From Bear To Bobby To Bo: Greatest College Football Coaches Of All Time
The news of Urban Meyer’s impending retirement has put us into a reflective mood. We have lived in his era, watched him skirt from program to program and made note of how adept he was at constructing national champions and preparing NFL-ready players. We know how great he was at what he did.
Still, they’ve played college football for a long time in this country. At one point, long before the motorhome, trains and horse drawn buggies brought fans to stadium gates. So we have a question: Who is the best college football coach ever? Let’s have a chat.
We begin with the man with a plan. Saban came to Alabama in 2007, has already won five national champions and may add a sixth. Only he and Meyer have won championships with two FBS schools; Saban at LSU, Meyer at Florida since the AP Poll’s birth in 1936.
He has worked for everything. He didn’t become a head coach until 1990 at Toledo. Then he left to work with Bill Belichick and the Cleveland Browns. In 1995, he left to coach Michigan State and then it was off to LSU, where he won his first title following the 2003 season.
Paul “Bear” Bryant
He was super cool, leaning against the goalpost during pregame, wearing his signature black and white houndstooth hat. He coached at Maryland, Kentucky and Texas A&M before leading his alma mater, The Tide, to six national championships and 13 SEC titles over 25 seasons.
When he came to Alabama the program had spiraled to four straight losing seasons, but by 1961 (his fourth season) they achieved an 11-0 record and won the national champion. They won again in 1964 and 1965. After winning in 1973, Alabama won 28 straight to win championships in 1978 and 1979. He died one month after retiring in 1982.
There is a reason 110,000 crowd into Michigan Stadium on game day. Its because of a legacy built early in the 20th century by Fielding Yost. In his first season, 1901, the Wolverines took over the sport outscoring opponents 555-0. We are serious.
Yost won four national titles in his first four seasons (43-0-1), allowing only 44 points, then won two more, his last in 1923. Michigan played in the first Rose Bowl in 1902, beating Stanford 42-0. Yost finally left coaching in 1926 to become Michigan’s athletic director, but not before winning 198 games and 10 Big Ten championships.
For most of us, film reels featuring his pep talks were our first exposure to College Football. The Rock was something. And he was a great coach, winning 102 of 115 games he coached at Notre Dame, the highest winning percentage in history. The Irish were undefeated or lost just once in 11 of his 13 seasons.
Rockne played for ND in 1912 and 1913, both undefeated teams, before coming its coach in 1918. He won national titles in 1919 and 1920. They won two more titles in 1929 and 1930 before his death in a plane crash in 1931.
When Meyer retires following the Rose Bowl, there will be a great void to fill. His success began at Bowling Green, then Utah (22-2), Florida (65 wins) and now the Buckeyes. Did you know he also coached Redskins QB Alex Smith at Utah? And the Utes won the Mountain West with a perfect season in 2004.
With the Gators and Tim Tebow, Meyer won three SEC titles and two national championships from 2006-09. Ironically, Meyer left coaching in 2010 because of the health problems that still plague him before coming to Ohio State in 2012. That first team was undefeated.
He was an irascible so-and-so, wasn’t he, constantly yelling and cajoling and adjusting his headset. But for 28 seasons, he took Ohio State to great heights, winning five national championships (beginning with his 10-0 team in 1954) and 13 Big Ten titles. More importantly – certainly to the alumni – was that he beat Michigan 16 times.
Hayes was also an emotional wreck, especially when the Buckeyes went six seasons in the 1960s without a conference title. And it was that personality that brought about his end when he threw a punch at Clemson’s Charlie Bauman I the 1978 Gator Bowl.
Wilkinson began winning national titles as a University of Minnesota quarterback before becoming Oklahoma’s coach in 1947 when he was just 31. Over the next 13 seasons, he led the Sooners to 13 conference titles, four undefeated seasons and three national championships.
