CFB 150: Top 10 college football coaches of all time | Sporting News (2024)

How tough was it to crack the list of the 10 greatest coaches in 150 years of college football history?

Walter Camp, Howard Jones, Barry Switzer, Jock Sutherland all won at least three national championships. None got a vote from Sporting News' panel to determine the best coaches in the sport's history. Lou Holtz, Bo Schembechler, Vince Dooley, Frank Beamer and Steve Spurrier all won more than 200 games. They weren’t mentioned, either.

CFB 150: Sporting News celebrates 150 years of college football

There was little debate about the top two coaches on the list, but some of those who barely missed the cut are legends whose names and accolades will live forever among those who follow college football.

Some of college football’s best were innovators, some were technicians and some were salesmen. All were winners.

With that, SN presents our 10th entry celebrating 150 years of college football: its top 10 coaches of all time.

10. Frank Leahy

Schools: Boston College, Notre Dame
Record: 107-13-9 (.829)
Postseason: 1-1 (.500)
National championships: 1940 (Boston College, self-claimed), 1943, 1946, 1947, 1949 (Notre Dame)

At the school where Knute Rockne, Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz won championships, it seems Leahy was the best of all. Rockne set the standard for the Fighting Irish, made them nationally relevant, but Leahy lifted them to their greatest sustained period of excellence. Although Army established itself as an overwhelming power at the same time under Red Blaik, Leahy still managed to win titles, one self-claimed, in five of the eight seasons he coached in the 1940s. (The other two, he spent in the Navy). Leahy coached four Heisman Trophy winners with the Irish.

9. Glenn “Pop” Warner

Schools: Iowa State, Georgia, Cornell, Carlisle, Pitt, Stanford, Temple
Record: 311-103-32 (.697)
Postseason record: 1-2-1 (.375)
National championships: 1915, 1916, 1918 (Pitt), 1926 (Stanford)

Warner was among the men who established the template for major-college football coaches, along with Walter Camp, John Heisman and Amos Alonzo Stagg. As the game grew through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Warner moved among schools in search of a more livable wage, and his on-field success kept him in demand. Some of his greatest success came at Carlisle, a school for Native Americans where Jim Thorpe became a national star. After moving across the state to Pitt, he led the Panthers to a 30-game winning streak, including a 1916 team that shut out six of its eight opponents and a 1917 team that posted another perfect season but was not acclaimed as champion.

8. Urban Meyer

Schools: Bowling Green, Utah, Florida, Ohio State
Record: 187-32 (.854)
Postseason record: 12-3, (.800)
National championships: 2006, 2008 (Florida), 2014 (Ohio State)

One wonders whether Meyer would have ranked higher if he hadn’t twice had his coaching career interrupted, first because of health issues after six years at Florida and then again after seven years of excellence at Ohio State. Meyer never has had a season worse than 8-5 and won double-digit games in 12 of 17 seasons, including his entire run at Ohio State. He posted two undefeated seasons — curiously, those were not his national championship years. One of them came at Utah, which was not invited to the BCS Championship game in 2004, and the other in his first year at Ohio State, when the Buckeyes were not eligible for the postseason because of issues that occurred under a prior coach.

7. Eddie Robinson

School: Grambling State
Record: 408-165-15 (.694)
Postseason record: 9-10 (.474)
National championships: 1955, 1967, 1972, 1974-75, 1977, 1980, 1983, 1992 (black college national championships)

Robinson began as Grambling’s coach in 1941 at age 22 and remained in that position through all or part of six decades. He was widely acknowledged as an innovator and teacher, helping produce four Pro Football Hall of Fame players as well as more than 200 who got jobs in the AFL, NFL or CFL. He coached the first African-American quarterback who opened a season as starter for an NFL team (James Harris) as well as the first to win a Super Bowl as starting quarterback (Doug Williams). The standard he established helped Grambling become a brand name by the 1970s, strong enough to syndicate a weekly game highlights program when there were only a few college games on TV each week. Grambling earned nine black college national championships in five different decades during his tenure.

6. Joe Paterno

School: Penn State
Record: 409-136-3 (.746)
Postseason record: 24-12-1 (.649)
National championships: 1982, 1986

Paterno’s is a complicated legacy that will never be untangled after the scandal that precipitated his dismissal from Penn State in 2011. What is definitively true: He was an extraordinary football mind who led the Nittany Lions to five undefeated seasons and more victories than any other coach at the college game’s highest level. Also true, but at least somewhat nebulous: Paterno was made aware of an event in the Penn State football building involving a boy and long-retired defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, who in 2012 was convicted on 45 counts related to alleged sexual abuse of boys and sentenced 30-60 years. Paterno reported that to his superiors, but later admitted, “I wish I had done more.”

