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.