Top College Football Coaching Hires of the Last 5 Years

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistOctober 21, 2021

Top College Football Coaching Hires of the Last 5 Years

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    Luke Fickell
    Luke FickellJeff Dean/Associated Press

    Hiring coaches is extremely difficult.

    That's the short version of a very, very long conversation. Many head coaches last a half-decade or less at their program, and assistants are known to move regularly.

    In that timespan, though, a select group of administrators and team leaders have identified a near-perfect hire for their program.

    The list is limited to head coaches and coordinators—including one with a passing or running game emphasis—whose initial season in a role happened in the 2017 season or later.

    Additionally, both internal and external hires are considered. For example, Oklahoma promoted Lincoln Riley from his role as the offensive coordinator, while Cincinnati and LSU hired Luke Fickell and Joe Brady, respectively, from a different organization.

Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma Head Coach

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Lincoln Riley made a name for himself as East Carolina's offensive coordinator, and Bob Stoops took notice. The legendary Oklahoma head coach hired Riley to run his offense in 2015.

    After two years as the Sooners' OC, he replaced a retiring Stoops and took control of the program.

    Through four seasons, Riley posted a 45-8 record with a Big 12 title in each year. Oklahoma made the College Football Playoff in the first three campaigns and has annually reeled in a top-12 recruiting class during Riley's tenure.

    Since the Sooners have a 7-0 mark to begin 2021, that trend of success seems unlikely to end soon.

Luke Fickell, Cincinnati Head Coach

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Luke Fickell mostly only knew Ohio State.

    As a player from 1992 to 1996, he redshirted as a freshman and then was a four-year starter. Fickell spent one year in the NFL and joined the Ohio State staff as a graduate assistant in 1999. He left to coach Akron's defensive line and then returned in 2002 and stayed in Columbus through 2016. Fickell even served as the interim coach after Jim Tressel's resignation in 2011.

    But when Cincinnati came calling for the 2017 season, Fickell accepted his first full-time opportunity to lead a program.

    Following a 4-8 debut, he's made the Bearcats into a national threat. They recorded back-to-back 11-win campaigns in 2018 and 2019, and the 2020 team finished 9-1 with a New Year's Six bowl berth. This season, Cincinnati is 6-0 and has climbed to No. 2 in the AP pollthe highest ranking in program history.

    Cincinnati's success under Fickell is no small contributor to the school's impending move from the AAC for the Big 12.

Matt Rhule, Baylor Head Coach

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    Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

    In the aftermath of Baylor's sexual-assault scandal, the program had an awful reputation.

    The school hired Matt Rhule to develop a positive culture, and all indications are he did exactly that.

    Strictly on the field, the Bears thrived.

    No, it didn't happen immediately. They endured a 1-11 year in 2017 before registering a 7-6 record in 2018. Foundation laid and structure restored, Baylor notched an 11-1 start in 2019 before falling in both the Big 12 Championship Game and Sugar Bowl.

    Rhule then departed for the Carolina Panthers and the NFLand his first offensive coordinator also appears on this list.

Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin Defensive Coordinator

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Rounding out the group of 2017 hires is Jim Leonhard, the former Wisconsin safety who is excelling at his alma mater.

    Leonhard, a 10-year NFL veteran, returned to Madison as the defensive backs coach in 2016. Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox departed for Cal after that season, and UW head coach Paul Chryst promoted Leonhard into the role.

    Under his leadership, the Badgers have boasted three top-20 units in yards allowed per play and are routinely one of the strongest-third down defenses. Plus, the 2021 team (as of Week 8) holds top-five rankings in both categories.

    Most notably, Wisconsin's high-end performance has drawn NFL attention. Following the 2020 season, Leonhard turned down an offer from the Green Bay Packers to run their defense.

Mario Cristobal, Oregon Head Coach

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    Andy Nelson/Associated Press

    Mario Cristobal won a pair of national championships while playing for Miami, and he built a strong reputation as Florida International's head coach from 2007 to 2012. After a head-scratching dismissal, he initially joined Miami's staff before Nick Saban stole Cristobal and added him to the Alabama sideline in 2013.

    Four years later, he linked up with Willie Taggart at Oregon and served as the co-offensive coordinator. Taggart left for Florida State in 2018, and Cristobal landed the promotion.

    So far, so good.

    Oregon finished 9-4 in his debut season and 12-2 with a Pac-12 title in 2019. While the Ducks repeated as Pac-12 champions when COVID-19 protocols forced Washington to withdraw from its title matchup with USC, it was another league crown nonetheless.

    Along the way, Oregon has become a major factor for California talent and landed a top-11 overall class in three full recruiting cyclesand should be headed for a fourthunder Cristobal.

Billy Napier, Louisiana Head Coach

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    Brian Blanco/Associated Press

    Does your favorite program need a new coach in 2022?

    Say hello to Billy Napier.

    Fired as Clemson's offensive coordinator early in the Dabo Swinney era, Napier resurrected his career in the Nick Saban coaching tree. He landed his next coordinator job at Arizona State in 2017, and Louisiana picked him as the head coach before the 2018 season.

    Throughout his first three years, the Ragin' Cajuns notched a 28-11 record and won three Sun Belt West division titles. In 2020, they also appeared in the AP poll for the first time since 1943, shared the league championship with Coastal Carolina and upset No. 23 Iowa State for their first Top 25 victory since 1996.

    It's hard to suggest Louisiana could've made a better hire.

Ryan Day, Ohio State Head Coach

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    Given the nature of Urban Meyer's departure, the path to Ryan Day's takeover at Ohio State isn't exactly a fond memory. However, the Buckeyes made the right choice with Day.

    In 2019, he guided Ohio State to a 13-1 record, Big Ten title and trip to the College Football Playoff. The pandemic-shortened 2020 season ended with the program securing its fourth straight Big Ten crown, along with a return CFP trip. The Buckeyes lost to Alabama in the national championship.

    Ohio State has continued to flex its recruiting muscle under Day, landing a top-five class in both of his cycles as the head coach.

    Sustaining this success is key to Day's long-term perception, but there aren't many negatives right now.

Joe Brady, LSU Offensive Coordinator

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    Danny Karnik/Associated Press

    Joe Brady only spent one season at LSU. That's all he needed to become an iconand a highly coveted coach.

    Before arriving in Baton Rouge, he served as an offensive assistant under New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton. LSU head coach Ed Orgeron needed to modernize the Tigers' passing attack in 2019, and Brady proved to be the perfect person for it.

    In short, the Tigers demolished a bunch of recordsincluding a single-season best of 726 points. Joe Burrow became the first player to collect 6,000 total yards and tossed a record 60 touchdowns, thanks in large part to the schemes Brady installed.

    Shortly after LSU cruised to its national title, Brady became Rhule's offensive coordinator in Carolina.


    All recruiting information via 247Sports. Stats from, or B/R research. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.


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