Do you remember low Tide, the most recent losing year for Alabama Football? For the University of Alabama and other top college football programs, their most recent losing season occurred within the past 15 years. Many, in the last 10 years.
2018 – Florida State, Nebraska, Tennessee, USC
2017 – Florida
2016 – Notre Dame, Texas
2014 – Miami, Michigan
2012 – Auburn
2011 – Ohio State
2010 – Clemson, Georgia
2009 – Texas A&M
2006 – Alabama
2004 – Penn State
2001 – Wisconsin
1999 – LSU
1998 – Oklahoma
Here is a look back on low Tide and the most recent losing year and consecutive losing years for college football’s winningest programs:
Do you recall low Tide? The down years for the Alabama Crimson Tide football program? That occurred BCNS. That’s Before Coach Nick Saban. Under Mike Shula, it wasn’t Roll Tide, it was more like low Tide. Shula took over for Dennis Franchione and from a 10-win season in 2002, Shula went 4-9 in his first year at Alabama.
In 2004, there was some improvement to a 6-6 record but losing to Minnesota in the Music City Bowl wasn’t what Alabama fans were accustomed to. A 10-win season and a Cotton Bowl victory over Texas Tech followed in 2005, but in 2006, Alabama finished under .500 with a 6-7 record. They say it’s always darkest before the dawn. Unlike the Mike DuBose hiring, this time Alabama got it right. Did they ever.
When was the last time the Crimson Tide had back-to-back losing seasons? 1956 and 1957 with Jennings Whitworth as head coach. The Crimson Tide went 2-7-1 each year. That was truly low Tide and then mama called out to Bear Bryant. The rest as they say is history.
As a head coach, how much leeway does winning a national championship give you? Apparently, two years at Auburn. After winning the national championship in 2010, after going 3-9 in 2012, head coach Gene Chizik was fired by Auburn.
The last two-year stretch of losing seasons at Auburn was in 1998 and 1999. Head coaches at Auburn are on a short leash and should be renters not house buyers. After going 10-3 in 1997 with a Peach Bowl victory over Clemson, head coach Terry Bowden’s Auburn Tigers got off to a 1-4 start in 1998. Never mind that those four straight losses came to three teams ranked in the top seven in the country! A loss to #7-ranked LSU, then #3-ranked Tennessee, a loss at Mississippi State followed by a loss at fifth-ranked Florida.
Bowden was fired and Bill Oliver was named interim head coach for the rest of the season and the Tigers went 3-8 on the year. Tommy Tuberville was hired and in his first season at Auburn went 5-6 before setting Auburn back on their winning ways.
In 2009, his first full season as head coach, Dabo Swinney had a 9-5 record. The following season, Clemson went 6-7 with a loss in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. His predecessor Tommy Bowden never had a losing season. Swinney replaced Bowden after six games in 2008. 2010 was the first losing season at Clemson since Tommy West was head coach and the Tigers went 3-8 in 1998. Cause for concern?
2010 proved to be but a pothole in the road for Swinney and Clemson. Since 2011, Clemson has won 10, 11, 11, 10, 14, 14, 12 and 15 games respectively with two national championships in the past three years. The last time Clemson had two losing seasons in a row was 1975 and 1976 going 2-9 and 3-6-2 under head coach Red Parker.
The 2017 season is one Gator fans would like to forget. With a 3-1 record under head coach Jim McElwain, Florida then lost five straight games. After going 19-8 in his first two seasons at Gainesville, the Gators finished 2017 with a 4-7 record. There would not be a fourth season in Gainesville for McElwain.
Only four years earlier, in 2013, Will Muschamp won only four games against eight defeats. Before that one would have to go all the way back to 1979 to find a losing season. For the Gators, that year, Charley Pell and Florida suffered the most defeats in their football history. Pell’s first season as head coach resulted in a 0-10-1 disaster. Not many coaches today would get a second year after that kind of season. That made Doug Dickey’s 4-7 season in 1978 look good by comparison.
Florida State (2018)
A great college football trivia question is: Who was the head coach of the Florida State Seminoles before Bobby Bowden? That’s how far back you have to go to find a season as bad for the Seminoles as the 5-7 record in 2018 under Florida State’s first-year head coach Willie Taggert. The answer by the way is Darrell Mudra and Mudra went 3-8 in 1975 and that was an improvement over his 1-10 record in 1974 which was an improvement over Larry Jones’ 0-11 season in 1973. Bowden took over for Mudra and went 5-6 in 1976 and after that would build a dynasty in Tallahassee.
