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Insider

Ranking the nation's best coaches

7/13/2012
Nick Saban, Bill Snyder and Urban Meyer rank among the nation's elite coaches. Getty Images, AP Photo

Evaluating and ranking the top coaches in the country is no doubt a complicated and daunting process, but I was told "Do it!" and have given it my best shot. I've spoken with a number of assistants, head coaches and athletic directors in the past week, gleaning whatever prevailing perceptions exist in the profession. Additionally, we've run each boss through a system to gauge specific areas requisite of the job.

The coaches were evaluated in four comprehensive categories:

Recruiting and development: Can the coach reel in the players? What happens once they're on campus, whether they're 2-star or 5-star recruits?

Preparation and game day: How does the coach get his players ready for games, and what sort of adjustments is he able to make once inside the rigors of the 60 minutes?

Perception and reception: How is the coach received by fans -- and, more importantly, boosters? How is the coach perceived by outsiders of the program, including media types?

Consistency and sustainability: Is this coach a flash in the pan, or has he done it over time and possibly in multiple locations? Has he created a lineage?

With all of that in mind, here is a ranking of the top 10 coaches in the business right now, along with a list of some others who just missed the first cut and a few more who are on the way up.

1. Nick Saban, Alabama Crimson Tide

146 wins, three national championships, three conference championships in 16 seasons

Was there any doubt about the top spot? Besides winning championships two of the past three seasons, he won big at LSU and won at Michigan State. If not for that blip in time called the Miami Dolphins (think about Jordan's year with the Birmingham Barons), he might have won another title or two.

One SEC recruiting coordinator said you know there's a difference when you're going up against Saban and Bama for a kid. "You don't want to be going head-to-head with them too often," he said. "It doesn't usually turn out well."

Saban's peers, some of them begrudgingly, conceded that he and his staffs are the best at preparing players for games -- and, more often than not, adjusting once the games begin. And those peers include a growing coaching tree, including contenders for this list. Jimbo Fisher, Derek Dooley, Will Muschamp, Mark Dantonio, Jim McElwain. (Saban, himself, was a defensive coordinator in Cleveland for Bill Belichick.)

The only knock on him is that he isn't particularly soft and cuddly with fans and media. Who cares? He doesn't have to be. Fans aren't going to blame him for inaccessibility when they're busy drooling over the trophies. Reporters will never tire of covering winners, even if their bedside manner is more Ted than Teddy Ruxpin.


2. Bill Snyder, Kansas State Wildcats

159 wins, one conference championship in 20 seasons

Just who you were expecting at No. 2, right? Maybe not, but there's no shortage of praise for Snyder's body of work in an extremely difficult place to win.

Snyder intermittently makes a team in Manhattan, Kan., relevant in a top-flight league. The Wildcats twice were in the mix for a national championship before late fades. How many coaches could pull that off, really? "I have no idea how he has done it -- twice," one Big 12 coach said this summer. "He's a magician, as far as I can tell."

Imagine if he had more resources, a bigger budget, scenery. Do you really think Snyder couldn't win pretty much anywhere?

In some ways, he already does. Just consider his influence. Bob Stoops, Bret Bielema, Jim Leavitt, Mike Stoops and Brent Venables are among the names who've coached under him, and Urban Meyer has been influenced by his approach to offense.

The fact that, after a three-year hiatus, he is doing it again is what nails down his status high on this list. He cobbled together a roster of juco guys and castoffs last season, got them to play together in a no-frills system -- and got 10 wins out of them. The Wildcats are not Big 12 favorites this year, but they're not that far off the pace. Nothing Snyder teams do surprises anyone, really. Is it magic?


3. Urban Meyer, Ohio State Buckeyes

104 wins, two national championships, four conference championships in 10 seasons

So, he has moved a few times to get to that win total. Big deal. A lot of people move to advance in their careers, get where they want to be. Columbus, the native Ohioan says, is where he has always wanted to be.

The SEC is probably happy to be rid of Meyer, who won 65 games and two national titles in six seasons at Florida. But Dan Mullen, who learned from Meyer, is still around, so his influence remains in the SEC (just as Illinois head coach Tim Beckman, Meyer's former defensive coordinator, awaits him in the Big Ten). In fact, Meyer's influence, particularly in offensive scheming, is remarkable given he's still a "young" coach, by some standards.

One coach visited Meyer years ago, when he was at Utah. He said he was blown away by the air of competitiveness in every aspect of the program. "Backgammon, weightlifting," he said, "whatever they were doing, he had those kids wanting to cut each other's throats to win." He called it a "culture of competing."

Now that culture is in the Big Ten, where opposing coaches already have groused about Meyer's aggressive recruiting tactics. Won't be long until the Bucks are back, most coaches and pundits presume. He won't settle for anything else. "I think that's why he's won," the coach said. "I can see why he was worn out. And I believe he really was worn out because of the way he is."


4. Bob Stoops, Oklahoma Sooners

139 wins, one national championship, seven conference championships in 12 seasons

Being good is difficult. Being good for an extended period of time is damn near impossible in this era of college football. But the Sooners have yet to really dip since Stoops took over in 1999 -- and won the national championship the next season.

