College Football: 15 Greatest Coaches of All-Time
Last month, the college football world lost a legend when legendary Notre Dame Coach Ara Parseghian passed away at the age of 94. Parseghian retired in 1974 at the age of 51 for personal reasons, but is still considered one of the greatest college football coaches of all time. Let’s take a look at leaders who left their mark on the collegiate gridiron.
15. Bo Schembechler
Teams: Michigan (1969-89); Miami OH (1963-68)
Record: 234-65-8 in 27 seasons
Despite having played his college football at Miami of Ohio, Bo Schembechler made a lasting impact on Michigan football. Schembechler learned the sidelines from Woody Hayes at Miami (OH). The two would forge one of the greatest coaching rivalries in college sports.
The Wolverines shocked the undefeated and No. 1 ranked Buckeyes to keep them from a national crown. After having just one ranked team from 1957 to 1967, Schembechler took the reigns in Ann Arbor. Under his rule, the Wolverines went on to 10 consecutive top-10 seasons, along with five Rose Bowl bids — though dropping all five.
Schembechler went 5-4-1 against Hayes — together they share a total of 13 Big Ten Championships and 10 Rose Bowl appearances. Other than his 2-8 record on New Year’s day in Pasadena, and that the Wolverines never managed to bring home National Championship hardware, he never coached a losing team and was ranked in the AP poll in 19 of 21 seasons.
14. Walter Camp
Teams: Yale (1888-92); Stanford (1892, 1894-95)
Record: 79-5-3 in 8 seasons
Commonly known as the “Father of Football”, Walter Camp only is credited with coaching for eight seasons. In 1892, Camp went 13-0 while at Yale, and then finished the season in late November at Stanford, with a 2-0-2 record. Camp is more responsible than anyone for pushing the sport to what we know and watch today.
He was credited with three national titles as a coach, and only lost five games in his tenure with Yale and Stanford. He was in charge of athletics at Yale and was a driving force in the development of the university’s football team, and football at the national level until his death in 1925 at the age of 64.
Camp is credited with creating much of the strategy and rules common today. Beginning in 1889, he was responsible for picking the collegiate All-American teams.
At the time of his death, Camp was in New York overseeing meetings on football rules on a weekend. West Virginia’s athletic director was quoted as saying, “just as George Washington is considered the maker of this country, so will Camp always be called the man who brought football to its present national status.”
At the end of the season, a group of head coaches and sports information directors give the Walter Camp Award to the collegiate American football player of the year.
13. Amos Alonzo Stagg
Teams: Chicago (1892-32); Pacific (1933-46); Springfield (1890-91)
Record: 314-199-35 in 57 seasons
When Amos Alonzo Stagg began his football career at Yale, football was in its infancy, evolving from its rugby origins. That would have been in 1885; Stagg coached until 1958. He lived to the age of 102. In his 41 years at the University of Chicago. left his mark as one of the most influential and innovative people in football history.
Stagg led four Chicago teams to undefeated seasons, including the 1905 squad that topped Fielding Yost’s Michigan squad, 2-0 to become national champions. Stagg coached 12 more teams that finished with just one loss. In 1906, after another unbeaten season, the forward pass was legalized; Stagg was credited with onside kicks, shifts, how the quarterback takes snaps, double pass plays, as well as the Statue of Liberty play.
At the age of 70, Stagg was forced to step down as Chicago’s head coach, but couldn’t stay away from the game. He moved to the west coast and spent 14 years coaching Pacific, leading the Tigers to No. 19 in the AP rankings in 1943 and earning him AFCA Coach of the Year honors at the tender age of 81.
12. John McKay
Teams: USC (1960-75)
Record: 127-40-8 in 16 seasons
After two, rough sub-.500 seasons at USC, John McKay’s coaching philosophy took hold. Never crowned national champion by the AP Poll since their inception in 1936, the Trojans would turn things around in McKay’s third season on the bench. 1962 saw the previously unranked team climb to the to top.
