Who are the best coaches in college football? It’s a question that can fire up any number of fanbases who feel like their coach is a major part of the answer.
Add in the word “history,” and it creates an even bigger debate. It’s a debate ESPN attempted to solve this week when the network released its list of the 150 greatest coaches of all time. The list, which was the result of voting from a “blue-ribbon panel of 150 media members, administrators and former players and coaches,” honored coaches from more than a century, with a few present day coaches overlapping with coaches like Knute Rockne, who started his career in 1918.
We took things a step further, narrowing ESPN’s list to the best coaches who spent at least one year at the helm of a program this millennium (2000-on). That also largely overlaps with the recruiting database era, when how fans felt about a coach could be determined largely by how they fared off the field based on recruiting rankings, and comes in just after the start of the BCS and catches right around when spread offenses began blowing up college football.
So how did ESPN rank the best modern day coaches?
21. Mack Brown
One of the greatest recruiters of all time, Brown drew a fence around “the great state of Texas” in helping the Longhorns win at least 10 games every year from 1999 through 2009. That included national title game appearances after the 2005 and 2009 seasons, with the Longhorns capturing the former under Vince Young. Brown helped guide North Carolina to prominence from 1988-97 and just finished the first regular season of his second term with the Tar Heels, improving North Carolina to 6-6 and a bowl game. Brown also had stints at Appalachian State and Tulane before landing the North Carolina job the first time. Brown is 250-128-1 over his coaching career, and was No. 59 overall on ESPN’s rankings.
20. Chris Petersen
The soon-to-be retired Washington coach came in at No. 58 after helping to build the Boise State program, first as offensive coordinator, then as head coach from 2006-13, then winning big at Washington. Boise State won two BCS games while he was there, while his Washington squads won two conference titles and reached the College Football Playoff.
19. Jerry Moore
They say the third time’s the charm, and after going 11-11 at North Texas and getting fired at Texas Tech, Moore found a home at Appalachian State, where he went 215-87, won three FCS national championships and oh yeah, knocked off Michigan in Ann Arbor in one of college football’s great all-time upsets. That alone is worth the No. 57 spot.
18. Bill Snyder
This could be too low for Snyder, who engineered probably the greatest turnaround in FBS history. Kansas State was laughably bad when Snyder took over, and yet he won there twice, turning the Wildcats into a powerhouse in the mid-to-late 1990s and early 2000s, then coming back after Ron Prince failed in Manhattan, turning the program around again and leading Kansas State to a BCS bowl in his second go-round. No. 55 of all time seems way off.
17. Lloyd Carr
Few programs boast the winning history that Michigan does, and yet when Carr piloted Michigan to a share of the 1997 national title, it marked the Wolverines’ first title in 49 years, and Michigan hasn’t won one since. That would probably be enough to land at No. 50, except that he also won more than 75 percent of his games and five Big Ten titles from 1995-2007.
16. Urban Meyer
No. 46 overall seems way too low for Meyer, who went a combined 39-8 at Bowling Green and Utah before landing the jobs that everyone links to him, Florida and Ohio State. He guided each of those programs to national championships, winning two at Florida and another at Ohio State, and ESPN noted that his 187 wins in 17 seasons leading FBS programs are more than any other coach over that length of time.
15. Frank Beamer
A coach so effective that his style of play earned the nickname of “Beamer Ball” (particularly for Virginia Tech’s dominance on special teams), Beamer came in at No. 45 on ESPN’s list. He was a strong coach at Murray State, but truly helped turn Virginia Tech into a special football program, winning seven conference titles, boasting 13 seasons of 10 wins or more and reaching the national championship game after the 1999 season.
14. Frosty Westering
The average college football fan might not be overly familiar with ESPN’s No. 39 coach, but it’s not for lack of accomplishment. Westering started his career at Parsons and Lea, but he’s best known for building a terrific program and winning four national championships at Pacific Lutheran from 1972-2003, three NAIA Division II championships and an NCAA Division III title in 1999.
13. Pete Carroll
Few coaches seemed to have more fun at their jobs. At No. 37 overall on ESPN’s list, Carroll stockpiled talent to USC from 2001-09 in absurd amounts, leading to a share of the 2003 national championship, the 2004 title outright and even the tag of “greatest team ever” before USC’s loss to Texas in one of the greatest college football teams ever played. ESPN noted that USC was ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll for 33 straight weeks, and won 97 games, though 14 were later vacated.
12. Jim Tressel
Most college football fans are familiar with Tressel’s Ohio State teams, which won 94 games from 2001-10 and the national championship following the 2002 season. But before Tressel set about owning Michigan — he went 9-1 against the Wolverines — he earned the Ohio State job by coaching some dominant squads at Youngstown State, where he won 135 games and four Division I-AA (now FCS) national championships. He came in at No. 35 overall.
11. John Robinson
The No. 33 overall coach on this list, Robinson just made the cut because of his ill-fated time at UNLV from 1999-2004, when he went 28-42. But he coached some excellent USC teams, including one that had two Heisman Trophy winners in the backfield in Charles White running behind a sophomore fullback in Marcus Allen. His USC teams — he coached the Trojans from 1976-82 and from 1993-97 — won 104 games and a piece of the 1978 national championship.
