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The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / Top 10 Greatest College Football Coaches of All-Time: Who was the Greatest?

Top 10 Greatest College Football Coaches of All-Time: Who was the Greatest?

Publish Date: 12/21/2023
Fact checked by: Mark Lewis

Today, we will look at the top 10 College Football Coaches of all time. Don’t freak out if you can’t find Saban, Swinney or Meyer! Why? Because they are not done coaching yet, so in all fairness we need to let their careers play out to rank them. All three will end up in the top ten, and Saban will be number one after he retires.

Criteria

Criteria, of course, have much to do with wins/losses and National Championships. A coach will not be in the top ten unless he has won multiple National Championships. Did the coach change the game in any way? Was he innovative? The impact of the Head Coach on the school he was coaching is also considered. I think you will find that all ten head coaches on the list are still revered at the universities they coached at.

10) Bob Devaney

  • Career Record: 136-30-7
  • Record at Each School: 35-10-5 at Wyoming, 101-20-2 at Nebraska.
  • Bowl Record: 7-3

Honors and Awards: Inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1981. Named the 1971 Coach of the Year. 2 National Championships, 4 Skyline Championships, and 8 Big Eight Championships. 

Nebraska only had two winning seasons two decades before Devaney’s arrival, but the Cornhuskers rattled off 40 consecutive seasons under his watch as the head coach and athletic director.

During his 11 years as head coach, Nebraska had 11 winning seasons, nine bowl appearances, eight Big 8 championships, and two national championships. Devaney completely transformed the entire program at Nebraska. Devaney also served as the athletic director at Nebraska from 1967 to 1993 and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as a coach in 1981.

Video: ode to the big red a tribute to Bob Devaney

ode to the big red a tribute to Bob Devaney

9) Barry Switzer 

Career Record: 157-29-4

  • Record at Each School: 157-29-4 at Oklahoma.
  • Bowl Record: 8-5
  • Honors and Awards: Inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2001. 3 National Championships, 12 Big 8 Championships.

The Sooners did not suffer a losing season under Switzer, his worst record was 7-4-1 in 1981, and they only failed three times to finished in the top-10 at the end of the season.

He served for 16 years as head football coach at the University of Oklahoma and four years as head coach for the Dallas Cowboys of the National Football League (NFL). He helped the Cowboys win Super Bowl XXX against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He has one of the highest winning percentages of any college football coach in history, he is one of only three head coaches to win both a college football national championship and a Super Bowl, (the others being Jimmy Johnson and Pete Carroll).

Video: Tales from the Trail - Barry Switzer (2010-01-30)

Tales from the Trail – Barry Switzer (2010-01-30)

8) Bobby Bowden

  • Career Record: 377-134-5
  • Record at Each School: 31-6 at Howard, 42-26 at West Virginia, 304-97-4 at Florida State.
  • Bowl Record: 21-10-1
  • Honors and Awards: Inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2006. 2 National Championships, 12 ACC Championships.

He coached the Florida State Seminoles football team from the 1976 to 2009 seasons. During his time at Florida State, Bowden led FSU to an Associated Press and Coaches Poll National Title in 1993, a BCS National Championship in 1999, and twelve Atlantic Coast Conference championships since FSU joined the conference in 1991. After a difficult 2009 season and amid questioning fans, Bowden stepped down, just weeks after his 80th birthday.

But he was allowed to make his final coaching appearance in the 2010 Gator Bowl game on January 1, 2010, with a 33–21 victory over his former program, West Virginia.

Many people forget that he completely turned the Florida State program from also-ran to contender in a few short years.

Video: Bobby Bowden: A Winning Way (2009) | Full Movie | Bobby Bowden | Michael F. Lewis

Bobby Bowden: A Winning Way (2009) | Full Movie | Bobby Bowden | Michael F. Lewis

7) Bud Wilkinson

  • Career Record: 145-29-4
  • Record at Each School: 145-29-4 at Oklahoma.
  • Bowl Record: 6-2

Honors and Awards: Inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1969. 3 National Championships, 14 Big 8 Championships. 1949 AFCA Coach of the Year.

He started off his time at Oklahoma by winning a share of the conference title and he would continue that trend for the next 13 seasons. From 1947-1959, Oklahoma won their conference. That’s incredible to not even have one down year over more than a decade’s time.

