Top College Football Head Coaches Who Once Coached at the High School Level

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMay 27, 2021

Top College Football Head Coaches Who Once Coached at the High School Level

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    Former Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer
    Former Ohio State head coach Urban MeyerAJ Mast/Associated Press

    Just about everyone who plays college football also played high school football. However, the list of coaches who patrolled the sidelines at the high school level prior to landing a college gig is surprisingly short.

    Nick Saban can sign seemingly any high school star that he wants, but he never coached high school football. Neither did Bear Bryant, Knute Rockne, Tom Osborne nor anyone you would expect to find on a "Top 10 FBS Coaches of All-Time" ranking.

    Even of the 17 newly hired head coaches in this year's trip around the carousel, only one (Gus Malzahn) has any history of coaching in high school.

    There are quite a few noteworthy names who successfully made that leap, though, including one (Urban Meyer) who is now attempting to make another leap to the NFL after more than three decades of coaching college football.

    In most of these cases, it was a brief stint in high school. A couple of these guys weren't even head coaches in high school, merely an assistant for a year or two before "graduating." But as far as we're concerned, any time spent on a high school football coaching staff counts.

    Please note we are only focused on those who coached at the FBS level. However, Mount Union's Larry Kehres, Pacific Lutheran's Frosty Westering, Eastern Kentucky's Roy Kidd and Augustana's Bob Reade each deserve recognition for the jobs they did at FCS or Division III programs after getting their start in high school.

Most Noteworthy Current Coaches

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    Gus Malzahn
    Gus MalzahnButch Dill/Associated Press

    No one in our ranked list is still coaching college football, but there are a handful of active coaches who bear mentioning for the jobs they have done since getting their start in high school.


    Gus Malzahn

    High school football was a brief stepping stone for the vast majority of coaches who even went that route at all. Malzahn was one of the exceptions to the rule, spending 14 years as a head coach at various high schools in Arkansas. He implemented an explosive spread offense at each of those stops before making a seamless transition to college football. He helped guide Auburn to the BCS national championship game in just his second season as a college head coach. 


    David Cutcliffe

    Cutcliffe spent a few years at Banks High School in Alabama before embarking on a long journey through various positions on Tennessee's coaching staff. He was an assistant with the Volunteers from 1982-98, and then again for two seasons in 2006-07 after an unceremonious ending to his six-season run as the head coach at Ole Miss. More recently, he did the seemingly impossible by turning Duke into a competent football program. The Blue Devils went 19-117 in the 12 years before his 2008 arrival, but he has led them to five winning seasons since then.


    Butch Davis

    Can't imagine there are more than a handful of men who served as a head coach in high school, college and the NFL, but Davis did. He spent five years as an assistant in high school and one (1978) as the head coach of Will Rogers High School. He later became the Miami Hurricanes head coach in 1995, laying the foundation for what is widely regarded as the greatest team in CFB history. He didn't coach that 2001 Hurricanes juggernaut, though. He left after the 2000 season for the Cleveland Browns job. He later coached at North Carolina for a few scandalous years and is currently at FIU.


    Bill Clark

    Like Malzahn, Clark spent well over a decade coaching high school football. He held assistant positions from 1990-98 and then was the head coach at Prattville High School in Alabama from 1999-2007, compiling an overall record of 106-11 with two state championships. He got the UAB head coaching job in 2014, right before the administration controversially disbanded the program. However, he stuck around through the two-year hiatus and has built the Blazers into one of the better Group of Five programs.


    Tom Allen

    Yet another coach with a lengthy high school tenure, Allen became the head coach of Temple Heights Christian School in 1993 at the age of 23. He then spent nearly a decade as a defensive coordinator at three other high schools before reprising the head coach role at Ben Davis High School from 2004-06. After another decade spent climbing the college football ranks (assistant gigs at seven different schools in 10 years), he became the head coach at Indiana at the end of the 2016 season. He's barely .500 (24-22) in his college career, but the Hoosiers were one of the biggest positive surprises of the 2020 campaign, finishing the season ranked in the AP Top 15 for the first time in more than 50 years.

Honorable Mentions

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    Paul Johnson
    Paul JohnsonJohn Bazemore/Associated Press

    In addition to the current coaches of note, here are a handful of retirees who had an impressive run as FBS head coaches following their start in high school.


