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The 150 greatest coaches in college football’s 150-year history

The 150 greatest coaches in college football's 150-year history
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The lifespan of a game is measured in hours. A team comes and goes in a season. A player lasts no more than four years; these days, if he’s good and stays healthy, three.

But a coach? A coach is different. Coaches define eras. In a sport in which we root for laundry, a coach humanizes those colors, becomes as much a symbol as the mascot.

The first four men selected among the 150 Greatest Coaches, as selected by our blue-ribbon panel of 150 media members, administrators and former players and coaches, span more than a century of the sport. No. 3 Knute Rockne debuted in 1918. No. 2 Nick Saban just concluded the 2019 regular season. Between those two, No. 1 Paul “Bear” Bryant and No. 4 Tom Osborne together coached from the end of World War II to nearly the end of the 20th century. The only decade not covered by these four coaches is the 1930s.

It is a nice daydream to consider what Rockne might have accomplished had his TWA flight from Kansas City to Los Angeles not plummeted into a Kansas prairie.

Saban loves to tell a story that took place in the opening game of 1995, his second season as a head coach and his first game at Michigan State. Defending national champion Nebraska defeated the Spartans 50-10. Saban wondered whether he had what it took to be a head coach. Osborne met him at midfield and told him not to worry. “You’re not as bad as you think you are,” the Nebraska coach said.

Osborne always could judge talent. In fact, that 1995 Huskers team finished fourth among our 150 Greatest Teams. And Saban turned out to be pretty good. Bryant may have earned the edge from our panel because of the longevity of his success. It’s reasonable to believe that the debate over whether Bryant is a better coach than Saban will endure at Alabama for as long as hounds have teeth.

Both men are great examples of how coaches define eras. Twenty of the top 25 coaches (as defined by our panel) coached more than 20 seasons. Longevity has its place, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said. The two coaches with the shortest (13 seasons) tenures in the top 25, Rockne and No. 10, Frank Leahy, coached at Notre Dame, where pressure has extracted a cost since Rockne transformed the school into the first national college football program in the 1920s.

If coaches define eras, then the greatest benefit of this list is how it creates a historical mosaic of the sport.

For instance, Rockne coached Frank Thomas (No. 67), who at Alabama coached Bryant (No. 1). Bernie Bierman (No. 65), whose name has returned to the lips of Minnesota fans now that P.J. Fleck has revivified the Gophers, coached Bud Wilkinson (No. 6), whose first great star may have been Darrell Royal (No. 38).

Not only that, all four NCAA divisions and the NAIA are represented. John Gagliardi, the all-time leader in wins (489) at any level, is No. 16. Nine HBCU coaches made the top 150, from No. 5 Eddie Robinson of Grambling to No. 145 W.C. Gorden of Jackson State.

Take this list, pour a beverage, and read it and weep. Or weed it and reap the benefit of knowing better than the panel. It is, as always, for entertainment purposes only. — Ivan Maisel

1. Paul (Bear) Bryant, 323-85-17 career record
Maryland (1945; 6-2-1 record), Kentucky (1946-53; 60-23-5), Texas A&M (1954-57; 25-14-2) and Alabama (1958-1982; 232-46-9)

Bryant won two national championships at Alabama in the 1960s playing one-platoon football. He won three more in the 1970s playing several platoons, waves of players on each side of the ball. He won throwing the ball. He won running the ball. As the Texas philosopher/football coach Bum Phillips, a one-time Bryant assistant at Texas A&M, said, “He could take his’n and beat your’n, and he could take your’n and beat his’n.” He made players out of boys and head coaches out of assistants. As one of his favorite players, Crimson Tide lineman Jerry Duncan, said recently, “God, what a man.”

2. Nick Saban, 242-65-1
Toledo (1990; 9-2), Michigan State (1995-99; 34-24-1), LSU (2000-2004; 48-16) and Alabama (2007-present; 151-23)

Saban didn’t start out as the greatest coach in the past 50 years. He won at Toledo and Michigan State but not enough to win a conference title. He came to LSU with a reputation of not staying anywhere too long. In five seasons, he won the Tigers’ first national title in 45 years. And then he left for the NFL. That lasted only two years, and when he returned to the college game, at LSU’s SEC West rival Alabama, the clock began ticking until he would leave again. After 13 seasons, five national championships and the most successful run in the modern game, it’s still ticking.

3. Knute Rockne, 105-12-5
Notre Dame (1918-30)

Rockne created modern coaching. He was a brilliant tactician, to be sure, but he also created the coach as CEO. He marketed his small, Midwestern Catholic institution in America’s biggest cities, taking his team to where the immigrant Catholics could root for them. He applied his motivational skills to business as a top executive for Studebaker cars — while he coached. And Notre Dame kept winning. He had five unbeaten seasons and won four national titles (1919, 1924, 1929 and 1930). Rockne’s winning percentage of .881 remains first among FBS coaches nearly a century after he died in a plane crash in 1931 at age 43.

