The Difference in Championship Coaches
By: Larry Burton
Winning a national championship as a coach in your sport forever more puts you in a very elite club with very few active members. It certifies you as a champion at what you do and you have the glory, title and ring to forever flaunt. At some colleges, they’ll even put a statue up of you for all time to mark your accomplishment and have future generations of fans admire you. But see if you agree with these differences in championship coaches.
But know this, all championship winning coaches are not the same and there are major differences between them. While in the same fraternity, they are not on the same level by any means. Some are coaches who build and maintain a program, some inherit a program already on a roll and some ride ridiculous talent to the top, never to return to another championship game.
Let’s take a look at a list of modern day and by that let’s say from 1950 on, championship winning coaches and tier them into one of several categories and discuss why they were placed in that strata.
Rarified Air Strata –
Nick Saban has six and counting national championships. He is the model of consistency once attaining the top in keeping his team in the mix year after year. Listing ahead of Bryant for gaining his six wins faster and in an era of more rule changing parity and may soon leave Bryant and be in place that only he occupies. Saban could easily retire with 10 championships at the current rate. Currently, he has no peer. When you consider he’s won more championships than every active coach in college football combined, to attempt to even consider a discussion that he has someone that approaches his greatness still active in college football is simply presenting a stupid argument.
Paul “Bear” Bryant – Also has six championships stretch from the very early sixties to his last one that was won in 1980. He seemed to always have the Crimson Tide in the mix during his time at Alabama and some may argue that Bryant actually had a seventh title in Kentucky before coming to Alabama. Until Saban’s ascent, Bryant was the measuring stick that all coaches were measured by. Perhaps his greatest compliment was that “He could take his boys and beat yours, or take your boys and beat his.” Like Saban, Bryant made the difference in creating greatness, not just a few talented players.
Legendary Coaches –
Woody Hayes – Had five championships all at one school, Ohio State. He too kept his team in the mix for the most part from the 50’s into the 70’s. What keeps Hayes out of the rarified air category is not the lack of that sixth championship, but the fact that had losing seasons sprinkled into this timeframe as well, something that Saban and Bryant never had and won less than 75% of all the games coached there.
John McKay – Built USC into a modern name brand powerhouse by winning four national titles from 1962 to 1974. He’s in this category because he coaches less than half as many games at USC as Hayes did in Ohio State and almost had as many championships. With a longer career, McKay may have reached the rarified air class. Like the other coaches mentioned so far, McKay won without a lot of star players but built solid teams that were coached well.
Tom Osborne – Had just three national titles at Nebraska, from 1994 to 1997, but was the model of consistency. His teams were in the top 15 for 24 or his 25 years of coaching. He never had a losing season and his teams never won less than nine games. No coach in division one history won 250 games faster than Osborne. His only knock in this category is that overall he has losing bowl record of 12-13.
Bobby Bowden – With Two national titles, Bowden nevertheless earns his way to this spot with fewer championships for two great reasons. He built the program he made into a powerhouse completely by himself as Florida State was a former girls college. Also for years he was the model of consistency winning at a high percentage rate and for many years leading all coaches in consistent top five finishes, doing it for 13 years in a row. Once he got things rolling, he never had a losing season. He is also one of the most winning coaches in all of college football. He left the program in good shape and with a coach in waiting who also went on to win a national championship himself not long after the Bowden era ended.
Elite Coaches –
Bud Wilkinson – Also had three championships from 1950 to 1956, but unlike Osborne, also had a losing season and one 500 season sprinkled in with his time at Oklahoma. Great coaches don’t have losing seasons after building a program. To his credit however, he absolutely dominated his conference winning 14 of his 17 seasons and had his team in the talk for championship seasons for most of his time there and was 6-2 in bowl games, an outstanding record.
Darrell Royal – Was the man who made Texas a marquee brand with three titles from 1963 to 1970. His failure to reach the legendary category is that he only won 50% of his bowl games and had losing seasons as a head coach. Unlike Osborne who did reach that category with the same number of championships, Royal was not a consistent winner year in and year out like the others. Still, he won three titles, built Texas into a powerhouse name and was credited for innovating football with the wishbone offense that dominated college football for a long time.
