Candid Coaches: The most overrated and underrated coaches in college football

Following in the footsteps of our college basketball brethren here at CBS Sports, college football writers Dennis Dodd, Chip Patterson and Barrett Sallee spoke with one-fifth of the 130 active coaches leading FBS teams entering the 2017 season. They asked for honest opinions on everything from NCAA rules to social issues to their peers in the profession. We will be sharing their candid thoughts over a two-week period leading into the season.


Coaches as a peer group are tight. They defend each other to the end of the world and rarely have anything bad to say about one another -- particularly on the record. It is for this reason that many of the coaches we questioned, even when granted the condition of anonymity, did not wish to soil the names of their compatriots. Still, we asked ...

Who is the most overrated -- and the most underrated -- coach in college football?

Most overrated coach Responses

Jim Harbaugh (Michigan)

13 percent

Nick Saban (Alabama)

9 percent

Lane Kiffin (Florida Atlantic)

9 percent

Lovie Smith (Illinois) 9 percent
Brian Kelly (Notre Dame) 4 percent
Tom Herman (Texas) 4 percent
Will Muschamp (South Carolina) 4 percent
Choose not to answer 48 percent
Most underrated coach Responses

Bill Snyder (Kansas State)

24 percent

Chris Petersen (Washington)

15 percent

David Cutcliffe (Duke)

10 percent

Ken Niumatalolo (Navy)

10 percent

10 other coaches

41 percent

Explain yourselves

  • Overrated -- Nick Saban at Alabama: "Nick's got a lot of advantages. In [my conference], you could take five or six of us and get there a month before the season and win 12 games. There is a little f---ing machine underneath that stadium, and they grow them there."
  • Overrated -- Nick Saban at Alabama: "We're going to have a war. You're going to have a howitzer, and I have a musket, and then every time we'll say that you're brilliant."
  • Underrated -- Chris Petersen at Washington: "He's not at Alabama, USC, Ohio State or Texas, but everywhere he goes, he makes an immediate impact. He does stand out to me wherever he's gone. The longer you coach, some of the best coaches we ever coach against people don't write about. Who's to say these guys aren't the very best?"
  • Overrated -- Will Muschamp at South Carolina: "He's been at a couple of Cadillacs, and he's wrecked 'em. He keeps landing on his feet. … When you talk about the great ones, [Steve] Spurrier set the standard. I guess it's because he gets away with a lot, too: On the sidelines, he does some crazy things. It's like Charlie Weis, when he was at Notre Dame, he had to be the worst college head coach ever to keep getting on his feet. To me, when you're given the keys to a Cadillac, you need to respond. Most coaches that become notable coaches, in their second or third year they won a national championship or at least came close." 
  • Underrated -- David Beaty at Kansas: "What he has taken on over there [is impressive] because that thing was blown up. The culture he is instilling, the fact he can be so upbeat, it's gotta be the hardest job in the country right now."
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Graphic illustration by Michael Meredith

Breaking it down

Harbaugh, Saban, Kiffin and Kelly at or near the top of the "overrated" category? Yeah, that sounds like sour grapes. It's an egotistical profession with Type-A personalities all over the place, all of whom are looking for the next big job, praise from the public and the gratification of winning championships. So of course Saban, winner of four of the last eight national championships, draws the ire of his peers.

For Harbaugh and Kiffin, it's all about the spotlight. "We just focus on us and don't care what's being said by the outside world" is the first thing coaches learn on the first day of Coach Speak 101, and it's also a big, fat lie. They know exactly who gets attention in the profession, and Kiffin and Harbaugh spend plenty of time in the proverbial spotlight.

Harbaugh hasn't finished higher than third in his division during his first two seasons in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but antics like sleepovers with recruits, music videos public spats with Saban attract eyeballs like moths to a light. In five years as a college head coach, Kiffin has just one season in which he notched more than eight wins (10 in 2011). But part of his draw might be due to mystery. He spent three seasons as Alabama's offensive coordinator where he rarely was allowed to speak publicly. Has he learned from the best, or will he continue to be all sizzle and no steak now that he's the head coach at Florida Atlantic?

Conversely, the "underrated" category seems reserved for coaches who have a ton of success at places where it's difficult to sustain success. Bill Snyder turned Kansas State from a football outpost to a perennial Big 12 contender or -- at the very worst -- a tough out. David Cutcliffe won 10 games at Ole Miss in 2003 -- the first 10-win season for the program since 1971. As if that wasn't enough of a challenge, he won the ACC Coastal with Duke, led the program to four straight bowl games between 2012-15 and routinely tops teams that, from a roster standpoint, are far better equipped. 

Bottom line: If you're a coach who draws the attention of the public, you're overrated. The same hot takes fans on Twitter and message boards about some of the best in the business are shared by their peers, while the coaches who do more with less will always fight for the respect they deserve from fans and their peers.

College Football Writer

Barrett Sallee has been a member of the sports media in various aspects since 2001. He is currently a college football writer for CBS Sports, while also hosting on SiriusXM College Sports Nation and the... Full Bio

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