5. Bud Wilkinson

School: Oklahoma
Record: 145-29-4 (.815)
Postseason record: 6-2 (.750)
National championships: 1950, 1955-56

Wilkinson was just 31 when he was promoted from assistant to head coach, and he rarely was less than brilliant during his too-brief career in charge of the Sooners. His first team finished 7-2-1 and ranked in the top 20; his last finished 8-2 and ranked in the top 10. In between there were eight double-digit win seasons, a 31-game winning streak between 1948 and 1950 and a record-47 consecutive victories from 1953-57, two of the eight longest streaks in the game’s history. Wilkinson credited his college coach at Minnesota, Bernie Bierman (a five-time national champion), with teaching him 99 percent of what he knew about the game and the motivations to be great. It was that last one percent, though, that separated Wilkinson from his peers.

4. Woody Hayes

Schools: Denison, Miami (Ohio), Ohio State
Record: 238-72-10 (.744)
Postseason record: 6-6 (.500)
National championships: 1954, 1957, 1961, 1968, 1970 (Ohio State)

Can you imagine how delighted Hayes would be to know there are just three coaches ranked ahead of him on this list — and none of them is Michigan's Bo Schembechler? This is the guy who loathed Michigan so deeply he declined to used its proper name. He called it “That Team Up North.” In 1968, when his Buckeyes were rolling over Michigan on the way to the national championship, they scored a touchdown to go ahead by 34 points in the final minutes. Hayes ordered the Buckeyes to try for a 2-point conversion. Asked afterward why he made that decision, Hayes responded, “Because the rules won’t let you go for three.” Hayes famously avoided the forward pass, once saying, “There are three things that can happen when you pass, and two of them are bad.” Hayes’ career, however, ended in a most bizarre fashion: Toward the end of the 1978 Gator Bowl against Clemson, a Buckeyes pass was intercepted by Charlie Bauman, clinching victory for the Tigers. He was tackled near the OSU sideline, and Hayes stepped forward and punched Bauman beneath his chin strap. He was fired the next day.

3. Tom Osborne

Schools: Nebraska
Record: 255-49-3 (.831)
Postseason record: 12-13 (.480)
National championships: 1994-95, 1997

It took an extra decade for Osborne to claim a national title after what might have been his greatest team, the 1983 squad led by Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier, rallied to trail by a point in the Orange Bowl against Miami and opted to try for a winning 2-point conversion rather than the tie that would have resulted in a No. 1 poll ranking. “I don’t think any of our players would be satisfied with backing into it,” he said after his team's pass attempt fell incomplete. He never coached a team that failed to make a bowl game or won fewer than nine games. Fifteen times his Huskers won double-figure games, including each of the final five seasons. The program was soaring at the time he decided to retire at age 60; Nebraska compiled a 60-3 record in those last five seasons, winning two outright titles and a share of another in the span of four seasons.

2. Paul "Bear" Bryant

Schools: Maryland, Kentucky, Texas A&M, Alabama
Record: 323-85-17 (.760)
Postseason record: 15-12-2 (.517)
National championships: 1961, 1964-65, 1973, 1978-79 (Alabama)

Bryant was so gifted at his profession that perhaps the only coach who ever got the better of him worked in a different sport: Kentucky basketball coach Adolph Rupp, who had established such a standard that Bryant felt he’d never be able to lift the school’s football program out of that shadow — even though he’d won three bowl games and finished 11-1 in 1950 (breaking Wilkinson's 31-game win streak in the process). He rebuilt Texas A&M from 1-9 in 1954 to 9-0-1 just two years later. Soon after, he returned to his alma mater and conceived the most consistent, enduring power in college football. By the time he retired at Alabama in 1982, he had accounted for more than half of the Crimson Tide's 11 national championships. Biographers explained he had a goal of integrating SEC football as early as his time at Kentucky, but was not successful; it was even more difficult at Alabama under segregationist governor George Wallace. But after the Tide were destroyed at home by Southern California and running back Sam Cunningham in 1970, the restriction began to change. Alabama returned to the top of the game with such players as Ozzie Newsome, Woodrow Lowe and Dwight Stephenson, who helped Bryant to his final three national titles.

1. Nick Saban

Schools: Toledo, Michigan State, LSU, Alabama
Record: 245-63-1 (.793)
Postseason record: 14-10 (.583)
National championships: 2003 (LSU), 2009, 2011-12, 2015, 2017 (Alabama)

One of the curiosities of Saban’s dominance is that, despite his seven championships, he has enjoyed only a single undefeated season, in 2009, when the Tide averaged nearly a three-touchdown winning margin and wrecked Texas in the BCS championship game. But he also has never endured a losing season and rung up double-digit victories for 11 (soon to be 12) consecutive years. Throughout that stretch, every one of those teams reached the No. 1 poll ranking during the season, and five finished on top. Saban is leader of a new breed of college coaches: more business-like (he holds a degree in business from Kent State) and less colorful (except when he appears as himself in “The Blind Side” or makes a humorous commercial for AFLAC) than many past legends. His facility at attracting elite talent and developing those prospects who choose to play for Alabama has not only led to team success, but also to 29 NFL first-round picks.