They have won 10 or more games in nine of the 11 seasons since the title. The Sooners have played for three more BCS championships since then. Some criticize Stoops' inability to win those games, but you have to be in them to even have a shot.

The seven Big 12 titles in 12 seasons is simply jaw-dropping. Consider that Mack Brown has won just two in one more season at Texas.

Stoops is in perfect control of a program that runs as much like a business as any around the country. Everything is very polished, very uniform. Oklahoma is the Atlanta Braves of college football, in more than one sense. And his coaching tree is solid. It was Stoops who brought Mike Leach to the masses. He also hired Mark Mangino, Kevin Wilson and Kevin Sumlin, and he had Bo Pelini on staff.

Stoops has little patience for the media. Like Saban, he has learned that it is merely a distraction from the things that contribute more directly to wins. And, also like Saban, he has won enough to be that way.


5. Les Miles, LSU Tigers

103 wins, one national championship, two conference championships in 10 seasons

By eating grass or using nonsense phraseology, Miles wants you to think he's a dummy. Because he's the smartest dummy on the football field. He is playing his audiences; Miles knows what he's doing.

You don't average more than 10 wins for a decade by accident. And LSU, after narrowly missing Miles' second national title just last season, is again poised for 10-plus victories in 2012. Saban got the in-state recruiting pipeline going, and Miles has kept the flow steady. There are not many teams in the country for which freak defensive linemen are always in good supply.

Call it whatever you like -- and his peers have -- but Miles simply finds ways to win games, even when his team probably is outgunned. "He's crazy," another SEC coach said. "But we respect the hell out of him."

One of Miles' strengths is hiring excellent coordinators to run the team's offense and defense. Snaring John Chavis from Tennessee was one of the more underrated hiring coups of the past decade. And Bo Pelini, Mike Gundy and Jimbo Fisher are among former assistant coaches under Miles.


6. Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech Hokies

209 wins, seven conference championships in 25 seasons

It's easy to forget, because he has been there a quarter-century, but the Virginia Tech football program was nothing when Beamer arrived from Murray State in 1987. The Hokies were 5-17 in Beamer's first two seasons, but things quickly turned once the school wiggled into the Big East.

They've won seven conference titles in the Big East and ACC since then, and Beamer has created a nationally recognized identity, a system centered on special teams and defense. "Everyone says, 'Oh, it's in that league,'" one coach in another conference said, "but you almost get numb to what he's done there."

Another coach noted that Virginia Tech typically does "so-so" in recruiting, getting some stud prospects from the Tidewater area -- Michael Vick, for one -- but it has had to rely on development more often than not. Tech regularly makes pros out of three-stars, the coach said.

Holding Beamer back to some degree, the Hokies have won three ACC titles since 2007, but early-season slipups have prevented them from playing for a national title. A late-career crystal football would cement his remarkable legacy.


7. Chip Kelly, Oregon Ducks

34 wins, three conference championships in three seasons

It's still early in the 48-year-old's career as a head coach, but Kelly's innovation and credentials -- already playing for a BCS title -- have him checking in this high.

The Ducks want to run, and they want to run fast. Oregon was fifth in rushing last year, behind only a bunch of option teams (Army, Georgia Tech, Air Force and Navy). They were fourth in 2010, sixth in 2009.

It's a fun brand of football, too. The uniforms. The kooky play-calling board. The style.

"I don't know how anybody doesn't like watching them play," said an assistant in another BCS conference. "They play with swagger. They do whatever the hell they want. They feel like going for two, they go for two. We notice that, as coaches." So do high school kids, who are lining up to play for Kelly.


8. Bret Bielema, Wisconsin Badgers

60 wins, two conference championships in six seasons

Ask around. It's hard -- really hard -- to replace a legend. Barry Alvarez had legend status in Wisconsin, yet the Badgers didn't even hiccup in the seasons after his move to the AD chair. In fact, they've been as good or better.

Wisconsin has been to consecutive Rose Bowls and continues to recruit well -- even yanking veteran QBs from other BCS programs the past two seasons. Russell Wilson had one of the more efficient years in college football history, and Danny O'Brien sure seems like an upgrade over the alternatives.

For something that is easier said than done, Bielema's teams have an identity: run the ball. The Badgers have been in the top 15 nationally in rushing the past four seasons. The staff has done well to regularly plug and play standout power backs, even having a couple at a time who are cut from the Ron Dayne cloth (All right, maybe not that big). And NFL scouts routinely head to Madison to pick out a new batch of offensive lineman talent.


9. Gary Patterson, TCU Horned Frogs

109 wins, five conference championships in 11 seasons

You know exactly what you'll get from Patterson's teams: efficiency on both sides of the ball, and a team that will very rarely beat itself.

"So disciplined, so smart," a coach in his region said. "There's probably no more detail-oriented coach in our business." That was backed up in April when Patterson showed a reporter a detailed practice schedule -- for August. He's probably on to 2013 at this point.

