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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Monday, January 30, 2023
Rushad Machhi

The Shad Poll: College Football’s 25 Best Coaches Today

Unlike pro sports, the head coach in college athletics is far and away the most important person in the program. While some head coaches in the big leagues carry the dual title of GM and head coach, every head coach in the preps has to be both.

With the college football season underway, I decided to rank the best head football coaches in the sport today, based on not only the recent past, but their whole careers. Essentially, if I had to start a program from scratch, I would try my best to poach this coach. To avoid writing a novel, I decided to stay in line with the NCAA tradition of ranking only the top 25, as well as a few vote receivers who just missed the cut.

To avoid confusion by calling it “The Coaches Poll”, it shall be selfishly named “The Shad Poll." The good news about this great new poll is that I will not be using some confusing formula that no one can figure out like the BCS, which in itself is cause for celebration. Instead, I will be using a few guidelines outlined here:

Has the coach been able to sustain success? Gus Malzahn and Jimbo Fisher are two relatively new coaches who met in the national championship game last year, and both look like they will be stars for many years to come. However, the same was said about Gene Chizik a few years ago after he won a title at Auburn, and then this happened. Thanks to Chizik, proven success will be a huge factor in these rankings.

Has the coach been able to win at all of his stops? Rich Rodriguez won tons of football games at West Virginia, but was never able to find anywhere close to the same success at Michigan. The best coaches should be able to win everywhere.

Has the coach improved the program? What’s more impressive: Urban Meyer continuing to win at Ohio State or Steve Spurrier rescuing South Carolina from the college football jungle and turning the program into a powerhouse? To me, the latter is much more significant.

Only current head coaches will be considered. This eliminates former Pac-101 BFFs Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll, who would have been near the top of this list when they both still coached.

Week one of the 2014 season did happen, but for the most part the outcomes from those games will not influence this list. This list takes into account a coach’s complete resume, not one game.

Alright, let’s get going with the list, starting with a few vote getters that barely missed the cut. Remember, all opinions and rankings are mine, and should be accepted by everyone immediately.

The Vote Receivers

Bronco Mendenhall: 10th year at BYU; 83-33 overall, 6-3 bowls; two Mountain West titles.

If this poll included “best names” in its criteria, Bronco certainly would be ranked. Alas, it does not. Bronco has upheld BYU’s football tradition valiantly, never missing out on a bowl, and continuing to post solid records even after leaving the Mountain West. However, Bronco did spend most of his tenure outside of a major BCS conference, and was never able to go undefeated and earn that automatic BCS bowl bid, which in the end keeps him off this poll.

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Jim Mora Jr.: third year at UCLA; 20-8 overall, 1-1 bowls.

Mora Jr. has revitalized UCLA, but he only has two years of college coaching under his belt. This year will be huge for him, as he has a very talented team that could make some noise in the Pac-12 and most importantly propel him in the next edition of the Shad Poll.

The Poll

25. Gary Andersen: second year at Wisconsin; Utah State (2009-’12); 39-36 overall, 1-2 bowls; one WAC title.

Andersen had a solid first season at the helm of Wisconsin and expectations are high for his second year. However, he mainly makes the list because of his work done at Utah State. He took a moribund program to its first bowl game in over a decade and won a conference title in his last season before bolting for greener pastures. However, his second year at Wisconsin will be make-or-break, as any result short of a Big Ten title game bid would remove him from this list.   

24. James Franklin: first year at Penn State; Vanderbilt (2011-’13); 25-15 overall, 2-1 bowls.

Franklin begins his first year at Penn State with eyes toward the future. His recent past at Vanderbilt has been extremely impressive, however. Long thought to be a punching bag in the powerful SEC, Franklin somehow coerced nine wins out of the Commodores during the last two years, turning Vanderbilt into a respectable program during the heyday of the SEC.

23. Mike Gundy: 10th year at Oklahoma State; 77-39 overall, 5-3 bowls; one Big 12 title.

The man enters his 10th season in Stillwater, bringing lots of stability to a program that needed it before he and Les Miles arrived. The only reason why he is not ranked higher is because he has missed a lot of fantastic opportunities for even greater success, such as blowing last season’s Big 12 title and missing out on a chance to play for the 2011 national championship when his team lost to Iowa State.

22. Dabo Swinney: seventh year at Clemson; 51-24 overall, 3-3 bowls; one ACC title.

Swinney is coming off his second BCS bowl bid in three years, and while this year is expected to be a rebuilding year, his Clemson team still has gobs of talent. Like Gundy, a few missed opportunities have kept him from a higher ranking.

21. Kevin Sumlin: third year at Texas A&M; Houston (2008-’11); 56-23 overall, 3-1 bowls; introduced the world to Johnny Manziel.