They finished 11-0, with a 42-37 victory over the second-ranked Wisconsin in a Rose Bowl classic matchup that featured a huge fourth quarter rally by the Badgers. McKay went on to coach four seven-win teams and worked his way back to the top in 1967-69 — a stretch that saw the Trojans post a 29-2-2 record, and win the 1967 national championship.
In 1972 and 1974, McKay brought another pair of titles to Los Angeles. With what became known as the I-formation offense, USC featured the “Student Body Right” and “Student Body Left” plays that led O.J. Simpson and Mike Garrett to win the Heisman Trophy.
McKay went on to be the first coach of the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and after a rough start, finished with three playoff bids. Featuring four national championships, nine top-10 teams, and a 5-3 Rose Bowl record, his work at USC remains his legacy,
11. Darrell Royal
Teams: Texas (1957-76); Mississippi State (1954-55); Washington (1956)
Record: 184-60-5 in 23 seasons
One of the most famous coaches in Texas history (any sport) actually played his collegiate football at Oklahoma. Under Darrell Royal, Texas claimed four national championships. He coached 10 top-10 Longhorns teams. Royal first became a head coach at Mississippi State at the age of 30, and retired at the age of 54.
In 1963, he was at the helm of the 11-0 national championship team that beat Roger Staubach and Navy in the Cotton Bowl. In one of the most famous games ever, the Longhorns out duelled Arkansas and were named 1969 national champions after topping Notre Dame in another Cotton Bowl victory.
The 1970 team went 10-1 and lost the Cotton Bowl rematch with the Irish. Royal had a 77.4 winning percentage in his time at Texas, and never suffered a losing season. He coached in the Cotton Bowl 10 times and claimed 11 Southwest Conference championships. Today, the Longhorns play in the Darrell K. Royal Memorial Stadium in Austin.
10. Joe Paterno
Teams: Penn State (1966-2011)
Record: 409-136-3 in 46 seasons
The winningest Division 1 coach of all time, Joe Paterno built Penn State into a national power winning 409 games and two national championships in 46 years as head coach. Paterno’s Nittany Lions posted five undefeated seasons and a .749 winning percentage, which included an all-time great offense in 1994.
The Nittany Lions intercepted Heisman Trophy winner Vinny Testaverde five times in the 1986 Fiesta Bowl to top the Miami Hurricanes 14-10, and win a second title in five seasons. Paterno’s accomplishments on the field are unquestioned, and he was the face of Penn State in Happy Valley for nearly half a century.
However, his involvement in the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse case has tainted his legacy.
9. Tom Osborne
Teams: Nebraska (1973-97)
Record: 255-49-3 in 25 seasons
Between 1941-62, not one ranked football team came from the program at the University of Nebraska. After the 1972 season, Tom Osborne was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach, replacing Bob Devaney. Devaney had energized the program at Lincoln, capturing two back-to-back national championships in 1970 and 1971.
Osborne coached the Cornhuskers for 25 seasons, building a devastating option offense. He never had a team finish unranked. He ended his tenure with an .836 overall winning percentage. Of his 25 teams, 18 of them were ranked in the top-10; they captured 12 Big 8 titles.
He made 21 Orange Bowl or Cotton Bowl appearances, and ended his career in 1997 after an undefeated season, splitting the national title with Michigan. In his last 63 games as head coach of the Cornhuskers, he won 60 of them.
8. Pop Warner
Teams: Pittsburgh (1915-23); Stanford (1924-32); Carlisle (1899-03, 1907-14); Cornell (1897-98, 1904-06); Temple (1933-38); Georgia (1895-96); Iowa State (1895-1899)
Record: 319-106-32 in 44 seasons
Youth football and the name Pop Warner are often associated. Glenn Scobey Warner was a successful coach with a long history that spanned the country. At seven schools, Warner had nine stints as a head coach and won four national championships — three at Pittsburgh and another at Stanford.
