Best College Football Coaches of all Time

I am enough of a nerd to enjoy playing with sports statistics, so a few nights ago I used some free time and information from the Internet to arrive at a list of the five best college football coaches of all time.

Trying to be as objective as possible, I devised a set of pretty stiff criteria before looking at any individual records. Since this was to be a lifetime achievement, I determined that coaches must have coached at least 25 years and have at least 250 victories.  (This eliminated several prominent coaches whose head coaching careers ended with retirement from coaching at relatively young ages.  General Neyland was 60 when he quit coaching at Tennessee; Bud Wilkinson was only 47 when he stepped down at Oklahoma.)

I also decided to count only games coached at the highest level of college football, what I refer to as “BCS-level competition.”  That means that Bobby Bowden’s victories when coaching at Howard College and South Georgia College do not count.  This policy causes trouble when evaluating the career of Glenn “Pop” Warner, whose 318 victories and four national championships over a 44 year career entitle him to a place on anyone’s list.  It is hard to qualify Warner, however, because he spent much of his career coaching at places like Carlilse and Cornell. I have chosen to consider Warner in the category of coaches like Eddie Robinson and John Gagliardi who were great coaches, but who spent their careers coaching somewhere other than the “highest level” of college football.

There are a few other special considerations taken into account when compiling a coach’s score.  Ties are disregarded. Counting ties as half wins/half losses penalizes coaches who coached before the overtime system was implemented. It seems fairer to disregard ties and count only wins and losses in calculating a coach’s winning percentage.  The score is the coach’s winning percentage adjusted with bonuses of .010 for each national championship won and .005 for each undefeated season not resulting in a national championship.

With all that said, only five coaches meet the lifetime criteria for this competition.  Here they are in ascending order of winning percentages plus bonus points:

5.  LaVell Edwards  – 729 points

Coached at Brigham Young for 29 seasons (1972-2000)

Record 257-101 (plus 3 ties) — Winning percentage .719

Won a national championship in 1984.

4.  Bobby Bowden — 758 points

40 seasons head coach at West Virginia (1970-1975) and Florida State (1976-2009).

Record 346-123 (plus 4 ties).  Record does not count wins at Howard College.  Winning percentage:  .738

2 national championships (1993, 1999) = .20 bonus

3.  Joe Paterno — 787 points

44+ seasons head coach at Penn State (1966-present)

Record 395-130 (plus 3 ties)  Winning percentage:  .752

2 national championships (1982, 1986) = .20 bonus

3 other undefeated seasons (1969, 1973, 1994) = .15 bonus

2.   Paul “Bear” Bryant — 862 points

38 seasons head coach at Maryland (1945), Kentucky (1946-1953), Texas A&M (1954-1957), and Alabama (1958-1982)

Record 323-85 (plus 17 ties).  Winning percentage:  .792

6 national championships (1961, 1964, 1965, 1973, 1978, 1979) = .060 bonus

2 other undefeated seasons (1956, 1966) = .010 bonus

1. Tom Osborne — 869 points

25 seasons head coach at Nebraska (1973-1997)

Record  255-49 (plus 3 ties).   Winning percentage:  .839

3 national championships (1994, 1995, 1997) = .030 bonus

There it is — just the facts, ma’am.  It is close between Coach Bryant and Coach Osborne, but based on their lifetime bodies of work, that is what you get.

A follow-up post will how people respond emotionally to facts, not just about football coaches but about even more important areas of life.

NOTES:
1. If counted, Warner would have 790 points, resulting in him just beating out JoePa for 3rd place on the list.  John Gagliardi has a record of 471-126 (.789) with four national championships in NAIA and NCAA Division III football. His score, if counted, would be 834.  The other notable coach with 250+ wins is Amos Alonzo Stagg, who coached an amazing 57 seasons from 1890-1946. He won 314 games, but also lost 199 games. His winning percentage was only .612 — far below any of the other coaches in this article.
2. General Robert Neyland of Tennessee had the highest winning percentage of any coach considered for this article (.848). He retired at age 60. Had he continued coaching until age 80 with the same winning percentage, he would have won 367 games and have a score of 888. It is unlikely, however, that he could have maintained such a winning percentage through the 1960s and 1970s. He would have competed head to head with Bryant, probably damaging both coaches’ stats.
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About John Gaines

I am a preacher who has spent all my adult life in full-time ministry.
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12 Responses to Best College Football Coaches of all Time

  1. Adam says:

    As a Nebraska fan, I couldn’t agree more!!!!

    Seriously, Coach Osborne is often overlooked on the “top 5″ or top 10″ coaches by modern media, but many historians easily put him on those lists. When he retired it was a sad day for us Corn-heads!

    Adam

  2. Pingback: Fussing with Facts | Looking at the World Through Christian Eyes

  3. Rich says:

    Can this list be expanded to the top 25 or top 50 ?