Sumlin has been wildly successful at both of his stops, continuing to improve Houston after Art Briles established a solid program, and has constructed a winner at Texas A&M in the difficult SEC West. Many analysts thought this year would be a rebuilding one for A&M after the departure of Manziel, but they appear to not have skipped a beat with a complete dismantling of South Carolina last week. The future is bright for Sumlin and the Aggies, and I expect him to be higher up on this list in the future if he continues to rack up big victories.

20. Art Briles: seventh year at Baylor; Houston (2003-’07); 79-60 overall, 2-5 bowls, one Conference USA title, one Big 12 title.

Briles is the real man responsible for Houston’s turn around, and he was tasked with a similar rebuild at Baylor, culminating in his first Big 12 title last season. His ability to win at two places that were relatively bad before his arrival strengthens his resume, but his poor bowl record keeps him from going any higher.

19. Gary Pinkel: 14th year at Missouri; Toledo (1991-2000); 176-100 overall, 6-4 bowls; one MAC title.

Pinkel is well known for a great tenure at Mizzou where he nearly won an SEC title last year. Pinkel also had many great years at Toledo, and his sustained success at both programs puts him inside the top 20. However, his lack of any BCS bowl appearances (which is due more to the bad system than anything) keeps him here.

18. Bill Snyder: 23rd year at Kansas State; 179-90 overall, 7-8 bowls; two Big 12 titles.

Snyder basically is the Kansas State program, and in his second term with the school, he has reignited it, winning the Big 12 two years ago. A better bowl record, and Snyder definitely garners a higher ranking.

17. Frank Beamer: 28th year at Virginia Tech; 225-109 overall, 9-12 bowls; three Big East titles, four ACC titles.

Like Snyder, Beamer represents the success and history of Virginia Tech. Beamer has been to many BCS bowl games and was even the runner-up for a national championship in 1999. However, Tech has posted mediocre records the past two seasons, and many are calling for Beamer to step down if this year produces a similar record. Still, it’s very hard to ignore his extended success.

16. Bobby Petrino: fifth year at Louisville; Arkansas (2008-’11); Western Kentucky (2013); 84-30 overall, 4-3 bowls; one Conference USA title, one Big East Title.

All scandals aside, Petrino is a proven commodity in college football. He won big in his first stint at Louisville, capturing an Orange Bowl victory in 2006 and later revitalizing Arkansas in the ferocious SEC West. Even after the fallout from his motorcycle incident, he had a solid year at Western Kentucky, going 8-4, propelling him back to Louisville for a second shot with the Cardinals.

15. Gary Patterson: 14th season at TCU; 121-44 overall, 7-4 bowls; one Conference USA title, four Mountain West titles.

14. Chris Petersen: first season at Washington, Boise State (2006-’13); 93-12 overall, 5-2 bowls; four WAC titles, one Mountain West title.

Both coaches are known for their BCS busting, and both coaches have led their programs to tremendous success outside of BCS conferences. However, Patterson and TCU have stumbled since joining the Big 12, failing to earn a bowl bid last season. Peterson will join a BCS conference for the first time this season with Washington, and the jury is still out to see if he can succeed there. Peterson gets the slight nod over Patterson as Peterson earned more BCS victories, and owns the head-to-head matchup when Boise State beat TCU in the 2009 Fiesta Bowl.

13. Mark Dantonio: eighth season at Michigan State; Cincinnati (2004-’06); 83-46 overall, 4-4 bowl record; two Big Ten titles.

Dantonio had a respectable stint at Cincinnati for three seasons, but his most impressive work has been done at Michigan State. He has captured two Big Ten titles, with the most recent one coming last season, winning State’s first Rose Bowl in over 20 years. Most impressively, he has recently flipped the in-state rivalry with big brother Michigan in MSU’s favor.

12. Tommy Tuberville: second season at Cincinnati; Mississippi (1995-’98); Auburn (1999-2008); Texas Tech (2010-’12); 139-81 overall, 7-4 bowls; one SEC title.

Tuberville is as proven a coaching veteran as there is in college football. He’s won at every stop, and in 2004 he won every game with Auburn en route to its first SEC title in over 10 years. That year also sparked lot of controversy with the BCS as Auburn, Oklahoma and USC entered bowl season undefeated and Auburn was left out of the championship game. Tuberville and his team got robbed at a shot at a national title, and he would be perceived much differently with one. However, there is no arguing that Tuberville is still a consistently great coach.

11. Gus Malzahn: second year at Auburn; Arkansas State (2012); 22-5 overall, 0-1 bowls, one SEC title.

All he did in his first season at Auburn was coach it to one of the biggest turnarounds in college football history and a national title berth. Seeing as how Gene Chizik floundered at Auburn once Malzahn departed as the Tigers’ offensive coordinator, he should also be given a lot more credit for their title in 2011. While I believe Malzahn will continue to be a fantastic coach, I do not want to make the mistake of ranking him too high after just two seasons of head coaching experience.