From 1915 to 1917, Pitt went 26-0. Pop won his first 30 games there, capturing a national championship in 1916 with an undefeated season. At Carlisle, he coached the legendary Jim Thorpe. He coached Stanford to three Rose Bowls. Under his tenure, Temple played their first ever Sugar Bowl.
Warner is credited with developing the single and double-wing formations. He also implemented misdirection plays.
7. Barry Switzer
Record: 157-29-4 in 16 seasons
While serving as Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator under head coach Chuck Fairbanks, Barry Switzer perfected the wishbone offense. Over the next decade and a half, the Sooners were one of the most dominating football offenses in the nation.
They finished the 1971 season in the No. 2 spot according to the AP Poll, and Fairbanks left for the NFL. Switzer was then elevated to head coach in Norman. He began his coaching career with a 10-0-1 record, finishing No. 3 in the AP Poll for the 1973 season.
The Sooners nabbed back-to-back national titles in 1974-75, crushing opponents with running back Joe Washington, and defensive leaders Lee Roy and Dewey Selmon. In his first seven seasons, Switzer’s Sooners never finished lower than seventh in the AP Poll.
Heading into the 80’s, the Sooners were met with mixed results until 1985. That year, Brian Bosworth led the Oklahoma defense to an Orange Bowl victory over Penn State; Switzer celebrated his third national title.
He coached nine teams that finished in the top three, with 12 Big 8 Championships and six Orange Bowls wins. He also coached 1978 Heisman winner Billy Sims. Switzer left Oklahoma to coach in the NFL Dallas Cowboys, leaving behind an 83.7 collegiate winning percentage.
6. Bobby Bowden
Teams: Florida State (1976-2009); West Virginia (1970-75)
Record: 357-124-4 in 40 seasons
Culminating with a Peach Bowl win and a No. 20 ranking in the AP Polls at West Virginia in 1975, Bobby Bowden made his way to the sidelines in Tallahassee. After a 1-21 run through 1973-74, Bowden took over the Seminoles and posted a 10-2 record in this second year in 1977.
The Noles dropped a pair of Orange Bowls in 1979-80, and Bowden rebuilt the program in the early eighties. Starting in 1987, Bowden and the Seminoles started a streak of 14-straight AP top-five seasons, amassing a 152-19-1 record and claiming two national championships in 1993 and 99.
Bowden coached both Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke to Heisman Trophy seasons. He continued to coach until 2009 at the age of 80, and finished with a .740 overall winning percentage over his 40 years on the sidelines.
5. Woody Hayes
Teams: Ohio State (1951-78); Miami OH (1949-50); Denison (1946-48)
Record: 238-72-10 in 33 seasons
Woody Hayes was a naval veteran of World War II and carried his expectations of military precision and discipline onto the sidelines. Three years after taking over at Ohio State, Hayes guided the Buckeyes to a 10-0 record and won the Rose Bowl.
Hayes once again guided the team to an undefeated season and national title in 1968. In 1970, they claimed a three-way share of the title despite dropping the Rose Bowl to Stanford. Without a loss at Michigan in 1969, the Buckeyes would have likely won three consecutive national titles. Over his career, Hayes coached 10 AP top-five teams, as well as Heisman winner Archie Griffin.
Hayes will be remembered for striking a Clemson player during the 1978 Gator Bowl, effectively ending his storied career. Despite the troubled ending, he will forever be the face of Ohio State football. Over his 28 year tenure in Columbus, the Buckeyes won five national championships and 13 Big Ten titles.
4. Nick Saban
Teams: Alabama (2007-present); LSU (2000-04); Michigan State (1995-99); Toledo (1990)
Record: 210-61-1 in 21 seasons
Current Alabama coach Nick Saban has had one of the most dominant runs in the history of college football. After coaching Michigan State to one of its two top-10 seasons in 45 years, he moved on to LSU, where he won a BCS national championship in his third season. He left for a brief stint with the NFL Miami Dolphins.
He came back to the NCAA in 2007, taking over the bench at Alabama. After a rebuilding season, he has lost just 13 games in the last nine years. Saban has developed some of college football’s greatest defenses. He’s also coached Alabama’s first two Heisman Trophy winners — running backs Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry.
