College football coaching tiers: From Hall of Fame resumes to murky futures
Where does your team's coach land in our coaching tier list?
College football is a players' sport. Recruiting matters, especially when it comes to competing for a playoff run.
But that doesn't mean coaching isn't important.
Coaches can turn entire programs around (hello, Bill Snyder) and bring home rare national titles (hello, Dabo Swinney). It's the coaches who bring the Jimmy's and Joe's to campus and develop them. On the flip side, a bad coaching hire -- or, heaven forbid, two bad coaching hires -- can set a program back for years.
It's with these things in mind that we present our 2017 college football coaching tiers, from the future Hall of Famers to ones fighting for their jobs. The guideline for inclusion was at least three full seasons unless the coach was a more established name at a new school. In that vein, career totality -- not just last season's results -- was factored in.
As with our, you'll find there's an overall order to the madness. Elite coaches in the top two tiers are there for a reason. However, tiering coaches isn't the same thing as ranking them. These are about fit as much as anything because coaches at two different programs may be asked to do two different things. The Howard Schnellenberger Tier, for example, boasts some of the best football minds in the country, but few of them are realistically vying for playoff spots. It doesn't mean those coaches aren't as good as those at blue-blood institutions, it means their jobs are different.
The challenge is finding a balance representing that subtle, but notable, difference while maintaining an order to it all.
Let's get to it ...
The Bear Bryant Tier: First ballot Hall of Famers
There are only two active college football coaches who, right now, warrant being called the best in the game. They've both won multiple national titles and will go down without debate as some of the best coaches to ever walk the sidelines at this level. Saban is probably the best ever already but another championship will cement it.
The Steve Spurrier Tier: Blue-blood winners
Let's cut right to the coach who isn't included: Michigan's JIm Harbaugh. It was a tough call, but he would have been the only coach in this group who doesn't have a ring of any kind. We're talking no national championship, no conference championship, not even a divisional title at the FBS level. The guy can flat-out coach, and he wins a ton of games. He just doesn't have the hardware to justify putting him in this tier. Part of the reason is circumstantial; he's coached in the same divisions as Chip Kelly, Mark Dantonio and Meyer. But even former Texas coach Mack Brown, who had the unfortunate task of competing against Stoops' Sooners every year, won a natty (in arguably the greatest national championship ever played, too). Harbaugh's close, but he's not there yet.
The Barry Alvarez Tier: Success at the Power Five level
Jim Harbaugh (Michigan), James Franklin (Penn State), Chris Petersen (Washington), Gus Malzahn (Auburn), Paul Chryst (Wisconsin), Mark Dantonio (Michigan State), Mike Gundy (Oklahoma State), David Shaw (Stanford), Brian Kelly (Notre Dame), Jim McElwain (Florida), Mark Richt (Miami), Bobby Petrino (Louisville), Kyle Whittingham (Utah), Mike Riley (Nebraska), Mike Leach (Washington State), Todd Graham (Arizona State), Larry Fedora (North Carolina), Kirk Ferentz (Iowa)
Every once in a while, these coaches will threaten for, and even win, a conference championship. Maybe they'll make a playoff appearance. Dantonio and Shaw are exceptional outliers given their respective strings of success. For the most part, though, these guys are coaching for second place. Don't worry, that's not an insult. Winning is hard and there are only so many spots at the big table when the coaches in the top two tiers are dominating at such a high level.
The Howard Schnellenberger Tier: Program builders
Bill Snyder (Kansas State), Gary Patterson (TCU), David Cutcliffe (Duke), Mike MacIntyre (Colorado), Dan Mullen (Mississippi State), Chris Creighton (Eastern Michigan), Bob Davie (New Mexico), Pat Fitzgerald (Northwestern), Gary Andersen (Oregon State), Willie Taggart (Oregon), Dave Clawson (Wake Forest), Chuck Martin (Miami-OH), Jeff Monken (Army), Bobby Wilder (Old Dominion)
This tier basically exists in its own universe away from everything else because building a program from the studs on up is a different type of job altogether that yields different results. And there are usually a lot of losing efforts in the process. The best example is Snyder, who orchestrated the best coaching job of all time given where K-State was historically when he took over compared to where it is now. However, he isn't coaching for the same things as Saban or Fisher.
The LaVell Edwards Tier: Getting it done outside the Power Five
Frank Solich (Ohio), Ken Niumatalolo (Navy), Bryan Harsin (Boise State), Rocky Long (San Diego State), Troy Calhoun (Air Force), Rick Stockstill (Middle Tennessee State), Doc Holliday (Marshall), Scott Satterfield (Appalachian State), Blake Anderson (Arkansas State), Mark Hudspeth (Louisiana-Lafayette)
Ohio's 29-23 loss to Western Michigan in the MAC Championship Game actually made me realize how good Solich has it. No one's confusing him for an all-timer, but the guy consistently wins seven or eight games, represents the MAC East every few years, routinely goes to a bowl game and does it all away from the spotlight in a great small-town setting. I might take that over Nebraska, too.
The Hal Mumme Tier: All over the place
Paul Johnson (Georgia Tech), Kevin Sumlin (Texas A&M), Rich Rodriguez (Arizona), Bret Bielema (Arkansas), Dana Holgorsen (West Virginia), Bronco Mendenhall (Virginia), Terry Bowden (Akron), David Bailiff (Rice), Charlie Strong (South Florida), Derek Mason (Vanderbilt), Skip Holtz (Louisiana Tech)
These are coaches who have gone through more extreme highs and lows than ones in the tiers above. In fairness, that's bound to happen to almost anyone if they're around long enough. Sometimes such swings are luck driven, be it injuries, youth or recruiting misses. Geography can play a factor, too. It's not like Arizona and Vanderbilt have been the easiest places to win. There are some bright minds in here. There are also four coaches (by my count) who have lost to Kansas. That'll knock you down a tier or two.
Rising and Falling
The Greg Schiano Tier: Coaches considered to be on the rise
Philip Montgomery (Tulsa), P.J. Fleck (Minnesota), Craig Bohl (Wyoming), Tom Herman (Texas), Matt Rhule (Baylor), Dino Babers (Syracuse), Justin Fuente (Virginia Tech), Willie Fritz (Tulane), Chad Morris (SMU), Neal Brown (Troy), Scott Frost (Central Florida), Mike Norvell (Memphis), Jeff Brohm (Purdue), Matt Campbell (Iowa State)
Remember when Schiano was the hottest name in the coaching carousel every December? This tier is an homage to those working their way up the coaching ladder. Like their counterparts in the Schnellenberger Tier, these coaches are program builders, but oftentimes part of building a program is moving on when the ceiling at the current stop is reached. With a few exceptions -- like Herman at Texas -- coaches in this tier are more likely to end up somewhere else in the not-too-distant future.
The Houston Nutt Tier: Jury's still out
Lane Kiffin (Florida Atlantic), Hugh Freeze (Ole Miss), Jim Mora (UCLA), Kliff Kingsbury (Texas Tech), Will Muschamp (South Carolina), Butch Jones (Tennessee), Rod Carey (Northern Illinois), Matt Wells (Utah State) Mark Stoops (Kentucky), Steve Addazio (Boston College), Dave Doeren (NC State)
Some of these coaches are on the hot seat. Some aren't (yet). Some have won more games than they've lost. Others haven't. Some are named Lane Kiffin. Together, they make up our final tier, one in which the collective longterm fate is much murkier.
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