To mark the occasion of a rare but seemingly imminent vacancy, we list the top 5 head coaching positions in all of college football.
Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated compiled a somewhat similar list in an article
last year, but that list didn’t take into account many of the all-important intangibles that sometimes mean the difference between satisfaction in a job, and surfing monster.com
Once intangibles come into play, five jobs stand above the rest.
Winning tradition obviously matters, but no weight is given to current W-L record or even a school’s winning percentage trend. The top 5 head coaching jobs would still be the top 5 even if some or all of the schools were winless right now. That may seem antithetical, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that each of the five incumbents is
doing a good job
maximizing their opportunity.
Also, since no school is immune, I give no weight to the effect of NCAA sanctions, whether threatened or imposed. The sole exception to this is Penn State, due to the uncertain long-term effects of truly draconian sanctions, combined with post-Sandusky fallout. That’s a significant exception because Penn State would otherwise be a borderline top 5 job given the school’s historical recruiting dominance not only in Pennsylvania, but all along the Eastern seaboard from Maryland to Maine – something no other B1G school can boast.
On that same note, in assessing desirability we start from the premise that unless you’re Bill Snyder, better players make better coaches. That means the most desirable head coaching jobs all enjoy inherent and sometimes unique advantages with respect to recruiting.
We also start from the idea that, all things being equal, the probability that a given high school player will sign with a particular school is most importantly a function of proximity. Of course things are seldom equal, so the most desirable head coaching jobs are at schools that have a time-tested approach to overcoming resistance to distance. Taken together, it means the most desirable head coaching jobs are in geographic areas replete with indigenous high school talent, but more narrowly, at schools that have also managed to create an inherent appeal to high school kids.
It turns out that the inherent appeal of a school can be predicted in accordance with certain characteristics. In that vein, before we identify the top 5 head coaching gigs, it’s helpful to note what factors not only tie these jobs together, but also separate them from the rest of the pack:
- A solid base of wealthy, powerful, invested alumni
- A national brand, including iconic uniforms that change rarely, if ever
- Longstanding winning tradition
- Excellent athletic facilities
- Top-tier pay scales for the head coach and assistants
- A track record of putting players in the NFL (Mel Kiper, if awakened from REM sleep, could instantly recite the 3-deep roster for any of these 5 schools, and NFL scouts can find their way around all 5 campuses without a map)
- A fully rationalized and consistent recruiting pitch
- A fully developed self-identity (these schools know who they are and who they aren’t)
Not surprisingly, there aren’t many cons that go with the top 5 jobs, but one shared drawback is very high fanbase expectations. Bowl eligibility for these teams is simply assumed. Indeed, the more rational and moderate fans of these five schools want to see their team in a BCS bowl more years than not, and in the National Championship game at least once or twice a decade.
One final point before we get to the rankings.
Academics is a two-edged sword, regardless of where a school sits on the academic spectrum. Universities with stronger-than-average academic reputations have a better chance of recruiting and successfully matriculating offensive linemen and the occasional skill position player with a 1400 SAT. Yet those same universities may be somewhat disadvantaged with respect to kids who view college as nothing but an interim stop and an unavoidable obstacle to reaching the NFL (regardless of whether the player has a realistic chance of someday making an NFL roster). Naturally, for universities with average to weaker-than-average academic reputations, the converse may be true.
1. Southern Cal
Let’s face it. An Atlanta kid can be holding scholarship offers from every SEC school and Florida State, but if he gets an offer from Southern Cal his eyes will light up.
Never mind that all of them are dating Newport Beach investment bankers, on TV they manage to look somehow attainable.
National Recruiting Appeal
Southern Cal is the only school whose recruiting pitch is as strong on the other side of the country as it is in their own backyard.
This is a seldom-mentioned but tremendously important advantage. Any disclosure policies applicable to Southern Cal football are likely self-imposed. Among lots of other things, that means unpleasant or potentially embarrassing discussions can take place behind firmly closed doors. It also means Southern Cal is not beholden to the California legislature for funding, nor subject to the caprice of a UCLA-alumnus governor.
First Pick of California High School Players
Were it any other school, this would be listed at the top.
Arguably the best weather on the planet.
South Central Los Angeles
To clear up any misunderstanding, the USC campus isn’t actually in Hollywood.
Smaller, Less Engaged Fanbase
Except for the Lakers, Los Angeles isn’t much of a spectator sports town.
Southern Cal is the only school in top 5 without an on-campus football stadium.
Pacific Time Zone
It makes no discernible difference with respect to recruiting, but the East Coast will have gone to bed before Southern Cal’s night games are over.
First Pick of Louisiana High School Players
With very few exceptions. The significance of this is difficult to overstate. Louisiana high schools play an outstanding brand of football; certainly on par with Texas and Florida, and maybe even better when you adjust for the smaller population. In addition, Louisiana kids who hold a scholarship offer from LSU face significant pressure from the community to stay in-state.
Strong Recruiting All Along the Gulf Coast
The LSU program is known and respected by high school players and coaches from East Texas to Florida. LSU takes a back seat to no one in terms of recruiting prowess in the South.
Louisiana Has Only One AQ School
Unlike Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, etc.
Proximity to New Orleans
Any game at the Superdome – currently the site of the Sugar Bowl and 1 in 4 National Championship games – is essentially a home game.
Not much pizzazz, but again it’s driving distance to New Orleans.
SEC West Schedule
Brutal, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
Very hot and very muggy.
3. (Tie) Texas
In terms of endowment, Texas is the wealthiest university not named Harvard in the United States.
Mack Brown’s recent comments notwithstanding, the LHN represents a tremendous advantage. It alone caused Texas A&M to jump, indignant, from the frying pan straight into the fire.
Dominant Institution in the Big 12
It’s hard to get anything done inside the Big 12 unless Texas goes along.