    Barry Alvarez

    Alvarez spent two years as a head coach at Lexington High School and three years at Mason City High School prior to becoming a linebackers coach at the University of Iowa. He would spend eight years in that role and three more at Notre Dame before earning the job as head coach at Wisconsin. While with the Badgers, Alvarez earned a share of three Big Ten titles (1993, 1998 and 1999), winning the Rose Bowl at the end of each of those seasons.


    Rip Engle

    Engle was the head coach of Waynesboro High School for 11 years (1930-40) before taking the plunge into college football. He became the head coach at Brown in 1944 and led the Bears to one of the best seasons in program history in 1949. After that successful rebuild, he was awarded the Penn State job in 1950. He held that position for 16 years before handing it off to his former quarterback and former assistant, Joe Paterno.


    Dennis Erickson

    Along with the aforementioned Butch Davis, Erickson was a head coach at each of football's three levels. The high school portion of that was quite brief. He spent just one season leading Billings Central Catholic high school at the age of 23. Still counts, though. Erickson later became the head coach for six FBS programs and two NFL franchises. By far, though, he is most well-known for his six-year stint with the Miami Hurricanes from 1989-94. During that time, Miami went 63-9 and won two national championships.


    Paul Johnson

    Long before becoming the patron saint of the triple option at Georgia Southern, Navy and Georgia Tech, Johnson's coaching career began with an assistant job at Avery County High School in 1979something to do while pursuing his master's degree at nearby Appalachian State. He spent just two seasons there before shifting gears to coaching college football.


    Ben Schwartzwalder

    In seven years as a high school head coach (1935-41), Schwartzwalder won two state championships. But after serving in the US Army in World War II, he returned as a college head coach at Muhlenberg. After three years there, he went to Syracuse where he would spend the next quarter century. He had a modest overall record with the Orange (153-91-3), but they had quite the run in the late 1950s, culminating in an 11-0 national championship season in 1959.

7. Hayden Fry

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    Hayden Fry and Kirk Ferentz
    Hayden Fry and Kirk FerentzCharlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    High School Career

    As a quarterback, Hayden Fry led Odessa High School to a Texas state championship in 1946. Five years later in 1951, he returned as an assistant coach. After several years serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, he resumed his role as an assistant at Odessa in 1955 before working as the head coach from 1956-58.


    College Career

    Continuing the theme of coaching where he used to play, Fry left Odessa to become a defensive backs coach at Baylor for two seasons. He then spent one year as an assistant at Arkansas prior to becoming the head coach at SMU in 1962 at the age of 33.

    Fry led the Mustangs for 11 mostly unremarkable seasons, compiling an overall record of 49-66-1. But he did sign Jerry LeViasthe first Black scholarship athlete in the Southwest Conferencewho helped lead the team to eight-win seasons and bowl appearances in both 1966 and 1968.

    Fry's second act with North Texas was considerably more successful. The Mean Green were a disaster when he took over in 1973, but he steered them to nine wins in each of 1977 and 1978. In six seasons there, he won 38 games.

    That rebuilding job earned him a shot with Iowa, which had posted a .500 or worse record in 17 consecutive seasons before his arrival.

    By his third season at the helm, the Hawkeyes were in the Rose Bowl. He never won one, but he led them on three trips to Pasadena during his 20 years there. And while the Hawkeyes did not finish any of those seasons ranked higher than 10th in the AP poll, they did play in 14 bowl games and were ranked for at least one week in 14 of those years. Given how dreadful that program had been for most of the 1960s and 1970s, that was a night-and-day transformation.

    Fry racked up 230 wins in his FBS career, good for 13th on the all-time leaderboard.

6. Don James

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    Don James and Hayden Fry
    Don James and Hayden FryWally Fong/Associated Press

    High School Career

    Don James only spent one season coaching high school football, but it was a good one. As the head coach of Southwest Miami HS in 1958, he led the Eagles to victory over South Broward in the Gold Coast Conference championship. The team also went undefeated the year after he left. Not a bad foundation laid at a school that had only been founded two years prior to his arrival.


    College Career

    From 1959-70, James worked as either a defensive backs coach or a defensive coordinator at each of Florida State, Michigan and Colorado before getting his first head coaching gig at Kent State.