  4. James says:

    At the time that Warner coached at those schools– Carlisle and Cornell– they WERE major programs– among the very best in the country. Had there been an AP poll at the time, these are both teams that would have been ranked almost every year. They absolutely were, for their time, “BCS level” teams.

    They were FAR more major than Brigham Young, where Lavell Edwards coached and racked up wins over the WAC– not “BCS level” competition.

    Also, I think the overriding age factor on this list is tremendously limiting. It is just a list of the greatest coaches amongst those who made it to 25 years– a small group in itself.

  5. jacob says:

    I think Bud Wilkinson should be in the top 5.

    His Sooners were won 31 games straight between 1948 and 1950
    He holds the record for the best winning streak with 47 straight wins between 1955 and 1957.
    He went 11 seasons without losing a conference game.
    He won 3 National Championships.
    He won 14 big 8 tittles
    He was 8-2 in bowl games
    His 1955 team is widely considered the best college football team ever.
    I know he only coached 17 seasons a Oklahoma but he accomplished a lot.
    My top 5
    5. Bobby Bowden
    4. Joe Paterno
    3. Tom Osborne
    2. Bud Wilkinson
    1. Paul “Bear” Bryant

  6. bg says:

    No way Bill Snyder he had the biggest turnaround at k-state than any other coach

  7. Hogs fan says:

    Wrong! I don’t care what numbers say Bear Bryant is the greatest of all time hands down. Real football fans know this as a fact. There’s not a mathematical formula you can work to get the answer here, and it’s not needed. It’s obvious. Woooo Pig Sooooie, 2012 BCS National Champion Razorbacks!

    • John Gaines says:

      I am not going to disagree with you. Coach Bryant took over four different programs when they were in poor shape. He stayed at Maryland only a year, but was successful at Kentucky and Texas A&M before “going home” to Alabama, where his record speaks for itself. Coach Osborne took over a good Nebraska program from Bob Devaney and maintained it at a high level throughout his career. That is a noteworthy accomplishment, but Bryant’s road was tougher.

      A topic like this engenders debate by its very nature. It is fun to play with numbers, but we all recognize that numbers can be manipulated. I did not consciously do that with the original post. When coming up with the parameters to evaluate the coaches, I expected the competition to be between Coach Bryant and Joe Paterno. The Osborne result surprised me.

      Obviously, some very good coaches like Bud Wilkinson and Robert Neyland were eliminated simply because they did not coach for the minimum 25 years or have the minimum number of wins. I acknowledged that in the original article. My aim, however, was to recognize lifetime achievement. Based on that criterion, I do not think the 25 year/250 win requirement is unreasonable.

      • Matt says:

        Thank you for not putting Switzer and Wilkinson on the list. They don’t even deserve mention. Not because of their lack of 25 years. But because they were both hit with major ncaa violations twice and put on probation twice for it.

  8. BRUCE B FITTS says:

    YOU HAVE EXPLAINED WHY WILKINSON AND SWITZER WERE NOT LISTED DUE TO LACK OF LONGEVITY. JUST ASK TOM OSBORNE ABOUT SWITZER WHO BEAT HIM 12 OUT OF 16 GAMES.

  9. Ryan says:

    To the person that wrote this article…
    You said, “I also decided to count only games coached at the highest level of college football, what I refer to as “BCS-level competition.” That means that Bobby Bowden’s victories when coaching at Howard College and South Georgia College do not count.”.

    Bobby Bowden has a total of 411 wins as a Head Coach. That is 2 more than JoePa’s 409. Why would you not count all of his wins? So did you look at every single win of all the other coaches on the list and omit every game they played vs a non-BCS team throughout the years? (no you did not) Also if you are the Head Coach at Samford or South Georgia then you play teams that are on your level and are cannon fodder for BCS teams. Yet he still had a great record at both. It is not like he had some unfair advantage while coaching at those places. For this reason imo your list is flawed.

  10. John Gaines says:

    Ryan, thank you for commenting. I am a Bobby Bowden fan so mean no disrespect to him by not counting the games he coaches at the small schools. However, the fact is those schools compete on a whole different level. If we count the games that Samford/Howard and South Georgia played, we must also count all the games John Gagliardi has coached. His record (still going since he is still coaching at age 85) is 484-133-11 — all coached at small colleges in Montana and Minnesota. He has won more football games than any other college coach in the history of the sport. But Coach Gagliardi has spent his life performing at an altogether different level of competition. His task might have been easier or it might have been harder, but it was not the same as the Tom Osbornes and Bear Bryants who coached only at the highest level. Coach Bowden moved up to the Big Time when he started coaching West Virginia. It would not be fair to him or to the other coaches with whom he is being compared to count the small-school games.

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