4. Tom Osborne, 255-49-3
Nebraska (1973-97)

Behind that dry, spare demeanor lived a sharp football mind with a sly wit and a fierce competitive streak. Osborne spent most of his career with the Huskers saddled with the honor of having gone for two and failing against Miami when an extra point surely would have given Nebraska the 1983 national title. Late in his career, he pivoted from his team’s devotion to brute strength and put more speed on defense. In his last five seasons, Nebraska won three national championships, lost a fourth on the last play of the game and had a won-loss record of 60-3.

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Legendary Grambling coach Eddie Robinson’s great grandson Sean Moore recalls just how impactful his great grandfather was to college football.

5. Eddie Robinson, 408-165-15
Grambling (1941-42, 1945-1997)

Robinson did it all at Grambling. That’s not an overworked cliché about an outstanding coach. That’s the truth. He lined the field. He directed the band. He taped the ankles. And he sent hundreds of players to professional football, four of whom — Paul “Tank” Younger, Junious “Buck” Buchanan, Gary Johnson and Doug Williams — reached the College Football Hall of Fame. Robinson took over in 1941 at age 22. In his second season, the Tigers went 9-0 — unbeaten, untied and unscored upon. Under Robinson, Grambling won nine black college national championships and 17 SWAC titles.

6. Charles (Bud) Wilkinson, 145-29-4
Oklahoma (1947-63)

As a player on Minnesota’s powerful teams in the mid-1930s, Wilkinson started at guard for two seasons, and then moved to quarterback. He excelled everywhere he played, a trait he passed on to the Sooners for more than a decade. After taking over Oklahoma at age 31, Wilkinson led the Sooners to a 31-game unbeaten streak from 1948-50. That paled before the modern FBS record streak by Oklahoma of 47 unbeaten games from 1953-57. Wilkinson retired at 47, spent and looking for a new challenge. He ran for the U.S. Senate and lost, and became a fixture in college football broadcasting for ABC Sports.

7. Joe Paterno, 409-136-3
Penn State (1966-2011)

After 16 seasons as a Nittany Lions assistant, Paterno ascended to the head coaching job. Penn State soon ascended, too — to national prominence, to two national championships in the 1980s, and to the Big Ten, the first team to shift from independence to a conference in what would become the realignment era. Paterno called his plan the Grand Experiment, believing that Penn State could be a national power without sacrificing academics. He pulled it off, too, including five unbeaten seasons. Paterno was fired in November 2011 for his involvement in the Jerry Sandusky scandal. He died two months later.

8. Bobby Bowden, 377-129-4
Howard College (1959-62; 31-6), West Virginia (1970-75; 42-26) and Florida State (1976-2009; 304-97-4)

When Bowden arrived at Florida State, it was a midsize independent, not above taking a paycheck game to keep the athletics department’s doors open. When he left 43 years later, the Seminoles had established themselves as a national power. From 1987-2000, Bowden’s Seminoles finished in the top five every season, including two national titles (1993, 1999). After joining the ACC in 1992, Florida State won 12 of the next 14 ACC titles. Bowden loved fireworks on offense and fast, physical play on defense. He developed two Heisman winners (Charlie Ward, Chris Weinke) and a generation of goodwill for Florida State.

9. Woody Hayes, 238-72-10
Denison (1946-48; 19-6), Miami (Ohio) (1949-50; 14-5) and Ohio State (1951-78; 205-61-10)

He is remembered for his excesses, such as his overreliance on a physical running game. Everyone knew Hayes’ game plan. But the Buckeyes executed it so well (five national titles, 13 Big Ten titles) that it didn’t matter; such as his overreaction on the sideline to anyone or anything that didn’t go the Buckeyes’ way; such as going overboard when he slugged Charlie Baumann after the Clemson linebacker made a game-clinching interception for the Tigers to defeat the Buckeyes in the 1978 Gator Bowl. He was fired the next day, and beloved anyway.

10. Frank Leahy, 107-13-9
Boston College (1939-40; 20-2) and Notre Dame (1941-43, 1946-53; 87-11-9)

He spoke in courtly language, referring to his players as “lads,” but no one mistook that gentlemanly demeanor as anything other than good manners. Leahy would do anything to win and rarely did anything but win. His postwar teams at Notre Dame were so good — the freshmen who enrolled in 1946 never lost a game — that backups enjoyed long NFL careers. The Irish won four national titles in seven years. Leahy drove his players no harder than he drove himself. The stress became so great that he nearly died during the 1953 season. He retired at age 45 and never coached again.

