasons. Whittingham is a steady, solid leader for Utah, and his leadership has proved to be a huge plus.
3. TCU Coach Gary Patterson
When Dennis Franchione left for Alabama in December 2000, TCU officials moved quickly to elevate defensive coordinator Gary Patterson to Franchione’s position. In turn, Patterson has elevated TCU into a consistent role in the national conversation.
Patterson is 143-47 in 15 seasons as TCU’s head coach, and while the Horned Frogs have had some valleys (like a 4-8 mark in 2013), they’ve had more than their share of peaks.
Patterson has 10 seasons with at least 10 wins, including a 13-0 season in 2010 capped by a Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin. TCU has gone from Conference USA to the Big 12 (with a stop in the Mountain West) under Patterson, and in the last two seasons, the Frogs are 24-3, just missing the College Football Playoff in 2014.
With Patterson at the helm, TCU has the ingredients to stay in college football’s upper echelon for years to come.
2. Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz
In December 1999, Iowa sought a replacement for legendary coach Hayden Fry, who had just wrapped up an excellent run as the Hawkeyes’ leader. They interviewed then-Florida defensive coordinator and Iowa alum Bob Stoops, but after Iowa officials needed more time to decide, Stoops took the Oklahoma vacancy on Dec. 1.
One day later, Iowa turned to an unknown former Iowa assistant, tabbing Baltimore Ravens offensive line coach Kirk Ferentz as its new leader. The choice has worked out just fine. Ferentz has enjoyed an incredibly successful run at Iowa, finishing his 17th season in 2015 with a 12-2 record and Big Ten West title.
Ferentz is 127-87 at Iowa, with five seasons of at least 10 wins and 13 bowl appearances. Iowa has been streaky under his watch (a three-year run of 10-win seasons from 2002 to 2004 followed by a 19-18 run from 2005-07), but the highs have been very high. 2015 was one of the more unexpected runs, given that the Hawkeyes were a disappointing 7-6 in 2014.
"It's fair to say we've looked extremely hard at everything we're doing," Ferentz told ESPN.com's Mitch Sherman. "But to me, if I was watching from the outside, we don't look a lot different."
If Iowa fans are smart, they’ll appreciate Ferentz’s longevity. It’s enough to make the rest of the college football world take notice.
1. Oklahoma Coach Bob Stoops
In the late 1990s, Oklahoma’s proud football program was adrift. Under John Blake, the Sooners suffered three consecutive losing seasons, putting up a collective 12-22 record, and the Barry Switzer glory days felt a long way away. Enter Bob Stoops. The then-Florida defensive coordinator took over and quickly restored the roar in Norman.
Two years later, the Sooners won the BCS National Championship Game. They are still looking for their second national title under Stoops, but they’ve been a steady presence on the national scene. Oklahoma is 179-46 in Stoops’ 17 seasons and has won at least 10 games 13 times.
It owns nine Big 12 titles and has made three more appearances in the national title game, as well as a College Football Playoff appearance following the 2015 season.
Oklahoma does not have a losing season under Stoops’ watch and has won at least eight games in each of the last 16 seasons. Stoops also isn’t afraid to adapt, gutting his offensive coaching staff following a disappointing 8-5 mark in 2014 and rebounding to an 11-2 record with new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley this fall.
With Frank Beamer’s retirement at Virginia Tech, Stoops is now the longest-tenured coach at a single school in the FBS. And he shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.