For the past 17 seasons, the Georgia Bulldogs have averaged 10 wins a season. That’s why it’s so surprising that Georgia’s most recent losing season wasn’t that long ago under long-time head coach Mark Richt. In 2010, the Bulldogs went 6-7. One would have to go back to 1996 to find another losing season and that was head coach Jim Donnan’s first year as Georgia head coach and Georgia had a 5-6 record.
Current head coach Kirby Smart has a 32-10 overall record and an 18-6 conference record after his first three seasons at Georgia. Richt had a 32-8 overall record and an 18-6 conference record after his first three seasons at Georgia. The more things change the more things stay the same?
Who is the only head coach at the University of Georgia in the past 100 years to have a losing record at Georgia? The answer is Johnny Griffith. Griffith had three consecutive losing seasons in from 1961 to 1963 going 3-7, 3-4-3 and 4-5-1. If you knew that answer, you are indeed a Georgia football fan. That was the last time Georgia had consecutive losing seasons.
If the LSU administration and fans got tired of the Les Miles years, imagine what they must have been going through in 1998 and 1999 under head coach Gerry DiNardo. After three straight bowl-winning seasons finishing with wins over Michigan State, Clemson and Notre Dame, the wheels began to fall off for DiNardo at Baton Rouge in 1998.
A 4-7 season in 1998 was followed by a 3-8 season in 1999 in which DiNardo was fired after eight consecutive losses before the season finale against Arkansas in 1999. Eight consecutive losses during the 1999 season. It can’t get much darker than that.
In 2000, LSU hired Nick Saban who won a national championship in 2003. When Saban left for the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, Les Miles was named head coach and Miles won a national championship in 2007. Miles was replaced by current head coach Ed Orgeron in 2016. As you can see, Saban and Miles set the bar high at LSU.
A 6-7 year in 2014 was the last time the University of Miami was under .500 in a season and that came under head coach Al Golden. Randy Shannon had a five-win season, going 5-7, in 2007 when he was the head coach at Miami.
The last time Miami had consecutive losing seasons you have to go back to 1975 through 1977. In 1975, head coach Carl Selmer had a 2-8 record and went 3-8 the following season. Selmer was replaced by former Buffalo Bills head coach Lou Saban and produced another 3-8 season in 1977 before going 6-5 in 1978.
Even the winningest program in college football history has some down years, and they weren’t all that long ago. In 2014, Michigan went 5-7 under Brady Hoke and that wasn’t simply going to cut it in Ann Arbor. Especially not with the recent memory of the 3-8 record in 2008 and 5-7 record in 2009 under head coach Rich Rodriquez.
Prior to that, Michigan’s last losing season was in 1967 under Bump Elliott when the Wolverines went 4-6. Elliott turned that around in 1968 winning eight games against two losses and then Bo Schembechler took over the program. Schembechler coached for 21 seasons without a losing season. Gary Moeller followed that with five more, and then Lloyd Carr had 13 straight seasons without a losing record. You can imagine the dismay Wolverines fans felt in 2008 and 2009.
It was all sunshine and rainbows in the state of Nebraska under head coaches Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne. From 1969 through 2001, the Cornhuskers never won fewer than nine games in a season. Like a combine harvester in a Nebraska cornfield, the Huskers rolled through the Big 8 Conference and then Big 12 Conference year after year.
In 1998, Frank Solich replaced Osborne and won 59 games in six seasons. Averaging 10 wins a season wasn’t good enough for Nebraska Athletic Director Steve Pederson. Pederson got greedy and wanted to make his mark on the Nebraska football program and he certainly did. Pederson hired Bill Callahan and the Cornhuskers produced their first losing season since Bill Jennings went 3-6-1 in 1961. Talk about culture shock. Callahan went 5-6 in 2004, 8-4 in 2005 and 9-5 in 2006, and then had another losing season in 2007 going 5-7.