In addition to his conference championships, Wilkinson collected three national championships in 1950, 1955, and 1956. Oklahoma only suffered one losing season under Wilkinson’s tenure. Oklahoma’s 47-game winning streak under Wilkinson is still the longest winning streak in college football and a record that may never be broken. That loss to snap the 47 game winning streak is still considered one of the greatest upsets in College Football history!

Video: Bud Wilkinson's 47 game wining streak

Bud Wilkinson’s 47 game wining streak

6) Wayne “Woody” Hayes

  • Career Record: 238-72-10
  • Record at Each School: 19-6 at Denison, 14-5 at Miami, 205-61-10 at Ohio State.
  • Bowl Record: 6-6
  • Honors and Awards: Inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983. 5 National Championships, 13 Big Ten Championships, 1 OAC Championship, 1 Mid-American Championship. 2-time Big Ten Coach of the Year.

During his 28 seasons as the head coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes football program, Hayes’ teams won five national championships (1954, 1957, 1961, 1968, 1970),[1] captured 13 Big Ten Conference titles, and amassed a record of 205–61–10.

Over the last decade of his coaching tenure at Ohio State, Hayes’s Buckeye squads faced off in a fierce rivalry against the Michigan Wolverines coached by Bo Schembechler, a former player under and assistant coach to Hayes. During that stretch in the Michigan–Ohio State football rivalry, dubbed “The Ten Year War,” Hayes and Schembechler’s teams won or shared the Big Ten Conference crown every season and usually each placed in the national rankings.

Woody was known as a three yards and a cloud of dust coach, which lead him to coaching some of the greatest running backs in Big Ten History.

Despite his great achievements at Ohio State, Hayes’s coaching career ended ignominiously when he was dismissed from the university after punching Clemson middle guard Charlie Bauman for intercepting an Ohio State pass with two minutes left on the clock in the 1978 Gator Bowl. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as a coach in 1983.

Video: The Life of OSU Coach WOODY HAYES | Ohio State Museum | Final Resting Place

The Life of OSU Coach WOODY HAYES | Ohio State Museum | Final Resting Place

5) Frank Leahy

  • Career Record: 107-13-9
  • Record at Each School: 20-2 at Boston College, 87-11-9 at Notre Dame.
  • Bowl Record: 1-1
  • Honors and Awards: Inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1970. 5 National Championships. 1941 AFCA Coach of the Year.

Leahy made waves early at Notre Dame, he didn’t lose a game his first year and made major schematically changes his second year. Knute Rockne was known for his legendary “box” formation, which evolved from one of Glenn Warner’s schemes. The box used four different running backs, and the quarterback was mainly a blocker. However, Leahy scrapped that for the “T” formation.

He had great success with this new offense, winning three straight national championships from 1943-1947. He only lost 13 games from 1941-1953 at Notre Dame, placing him among the most elite coaches in their history.

Video: Frank Leahy clip

Frank Leahy clip

4) Tom Osborne

  • Career Record: 255-49-3
  • Record at Each School: 255-49-3 at Nebraska.
  • Bowl Record: 12-13
  • Honors and Awards: Inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1999. 3 National Championships, 12 Big 8 Championships, 1 Big 12 Championship.

Tom Osborne IS Nebraska football, while his predecessor, Bob Devaney, who is on this list, led Nebraska into the national spotlight, Osborne took them to heights never before seen. Everything you would want to know about Osborne’s greatness could be seen at the Orange Bowl in 1984, when down one point and only needing a tie to secure the national title, he went for two and the win against the Miami Hurricanes.

The Cornhuskers failed on the attempt, but nobody in Nebraska held it against him. His goal was not to tie it was to win.

Video: Tom Osborne recounts his early coaching days with the Nebraska Cornhusker football program

Tom Osborne recounts his early coaching days with the Nebraska Cornhusker football program

3) Joe Paterno

  • Career Record: 409-136-3
  • Record at Each School: 409-136-3 at Penn State.
  • Bowl Record: 24-12-1
  • Honors and Awards: Inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2007. 2 National Championships, 3 Big 10 Championships. 5-time AFCA Coach of the Year, 3-time Walter Camp Coach of the Year, 3-time Big 10 Coach of the Year.

His career will be overshadowed by his handling of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, but it can not change the fact that he was one of the greatest college football coaches in history. Coached multiple teams that deserved at least a share of a national championship in the 60s and early 70s. His greatest win had to be the 1987 Fiesta bowl upset over top-ranked Miami(Fla) to win his second national title.

