15 Best College Football Coaches of All Time

Although NFL games have an appealing flavor of its own, it’s undeniable how the entire nation gets giddy over college football! According to Marist Poll, 54% of Americans are college football fans. The marching bands, the exhilarating rivalries, the colorful display of body paint, bright uniforms, and banners make college football an enthralling sport.

Nothing beats the buzzing energy and in jam-packed stadiums and decibel-breaking cheers from the crowd of students, school staff, and alumni all rooting for their teams!

What Makes College Football Immensely Popular

While some claim that college football is starting to overshadow the NFL’s popularity, this is, of course, a debatable topic. One thing is for sure, though: for fans, it’s more than a just obsession for the sport; it’s the personal connection they have with the college. Fans are crazier and more obsessed with cheering and competing for rivalries between schools.

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College football games are usually held on college or university campuses, and if you are an alumnus, you can’t help but root for your alma mater. Be it on TV or watching the games live, watching these games just never gets old. 

Star Players and the Coach

College Football belongs to the second tier in the entire American Football in the United States, with it in the middle between High School competition and Professional competition. Student-athletes are chosen carefully and fairly by the team coach. An assortment of talented high school football players may have been selected, but walk-in tryouts area open to the ambitious and driven.

Most coaches are loyal in supporting their scholar players because the school has an investment in them in a way or another. However, it does not downplay their ability to know a promising and talented athlete when they meet one. They usually have an intuitive sense of knowing passion and recognizing skills. 

Roles of a Football Coach

With eleven players handled by a signle coach, you can imagine how challenging it is to be in a trainer’s position. A college football coach plays a crucial role representing the school team. The performance of a college football team is closely linked to the coach’s training and leadership styles.

A college football coach is responsible for planning, organizing, and administering sports games and activities for a particular individual or the team. Not only is he accountable for how the team will perform during football practices and competitions, but also for keeping student-athletes on top of their academic life.

A football coach should develop a bond with players. Often, it is seen as an interesting mix of mentorship and father-son relationship. 

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Check out our list (in no particular order) of the all-time best college football coaches!

Best College Football Coaches of All Time

Knute Rockne

Years active: 13 years
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
University of Notre Dame

The College Football Hall of Fame regards Coach Knute Rockne as “without question, American football’s most-renowned coach.” He was with the University of Notre Dame football team for 13 years, from 1918 to 1930. He made the forward pass strategy nationally famous, which skyrocketed the Notre Dame Fighting Irish to 105 victories and only 12 losses.

They had five ties and three national championships throughout five undefeated seasons! Rockne’s most defining achievement is his winning percentage of .881, the highest ever for a college football coach!

In 1914, Rockne earned his Pharmacy degree but soon accepted UND’s offer to coach the football team. His coaching schemes—the Notre Dame Box offense and the 7-2-2 defense—were no secret to fans. Besides his technical and strategical expertise as a football coach, he was always smart at sourcing funds for his football team.

Rockne realized that the most effective way to attract funding was to promote Notre Dame football for free through the media, including newspapers, radio stations and networks, and even wire services.

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Bear Bryant

Years active: 25 years
Alabama Crimson Tide Football
University of Alabama

Paul William “Bear” Bryant coached the University of Alabama’s college football team for 25 years. He was an exceptional player himself and received an athletic scholarship. Although Bryant was selected to play with the Brooklyn Dodgers during the 1936 NFL Draft, he did not accept it and never made it to the professional league.

After graduating from the University of Alabama in 1936, he received an offer to become an assistant coach to Frank Thomas. Over the years, he also gained coaching experiences at the University of Maryland, the University of Kentucky, and Texas A&M University. He decided to come back to UA and became the head coach.

During Bryant’s leadership in 1959, Crimson Tide finally appeared in a bowl game after six years. They beat Auburn at that time, and in the 1961 Sugar Bowl, they went on to claim the national championship. 

He led his team to 323 wins, one of the most impressive winning rates for a head coach in collegiate football history. He retired in 1982 and, in his honor, UA erected the Paul W. Bryant Museum, the Paul W. Bryant Hall, the Paul W. Bryant Drive, and the Bryant-Denny Stadium.

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Woody Hayes

Years active: 28 years
Ohio State Buckeyes
Ohio State University

Serving three universities as a head coach, Woody Hayes coached Denison University for three years and Miami University for two. Finally, Woody Hayes stayed for 28 seasons with the Ohio State Buckeyes. At the time, the Buckeyes set its most significant game record was with fierce rival, the Michigan Wolverines. For a decade, both teams were always up against each other for the Big Ten Conference titles and the national rankings.