11. Glenn (Pop) Warner, 336-114-32
Georgia (1895-96; 7-4), Iowa State (1895-99; 18-8), Cornell (1897-98, 1904-06; 36-13-3), Carlisle (1899-1903, 1907-14; 113-42-8), Pittsburgh (1915-23; 60-12-4), Stanford (1924-32; 71-17-8) and Temple (1933-38; 31-18-9)

It’s rare that any coach has a once-in-a-generation back. Warner won so long that he had two. Under Warner, Carlisle Indian Industrial School rose to national prominence on the athletic prowess of Jim Thorpe. In the 1920s, using the single-wing offense that Warner created at Carlisle, Ernie Nevers led Stanford to the Rose Bowl. Warner is credited with three national titles, two at Pittsburgh and one at Stanford. He is also credited with creating the double-wing formation, three-point stance, the hidden-ball trick and many other innovations. Warner retired at age 67 from Temple and returned to Palo Alto. The next season, Warner accepted an offer to help a young head coach at San Jose State. The Spartans went 13-0.

12. John McKay, 127-40-8
USC (1960-75)

A once-proud program had struggled for most of the post-war era. And then John McKay arrived at USC, the perfect guy for the moment. He had good looks, an unflappable demeanor and a terrific sense of humor. The Trojans held the attention of the Southland even as the Dodgers, the Rams and the Lakers rose to the top of pro sports. McKay’s Trojans dominated opponents. Big, agile linemen cleared the way for fleet running backs, year after year after year. USC won four national titles and nine Pac-8 titles under McKay. Eleven of his players are in the College Football Hall of Fame.

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Former Oklahoma head coach Barry Switzer recalls the first time he met linebacker Brian Bosworth on the recruiting trail.

13. Barry Switzer, 157-29-4
Oklahoma (1973-88)

He would tell you he was going to beat your ass — he never strayed far from the profane — and then he did it. It was less braggadocio than plain ol’ honesty. The Sooners beat everyone: Switzer’s winning percentage against ranked opponents was .662. During his tenure, Oklahoma won three national and 12 Big Eight titles, this in an era when Tom Osborne coached Nebraska. When other powers in the South and Southwest moved gingerly toward integration, if at all, Switzer embraced it. The black players he signed out of Texas empowered the Sooners and spelled the end of Darrell Royal at Texas.

14. Amos Alonzo Stagg, 314-199-35
Springfield (1890-91; 10-11-1) Chicago (1892-1932; 244-111-27), Pacific (1933-1946; 60-77-7)

The Grand Old Man of football is credited with inventing everything from the lateral to padded goalposts. He also invented the paid coach. When Chicago hired Stagg and paid him the equivalent of a professor’s salary, it legitimized coaching as a profession. Stagg won seven Western (Big Ten) Conference titles before Chicago decided not to play big-time football any longer. Stagg went to Pacific and coached until he was 84. He was credited with the most wins in college football until Bear Bryant passed him 1981, and the most losses until Watson Brown overtook him in 2014.

15. Ara Parseghian, 170-58-6
Miami (Ohio) (1951-55; 39-6-1), Northwestern (1956-63; 36-35-1) and Notre Dame (1964-74; 95-17-4)

He took Northwestern to the top 10, but it gnawed on him that no one in Chicago cared. They cared about Notre Dame, though. In the ’60s, who didn’t? The Irish had wallowed in mediocrity for more than a decade when he arrived in 1964. Parseghian nearly stole the national title that season. People at Michigan State and Alabama still think he stole the 1966 title, settling for a 10-10 tie with the Spartans because he deduced (cynically? efficiently?) that the Irish would win the debate. No one argued about the 1973 national champs, who defeated the Crimson Tide (the schools’ first meeting) 24-23 in one of the greatest Sugar Bowls ever. He retired a year later, exhausted. He was only 51 years old.

16. John Gagliardi, 489-138-11
Carroll College (1949-52; 24-6-1) and St. John’s (Minnesota) (1953-2012; 465-132-10)

Gagliardi’s teams became better known for what they didn’t do than what they did. They didn’t tackle in practice. They didn’t lift weights. They didn’t practice longer than 90 minutes. And they didn’t lose — not very often, anyway. Gagliardi won four national championships at St. John’s and, between the two campuses, 30 conference titles. That’s one way to look at his career. The other is that he began as a head coach during the Truman Administration and retired after Barack Obama’s re-election.

17. Walter Camp, 78-5-3
Yale (1888-1892; 67-2) and Stanford (1892-95; 11-3-3)

He is less known as a coach than as a man who created so much of the foundation of the game: the 11-man team (down from 15), the line of scrimmage, down and distance, the center snap, the All-America team and even the slush fund. But as you can see from his record, for the eight years that he did coach, Camp knew how to win games. Three of his five Yale teams went undefeated. He coached at Yale and Stanford in 1892 — the latter playing late in the year — before he retired at age 36.