10. Charlie Strong: first season at Texas; Louisville (2010-’13); 38-16 overall, 3-1 bowls; two Big East titles.

Strong parlayed a strong stint at Louisville to a monster deal at Texas. Best known for leading the Cardinals to their enormous upset of Florida in the 2012 Sugar Bowl, Strong is a great recruiter, and helped turn Louisville around after the disappointing Steve Kragthorpe era. His place on this list in the future will be heavily determined by whether or not he can restore Texas to its glory days.

9. Mark Richt: 14th season at Georgia; 127-45 overall, 8-5 bowls; two SEC titles.

Richt has built a special program at Georgia, having never missed a bowl game in his tenure, and coming agonizingly close to a third SEC title and national championship bid in 2012. While almost any program would love to have Richt, he just has not been able to win the big games that could propel his ultra-talented teams to national titles. The guys above him in the rankings have either won a national title or have proven to be better in big game situations.

8. David Shaw: fourth season at Stanford; 35-7 overall, 1-2 bowls; two Pac-12 titles.

While many thought the Cardinal would decline after the departure of Jim Harbaugh, all his successor Shaw has done is grab three consecutive BCS bowl bids and two straight Pac-12 titles. Not even Harbaugh won a conference title, and Shaw already has two. Shaw also has shown he can win the most important games in the regular season, beating Oregon each of the last two years and winning both Pac-12 title games. Expectations are high once again in Palo Alto as Stanford returns another talented team, and I expect Shaw to continue to get the most out of it.

7. Brian Kelly: fifth season at Notre Dame; Central Michigan (2004-’06); Cincinnati (2007-’09); 91-37 overall, 4-3 bowls; one MAC title, two Big East titles.

Kelly is like Tuberville on steroids, arguably having more success at all of his head coaching stops. He turned Cincinnati into a solid program, going to consecutive BCS bowls, and he returned Notre Dame to elite status with a national championship game berth a couple years ago. The future is very bright for the Fighting Irish and Kelly. However, he will need a title to justify being higher on this list.

6. Jimbo Fisher: fifth season at Florida State; 46-10 overall, 4-0 bowls; two ACC titles, one national championship.

5. Bob Stoops: 16th season at Oklahoma; 161-39 overall, 8-7 bowls; eight Big 12 titles, one national championship.

Here’s Big Game Bob’s first four years at Oklahoma: 43-9, 3-1 bowls, two Big 12 titles and one national championship. If that looks familiar, it’s because it’s almost identical to Jimbo’s first four years at FSU. Both resumes speak for themselves, but Stoops has sustained his success much longer than Jimbo, and just enjoyed a fantastic Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama. As of now Stoops has the advantage, but if Jimbo can secure a second title, he easily leapfrogs Stoops and the next guy on the list.

4. Les Miles: 10th season at LSU; Oklahoma State (2001-’04); 124-45 overall, 7-5 bowls; two SEC titles, one national championship.

Miles gets the nod over Stoops and Fisher because of what he has done in a much tougher conference. Miles has consistently contended for the SEC title, and he recruits prime talent to LSU every year. LSU should be a powerhouse for many years to come, but Miles cannot enter the top three of this poll unless he wins a second national title.

3. Urban Meyer: third season at Ohio State; Bowling Green (2001-’02); Utah (2003-’04); Florida (2005-’10); 129-25 overall, 7-2 bowls; two Mountain West titles, two SEC titles, two national championships.

2. Steve Spurrier: 10th season at South Carolina; Duke (1987-1989); Florida (1990-2001); 219-80 overall, 10-10 bowls, one ACC title, six SEC titles, one national championship.

Honestly, a coin could be flipped to pick between these two. This was an extremely tough decision. On one hand, there’s Meyer, who coached the original BCS buster Utah to its first BCS bowl victory in 2004, owns two national titles at Florida during the SEC’s peak, and won his first 24 games at Ohio State. Then there’s Spurrier, who managed to win an ACC title at Duke (!) before making Florida one of the best programs in the country, and then making South Carolina an elite program. That last point cannot be stressed hard enough. South Carolina has four double-digit victory seasons in its program history, and Spurrier has coached three of them. His work at turning South Carolina into a national powerhouse is nothing short of a miracle. For that reason, and Meyer’s unfortunate health problems, the Ol’ Ball Coach wins this round.

1. Nick Saban: eighth season at Alabama; Toledo (1990); Michigan State (1995-’99); LSU (2000-’04); 166-57 overall, 8-7 bowls, one MAC title, four SEC titles, four national championships.

Numbers never lie, and they show that it’s not even close. Congrats Nick Saban, you own the top spot in the most important ranking in college football.

[1] Harbaugh and Carroll both bailed on their respective programs before the Pac-10 officially became the Pac-12. Maybe instead of leaving for the desire to coach in the NFL (or in Carroll’s case, the desire to not get sanctioned), they both left to protest the ongoing conference realignment. Just consider it, okay?

[2] See what I did there?

[3] Kragthorpe failed to even earn a bowl bid in his three seasons as the successor to Petrino.

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