From 1951 to 1978, he set a record of 238 wins, 72 losses, and 10 ties. The Buckeyes won a total of 5 national championships under Hayes’ leadership. They grabbed 13 Big Ten Conference titles and attained a record of 205-61-10.

He was one of the first collegiate football coaches to recruit African-American players. He may not be the very first to do so. Still, there was a definite increase in African-American players and African-American assistant coaches’ hire during his coaching.

Known for his conservative football techniques, his coaching philosophy mentions that “nobody could win football games unless they positively regarded the game.” His usual strategy included on his playbook is the regular fullback off-guard run or a tailback off-tackle play. 

Hayes was a three-time recipient of the The College Football Coach of the Year Award, otherwise known as (the Paul Bryant Award). Apart from Knute Rockne, Hayes also had the most anecdotal records and transcripts.

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Joe Paterno

Years active: 45 years
Penn State Nittany Lions
Pennsylvania State University

Joe Paterno was sometimes referred to as “JoePa.” He was a college football player, athletic director, and head coach of the Pennsylvania State University football team from 1966 to 2011. His record-breaking 409 victories shot him to fame, as he gained the most number of wins in NCAA FBS history. Impressively, Paterno took his 409th win while battling lung cancer.

While attending Brown University in college, Paterno played as a quarterback and a cornerback. He wanted to pursue Law, but took the offer as assistant coach at Penn State instead, and eventually became the head coach.

In particular, Paterno successfully coached the Nittany Lions to national championships in 1982 and 1986. He also coached five undefeated teams that conquered major bowl games. Finally, in 2007, his name was inaugurated as part of the College Football Hall of Fame. Despite receiving offers to coach in NFL, he stuck through coaching the Nittany Lions. They were able to conquer 24 wins during their 37 bowl appearances.

The Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten Conference in 1993, and became a three-time champion. When Paterno became head coach, his team players were recognized not only for their sports performance but for their academic acumen as well. He also endorsed scholarships to college athletes. This was a big deal for most of his players who came from low-income families with no time to acquire part-time jobs.

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Eddie Robinson

Years active: 56 years
Grambling State Tigers
Grambling State University

Eddie Robinson led the Grambling State University’s football players for 56 years as a historically Black university head coach. He is very often known as one of the greatest college coaches of all time by football experts.

He always wanted to become a college football coach but at the time, the country was facing widespread discrimination against Blacks. He applied for a coaching position in an all-Black school, which led him to the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute–now Grambling State University.

Robinson took the initiative to turn their small college into a football powerhouse when Black football players didn’t have opportunities to play for southern college football programs. Robinson had a record of 408-165-15 before he finally retired in 1997.

A College Football Hall of Famer, Robinson’s achievements include 45 winning seasons in the Southwestern Athletic Conference and nine championships in the Black college football nationals. Besides being a college football coach, Robison was also a Grambling High School teacher and a basketball coach for the girls’ team during World War II. As a coach for any sport, his “whatever league you’re in, whatever level, win there” philosophy always drove him and his team to victory.

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Bobby Bowden

Years active: 36 years
Florida State Seminoles
Florida State University

Because of his achievements with the Seminoles team of Florida State University, Bobby Bowden is one of the most famous and greatest college coaches of all time. His team constantly made it to the Top 5 rankings for record-breaking 14 seasons!

From high school to college, Bowden remained loyal to football. He played as a quarterback for the University of Alabama. Before working for Florida State, Bowden coached several other universities like his own alma mater Howard College.

He was a basketball coach at South Georgia College but soon chose his greatest passion: football. Upon careful assessment, especially during his race with fellow coach Joe Paterno, his final record resulted in 377-129-4, which came a close second to his rival.

To commemorate all the Bowden’s sterling performance and contributions to the sport, the Over the Mountain Touchdown Club of Birmingham in Alabama created the annual Bobby Bowden National Collegiate Coach of the Year Award in 2010. Each year, one coach will be selected based onthe “Bowden standards.”

Another award under his name was also established in 2004 by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes that awards an excellent football player who also excels academically. The Seminole Tribe of Florida sponsored this award in 2013.

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Tom Osborn

Years active: 25 years
Nebraska Cornhuskers
University of Nebraska

Aside from being a renowned college football coach, Tom Osborn is a man of many honorable accomplishments. He was an American football player, college athletics administrator, and politician under the Republican party. He was elected to Congress in 2000 following his enlistment to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1999.