Great Coaches –
Robert Neyland – The one coach who transcends the old and modern era. He won four national titles, two prior to 1950, one in 1938 and another in 1940, but also won in the modern era two more championships, 1950 and 1951. Since this is an article grading coaches of the modern era from 1950 on, it perhaps kept him from reaching the legendary status which he truly deserves, but his two wins in the modern era land him securely here and securely ahead of Urban Meyer with just three championships. While mostly consistent throughout his career, he did have one losing season and one 500 season. But he built Tennessee into the marquee name it became. He did however, fail to leave the program in good shape as it suffered after he left.
Ara Parseghian – Took over a down and out Notre Dame team and won two national championships in 1966 and 1973 and turned it back into a national powerhouse by his own hand. He didn’t have a losing season there, had a winning bowl game percentage and left the program in good shape when he left.
Urban Meyer – With three national championships, some may ask why Meyer is not in the Elite or Legendary coaches category where other coaches also had three championships. His two at Florida, 2006 and 2008 came in years where one player was the main difference, Tim Tebow and the conference he was playing in, the SEC was overall going through down years. Once Tebow left, he lost 5 games the next season, left the Gators as coach and left the program in shambles. People that win championships are supposed to build a solid program but following departure, the Gators had 6 losses the first year and other problems. He did however, after some time off move to Ohio State where he won a national championship without a marquee quarterback and has kept Ohio State in the mix for championship talk consistently since winning his championship there gaining him great status and giving him the opportunity of missing the Lucky category for just winning during the Tebow years. It could also be said that he benefited from inheriting a thriving football team that Steve Spurrier built in Florida and took over a great program at Ohio State from Jim Tressel. Meyer didn’t build a team from misery as did other coaches, so his placement here is arguably fair though some won’t agree.
Joe Paterno – While many will argue that Paterno deserves to be in the legendary category because of his win total alone, there are knocks that keep him from that list based on this author’s ranking. Paterno did win two national championships, 1982 and 1986 and was at one time the nation’s most winning NCAA Division One coach, the fact that he also had six losing seasons, some of which were after the program won it’s two championships and was fired in one of football’s most notorious scandals which left the program in shambles drops him to here.
Barry Switzer – Yes, he won three national championships in 1974 and 1975 before leaving and coming back to college football a decade later and winning another one. Perhaps the main reason he’s not rated higher is that his career as a head coach in Oklahoma was mired in NCAA investigations, suspicions and scandal, some of which were proven true and some he got away with. Still, his work speaks for itself and one must place him on at least the great coaches list.
Of course there were several other coaches who won national championships, most of which were one and done kind of coaches, but their good work got them to that level and they deserve a tip of the hat.
Just Plain Lucky –
Then there were these men, who by simple fate instead of coaching talent managed to win a national championship.
Gene Chizik – Just happened to be at the right place at the right time with another Tim Tebow like quarterback, Cam Newton who arrived at Auburn for one season in a cloud of suspicious scandal and after Newton was gone, so was Chizik. No coach who ever won a national championship was fired so quickly as Chizik. His one championship year was the only year he ever made it to the top 25. Poor Gene left Auburn 38-38 as a head coach with a 17-31 record in league play making him the absolute worst coach to ever win a national championship.
Larry Coker – Inherited a national championship winning juggernaut team in Miami at the height of it’s success and left it a leaking rowboat. Proving he could not keep the talent rolling in or keep the ship afloat, he was fired. His first year in charge 2001, was the only championship and only real highlight of any otherwise dismal career.
Johnny Majors – Won a championship riding the Heisman winning season of Tony Dorsett at Pittsburg, then left to take over Tennessee where he only had two noteworthy years before being fired and years later he returned to Pittsburgh to “bring back the glory” only to have 4 losing seasons in a row and lowering his overall Pittsburgh record to just 500.
Murray Warmath – Yes, not exactly a name you’ll recall, won the 1960 championship at Minnesota despite an 8-2 record and losing the bowl game. He could challenge Chizik as the worst coach to ever win a championship, but at least he did finish in the top 25 more often and did have an overall winning record.
Bobby Ross – Won a national title at Georgia Tech in 1990, yet never finished in the top 25 in the rest of his time there including 3 losing seasons in his five year stay there. His overall coaching record is one of the worst to ever win a championship.
Larry has been published in almost every media outlet for college sports and now primarily writes here for Touchdown Alabama. Follow Larry on Twitter for inside thoughts and game time comments at https://twitter.com/LBSportswriter
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