First Pick of Texas High School Players
With exceptions. Some Texas kids grow up dreaming of playing for Oklahoma or Texas A&M. A lesser number grow up dreaming of playing for Baylor. And that’s about it.
To characterize Texas’ facilities as “excellent” is an understatement. For one thing, the Longhorns’ locker room at Darrell K. Royal Memorial Stadium is orders of magnitude nicer than the Dallas Cowboys’ locker room at Jerry World.
In fairness, the manifold attractions of Austin are mainly the kind of things that appeal to 30-something professionals. It’s much less clear whether these are really difference-makers to high school kids.
Winning Isn’t Enough
Being the head coach at Texas is very much akin to holding state office, in that a mind-numbing litany of protocols and political obligations come with the job. Further, the head coach’s ability to satisfy these is as determinative to his success as the team’s W-L record.
Self-Imposed Academic Restrictions
More than could be adequately covered in the general academics discussion above. Without mentioning names, there have been any number of truly outstanding Texas high school players who Texas wouldn’t recruit due to the school’s own academic concerns.
Big 12 Uncertainty
Who knows what the future holds for the Big 12, but the conference certainly doesn’t feel stable. Not like the B1G and SEC feel stable.
Goliath Perception Within Texas
Which, incidentally, doesn’t apply to Oklahoma or Texas A&M. As Wilt Chamberlain famously lamented, “No one roots for Goliath.” True that, regardless of how many University of Gath alumni there are in Dallas and Houston.
No Recruiting Footprint Outside of Texas
Other than marginal inroads into Arizona and Colorado, Texas has little experience with the unique challenges that accompany recruiting out-of-state.
Summer is ridiculously hot, to the point that kids visiting from Florida notice it.
3. (Tie) Oklahoma
Winning Is Enough
Listed first because this factor alone nullifies any advantage the Texas job might otherwise enjoy by virtue of the Longhorn Network or anything else. When I say “winning is enough,” I mean that Bob Stoops (or whoever has the Oklahoma job) doesn’t always have to conduct himself like he’s running for re-election. This is something that can only be fully appreciated after you’ve had to do things the other way.
First Pick of Oklahoma High School Players
As with Texas, there are always a few exceptions. Oklahoma’s is not nearly as significant as LSU’s home-state recruiting advantage, but Oklahoma high schools turn out a strong group of football players every year.
Second Pick of Texas High School Players
Solidly second. Oklahoma picks before Texas A&M or anyone else besides Texas.
Targeted Out-Of-State Recruiting
Besides the state of Texas, Oklahoma has made solid inroads into Las Vegas (including traditional powerhouse Bishop Gorman), and has also made inroads into California.
Dependence on Texas
The school and the state. With respect to the state, Oklahoma simply can’t win consistently without Texas high school players. With respect to the school, how dependent is it? Put it this way: each of the other three schools (Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech) that were invited to join the Pac-12 along with Texas would be clearly and demonstrably better off today if the proposed move had gone through. Unfortunately for those schools, the Pac-12 wasn’t interested sans Texas.
Big 12 Uncertainty
Norman and Oklahoma City
The NBA Thunder notwithstanding, these towns have even less pizzazz than Baton Rouge. They’re also more than a comfortable drive away from any large city.
5. Notre Dame
Unmatched National Fan Base
Notre Dame’s strong contingent of alumni and subway alumni are everywhere.
The exclusive deal with NBC is one example; Notre Dame’s BCS eligibility criteria is another. Notre Dame is recognized as unique throughout the world of college football. This of course greatly streamlines the process when Notre Dame inevitably requests special treatment.
See Southern Cal.
With all due respect to the University of Illinois and Northwestern, Chicago’s college football team is Notre Dame. Although Southern Cal comes closest, no other school dominates one of the ten largest U.S. cities in the same way.
Notre Dame has produced more Heisman trophy winners, by a comfortable margin, than any other school. The Four Horsemen. Knute Rockne. Frank Leahy. Ara Parseghian. If kids today don’t recognize those names, that’s on us.
National Recruiting Imperative
It’s highly doubtful whether Notre Dame could win consistently with only Midwestern kids.
Self-Imposed Academic Restrictions
See Texas, but to a greater degree.
Although it’s reasonably close to Chicago.
Three words: Cold. Snowy. April.
Best of the Rest
Each of the five head-coaching jobs above represent the whole enchilada. All other head-coaching jobs involve more, and more significant, tradeoffs, which means personal preference takes a role in determining which head coaching job is better than some other.
Listed below in no particular order is a non-exclusive collection of next-tier head coaching jobs, with truncated pros and cons:
Unparalleled academics, but only so many high school football players can score a 1400 on the SAT. This makes it hard to build a quality starting lineup, let alone depth. Great weather. Difficult to win big without a Plunkett, Elway, or Luck at QB, but since 8-5 is considered a good season, a head coach doesn’t have to win big at Stanford to stay as long as he wants.
As with Notre Dame, it’s doubtful whether Michigan can win consistently with only Midwestern players. Other drawbacks include weather, as well as the B1G’s ongoing and protracted decline.
See Michigan. Oh, all right.
As with Notre Dame, it’s doubtful whether
Michigan Ohio State can win consistently with only Midwestern players. Other drawbacks include weather, as well as the B1G’s ongoing and protracted decline.
Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M
Intense competition for in-state and area recruits. Brutal SEC schedule.
Intense competition for in-state and area recruits. The ACC is first and foremost a basketball conference.
Impossible to win consistently with only Oregon high school players. Phil Knight’s patronage is a big positive. Oregon is unquestionably hot right now, but its winning tradition is scant, and Oregon emits an unmistakable flavor-of-the-month quality. While Eugene is a nice college town, it is very remote.