He served in the government for three terms from 2001-2007, but is popular among Nebraskan as one of the best college football coaches in history. He started as an assistant coach under Bob Devaney after he stopped his NFL stint.

For 25 years, Osborn established his name as a successful head coach who applied tactics such as the i-form offense and revolutionary programs targeting health, strength, and nutrition. Osborn was 35 years old when he took over Devaney’s position as the head coach at the University of Nebraska. He had a fantastic career record of 255-49-3 with .836 wins, 13 conference titles, and three national championships.

For a quarter of a century as the coach of Cornhuskers, he demonstrated consistency in ensuring his team took a fair numbers of wins. They won 9 games in a season and never won beyond third place in a conference or division play. His team also made it to the Top 15 of the final AP polls, winning 13 conference championships. Osborn retired as the head coach in the 1997 season. 

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Dabo Swinney

Years active: 2008 to present
Clemson Tigers
Clemson University

Dabo Swinney started his football journey as a player for the Crimson Tide when he attended the University of Alabama during his college years. He accomplished an MBA and became the assistant football coach in 1995 for the same team that he played for. He stopped coaching in 2001 and decided to give his coaching a rest in 2001-2003.

However, in 2003, he received an offer from Tommy Bowden to be a wide receiver coach at Clemson University. Soon after the resignation of Tommy Bowden, he took over the head coach position and led the Tigers during the championships in 2016 and 2018. He trails next to Frank Howard as a head coach who has the most wins in Clemson college football records’ history. 

As of 2019, Swinney holds the title of being the highest-paid collegiate coach in football history. He was mainly known for being a top-notch recruiter for college football. He was responsible for producing five ESPN recruiting classes ranked in the top 20 and included the 2011 and 2012 classes, which both belonged to the top 10 rankings. To date, “Dabo” Swinney is still the incumbent head coach for the Clemson Tigers. 

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Barry Switzer

Years active: 16 years
Oklahoma Sooners
University of Oklahoma

Barry Switzer is one of the three head coaches who won both a college football national championship and a Super Bowl. Besides being known as one of the best college coaches in football, he also coached the Cowboy Dallas for four years in the National Football League. But the majority of his coaching career was spent serving the University of Oklahoma for 16 years.

During such terms, he won three national championships in 1974, 1975, and 1985 respectively. He started his coaching career in 1966 at the University of Oklahoma as an assistant coach. The wishbone offense is a football tactic that Switzer had perfected, and he is well-known for it!

It was in 1973 when Switzer succeeded Fairbanks to be the head coach for the Oklahoma Sooners. From 1973 to 1980, Switzer’s team consistently won and shared in the Big Eight Conference championship. They also won 8 out of the 13 post-season bowl games that they have participated in.

He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2002; and dipped his toes into Hollywood acting and landed acting roles in “Possums” and “Saving Grace.” He was a man of many things: an American football player, a college football coach, an NFL coach, an actor, and recently, an entrepreneur.

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Vince Dooley

Years active: 25 years
Georgia Bulldogs
University of Georgia

Vince Dooley first played football and assisted in coaching the football team in his alma matter at Auburn University. This has lasted for 10 years. But after that, he accepted an offer to become the head coach at the University of Georgia and remained loyal. Despite getting offers to coach at Auburn again, he declined them and stayed with Georgia.

From 1964 to 1988, Dooley coached the University of Georgia football team. He soon served as the athletic director from the years 1979 to 2004. During his leadership, he took an average of eight wins annually and won 6 Southeastern Conference championships. They also won the National title in 1980. 

Dooley has contributed so much to the history of football that he was awarded numerous times. In 1978, he was inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, and then the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 1984. Dooley also made it to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1994. In 1979, he retired from the coaching job and focused on being an athletic director.

His coaching record reached to 201-77-10. He built and transformed Georgia to be one of the most robust football programs all over America. In 2019, the University of Georgia named their stadium “Dooley Field,” in honor of coach Dooley’s commitment.

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Bud Wilkinson

Years Active: 16 years
Oklahoma Sooners
University of Oklahoma

Bud Wilkinson was more than a college football coach. He played as an American football player, became a coach for several universities, and worked as a broadcaster with ABC sports. He even ran for the Senate under the Republican party. It was clear, however, that he was very passionate as a head coach.

From 1947 to 1963, the Oklahoma Sooners won national championships for three seasons. Leading the team to 47 years–a record that other college football coach is yet to break–is another prestigious achievement of his.