10. Dabo Swinney
Don’t be surprised if Swinney shoots up this list in future years; he’s only been Clemson’s head coach since 2008, and has turned the Tigers into arguably the preeminent power in college football, winning two of the last three national championships and reaching the College Football Playoff in each of the last five years. With a record of 129-30, he doesn’t figure to be outside the top 20 overall — he came in at No. 31 on ESPN’s list — for long.
9. Bob Stoops
Stoops, who came in two spots ahead of Swinney at No. 29, earned an early reputation as “Big Game Bob” for the way his teams showed up in massive contests, including the national championship game in just his second season in 2000. And while critics would later use that as an insult when he didn’t win another national title, he played in championship games after the 2003, 2004 and 2008 seasons and reached the 2016 College Football Playoff. His teams dominated the Big 12 from 1999-2016, winning 10 league championships over that period.
8. Larry Kehres
Few (no?) coaches at any level won the way that Larry Kehres did at Mount Union from 1986-2012, which is why Kehres came in at No. 28 overall on ESPN’s list. Kehres’ Mount Union teams captured an incredible 11 Division III titles in 27 years, with 23 conference championships, and ESPN noted that his 92.9 winning percentage is “the best among any ccoach at any NCAA level.”
7. Steve Spurrier
There wasn’t much old about Ol’ Ball Coach when he took over at Florida, fresh off guiding Duke to an ACC title, with Florida embracing his Fun ’n’ Gun offense like a Wild West gunfighter. That led to Florida’s first-ever national championship in 1996, and Spurrier won six SEC titles with the Gators. He also experienced tremendous success at South Carolina after returning to the college game, winning 86 games over 11 years. One thing about Spurrier—with him coming in at No. 27, one can be he’d be teasing No. 28, 29 and everyone who came in after him.
6. Tubby Raymond
Those who love X’s and O’s are likely to love the inclusion of one Harold “Tubby” Raymond at No. 25, with Raymond helping to perfect — it was actually created by the Delaware coach in front of him, David M. Nelson — the “Delaware Wing-T.” Raymond won 300 games with the offense from 1966-2001, winning three national titles, and one can see sprinklings of his offense — if not outright repackaging — in all kinds of spread and running game concepts to this day.
5. Lou Holtz (No. 23 overall)
Holtz is known as much for his quirks and his quotes as he is for his success as a coach, but sleeping on his accomplishments would be a major mistake. He won at NC State, then Arkansas, and after a brief tenure at Mississippi State, landed the head coaching job at struggling Notre Dame for the 1986 season. Two years later, Notre Dame won the national championship, and the Fighting Irish had a strong argument to have won the 1993 national title as well. Holtz rebooted the talent in South Bend, made Notre Dame relevant again, then left after the 1996 season. From 1999 to 2004 he laid the groundwork to rebuild South Carolina; a foundation Steve Spurrier used to take the program to new heights. For his career, over six different stops, Holtz went 249-132-7.
4. LaVell Edwards (No. 22)
A coach who probably made this list as much for his innovation as his winning, Edwards nonetheless has plenty of the latter, capturing 19 conference championships and winning the 1984 national title. Along the way, BYU became the must-watch school for anyone interested in modernizing their passing attack, as ESPN pointed out, Edwards coached five first-team All-America quarterbacks from 1972-2000. Edwards’ influence can be seen today in the proliferation of Air Raid offenses across the country; his passing game was one of the building blocks for the offense built and made popular by Hal Mumme, Mike Leach and company.
3. Bobby Bowden (No. 8)
One of just three coaches who have coached from 2000-on to reach the top 10 of ESPN’s list, Bowden had success at Howard (31-6) and West Virginia (42-26) before moving on to the school everyone associates him with, Florida State, in 1976. And he churned the Seminoles into a brand name in college football, finishing in the top five in the nation every year from 1987-2000. And when Miami started to fall off just a bit, Bowden was waiting with open arms, churning out some of the most talented teams college football has seen from the mid-to-late 1990s and winning national championships in 1993 and 1999, while playing for titles in 1996, 1998 and 2000. From 1976 to 2009, he won 304 games, and his Seminoles captured 12 of 14 ACC championships after joining the league in 1992.
2. Joe Paterno (No. 7)
Paterno’s tenure at Penn State was marked by his old-school approach. As ESPN wrote, “Paterno called his plan the Grand Experiment, believing that Penn State could be a national power without sacrificing academics.” Academics, no names on the back of the jerseys (much less alternate uniforms) and a whole bunch of wins. Paterno’s teams won two national championships in the 1980s, and his 1994 team is considered one of college football’s great teams not to win the title after an undefeated season. Paterno won 409 games in his Penn State tenure before he was fired in November 2011 after the Jerry Sandusky scandal hit Happy Valley, and he died just two months later.
1. Nick Saban (No. 2)
Perhaps the greatest mix of elite recruiting and X’s and O’s ever to hit college football, Saban came in at No. 2 just behind the Alabama coach whose accomplishments he’s been chasing, Bear Bryant. Saban is perhaps known best for “The Process,” which has come to symbolize the day-to-day way his Crimson Tide have somehow avoided complacency and become a mainstay in the national title race. Speaking of titles, Saban has six of ‘em, one at LSU and five in his 13 years at Alabama, though the more impressive part might be just how often Alabama has competed at a national championship caliber level. Alabama reached the College Football Playoff every year of its existence until this year, and it took a catastrophic injury to the Tide’s Heisman Trophy caliber quarterback to keep ‘em out.