The best college football coaches of all time know how to turn a good Saturday into a great one. After all, there’s no better way to kick off the weekend than with some quality college football — whether you’re sitting on the couch at home or at the game with your loved ones.
Let’s be honest, the NFL wouldn’t be what it is today without the great coaching we see at the college level. If it weren’t for college coaches, these young players wouldn’t have the proper guidance, discipline, support, development, and mentorship to take that next step into the NFL.
And that’s often the difference between a good college coach and the best college football coaches of all time. They not only prepare their team to go out there and win each week, but they know how to get the most out of each player and prepare them to win at the NFL level.
Ranking the Best College Football Coaches of All Time
College football dates back to 1869 when Rutgers University and the College of New Jersey (what we now know as Princeton University) squared off against one another. To put that in perspective, the NFL didn’t play its first game until 1920 — more than 50 years later.
Over the past 150+ years, we’ve seen plenty of coaches cement their legacy in this sport. They’ve enjoyed some of the best seasons ever, developed some of the best players ever, breaking records that may never be touched, and defining eras that make this sport so special.
With so many great coaches through the years, it’s tough to make a list of the 25 best college football coaches of all time. In fact, I can name at least 50 off the top of my head that are worthy of a spot on this list, so I already know I’ll be leaving some quality coaches off this list.
Well, you asked for it. Without any further stalling, let’s take a look at our list of the top-25 best college football coaches of all time — starting with a few honorable mentions.
Honorable Mentions: Bob Devaney, Steve Spurrier, Larry Kehres, John Heisman, Dabo Swinney, Jim Tressel, Pete Carroll, Frosty Westering, Bernie Bierman, Urban Meyer, John Vaught, Brian Kelly, Jock Sutherland, Darrell Royal
25. Tubby Raymond
Known for his commitment to the Wing-T formation, Harold ‘Tubby’ Raymond enjoyed 35 great years at the University of Delaware. From 1966-2001, his team earned a record of 300-119-3 — a winning percentage of .714. Only 13 other coaches have won more games than Tubby.
Under his leadership, Delaware climbed up the college ranks, reaching the playoffs 16 times and winning three National Championships along the way. What was once known as a small college would eventually be classified as a Division II and finally a Division I-AA college.
Tubby Raymond was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003 and recently passed away at the age of 92 on Dec. 8, 2017.
24. Vince Dooley
Vince Dooley enjoyed an incredible career at Auburn University as a player-turned assistant coach, but it wasn’t until 1964 that he truly started to build a legacy for himself. That was when he began his head coaching career at the University of Georgia, which lasted 25 years.
Over that time, Dooley led his team to a 201-77-10 record, was featured in 20 bowl games, and even won a National Championship in 1980. He was a part of one of the best four-year stretches ever by a college coach, going 43-4-1 from 1980-1983. He retired as a head coach in 1988.
Dooley would also become the director of athletics at Georgia in 1979 (while he was still head coach) — a position he held until 2004. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1994.
23. Lou Holtz
Unlike the previous two coaches we mentioned, Lou Holtz would coach six college football teams from 1969-2004 — William & Mary, NC State, Arkansas, Minnesota, Notre Dame, and South Carolina. Over that time, he compiled a record of 249-132-7, a percentage of .651.
He’s one of the most iconic college football coaches of all time. His best years came at NC State (33-12-3), Arkansas (60-21-2), and Notre Dame (100-30-2), but that’s not to say his voice and beliefs weren’t felt at the other three schools — despite a losing record at each of them.
In fact, he’s the only coach to lead four different schools into the Top 20 and won a National Championship with the Irish in 1988. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2008.
22. LaVell Edwards
BYU football wouldn’t be where it is today if it weren’t for LaVell Edwards. He coached the team from 1972-2000, led them to a 257-101-3 record, won 19 conference titles, and was featured in 22 bowl games along the way. Only 22 college coaches have won more games than LaVell.
His leadership and commitment to the passing game helped earn BYU its first and only National Championship in 1984. He helped groom some incredible quarterbacks, including Steve Young, Jim McMahon, Ty Detmer, Marc Wilson, Gifford Nielson, Gary Scheide, and Robbie Bosco.
LaVell Edwards was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2004 and passed away at the age of 86 on December 29, 2016.
21. Bobby Dodd
Bobby Dodd was a competitor. He played football, basketball, and baseball in high school, won city championships in contract bridge and tennis, and was one of the best quarterbacks the University of Tennessee has ever seen — winning 27 of the 30 games he played in.
As a coach, it was much of the same. Over a 22-year period from 1945-1966, Robert Lee ‘Bobby’ Dodd earned a 165-64-8 record with the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. They won 31-straight games at one point and eight-straight bowl games, despite rarely scrimmaging.
