College football coaching tiers 2019: From blue bloods and fast risers to uncertain futures
Not every coached can be judged the same way, so here's a different way to view them
Coaching matters in college football, but not every coach can be judged the same way.
Allow me to explain. Take Nick Saban and Bill Clark of Alabama and UAB, respectively. Both coach in the state of Alabama. Both are exceptional at what they do -- except they do two very different things. One has six national championships while the other literally took a program from the dead and made a conference title winner out of it in two years. Both are deserving of all the accolades possible.
That's what always bugged me about traditional coach rankings. Who's to say the guy coaching for a national championship is automatically better than the one taking two- and three-star recruits and winning nine or 10 games a year? They're accomplishing two entirely different things, usually with different sets of expectations.
That's why I've decided to once again rank coaches in tiers. It made more sense to group coaches accomplishing similar things than it did to try to decide which one was 10th best or 11th best based on different contexts for data. That's what we're doing again this year.
Before diving into the tiers, let's go over a few ground rules.
- I didn't rank every coach. That would sort of defeat the purpose. Besides, not everyone has a classification.
- I stayed away from including any first-time coaches to give them a fair shake. This also generally includes coaches entering their first year of a big move (like FCS to FBS, etc) or those coming out of retirement (i.e. Les Miles and Mack Brown).
- On that note, I also excluded coaches with fewer than three full years of head coaching experience. There is one exception: Oklahoma's Lincoln Riley. He has already accomplished a ton in his short tenure.
- Most of these tiers exist independently of one another. This stems, again, from the idea that different jobs have different benchmarks for success. Clemson's Dabo Swinney and UAB's Bill Clark aren't coaching for the same things, and they aren't building their programs the same way. I'm not going to try to stack them against one another.
- There are no transitive properties. Ranking Joe Coach as the second-best program-builder doesn't mean he's automatically the 27th-best coach by my order. Rankings are relative to coaches similar to them.
- This is all a snapshot of the moment. Many of the names from last year's list are in different spots. Some aren't there at all. There will be a new order next offseason.
Let's get to the tiers (and the inevitable ensuing anger).
Bear Bryant Tier: Blue-blood champs and Hall of Famers
6 national (5 at Alabama, 1 at LSU)
2 (Big 12)
- With the retirement of Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, I consolidated the Bear Bryant Tier and Steve Spurrier Tier from last year to form one elite blue-blood category. These are the top five coaches who have either won a national championship at a blue-blood institution or competed for College Football Playoff spots.
- Clearly, Saban is still the clear-cut No. 1. He's won more national titles than anyone by a long shot, routinely recruits better than anyone, puts more players in the NFL than anyone and has an impressive coaching tree. However, Swinney has closed the gap as much as any coach since Saban's reign with the Crimson Tide began. He's bested Saban twice in the CFP title game (including January's stunning 44-16 rout of the Tide), recruits and develops near Saban's level and has a tremendous staff.
- Riley has put together the most impressive two-year resume of any coach with back-to-back conference titles, playoff appearances, Heisman winners and No. 1 overall picks in the NFL Draft (Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray). There's no indication he'll be tapering off any time soon, either. What's more: with the addition of defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, Riley's best work may not even be complete.
The Barry Alvarez Tier: Success at the Power Five level
7 (2 Pac-12, 1 MWC, 4 WAC)
6 (1 Big 12, 4 MWC, 1 C-USA)
2 NCAA Division II national
3 (Big Ten)
1 (Big Ten)
1 (Big 12)
2 (Big Ten)
We'll dive into more Power Five coaches in the tiers below, but the coaches in this tier have a few common traits. They've been in a power conference for at least one or two years and have had enough success that they aren't on any kind of hot seat at the moment. It is, as you'll see, the biggest group of coaches.
- Brian Kelly has his critics, but when you look at the totality of his career, it's still one of the more impressive resumes among active coaches. His run at Grand Valley State included three Division II national championship appearances in a row with two wins. He's led Notre Dame to a BCS Championship Game and a College Football Playoff semifinal. They both ended in terrible losses, but he still gets credit for getting those teams there. Keep in mind, too, that Kelly is 22-4 since going 4-8 in 2016. When times were tough, he found a way out.
- Another coach who needed more respect from me is Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald. He wasn't even ranked last year (d'oh!) but led the Wildcats to a Big Ten title game appearance in 2018. He's taken Northwestern to four straight bowl games and has two 10-win seasons during that time. What he's done there is remarkable.