From 1948-50, the Sooners won 31 straight games before losing to Kentucky in the 1951 Sugar Bowl. Between 1953-57, his teams won 47 straight until losing 7-0 to Notre Dame on Nov. 16, 1957. Oklahoma hadn’t been shutout in 120 games. He joined ABC as a broadcaster in 1965 and coached St. Louis in the NFL from 1978-79.
The legacy built by Rockne, for whom he played on national champions in 1929 and 1930, was taken to its next level by Leahy, who won 107 and five national titles in 13 seasons coaching Boston College and The Irish. ND was 36-0-2 with three titles from 1946-49.
Leahy led BC to an 11-0 record and Sugar Bowl title before returning to South Bend in 1941, a 0-0 tie with Army preventing a perfect campaign. Leahy won the 1943 national title before enlisting in the navy. He was 9-0-1 in his final season (1953) before leaving Notre Dame for health.
Amos Alonzo Stagg
It’s hard not to think of Stagg every time you watch a game. This was the guy who basically introduced the forward pass, tackling dummy, uniform numbers, the huddle and linebacking position to the game. Oh, and he also won two national championships at the University of Chicago. He’s a Hall of Famer as a player and coach.
He played at Yale, its first All-American in 1889. His divinity professor at Yale hired him to coach Chicago’s team when he became the university’s president. And Stagg was there from 1892 to 1932, won 227 games and seven Big Ten titles.
There is an All-America team named after him that wines and dines every winter in New Haven. That’s because the former Yale halfback added to Stagg’s innovations by adding downs, the safety and the line of scrimmage. He also won three national titles and had five undefeated seasons in eight years at Yale.
Camp began coaching at Yale University in 1888 and lost only two of 69 games. The 1888 season record was 13-0 and only a 10-0 loss to Princeton in 1889 ruined a second straight perfect season. Camp won the national titles in 1891-92 national championships before going to Stanford.
Osborne was Nebraska football. He won at least nine games in each of his 25 seasons, 18 of his teams finishing in the Top 10. Thing was, it took Osborne 22 years before he won his first national championship. But by then he understood how to do it.
The Cornhuskers won two of the next three (from 1994-97) and he had won 225 games before he was done. What made Osborne so unusual is he didn’t move around. He started as an assistant to Bob Devaney in 1964 and became his offensive coordinator in time to win national championships in 1970-71.
You kids out there likely only remember how it ended. Paterno’s career at Penn State came to its end as a result of the sex abuse scandal involving his trusted assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky. Maybe you saw Al Pacino play “Jo Pa” on HBO?
In real life, no one won more (409) than Paterno. Yale tried to hire him after the 1964 season. He spent 62 years in State College, 46 years as its football coach, coaching in six different decades. The Nittany Lions won 24 bowl games, two national championships, five undefeated seasons, and won three Big Ten crowns.
There was never a baseball player named Little League. But there a football legend named Pop Warner and he was blessed with a fertile imagination. He coached at seven schools, winning four national championships at Pittsburgh and Stanford. He also could multi-task. One on point he coached Iowa State in the preseason and Georgia after that.
His first name was not Pop, by the way. It was Glenn Scobey Warner. And among his contributions to football were the introduction of the single- and double-wing formations, the three-point stance and the concept of how best to throw a block – without holding.
What would a list of great college coaches be without the homespun humorist who turned Florida State into a national powerhouse from 1976-2009? Oh, he had his problems, of course. A major academic scandal rocked the Seminoles program and 14 of his career victories were voided. But he still wound up with 357.
Bowden won two national championships (1993 and 1998) and 12 ACC titles after joining in 1992. His teams won at least 10 games 18 times. He coached 24 All-Americans. The late 1970s were kind. The Seminoles won 10 in 1977, 11 in 1979 and 10 in 1980.
The man’s whose name adorns Tennessee’s football stadium took the Vols to national championships in 1938, 1940, 1950 and 1951. In his first seven seasons as its coach after arriving in Knoxville in 1926, Tennessee lost only two games and his teams were undefeated five times.. From 1938-40, the program was 31-2.