Growing up in Minnesota, Wilkinson excelled in five sports. In his college years at the University of Minnesota, he played ice hockey and football. But in 1947, he took over the head coach position and served as the athletic director for the University of Oklahoma; he was 31 years old at the time. Even in the early seasons of him leading the Sooners, Wilkinson’s coaching style proved effective as the team was taking numerous wins.

He eventually became a highly celebrated college football coach in history. He hosted his television show, and became the first football coach to do so! He became a College Football Hall of Famer in 1969, and retired at the age of 47 in 1963. 

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Amos Alonzo Stagg

Years active: 68 years
Chicago Maroons Football and Pacific Tigers
University of Chicago and College of the Pacific

Amos Alonzo Stagg was an American athlete and coached a number of different sports. He succeeded in making his mark in college football, but he was also a resilient head coach for the baseball team, Chicago Maroons. He coached them for a total of 19 seasons.

Primarily, he is known as one of the most defining college football coaches of all time. Throughout his college football coaching career, Stagg’s record was 314-199-35, with .605 wins. He made it to the first All-America Team in 1889 when he was playing football at Yale University. 

Stagg devised his football coaching career in 1890 when he started coaching at Williston Seminary and Springfield College simultaneously. From 1892 to 1932, he coached the University of Chicago team and eventually moved to the College of the Pacific from 1933 to 1946, where he ended his career upon reaching the age of 84.

Because of the impact of his career to football history, the NCAA Division III Football Championship is coined after him, so it is referred to as the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl. From 1969 to 1973, the Knute Rockne Bowl and the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl competed at the College Division level. It was later referred to as the Stagg Bowl from 1973 to the present. His legacy made a significant mark not only in football but also in other sports such as basketball, track, and baseball. 

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Robert Neyland

Years active: 18 years
Tennessee Volunteers
University of Tennessee

Dubbed by many as the greatest defensive football coach ever in history, Robert Neyland was an American football player and a brigadier general, and is famous for being a head football coach at the University of Tennessee. He has served as their college football coach in three time-frames such as 1926-1934, 1936-1940, and 1946-1952.

Winning 173 games among a total of 216, Neyland seems to be the head coach at the University of Tennessee, who has the most significant number of wins. His unbelievable record boasts six undefeated seasons, nine undefeated regular seasons, four national championships, and seven conference championships. 

Neyland was known his passion for innovation. He was the first coach that used sideline telephones and watched game films to study their opponents. He changed conventional uniforms and allowed his squad to use the lightweight pads and tearaway jerseys. His philosophy focused on “speed over strength,” He also invented the seven “Game Maxims,” wherein many coaches still imply up to date.

The stadium at the University of Tennessee was named after him but was designed by him. He looked into the futuristic thriving of the football sport and designed it to have 100,000 seat capacity. In 1956, Robert Neyland became a College Football Hall of Famer. 

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John Gagliardi

Years active: 63 years
Saint John Johnnies
Saint John’s University

John Gagliardi was exposed to the football coaching at 22 and soon joined the Carroll College as head coach. In 1952, he transferred to Saint John’s University, where he spent most of his college football career. Gagliardi had the most significant number of wins for any coach in college football history, with his record of 489-138-11. During the 60 seasons that he led the football squad of Saint John’s University, they grabbed 27 MIAC titles and four national championships. 

His unique coaching technique was called “Winning with No’s.” He implemented unusual rules that some other coaches might oppose to. He discouraged his players from tackling during practice and prevented them from practicing more than 90 minutes every day. He never used whistles and did not require his players to lift weights. His ironic coaching methods drove his players to be the best they could be.

Gagliardo received the Amos Alonzo Stagg Coaching Award, the Liberty Mutual Division III Coach of the Year, and got inducted in several halls of fame such as the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics, the Colorado Sports, and Saint John’s University’s J-Club Hall of Honor.

Walter Camp

Years active: 1888-1895
Yale Bulldogs
Yale College

Walter Camp is often known as the “Father of American Football.” His well-deserved moniker validates how he significantly shaped the sport’s identity, separating it away from its rugby football origins. He belonged to the early history of Football contributors of men who pioneered and developed American Football, which most coaches and players take full advantage of in the current era.

He is responsible for inventing the sport’s line of scrimmage and the system of downs. Upon reviewing Camp’s contributions to the sports, he was also given credit for cutting the football players from 15 down to 11. 

Camp attended Yale College and became a football player before coaching his team. Camp served as the head coach at Yale from 1888 to 1892 and bagged the 1888, 1891, and 1892 championship titles. During this time, his squad had won 67 games and had two losses only. In late 1892, he transferred to Stanford University to become their football coach. Finally, he became part of the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951.

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