Patterson (and, to a lesser extent, Dennis Franchione) helped build TCU into a program the Big 12 eventually would covet. That had long been a dream in Fort Worth, to be held on the level of the big boys in the state and region. Patterson deserves a lot of credit for that.

What the program does now, in a new, more competitive league, will be telling for Patterson's standing among his peers.

Oh, and we know, we know. Patterson's Frogs beat Bielema's Badgers not too long ago. But Bielema, until now, has done it in a more competitive league -- and that Rose Bowl was a two-point game. Not much separates these spots, and we'll see how Patterson's teams fare in a BCS conference.


10. Chris Petersen, Boise State Broncos

73 wins, four conference championships in seven seasons

The Broncos were on their way to relevance under Dan Hawkins. They arrived in 2006, Petersen's first year, with the Fiesta Bowl victory against Oklahoma that might be the game of this generation. And they've remained, averaging 12 victories per season -- and knocking off "brand" programs such as Virginia Tech and Georgia the past two years.

It's not as if Petersen has been able to lure five-star prospects to Boise regularly, so the staff depends on evaluating proper fits and developing the players once they arrive. The results have been stunning: The Broncos just had six players drafted in April, and QB Kellen Moore, winner of more than 50 games, wasn't one of them.

This season is highly intriguing, to see how Boise responds after its biggest loss of top-end talent. And don't discount the loss of offensive coordinator Brent Pease to Florida, although the Broncos just kept winning after Bryan Harsin's departure for Texas.


Just missed the cut

Mack Brown, Texas Longhorns

He was a certain top-10 guy until the recent hard times in Austin. That said, it's not as if he is all that far from rejoining the top tier. Give the 227-game winner credit, too: Brown could have hung it up after 5-7 in 2010, but he chose to stick it out and reinvent his offensive and defensive systems.

Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State Cowboys

Gundy's teams have won 23 games the past two seasons, including their first BCS victory. One other thing: He's a lot warmer to fans and media than the "I'm a man!" moment would have you believe. Gundy built on what Miles started to make OK State relevant. Fans care now, and the country does, too.

Mark Richt, Georgia Bulldogs

He has led the Bulldogs to five SEC title game appearances, including two championships and Sugar Bowl berths. Still, there's a not-quite-there feeling with what Richt has done with elite recruiting talent. There might not be a nicer guy in the profession, though, and that counts for something among peers and recruits.

Steve Spurrier, South Carolina Gamecocks

If Spurrier grabs another SEC title at South Carolina, he'll vault back into the top 10. What he has done there already is borderline miraculous. The 11 victories last season were a program-high. Years have passed, but it's important to remember that he instantly elevated Florida's fledgling lot.

Kyle Whittingham, Utah Utes

Whittingham is the least-familiar name among these coaches, perhaps, but he has averaged 9.3 victories a season since he took over for Meyer in 2005. That includes the undefeated season in 2008. Even in a jump to the Pac-12 last season, Whittingham rallied the Utes to an eight-win season. His name has come up for other jobs (Tennessee, as an example), but he seems to like where he is.


On the rise

Jimbo Fisher, Florida State Seminoles

He doesn't get higher billing here because he is in only his third year as a head coach and his teams haven't broken through, although some think this could be the fall for that. But Fisher's peers know him as an offensive genius. "He does about everything," said someone who had worked with him in a previous stop. "If there's a play, he likes running it. That makes his teams really hard to defend. You have to be ready for anything."

Al Golden, Miami (Fla.) Hurricanes

There's a saying, one coach said: "Win at Temple, you can win anywhere." Well, Golden went 17-8 in his final two seasons leading the Owls. One rival coach complimented his game planning, saying Golden threw a lot of twists and wrinkles at his team. It remains to be seen how Golden and the Canes will weather the NCAA storm that's approaching. Another ACC coach, Larry Fedora at North Carolina, is in a similar spot to Golden's. Peers seem to think both will be successful despite the adversity.

Brady Hoke, Michigan Wolverines

It's still too early to determine the immediate and midrange futures at Michigan. But Hoke, in his first year, already did something Rich Rodriguez didn't by taking the Wolverines back to a BCS game. San Diego State improved from four to nine wins from the first to second years under Hoke. He took Ball State to consecutive bowl games. There are reasons to believe, based on those results, that Michigan will be a winner for years to come.

Lane Kiffin, USC Trojans

Say what you will about his mouth and brief stops in Oakland and Knoxville, but look what's happening at Southern California. The school is putting the finishing touches on a new $70 million athletic headquarters, and the Trojans are are in prime position for a shot at No. 1 and are going bonkers on the recruiting trail. Even with scholarship limits, they're destined for another loaded class. A lot of eyes are on Kiffin and USC this fall. If he cashes in with a national championship, ending the SEC's reign, he could make a sizable gain on those listed above.

Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M Aggies

These are interesting times in College Station. New AD. New league. New coach. Sumlin's wide-open system will be an intriguing fit in the bruising SEC West. If Sumlin can attract talent to play both lines, the Ags could soon become another elite team in the game's best division. Going back to his successful run at Houston, his enthusiasm and intelligence have turned heads for years in Texas recruiting circles.