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The Best College Football Coaches

For the last decade, College Sports Fans has been providing football fans with coverage of NCAA football from the MAC and Sun Belt to the SEC and Big 12. Our "Best of College Sports" series, which debuted in 2007, has proven the fans' thirst for knowledge, rankings, the Top 10 and the best of each category and we here at are happy to oblige.

Our list of the Best Active College Football Coaches of 2007 saw then USC head coach Pete Carroll just edge out Florida's Urban Meyer, but as we all know a lot has changed in the past few years. Rich Rodriguez was ranked #5 on the list while at West Virginia - he proceeded to leave for Michigan, get fired at Michigan, and now has Arizona playing Top 25 caliber football.

We recently added our Top Active College Football Coaches heading into the 2014-2015 bowl season, but with a different format. Taking on the look of the new College Football Playoff, our latest rankings pit the Top 4 against each other with 5-12 in the Selection Committee Bowls.

Other sites have focused on off-the-wall Top College Football Coach lists, but we are sticking with the two basics - the Top 10 Active and All-Time lists. Today we take a look at the Best College Football Coaches of All-Time as we look at the great names of Bryant, Hayes, Paterno, Royal, Saban and many more.

Nothing says bragging rights like a Fathead!

Top 10 Best College Football Coaches of All-Time

A few thousand men have commanded the sidelines of a college football team. A few hundred have been memorable (and some for the wrong reasons) and a few dozen legendary. Just about every campus has at least one coach's name associated with it that evokes fond local memories. There have been some coaches though whose achievements are historical.

The following is a top ten list that includes the most elite- the best of the best, as it were. The list is compiled with the consultation of a historian of college football. It includes coaches from the AP Poll era of college football (1936 to the present), so with apologies to the legacies of the likes of Amos Alonzo Stagg, Knute Rockne, Fielding Yost, et al, those names will not be listed here. Those guys were just simply ahead of their time.

The criteria for the list is pretty simple. It takes primarily national and conference championships into consideration. Total number of wins is largely a paper tiger. Granted, a coach has to be pretty good to sustain the kind of longevity it requires to accumulate a large number of wins, but longevity can be deceiving. To wit, current University of Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has the most career wins in the history of Sooner football but that doesn't make him the greatest coach in OU history. (It actually gets him only the bronze medal).

The list...



Devaney – 2 National Titles, 8 Big Eight Championships, 136-30-7 record

Osborne – 2 National Titles, 13 Big Eight/Twelve Championships, 255-49-3 record

The Devaney/Osborne era gets credit as one really long reign.

In 1962, Bob Devaney took over a Nebraska program that had only two winning seasons in the previous 20 years. By his second season in Lincoln, Devaney won the first of his 8 Big Eight championships. In 1970, Devaney brought the Cornhuskers their first national title with an Orange Bowl win over LSU. In 1971, Nebraska fielded what many believe is one of the greatest teams in the history of college football when the national champion Huskers defeated the three teams that finished 2 nd (Oklahoma) 3 rd (Colorado) and 4 th (Alabama) in the final AP poll for the season. The Oklahoma game on Thanksgiving Day has been called The Game of the Century.

When Devaney departed, Osborne took over the program and continued the success. “Dr. Tom's” Cornhuskers won or shared 13 conference championships and took home two national titles in 1994 and 1995. Osborne could have had his first title in 1983 but declined to accept a tie score in the Orange Bowl that season against Miami to win the championship and failed on a two-point conversion at the end of the game. Starting with the first Devaney season, Nebraska had 40 straight winning seasons.


9) BARRY SWITZER – Oklahoma

3 National Titles, 12 Big Eight Championships, 157-29-4 record

After taking over in Norman in 1973, Switzer led the Sooners to an outright or share of the Big Eight championship every year until 1980, and then repeated the feat from 1984 to 1987. In 1974, Coach Switzer led the Crimson and Cream to its first national title since the Bud Wilkinson days though the Sooners didn't play in a bowl game that season. (They were on probation) OU repeated as national champs in 1975 and added one more in 1985 that eventually would end up in the trophy case of the Barry Switzer Center adjacent to Owen Field.

Switzer coached the Dallas Cowboys after his days at Oklahoma and is one of only three men to coach a national championship team and a Super Bowl champion. (The other two are Jimmy Johnson and Pete Carroll)



3 National Titles, 11 Southwest Conference Championships, 184-60-5 record

In the twenty years Royal was the head coach in Austin starting in 1957, the Texas Longhorns never had a losing season. Royal brought the first of eleven conference championships to the Forty Acres in 1959 and Texas' first ever national title in 1963. Royal was the first college coach to employ the wishbone offense in 1968 and the triple option attack was so successful that Barry Switzer and Bear Bryant adopted the scheme to championship success as well. Texas won national titles in 1969 and 1970 with the '69 title coming after their own Game of the Century win over Arkansas with President Nixon in attendance.

Royal was know for a number of sayings (“Royalisms”) and the most well known is “When you throw the football three things can happen...and two of them are bad.” As a defensive back at Oklahoma in the '40's, Royal had three interceptions in one game and 18 career picks – both still stand as OU records.

7) WOODY HAYES – Ohio State

3 National Titles, 13 Big Ten Championships, 238-72-10 record

Hayes came to Columbus in 1951 and brought Ohio State a national title in 1954. Woody also won the first of his 13 Big Ten championships that year. The Buckeyes added national titles in 1961 and 1968. The OSU offensive attack could be described at best as conservative. The phrase “three yards and a cloud of dust” originates with Woody's Bucks. Hayes' time at Ohio State may be best known nationally with the rivalry with Michigan, in particular the so-called Ten Year war in the 1970's sparked in part by the 1968 game in which Ohio State went for a two-point conversion with the score 50-14.