    The Golden Flashes had only been competing at the FBS level for nine seasons prior to hiring James, and their record for wins in a season up until that point was just five. But with help from a standout defensive end who later turned into a Hall of Fame NFL linebacker (Jack Lambert), James led Kent State to six wins in 1972 and nine wins in 1973.

    He spent four years in the MAC before getting called up to Washington and what was then the Pac-8, where he still stands as (by far) the winningest coach in program history.

    It only took him three years to win a Rose Bowl (1977). He won another one in 1981 and spent several weeks at No. 1 in the AP poll in both 1982 and 1984. In 1991, James led the Huskies to an undefeated season, earning co-national champion honors with Miami.

    All told, he won 150 games in 18 seasons with Washington. Save for going 5-6 in his second season at the helm, they were all winning seasons.

5. Bill Snyder

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    Bill Snyder
    Bill SnyderCharlie Riedel/Associated Press

    High School Career

    Long before his long run at Kansas State, Bill Snyder spent a decade in the high school ranks in California, getting his start at Indio High School before transitioning to Santa Ana Foothill. "He was too good for high school," former Santa Ana Foothill offensive lineman Mike Lubinski told OC Register's Mark Whicker for a 2013 story on Snyder. "But what I remember was his car in the school parking lot. Could be Saturday morning or Sunday night. He was always there."


    College Career

    Even after that decade of high school coaching, Snyder spent another 13 years as an assistant at the collegiate level. He first joined Hayden Fry's staff at North Texas in 1976, and then followed him to Iowa where he stayed until 1988.

    When he finally got his first head coaching job in college football just a few months prior to his 50th birthday, Snyder wasn't exactly inheriting a ready-made success story. Kansas State had gone 0-21-1 over the prior two seasons and had posted more winless records (five) than winning records (two) in the previous three decades.

    It was hardly a surprise or a disappointment when the Wildcats went 1-10 in his first season.

    They quickly improved from there, though, and became an annual factor in the Big 8/Big 12. Kansas State won at least nine games in eight consecutive seasons, finishing each year from 1993-2000 in the AP pollsomething it had never done once before hiring Snyder. From 1997-2003, the Wildcats won at least 11 games in six out of seven seasons.

    Snyder retired after the 2005 season, but he returned to Kansas State in 2009 for another 10 years and 79 more victories. The Wildcats earned a share of the Big 12 title in 2012, opening that campaign with a 10-0 record.

    They never quite made it to No. 1 in the AP poll, but this was still one of the most successful rebuilding projects in college football history. Heck, it wasn't even a rebuild. He built Kansas State from decades of nothing.

4. Jimmy Johnson

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    Jimmy Johnson
    Jimmy JohnsonRAUL DEMOLINA/Associated Press

    High School Career

    Jimmy Johnson's coaching career started at Louisiana Tech. Fresh out of college in 1965, he was given a temporary job coaching defense while a Bulldogs assistant was recovering from a heart attack. Unable to find a college job elsewhere for the following season, he took an assistant job at Picayune Memorial High School in Mississippi. Per a 1992 Sports Illustrated article on Johnson: "Because he didn't have teaching credentials, he had to monitor study hall. That's how badly he wanted to coach."


    College Career

    Following those two initial pit stops, Johnson went through assistant jobs at Wichita State, Iowa State, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Pittsburgh before becoming Oklahoma State's head coach in 1979. In his half-decade with the Cowboys, he oscillated between winning and losing records, going 29-25-3 overall.

    Then came the big break.

    After leading the Miami Hurricanes to a national championship in 1983, head coach Howard Schnellenberger decided to take his talents to the USFL to become the head coach, general manager and part owner of a franchise that was supposed to relocate to Miami. That deal fell through (and the USFL fell apart altogether soon after), but not before Miami had hired Johnson to replace Schnellenberger.

    Johnson began that chapter of his career with a marquee victory over No. 1 Auburn, but it was the second season when things really took off. Johnson went 44-4 overall from 1985-88, including an undefeated national championship season in 1987. In both 1986 (Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl) and 1988 (at Notre Dame), his only loss came against an undefeated national champion.

    And just like that, he was gone, off to the NFL to win a couple of Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys. Though his tenure as a college head coach only lasted 10 years, there's no denying he's one of the best with high school roots.

