For college football in the early ‘70s, it was a time when college football icons roamed the sidelines on Fall Saturdays. So familiar and synonymous with their school that one needn’t hear their surname to identify them. Bo, Woody, Joe, Ara, Bear, and Darrell were coaching legends and they ruled the college football landscape, and out on the West coast, John McKay at USC was dominating the Pac-8 Conference. Yes, the Pac-8 Conference.
For those who are too young to remember that would be Bo Schembechler at Michigan, Woody Hayes at Ohio State, Joe Paterno at Penn State, Ara Parseghian at Notre Dame, Paul “Bear” Bryant at Alabama, and Darrell Royal at Texas.
Not long thereafter, other coaches rose to national prominence, namely, Tom Osborne, Barry Switzer, Bobby Bowden, Lou Holtz, Lavell Edwards, Vince Dooley and John Robinson. In time, Steve Spurrier, Phillip Fulmer, and Mack Brown would eventually join the exclusive national championship coaching fraternity.
Last year saw long-time sideline stalwarts Frank Beamer and Spurrier retire from the coaching ranks. So what coaches today would be considered coaching giants? Certainly Nick Saban of Alabama, with five national championships, ranks amongst the all-time greats. Saban’s five national titles trails only Bear Bryant who won six.
Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, with three national championships, one at Ohio State and two while at Florida, is certainly another. Saban and Meyer are in a class by themselves with multiple national championships. In addition, Meyer ranks third in all-time winning percentage (.8508) trailing only Knute Rockne (.8811) and Frank Leahy (.8643).
In the next group of coaches that have won a national championship and multiple conference titles would include Bob Stoops at Oklahoma, Jimbo Fisher at Florida State and Les Miles at LSU. Stoops has brought Oklahoma back to prominence and has one national championship and the Sooners are a perennial national power winning nine Big-12 titles during his tenure.
Florida State under Fisher has won three ACC titles and like Oklahoma, is also a perennial national contender. Miles has won two SEC championships (2007 and in 2011), which are not easy to come by especially when you face Alabama and Saban every year. Another national championship for any of these three coaches would elevate their status to that of a coaching giant.
Saban and Meyer have won seven of the last 10 national championships. Stoops, Fisher and Miles would love to join them as multiple national championship winning coaches. College football playoff appearances may soon become a coaching measuring stick much like Final Four appearances are for college basketball coaches.
Then you have the group of coaches that have won multiple Power Five conference championships: Bret Bielema (formerly Wisconsin now Arkansas), Marc Dantonio (Michigan State), Kirk Ferentz (Iowa), Mark Richt (formerly Georgia now Miami), David Shaw (Stanford), Bill Snyder (Kansas State), and Dabo Swinney (Clemson). Bielema, Shaw and Swinney are all in their 40s. More on that later.
Shaw and Dantonio are known to consistently do more with less than most other coaches, having regular success by getting more out of their players than some other coaches might. Despite not winning a conference championship, when it comes to coaches doing more with less Pat Fitzgerald of Northwestern has to be near the top of the list as well.
If Bielema can revive the Arkansas program and win an SEC Championship, he would separate and distinguish himself from the shadow cast by Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin. By winning conference championships in both the Big 10 and SEC conferences Bielema would then join Meyer with that unique distinction and certainly elevate his coaching level status.
As for the current top coaches that haven’t won a conference title, that would include Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly because of Notre Dame’s independent football status and Jim Harbaugh (formerly at Stanford and now at Michigan). Harbaugh’s Wolverines will be one of the favorites, if not the favorite, to win the Big 10 title this year.
It’s not always easy for successful college coaches to avoid the siren call of the NFL. Saban, Spurrier, and Bobby Petrino each took their shot in the NFL and were unsuccessful and returned to the college ranks. Harbaugh is one of the few that had success at both the college level and in the NFL.
For a coach to average 10 or more wins a year puts them in select company. The following coaches at major college football programs are in that group: Fisher, Marc Helfrich (Oregon), Tom Herman (Houston), Meyer, Chris Petersen (Washington), Shaw and Stoops. Three of those coaches are in their early 40s: Helfrich, 42, Herman, 41, and Shaw, 44 in July. Herman has been a head coach for only one season, but it was quite a head coaching debut as the Houston Cougars went 13-1 last year with a 38-24 victory over Florida State in the Peach Bowl. Petersen, 51, is 12th all-time in winning percentage with a .8168 mark.
In case you were wondering, Meyer, Shaw and Stoops are ahead of Joe Paterno’s pace to win 409 games, provided they decide to coach that long. It certainly helps that there are more football games now than back in the ‘60s and ‘70s when 11 and 12-game seasons including bowl games were the norm. Now, some schools have 13 and 14-game seasons.
Meyer turns 52 in July. At the end of last season at the age of 51, Meyer had 153 wins in 14 seasons as a head coach. Paterno, at age 51 had 112 wins, and after his 14th season had 131 wins.
After his fifth season at Stanford and at the age of 43, Shaw has 54 career wins. After his fifth season at Penn State and at the age of 44, Paterno had 42 wins. Shaw turns 44 this July.
Stoops has coached at Oklahoma since 1999 and will turn 56 this September. After 17 seasons, Stoops has won 179 games. After 17 seasons and at the age of 56, Paterno had won 162 games. Stoops’ winning percentage of .7956 is 17th all-time amongst college coaches.
Fitzgerald, 41, has 70 wins in his 10 seasons at Northwestern. Kelly, 54, has won 226 games in 26 seasons as head coach, with 118 of those while at Division II Grand Valley State University.
As for the best young coaches in college football, and by young, meaning in their 40s, Shaw, Swinney and Herman are in that group.
Swinney, 46, once again this year will have Clemson in the national championship picture and could join the exclusive list of coaches to win multiple conference championships and a national title. Don’t be surprised if in 2016, Swinney and Harbaugh continue their ascent on the college football coaching mountain.
John Baranowski is a sports historian and contributor to newspapers, sports publications and sports websites.