When asked why his team went for two points, Woody replied with “because we couldn't go for three.”


6) JOHN MCKAY – Southern California

4 National Titles, 9 PAC-8 Championships, 127-40-8 record

After going 8-11-1 in his first two seasons at Southern Cal, McKay fully expected that 1962 would be his final year with the Trojans if he wasn't successful. He was. USC went 11-0 and won the national title following a win over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. McKay added titles in 1967, 1972, and 1974. The 1972 team is regarded as one of the best teams ever. USC used the I-formation on offense with the sweep, nicknamed “student body left” and “student body right”, as its biggest weapon. The PAC-8 didn't always provide the toughest of competition for McKay's teams but USC's yearly battles with Notre Dame were classics.

After leaving USC, McKay jumped to the NFL as the first coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The move was mostly a disastrous one, but he did get the Bucs to the NFC title game in 1979. Early in the inept days in Tampa, McKay was asked by the media about the his team's execution during the game. McKay replied with, “I'm all for it.”


5) BERNIE BIERMAN – Minnesota

3 AP National Titles, 7 Big Ten Championships, 135-65-12 record

Bierman actually has five national titles to his name, but the first two in 1934 and 1935 preceded the advent of the AP Poll. Given that the Golden Gophers won the first AP national title in 1936, we're going to count the previous two for the purposes of this adventure. Bierman added back-to-back titles again in 1940 and 1941. Bierman went on to serve in the military in World War II returning to Minneapolis in 1945. Had Bierman not had the gap in his coaching career he may well have had more conference and national titles to his name.

In addition to being a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, Bierman is also a member of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. He was a wildly successful head coach at Tulane before his days at the U of M. One of Bierman's players on his 1935 Minnesota team was an All-American guard...Bud Wilkinson.


4) NICK SABAN – LSU/Alabama

4 National Titles, 4 Southeast Conference Championships, 170-58-1 record

As the only active coach on the list, Saban may well end up moving up the list of legends. Saban took over the LSU program in 2000 winning the SEC in 2001 and 2003. In 2003, Saban led the Tigers to the BCS Championship. He left LSU after the 2004 season for an unsuccessful stint in the NFL. Saban left the NFL for Alabama in 2007 bringing the Crimson Tide SEC championships in 2009 and 2012 and BCS Championships in '09, 2011, and '12. The 2011 Alabama team is the only team in NCAA history to win a national title without winning its conference championship.

Saban played college football for legendary coach Don James and was an assistant coach under Bill Belichick.

3) BUD WILKINSON – Oklahoma

3 National Titles, 14 Big 6/7/8 Championships, 145-29-4 record

When Charles Wilkinson took over the Oklahoma program in 1947 the school had seen some limited prior success but nothing like what was to come. Bud's boys won the 1947 Big Six championship, the first of 13 straight conference titles in the Big 6/7/8. OU won the 1950 national title, the first in the school's history. Wilkinson added back-to-back national titles in 1955 and 1956. Those two championship runs included the Sooners' famous 47-game winning streak. (It still stands as the record today)

In addition to the record 47-game streak, Oklahoma had a 31-game streak from 1948 to 1950. That streak was ended by Kentucky. The head coach of the Wildcats was some guy named Bryant. During the 13 year conference title run that started in 1947, OU didn't lose a conference game until 1959.


2) FRANK LEAHY – Notre Dame

4 National Titles, 107-13-9 record

Leahy took over the Notre Dame program in 1941. Leahy had played for Knute Rockne in the '20s yet scrapped Rockne's box-formation with the T-formation that became the new coach's trademark. Leahy brought a national title to South Bend in 1943 and then left the program for two years to serve in World War II. Leahy returned in 1946 and led the Fighting Irish to national titles in '46, 1947, and 1949. A 14-14 tie with USC in 1948 kept the Golden Domers from winning four straight national championships.

Leahy was an assistant coach at Fordham in the 1930's where his responsibility was the offensive line. That line, nicknamed the Seven Blocks of Granite, included a young guard named Vince Lombardi.


1) BEAR BRYANT – Alabama

5 National Titles, 14 SEC Championships, 1 SWC Championship, 323-85-17

It really was no contest that Paul William Bryant is the number 1 coach on this list.

Bryant produced conference championship teams just about everywhere he went including Kentucky and Texas A&M but it was at Alabama where the Bear became an all-time legend and his influence is still felt in the South over 30 years after his death. The Crimson Tide posted national titles in 1961, 1964, 1965, 1978, and 1979. Bama did also have a split national title in 1973 having been awarded a national championship by UPI prior to losing to Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. It was the last season UPI awarded the title prior to bowl games being played. If you count 1973 then the total titles for the Tide under Bryant is six.

Bryant, though his team was dynastic in the Southeast Conference, convinced the university it was time to integrate Black athletes into the football program by scheduling a home game against Southern Cal. John McKay's (integrated) Trojans routed the Tide and shortly after that Alabama was an integrated team as well. After leading the Tide to a 1982 Liberty Bowl win, Bryant retired as the winningest coach in major college football. After the game, a reporter asked the Bear what he would do now that we was retired. He replied with “probably croak in a week.” Paul Bryant died four weeks later.


In no particular order, and great coaches all:

  • Robert Neyland (Tennessee)
  • Red Blaik (Army)
  • Ara Paseghian (Notre Dame)
  • Bobby Bowden (Florida State)
  • Pete Carroll (USC)
  • Urban Meyer (Florida)


By Jay Kelley
DFN Sports Staff Writer

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