As a seasoned enthusiast with a deep understanding of college football history, I can confidently delve into the concepts mentioned in the article about the top 10 coaches in 150 years of college football. The selection process involves a comprehensive analysis of each coach's achievements, records, and impact on the sport.

The article discusses legendary coaches who, despite remarkable accomplishments, did not make the cut for the top 10. It emphasizes the diversity among these coaches, categorizing them as innovators, technicians, and salesmen, all united by their winning records.

Now, let's break down the information provided for each coach in the top 10:

10. Frank Leahy:

  • Schools: Boston College, Notre Dame
  • Record: 107-13-9 (.829)
  • National Championships: 1940 (Boston College, self-claimed), 1943, 1946, 1947, 1949 (Notre Dame)
  • Leahy is highlighted for leading Notre Dame to its greatest sustained period of excellence, winning titles in five of the eight seasons he coached in the 1940s.

9. Glenn "Pop" Warner:

  • Schools: Iowa State, Georgia, Cornell, Carlisle, Pitt, Stanford, Temple
  • Record: 311-103-32 (.697)
  • National Championships: 1915, 1916, 1918 (Pitt), 1926 (Stanford)
  • Recognized as one of the architects of major-college football coaching, Warner's success spanned various schools, including a remarkable winning streak at Pitt.

8. Urban Meyer:

  • Schools: Bowling Green, Utah, Florida, Ohio State
  • Record: 187-32 (.854)
  • National Championships: 2006, 2008 (Florida), 2014 (Ohio State)
  • Meyer's coaching prowess is acknowledged, with a focus on his consistent excellence, interrupted twice by coaching career breaks due to health issues.

7. Eddie Robinson:

  • School: Grambling State
  • Record: 408-165-15 (.694)
  • National Championships: 1955, 1967, 1972, 1974-75, 1977, 1980, 1983, 1992 (black college national championships)
  • Robinson's long tenure at Grambling State is highlighted, emphasizing his innovation, teaching, and the impact on the careers of numerous players.

6. Joe Paterno:

  • School: Penn State
  • Record: 409-136-3 (.746)
  • National Championships: 1982, 1986
  • Paterno's complex legacy is acknowledged, citing his extraordinary football acumen, leadership of Penn State to five undefeated seasons, and the scandal that led to his dismissal.

5. Bud Wilkinson:

  • School: Oklahoma
  • Record: 145-29-4 (.815)
  • National Championships: 1950, 1955-56
  • Wilkinson's brief yet brilliant career at Oklahoma is highlighted, with an emphasis on his winning streaks and the influence of his college coach, Bernie Bierman.

4. Woody Hayes:

  • Schools: Denison, Miami (Ohio), Ohio State
  • Record: 238-72-10 (.744)
  • National Championships: 1954, 1957, 1961, 1968, 1970 (Ohio State)
  • Hayes' intense rivalry with Michigan and his unique coaching philosophy, avoiding the forward pass, are emphasized, along with his unexpected career end in 1978.

3. Tom Osborne:

  • School: Nebraska
  • Record: 255-49-3 (.831)
  • National Championships: 1994-95, 1997
  • Osborne's coaching career is detailed, including his prolonged success, decision-making in critical moments, and Nebraska's dominance during his tenure.

2. Paul "Bear" Bryant:

  • Schools: Maryland, Kentucky, Texas A&M, Alabama
  • Record: 323-85-17 (.760)
  • National Championships: 1961, 1964-65, 1973, 1978-79 (Alabama)
  • Bryant's coaching prowess is highlighted, from rebuilding Texas A&M to creating a consistent football powerhouse at Alabama, contributing to more than half of the Crimson Tide's national championships.

1. Nick Saban:

  • Schools: Toledo, Michigan State, LSU, Alabama
  • Record: 245-63-1 (.793)
  • National Championships: 2003 (LSU), 2009, 2011-12, 2015, 2017 (Alabama)
  • Saban's dominance and leadership style are discussed, emphasizing his seven championships, sustained success, and his role in developing NFL talent.

The article provides a comprehensive overview of each coach's impact on college football, considering their unique coaching styles, achievements, and contributions to the sport's history.

CFB 150: Top 10 college football coaches of all time | Sporting News (2024)
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