18. Fielding Yost, 198-35-12
Ohio Wesleyan (1897; 7-1-1), Nebraska (1898; 8-3), Kansas (1899; 10-0), San Jose State (1900; 1-0), Stanford (1900; 7-2-1) and Michigan (1901-1923, 1925-26; 165-29-10)

Yost made Michigan into “champions of the West,” just like the song says. His Wolverines won 10 Western (Big Ten) Conference titles and enjoyed a 56-game unbeaten streak from 1901-05. He might have won more league titles, but Michigan left the conference for eight years in a rules dispute. Yost is remembered as a fierce competitor; as a humorless coach who preached sanctimony when it came to NCAA rules while he blackballed Notre Dame from joining the Western Conference; and as a nonstop talker. His early teams were known as point-a-minute teams. No matter how much they scored, it was usually more than the opponent.

19. Earl (Red) Blaik, 166-48-14
Dartmouth (1934-40; 45-15-4) and Army (1941-58; 121-33-10)

Blaik had an advantage when he got to West Point, sure. During World War II, he got the best players in the country. But he knew what to do with them. The Black Knights won national titles in 1944 and 1945 and had a claim on 1946, finishing second to Notre Dame even though they tied the Irish 0-0 in one of the earliest Games of the Century. Blaik enjoyed six unbeaten seasons at Army, which he added to the one at Dartmouth. More than six decades after he left his post, Blaik remains first in wins at Army. That may say something about West Point football in the past 60 seasons. It definitely says something about Blaik.

20. Bo Schembechler, 234-65-8
Miami (1963-68; 40-17-3) and Michigan (1969-89; 194-48-5)

Schembechler won or shared 13 conference titles and coached 25 All-Americans in a 27-year career. He is remembered as a fiery motivator whose teams played great defense. He is also remembered as the best coach never to win a national championship, which had a little something to do with his 2-8 record in Rose Bowls. But there’s another 10-game record for which Schembechler should best be remembered. In the first decade of his 22 seasons in the Big House, Schembechler went 5-4-1 against his mentor, Woody Hayes of Ohio State, in a series known as the Ten Year War.

21. Bobby Dodd, 165-64-8
Georgia Tech (1945-66)

This is how good Dodd was on the Flats: His Yellow Jackets won two SEC titles. They enjoyed a 31-game unbeaten streak over four seasons (1950-53). And they won eight consecutive bowl games over an 11-year span in an era when there weren’t that many bowls. In an era when more was more, Dodd preached less. His players rarely scrimmaged. Yet Bear Bryant labeled Dodd as a coach he hated to see on the opposing sideline. Dodd had an almost supernatural feel for the game. He always thought of something, and his players always executed it. His touch was such that it became known as Dodd Luck: maddening for opponents, but delightful for the Ramblin’ Wreck.

22. LaVell Edwards, 257-101-3
Brigham Young (1972-2000)

Edwards did more than lead the Cougars to 19 conference titles, 10 10-win seasons and that incredible run to the 1984 national championship. He did more than take the vertical passing game and use it as a cudgel to bash down the door to the national elite — although grooming five first-team All-American quarterbacks is pretty cool. Edwards used college football to take a regional religious institution and turn it into a brand. BYU became known for exciting, entertaining, edge-of-the-seat college football, and it proved that three yards and a cloud of dust wasn’t the only way to win games. It was just the old-fashioned one.

23. Lou Holtz, 249-132-7
William & Mary (1969-71; 13-20), NC State (1972-75; 33-12-3), Arkansas (1977-83; 60-21-2), Minnesota (1984-85; 10-12), Notre Dame (1986-1996; 100-30-2) and South Carolina (1999-2004; 33-37)

Holtz always said he believed in “faith, family and football.” The stats (10 top-10 teams, seven 10-win seasons) don’t measure the great work he performed in rebuilding the foundation over six seasons at South Carolina. Nor do they illustrate how he tamed the tiger that is coaching at Notre Dame. He took a floundering Irish program and three seasons later won the 1988 national title. He still thinks he should have won the 1993 title, when the Irish defeated eventual champion Florida State. His record in South Bend stands as tall as anyone’s not named Rockne or Leahy. Holtz left after 11 seasons; he said he didn’t want to coach as long as Rockne (13). Lovely.

24. Vince Dooley, 201-77-10
Georgia (1964-1988)

He arrived in Athens in 1964 to no fanfare, a 31-year-old freshman coach from Auburn who did nothing to lift the spirits of the dispirited Dawg fans. A year later, when Georgia upset defending national champion Alabama 18-17, they realized that Dooley may know how to coach. He retired after a quarter-century in which he won six SEC titles and, thanks to a magical freshman tailback named Herschel Walker, won the 1980 national championship. Dooley remained a fixture in Athens long after he retired, as an athletic director, as a master gardener and as the epitome of what a football coach should be.

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