3. Lloyd Carr

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    Lloyd Carr
    Lloyd CarrPAUL SANCYA/Associated Press

    High School Career

    In 1967, Lloyd Carr quarterbacked Northern Michigan University to an undefeated season. One year later, he was an assistant coach at Nativity High School. He spent two seasons there and three as an assistant at Belleville High School before becoming the head coach of John Glenn High School. In 1975the last of his eight seasons coaching at the high school levelCarr went 8-1 and was named Regional Class A Coach of the Year.


    College Career

    Like Jimmy Johnson, Carr left a lasting imprint in spite of a relatively brief time on the head coaching scene.

    In Carr's case, though, it's not because he left for the NFL and a second career as a studio analyst, but rather because it took so long for him to get his chance to shine. He spent two years as an assistant at Eastern Michigan, two more at Illinois and one summer at West Virginia before a 15-year stretch as a defensive assistant/coordinator at Michigan.

    Even then, it was only because of a May 1995 drunk-in-public incident involving Michigan's previous head coach (Gary Moeller) that Carr was given an interim chance to lead the Wolverines at the age of 50.

    He led Michigan to nine wins and a bowl game in that first year, which would become par for the course. In his 13 years at the helm, the Wolverines averaged 9.4 wins and played in a bowl game each year.

    They earned at least a share of five Big Ten titlesJim Harbaugh is still looking for his first—and went a perfect 12-0 in 1997, splitting co-national champions honors with also-undefeated Nebraska. (This was the final year before the BCS system was implemented.)

2. LaVell Edwards

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    LaVell Edwards
    LaVell EdwardsPAUL WARNER/Associated Press

    High School Career

    While LaVell Edwards spent more time as a high school coach than most of the others on this list, it wasn't a particularly successful stint. When Edwards died in late 2016, Brandon Gurney of Deseret News summed up that portion of his career thus: "1954 to 1962 — Coached for eight years at Granite High School in Salt Lake City. His teams never had a winning record."


    College Career

    After a decade as an assistant coach at BYU, Edwards was handed the reins of the Cougars in 1972.

    He didn't let go of them until 2000.

    In the pre-Edwards half-century of program history, BYU had an overall record of 173-235-23, had never played in a bowl game and had never spent one week in the AP poll. But after a mediocre 25-19-1 record in his first four seasons at the helm, Edwards turned BYU into an annual presence on the national landscape.

    From 1976-92, the Cougars won at least eight games in each season, including a perfect 13-0 year in 1984 which they ended at No. 1 in the AP poll and are generally regarded as the national champion of that season. Edwards also led BYU to a 14-1 campaign in 1996, which was the only time in the entire 20th century that an FBS team won at least 14 games in a single season.

    All told, he won 257 games in his 29 seasons with the Cougars. Soon after his retirement, Cougar Stadium was renamed LaVell Edwards Stadium.

1. Urban Meyer

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    Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow
    Urban Meyer and Tim TebowPhelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    High School Career

    While also playing defensive back at the University of Cincinnati, Urban Meyer spent two years playing minor league baseball in the Atlanta Braves farm system. After that dream fizzled out, he turned his attention to coaching, spending one year (1985) as a defensive backs coach at St. Xavier High School. In 2012, Mitch Stephens of Max Preps tracked down some of the players and coaches from that team to discuss the then-21-year-old's role.


    College Career

    Meyer spent 15 years in assistant positions at Ohio State, Illinois State, Colorado State and Notre Dame before finally getting his chance as a head coach at Bowling Green in 2001.

    From 1995-2000, the Falcons had six consecutive losing seasons under Gary Blackney, culminating in a 2-9 disaster in 2000then the worst season in the program's FBS history. They had nothing to lose when the hired a guy who had been a wide receivers coach for the previous decade. And he immediately thrived to the tune of a 17-6 record in his first two seasons.

    Meyer was then plucked away by Utah to go 22-2 before landing the job at Florida, where he won national championships in two of his first four seasons. Factor in the remarkable seven-year run at Ohio State and his .854 winning percentage (187-32) ranks among the best in FBS history.

    Not many expect this to still ring true after his first season with the Jacksonville Jaguars, but in 17 years as a head coach, Meyer has never had a winning percentage below .615. Not too shabby for a former baseball player who got his coaching start as a high school assistant.


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