Video: Joe Paterno Documentary from 2002 - WE ARE Penn State because of Joepa - RIP - Keystone State

Joe Paterno Documentary from 2002 – WE ARE Penn State because of Joepa – RIP – Keystone State

2) Knute Rockne

  • Career Record: 105-12-5
  • Record at Each School: 105-12-5 at Notre Dame.
  • Bowl Record: 1-0
  • Honors and Awards: Inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951. 4 National Championships.

During 13 years as head coach, Rockne led his “Fighting Irish” to 105 victories, 12 losses, five ties and three national championships, including five undefeated seasons without a tie. Rockne posted the highest all-time winning percentage (.881) for a prominent college football coach. His schemes include the eponymous Notre Dame Box offense and the 7–2–2 defense. Rockne’s box included a shift. The backfield lined up in a T-formation, then quickly shifted into a box to the left or right just as the ball was snapped.

Rockne was also shrewd enough to recognize that intercollegiate sports had a show-business aspect. Thus, he worked hard promoting Notre Dame football to make it financially successful. He used his considerable charm to court favor from the media, consisting of newspapers, wire services, radio stations, and networks, to obtain free advertising for Notre Dame football.

He was very successful as an advertising pitchman for South Bend-based Studebaker and other products. He eventually received an annual income of $75,000 from Notre Dame, which in today’s dollars is millions.

Video: They Knew Knute Rockne - Biography in Sound - Legendary Notre Dame Coach

They Knew Knute Rockne – Biography in Sound – Legendary Notre Dame Coach

1) Paul “Bear” Bryant

  • Career Record: 323-85-17
  • Record at Each School: 6-2-1 at Maryland, 60-23-6 at Kentucky, 24-14-2 at Texas A&M, and 232-46-9 at Alabama.
  • Bowl Record: 15-12-2
  • Honors and Awards: 7 National Championships, 14 SEC Championships, 1 SWC Championship. 12-time SEC Coach of the Year, 3-time AFCA Coach of the Year.

Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant is the most iconic head coach with his houndstooth fedora and stoic presence on the sidelines.

Before coaching at Alabama, Bryant helped turn terrible programs like Maryland, Kentucky, and Texas A&M into good teams. Kentucky went to its first bowl and had its first winning season under Bryant. The Bear turned the 1-9 “Junction Boys” into Southwest Conference champions at Texas A&M in 1955.

What I respect most about Bryant is how adamant he is about integrating African American players into college football. He ultimately decided to leave Kentucky and Texas A&M because both universities refused to integrate their programs.

Bryant found success quickly after he took over as head coach at his alma mater, Alabama, in 1956. The Crimson Tide went to 23 consecutive bowl games after they failed to make one his first season. Alabama did not suffer a single losing season under Bryant. Bryant is why the Crimson Tide is the greatest College Football Program of all time!

Video: Paul

Paul “Bear” Bryant Top 15 Wins

Honorable Mentions

Darrell Royal

The University of Texas was one of the first schools to integrate African-American athletes into their programs, and Royal played an integral role in that. Plus he was an outstanding coach leading the Longhorns to three National Championships.

Amos Alonzo Stagg

Hands down the most innovative coach in college football history; his list of innovations he brought to the game is around 20. Three high schools are named for him, and the NCAA Division III championship game is named the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl.

John McKay

Mckay is often remembered for his dry humor, but he was a great football coach. McKay reeled in four national and nine conference championships during his only head coaching stint in college football. His first two seasons with the Trojans were disappointing, recording a combined record of 8-11-1.

He faced pressure and was on the hot seat, especially at USC. However, in 1962, McKay went 11-0 and won his first national championship. That had to have calmed the qualms of USC’s elite. McKay coached in some of the greatest Rose Bowl games of all time!

Eddie Robinson

Robinson was the winningest coach in College Football history for a long time. Robinson sent many great players to the NFL from Grambling, and he won nine National Black College Championships. Robinson built Grambling into a small college powerhouse when Blacks were not allowed to play in the NFL.

Bo Schembechler

Bo won 13 Big Ten Championships but never won the Big One. He struggled in his biggest games at the Rose Bowl, so he is relegated to honorable mention. He did rebuild the Michigan football program into a powerhouse; he just tended to fail on the biggest stages.

Glenn “Pop” Warner

Pre-dating Bear Bryant and Bobby Bowden, Pop Warner had the most wins of any coach in major college football history. Youth football leagues all over they country are still known as Pop Warner football.

 

 

 

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