Pederson was fired and Osborne was hired as Interim Athletic Director. The Cornhuskers hired Bo Pelini and winning nine games a year wasn’t good enough. In Pelini’s seven years at Nebraska, he never won less than nine games but that also meant he was losing four games a year. So instead of seeing the glass as nine-thirteenths full, Nebraska Director of Athletics Shawn Eichorst, saw it as four-thirteenths empty. Eichorst stated that Pelini had never won a conference title or won the games that mattered.
Mike Riley was then hired and in 2015 Nebraska won only six games finishing with a losing 6-7 record. After winning nine games in 2016, Riley took Nebraska to new depths with a 4-8 record in 2017. Former Nebraska quarterback Scott Frost inherited the mess that Riley left and produced a 4-8 record in 2018 but the Huskers were far more competitive than under Riley. A third-consecutive losing season is unlikely as Cornhusker fans are talking about and seemingly expecting at least an 8-win season in 2019.
Notre Dame (2016)
In 2016, The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame had a staggering 4-8 season under Brian Kelly. This after a 10-3 record from the previous year and six straight seasons with no less than eight wins a year. Kelly and the Fighting Irish bounced back with 10 and 12-win seasons since that disaster of a season.
From Ara Parseghian through the Dan Devine years (1964-1980), Notre Dame did not have a losing season. That changed in Gerry Faust’s first year when Notre Dame went 5-6 in 1981. Another 5-6 season in 1985 brought about enough pressure to get Faust to resign. Faust went 30-26-1 in his five seasons and the fall was so great that even the turnaround was slow for Lou Holtz as he had a 5-6 season in his first year at Notre Dame in 1986.
Since Devine left South Bend, every Notre Dame head coach had at least one losing season. Faust in ’81 and ’85, Holtz in ’86, Bob Davie in ’99 and ’01, Tyrone Willingham in ’03, Charlie Weis in ’07 and Kelly in ’16. Those aren’t the echoes to be awakened in Notre Dame’s fight song.
Ohio State (2011)
The last losing season Ohio State had was surprisingly, not all that long ago. In 2011, with Luke Fickell as head coach, the Buckeyes went 6-7. What made that season so surprising was the year before under Jim Tressel, the Buckeyes went 12-1, and the year after Fickell, Urban Meyer went 12-0 leading the Buckeyes.
How consistently good is Ohio State’s football program? The last time Ohio State had two consecutive losing seasons was 1922 (3-4) and 1923 (3-4-1) under head coach John Wilce. Wrap your head around that one.
The closest thing to a post-World War II two-year dark period for Ohio State was in 1987 and 1988 when the Buckeyes finished fifth in the Big 10 with an overall 6-4-1 record in Earle Bruce’s last year and then 4-6-1 finishing seventh in the Big 10 under then first-year head coach John Cooper. Cooper can take some solace knowing that even Woody Hayes had losing seasons in Columbus in 1959 going 3-5-1 and in 1966 with a 4-5 record.
1996 through 1998, better known as the John Blake years, were the darkest days in Oklahoma football since the early ‘20s. That was the last time Oklahoma had three consecutive losing seasons. During Blake’s three years Oklahoma had 3-8, 4-8 and a 5-6 record respectively. From 1922-1924, Bennie Owen’s Sooners went 2-3-3, 3-5 and 2-5-1.
1998 was the last time Oklahoma had a losing record, and only four times in the past 20 seasons under Bob Stoops and Lincoln Riley have the Sooners failed to win 10 games or more in a season.
Penn State (2003-2004)
After two consecutive losing seasons in 2000 (5-7) and 2001 (5-6), Penn State rebounded with a 9-4 record in 2002. That was followed by the worst two-year stretch (3-9 in 2003 and 4-7 in 2004) at Penn State since 1931 and 1932 when the Nittany Lions went 2-8 and 2-5.
Head coach Joe Paterno brought the Lions back to their winning ways winning Big 10 titles in 2005 and 2008 and winning 51 games from 2005-2009 with 11-win seasons in 2005, 2008 and 2009.
Penn State still holds the NCAA record for the most consecutive non-losing seasons with 49 that began in 1939 and ended in 1988 when the Nittany Lions were 5-6 that season.
The once-proud Tennessee Volunteers football program hasn’t won 10 games in a season since 2007. In the 11 seasons since that time, the Volunteers had a losing record in seven of those 11 seasons. Tennessee fans were singing, “Where have you gone Phillip Fulmer, Vol Nation turns its lonely eyes to you, woo woo woo,” and Fulmer was brought back as athletic director in December of 2017.