Neyland was also a defensive mastermind, but one who only coached for 20 seasons because of serving eight years in the military beginning in 1941, most in the Pacific theatre. At one point, Tennessee held opponents scoreless for 71 straight quarters, which still stands as the longest in history.
Royal was a year younger than Wilkinson when he began coaching at Mississippi State. There years later, he arrived in Austin and Texas football took flight. During his career, he won 11 SWC titles and three national championships – his first in 1963 – coaching 10 Top 10 teams along the way. His two other titles came in 1969 and 1970.
Ironically, he played for Wilkinson at Oklahoma and later was an assistant for the Sooners. But in terms of getting his own head coaching job, the Longhorn legend first had to go to the Canadian Football League for one year.
When you think of Army football, you think of Earl Blaik and national powerhouses. But he didn’t being his coaching career at West Point. He was at Dartmouth first and it was there that he established him from 1934 to 1940. And it was because of him that assistants like Vince Lombardi and Sid Gillman became legendary NFL coaches.
The Cadets were 27-0-1 during its glory years (1944-46). It won three straight national championships, spawned back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners in Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis and filled stadiums coast to coast. In that three-year run, the Cadets threw 13 shutouts.
Much like Saban and Meyer, Wade lived two separate lives coaching powerhouse programs. He began at Alabama in 1923, where he won his first national championships in 1926 and 1929. His 1926 team was undefeated and put itself on the map with a Rose Bowl win.
But Wade needed another challenge and chose Duke, at that point irrelevant nationally. He joined the Blue Devils in 1930 and they promptly won six SEC titles. He had two eras at Duke (1931-41 and 1946-50). Duke was so impressed by his contribution to its program that it named its football stadium after him.
You have to travel back to the early 20th century to begin learning about Dobie. He debuted at North Dakota State in 1906 before winding up at the University of Washington, where he spent nine seasons an never lost a game (50-0-3). Those credentials led to Navy’s job from 1917-19.
Dobie wasn’t done with traveling. He was 84-3-3 at Cornell and his teams from 1921-23 were national champions. Dobie reached the 100-win mark in just 108 games, a record that still stood until 2014 when a Division III coach broke it. He ended his career at Boston College from 1935-38.
McKay was USC’s coach during the glory days of its program from 1960-75. After getting off to a slow start, his system clicked in 1962 when the Trojans were undefeated and wrapped up the national championship with a 42-37 shootout wi over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.
McKay coached the two greatest halfbacks in USC history, O.J. Simpson and Mike Garrett, both Heisman Trophy winners. He won national championships in 1967, 1972 and 1974. The 1972 team was 12-0 and beat five teams ranked No. 18 or higher by an average of 22 points, never trailing in the second half.
Two decades before Dobie arrived to revolutionize Cornell football, Haughton was winning 17 of 22 games there in his only two seasons, 1899 and 1900. But it wasn’t until he showed up at Harvard in 1908 that his career kicked into gear. Legend says he strangled a Bulldog before that year’s game with Yale.
Once a Harvard player, he began a nine-year stay in Cambridge winning the national championship. The Crimson were undefeated in national championship seasons of 1912 and 1913. He won 72 games with Harvard. His career ended with two seasons at Columbia. He died during the 1924 season.
A Yale star from 1905-07, he returned to New Haven in 1909 and won the national championship with a 10-0 record. That apparently made him search for bigger things – he was apparently humorless and sullen – and he left for Ohio State. That didn’t work out. He returned to Yale in 1913.
In 1916, Jones became Iowa’s coach and won conference titles in 1920-21. Once again, he started looking for something else and wound up coaching Duke in 1924 before arriving at USC in 1925. He coached there until 1940 and won national titles in 1928, 1931, 1932 and 1939.