- A couple of SEC coaches made this list for the first time, too: Ed Orgeron and Mark Stoops. In their own ways, both were coaching for their jobs over the last few years. While Orgeron hasn't figured out a way to topple Bama yet -- hey, that's a short list -- he is 19-7 over the past two seasons. Stoops, meanwhile, led Kentucky to its first 10-win season since 1977. Both will still need to prove themselves in the coming years, but their recent success has bought them some goodwill.
The Howard Schnellenberger Tier: Program builders
This is my favorite group. Forget recruiting rankings and national titles -- although some coaches in this tier have won them at lower levels -- these are some of the most resourceful coaches in all of college football. They've mastered player development and built winning cultures, largely at places where that's been hard to do historically.
- Jeff Monken was at No. 10 in this tier a year ago and shot straight to the top after leading Army to its best season in the modern era. The list of things Monken hasn't done with that program is shorter than the list of things he has. Basement dwelling Power Five programs will have a hard time selling the triple option to boosters, but someone should hire Monken.
- Similarly, someone is going to get a heck of a coach in Bill Clark one of these days. Clark literally had to resurrect UAB from the dead and two years later, won a Conference USA title. (That may speak to how bad C-USA was a year ago, but the point remains.)
The LaVell Edwards Tier: Getting it done outside the Power Five
San Diego State
2 (Pac-10, MWC)
3 (MWC, Sun Belt)
3 Division I national
1 (Big 12)
3 (Big East)
2 (Sun Belt)
2 (Big East)
1 (Sun Belt)
This tier has a mix of coaches on the rise who could climb the ladder at some point in the future, but most are likely going to stay at their current job for a while. Some are coaching reboots who have worked out nicely, like Butch Davis, Jeff Tedford and Frank Solich. In all, these coaches have had sustained success outside the power conferences. This tier is also home to some of the more under-appreciated coaches out there, like San Diego State's Rocky Long and Middle Tennessee's Rick Stockstill.
- It's been weird to see Navy trending in the wrong direction. The Midshipmen have lowered their win total in each of the past three seasons, down to 3-9 a year ago, but Ken Niumatalolo is still the winningest coach in program history.
- Tedford has really rebooted his career well with Fresno State. After making the Mountain West championship game in 2017, the Bulldogs went back and won the thing last season.
Risers and fallers
The Greg Schiano Tier: Coaches moving up
My favorite tier by name, the Schiano grouping is an homage to the hottest name on the coaching market in the mid-2000s. Here you'll find coaches who have had a lot of success early in their head coaching career and have already moved up the ladder and/or will do so in the near future.
- You might say Scott Satterfield has already moved to a big-time job by jumping from App State to Louisville. Indeed, he may plant some roots with the Cardinals for a while. But Satterfield was a hot commodity for a few years with the Mountaineers, and if he can replicate some of that success with the Cardinals, his ascension may not be over yet.
- Some might view Dana Holgorsen's move from West Virginia to Houston as lateral or even a step down. They'd be wrong. Holgorsen didn't move from the Big 12 to the AAC, he moved from West Virginia to Houston. Besides, he's a better fit with the Cougars anyway and may even end up having more success there than with the Mountaineers. And if Holgorsen didn't jump at the chance to coach Houston, who knows if he'd even have a job with West Virginia in a year or two.
- Lane Kiffin had a down year in 2018, but that's still only one year removed from a monster debut with the Owls. FAU is still a great spot for him and he can win there while he resets his career.
The Jim Mora Tier: Jury's still out
This isn't a hot seat tier, per se, though there are some coaches who are on a shorter leash. Mainly, the coaches in this category are enigmatic. In many cases, they've won at the highest levels of the game and could still be fired this year. Gus Malzahn, for example, took Auburn to a national championship appearance in 2013 and is the only coach not named Saban to win the SEC West since. However, Malzahn is on the hot seat every other year.
- Clay Helton is another example of a coach who's been through pretty much everything in a short period of time. He took USC to a Rose Bowl after winning the Pac-12 in 2017-18 ... and followed that up with a 5-7 season last year. Now, famous alums are ready to if he doesn't turn things around in 2019.
- Willie Taggart has been known as one of the better program builders of the last decade, but taking on Florida State is a whole other animal. Even though this is his dream job, it remains to be seen if he's a good fit there. A disastrous 5-7 debut riddled with coaching mishaps didn't help matters, but obviously he needs time to try to build this program.
- I will never get over the fact that Randy Edsall took UConn to the Fiesta Bowl during his first stint with the program. But, goodness, that feels like 50 years ago.
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