If you were asked, which of Tennessee’s past five coaches did not have a losing season, one might be surprised to know the answer is Lane Kiffin. Kiffin went 7-6 in 2009 in his only year as head coach of the Volunteers.
Fulmer was 5-7 in 2008 in his final year at the head coaching helm. Be careful what you wish for when calling for a head-coaching change. After Kiffin, Derek Dooley went four straight years without a winning season. Butch Jones had a losing record in 2013 and 2017 as did his replacement Jeremy Pruitt in 2018. The last two seasons the Vols are 9-17.
When Darrell Royal took over as head coach of the Texas Longhorns in 1957, little did Longhorn fans know that it would turn out better than hitting oil in an old oil well. For the next 20 seasons, the Longhorns never had a losing season. Royal built such a strong foundation that his successor, Fred Akers, wouldn’t have a losing season until his final season as the Longhorns head coach in 1986 with a 5-6 record.
David McWilliams succeeded Akers and would have a losing season in three of the next five years. John Mackovic would last six seasons and in his sixth season had a 4-7 record as the Longhorns head coach. Enter Mack Brown and a Longhorn resurgence. Brown would win nine games or more for the next 12 years. After a 13-1 season in 2009 that ended with a loss in the BCS National Championship Game to Alabama, the Longhorns went 5-7 the following season.
2013 was Brown’s last season as Longhorns head coach and then the Longhorns sunk to new depths with three straight losing years under Charlie Strong. Strong’s record in those three seasons (2014-2106) was an uninspiring 16-21. Tom Herman enters his fourth season at Longhorns head coach in 2019 and the Eyes of Texas are upon him to restore the Longhorns to the elite of college football.
Texas A&M (2008-2009)
With Jimbo Fisher now the head coach at Texas A&M and with the resources available to him, it may be a while before another losing season happens in Aggie Land. The last losing seasons the Aggies had were in 2008 and 2009 under Mike Sherman. In 2008, Texas A&M went 4-8 and in 2009, they were 6-7.
One might think that after winning the 2017 Rose Bowl and appearing in the 2018 Cotton Bowl, USC fans might be a bit forgiving of head coach Clay Helton’s 5-7 season in 2018, but that was hardly the case. The last losing season before 2018 was a 5-7 record in 2000 under head coach Paul Hackett.
In case you’re wondering when was the last time USC had consecutive losing seasons, you must go back to 1960 (4-6) and 1961 (4-5-1) and the head coach was some guy by the name of John McKay. I guess USC fans had more patience back then, and McKay richly rewarded them for their patience.
Older college football fans know the amazing rebuilding job Barry Alvarez did at the University of Wisconsin. How big of a rebuilding job was it? From 1985 through 1992 Wisconsin never had a winning season. In 1985 in his final season at Badgers head coach, Dave McClain went 5-6. Jim Hilles was 3-9 in 1986. Don Morton went 3-8, 1-10 and 2-9 over the next three seasons.
Enter Barry Alvarez and in 1990, Alvarez went 1-10 in his first year as the Badgers head coach and then two consecutive 5-6 seasons. It wasn’t until 1993 did he and the Badgers have a breakthrough winning season going 10-1-1 with a Rose Bowl victory over UCLA.
After five consecutive winning seasons beginning in 1996, Wisconsin dipped below .500 in 2001 with a 5-7 record. However, since that time, it’s been On Wisconsin as Alvarez, Bret Bielema, Gary Andersen and Paul Chryst had nothing but winning seasons.
A losing season for any school can be as close as losing your starting quarterback to injury. The experienced back-up quarterback you thought you’d have was lost to the transfer portal and went elsewhere to improve his chances of starting and now a head coach is forced to play an unexperienced freshman or sophomore at the most important position in football.
Other recipes for losing seasons include a coaching change with a new head coach coming in with a radically different style of offense but the players he inherits aren’t the type of players he needs to run his offense. A rash of injuries to the offensive line can also wreak havoc to an offense as well and ruin a season.
Will we continue to see long-time successful power five programs struggle with losing seasons? Time will tell, but it’s certainly a possibility.
John Baranowski is a sports historian and contributor to newspapers, sports publications and sports websites. This and other articles written by him can be found on his blog: https://johnbaranowski.wordpress.com/