Saban went 48-16 at LSU, and is currently 119-19 at Alabama, winning five of the last seven SEC titles and four of the last seven national championships.
3. Ara Parseghian
Teams: Notre Dame (1964-74), Northwestern (1956-63); Miami OH (1951-1955)
Record: 170-56-8 in 24 seasons
After 14 years without a national title, Notre Dame football named Ara Parseghian as their head coach. In the previous eight seasons the Irish had dropped an unthinkable 45 games, and were looking for Parseghian as the solution.
Coming from Northwestern — a program never ranked in the AP — Ara went the next 11 seasons losing just 17 games in his time a Notre Dame. Led by Heisman-winning quarterback John Huarte and ranked number 1 in the nation, the Irish fell short of a national championship in 1964 — though the school doesn’t officially claim it.
The 1966 season opened with an 8-0 run, and finished with a 10-10 tie with No. 2 Michigan State in the “Game of the Century.” They followed it with a 51-0 blowout of USC to claim the national title.
In 1973, Parseghian added another national title with an 11-0 season. Seven of his 11 teams finished in the AP top-five, and the remaining four were never lower that 14th. He retired in 1974 for personal reasons at the age of 51, after posting a 10-2 record and capturing the Orange Bowl crown. He finished his career with a .836 winning percentage.
2. Bear Bryant
Teams: Alabama (1958-82); Texas A&M (1954-57); Kentucky (1946-53); Maryland (1945)
Record: 323-85-17 in 38 seasons
After wrestling a bear as a teenager at a carnival, Paul Bryant earned the nickname “Bear.” A former Crimson Tide player, Bryant made a pair of stops as a head coach before hitting the sidelines again in Tuscaloosa. After a year at Maryland, he went on to coach five top-20 team at Kentucky, and two at Texas A&M.
As legendary coach of the Crimson Tide, Bryant took a year to rebuild a program that became the dominate force in the SEC and the nation. In 1961, Bryant led Alabama to an undefeated 11-0 season, a Sugar Bowl win, and a share of the national championship with Ohio State.
Three of the next five seasons, the Tide would share titles. Their undefeated 1965 season wasn’t good enough for the polls to earn them the championship. After a dry spell, Bryant and the Tide recovered in the 1970’s after the university became fully integrated.
They switched to the wishbone offense and, from 1971 to 1981, the Tide never finished below 11th in the AP Poll. They shared the national title with Notre Dame in 1973 despite a loss in the Sugar Bowl. With wins over Penn State and Arkansas, Bryant and the Crimson Tide won back-to-back title in 1978-79.
Bear Bryant stepped down in 1982, and passed away one month after his final game. He is credited with an 82.4 winning percentage, six national titles, and 13 SEC championships.
1. Knute Rockne
Teams: Notre Dame
Record: 105-12-3 in 13 seasons
Notre Dame football enjoyed success under Jesse Harper, but it was after Knute Rockne got the job that the Fighting Irish became a powerhouse. Rockne popularized the forward pass as a player for Notre Dame, and transformed the program when he got the head coaching job in 1918.
After a 3-1-2 season at the end of World War I, he took the Irish to a 9-0 record in both 1919 and 1920. He took the 1924 10-0 Irish to the Rose Bowl, and posted records of 9-0 in 1929 and 10-0 in 1930.
In his 13 years as head coach, Rockne lost just 12 games. In that time, Notre Dame started playing a national schedule with opponents like Georgia Tech, Penn State, Navy, and of course USC — beginning a rivalry that has been played since 1926. They claimed three national championships. The 1924 team included the famed “Four Horsemen” backfield.
In 1934 legendary coach Pop Warner wrote, “no one ever asked me to pick the greatest football coach of all time, but if I were asked I would unhesitatingly name Rockne. No man ever had a stronger or more magnetic personality. No man has ever had a greater ability to transform that magnetism into football results.”
Rockne was killed in a plane crash on March 31, 1931.
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