Sutherland also won national championships with multiple programs, beginning in 1921 with Lafayette. That team (9-0) pitched five shutouts and he won 33 games with the Leopards in five seasons. Pittsburgh, his alma mater, hired him to replace Pop Warner in 1924. He coached there until 1938 when he left for the NFL.
Sutherland won five national championships at Pitt (1929, 1931, 1934, 1936 and 1937). He won 111 games there, perfecting a double-wing that defenses had trouble stopping. Ironically, his decision to leave college coaching came when Pitt’s president decided to eliminate scholarships and cut recruiting funding for the program.
The “Head Ball Coach” led three different programs, Duke, Florida and South Carolina, during his college career. He was a Heisman Trophy-winning QB with the Gators and made a reputation as an offensive-minded coach in college and the professional game.
He actually coached in the United States Football League before becoming Blue Devils coach in 1987 and he won their first conference title since 1962 in his third season. He became Florida’s coach in 1990 and won the 1996 national championship with his “Fun n Gun” offense. After failing as Washington Redskins coach, he arrived at South Carolina from 2005-15.
One of the great characters to coach college football, Holtz worked around the block – William & Mary, N.C. State, Arkansas, and Minnesota – before making a name for himself at Notre Dame from 1986-96. He won 100 games with the Irish and the 1998 national championship with a 12-0 mark.
Holtz is the only college football coach in history to lead six different programs to bowl games (including South Carolina) and four to Top 20 rankings. Of course, he was also the coach who resigned with one game remaining in his only season (1976) as an NFL coach with the Jets.
Schembechler and Hayes had many great battles during his 21 seasons (1969-89) as Michigan coach. He won 194 games with the Wolverines and is still revered to this day after winning 13 Big Ten championships. Only Saban, Paterno and Osborne won 200 times in fewer games than Bo did.
The thing that always bothered him was he was never won the national championship, despite all the great teams and players. In fact, no one has won more games in his career (234) without winning at least one title. You may recall, he began his coaching career at Miami University (1963-68).
How can you construct a list of the game’s greatest coaches without including the one who its greatest trophy is named? The man certainly spent time at a lot of different places – Obelin, Auburn, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Penn, Washington & Jefferson, and Rice.
Pat Mahomes, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning likely know it was Heisman who “legalized” the forward pass in 1906 after dozens of players had been killed during the previous season. That sure helped with Tech, then known as the Yellow Jackets and Golden Tornado. His 1917 team outscored opponents 491-17, including 83-0 over Vanderbilt.
With exception of Paterno, no college football coach was synonymous with his program like Eddie Robinson was with Grambling. He had 45 winning seasons in his 54-year career, winning at least a share of 17 conference championships. He started at Grambling from 1941-42 and then returned from 1945-97.
When he retired he; d won 405 games, including nine bowl games. But he did so much more, even coaching its band and being put in charge of the cheerleaders. He had just one losing season between 1960-90, but hit tough times in the 1990s and finally retired at age 78.
It’s amazing Parseghian even got a chance at Notre Dame considering how tough a time he’d had at Northwestern (36-35-1). But he came to South Bend in 1964 after the Irish had five straight losing seasons and he won a national championship by 1966.
This was the start of another great point in the program’s history. He would win another title in 1973. During his time at Notre Dame, he never had a team ranked lower than No. 15 or one that suffered more than two losses. After retiring from coaching in 1974, he had a long career in broadcasting.
Before his four seasons as coach of the Dallas Cowboys, Switzer went on a wild ride (1973-88) at the University of Oklahoma. Known for his sharp wit and personability, he also was one of few coaches – Pete Carroll and Jimmy Johnson – to win a collegiate national championship and Super Bowl.
Switzer led the Sooners to consecutive titles in 1974 and 1975. A decade later, with linebacker Brian Bosworth setting the tone, he won his third title in 1985 to go along with 12 Big Eight conference titles. His .837 winning percentage is among the highest in college football history.