Overall, he spent 57 years at Georgia Tech as a coach, director, and fund raiser. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1993 and passed away at the age of 79 on June 21, 1988.
20. Bo Schembechler
Best known for his commitment to defense, Bo Schembechler was a product of Woody Hayes. He was an assistant coach from 1954-1962, including five years with the Ohio State Buckeyes. In 1963, he earned his first head coaching gig at Miami and went 40-17-3 over a six-year span.
His coaching career continued in 1969 when he was hired to be the new head coach at Michigan University. Over a 21-year career at Michigan, his team went 194-48-5, won 13 conference titles, and was featured in 17 bowl games. His 234 college wins ranks 42nd all-time.
He was also Michigan’s director of athletics from 1988-1990 and was even named the president of the Detroit Tigers (MLB) from 1991-1992. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1993.
19. Earl Blaik
When you think of Army Black Knights football, you likely think of Earl ‘Red’ Blaik. He’s the winningest coach in Army history, with a 121-33-10 record from 1941-1958. He won 3 national championships, won 32-straight games, and coached three Heisman award winners.
Even before his time at Army, Earl Blaik saw success at Dartmouth University, earning a 45-15-4 record from 1934-1940. Between the two schools, Blaik finished with seven unbeaten seasons and had a 166-48-14 record. Not many coaches can live up to Earl Blaik’s legacy.
He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1964 and passed away at the age of 92 on May 6, 1989.
18. Fielding Yost
Known for his ‘point-a-minute’ teams and ‘hurry-up’ offense, Fielding Yost didn’t lose much. He coached six teams from 1897-1926, earning an incredible record of 198-35-12. In fact, 29 of those losses came with Michigan from 1901-1926. Before that, he had a 33-6-2 record.
Under his leadership, Michigan had a 165-29-10 record, won 10 conference titles, and won 56-straight games over a five-year period. His first season with the team ended with an 11-0 record, but even more incredible was the fact that no one scored on them the entire season.
Fielding Yost was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951 and passed away at the age of 75 on August 20, 1946.
17. Walter Camp
It’s hard to mention anything football-related without bringing up Walter Camp. He’s largely recognized as the ‘Father of American Football.’ He invented the line of scrimmage, downs, the snap at center, and plenty more rules that make the game of football so exciting today.
Not only that, but he was a darn good coach, as well. He started his coaching career with Yale, going 67-2 from 1888-1892 — including going undefeated three of his five years. He then moved on to Stanford, where he continued his success and posted an 11-3-3 record from 1892-1895.
Camp was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951 and passed away at the age of 65 on March 14, 1925.
16. John Gagliardi
Find me a college coach that won more games than John Gagliardi — hint hint, you won’t. He started his career at Carroll College and earned a 24-6-1 record from 1949-1952, but that was only the beginning. From 1953-2012, he went 465-132-10 with St. John’s (Minnesota).
His 489 college wins is 80 more than the next coach — Joe Paterno. And to think Gagliardi made this all possible without tackling in practice, lifting weights, or practicing for more than 90 minutes. His career ended with 30 national championships and four national championships.
Gagliardi was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2006 (six years before he retired) and passed away at the age of 91 on October 7, 2018.
15. Ara Parseghian
Another product of Woody Hayes, Ara Parseghian started his head coaching career at Miami (OH) the year after Hayes left. From 1951-1955, Parseghian led the campus to a 39-6-1 record, including a 9-0 record his final season before heading off to Northwestern University.
Things didn’t go as smooth at Northwestern, earning a 36-35-1 record from 1956-1963, but things took a turn for the better when he was hired by Notre Dame. From 1964-1974, Parseghian led Notre Dame to a 95-17-4 record and two national championships (1966, 1973).
Ara Parseghian was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1980 and passed away at the age of 94 on August 2, 2017.
14. Amos Alonzo Stagg
Only 14 coaches have won 300 or more games at the collegiate level and Amos Alonzo Stagg is one of them. With a 314-199-35 record from 1890-1946, he’s the 10th-most winningest coach (3rd-most losses) in college football history, but his legacy runs much deeper than just that.
Amos Alonzo Stagg is also known for his innovations, including padded goalposts and the lateral — which is still used today. In fact, he was the first head coach to earn a salary, something every coach can thank him for. Some refer to him as the ‘Grand Old Man’ of football for a reason.
He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951 and passed away at the age of 102 on March 17, 1965.
13. Barry Switzer
Barry Switzer coached the Oklahoma Sooners from 1973-1988, a time when the competition was extremely high. It wasn’t easy to coach in the Big Eight, but Switzer didn’t care — he beat everyone and never showed mercy. His 157-29-4 record is one of the best in campus history.
Of Oklahoma’s seven national championships, three of them came with Barry Switzer leading the way — including back-to-back championships in 1975 and 1975. He led them to 12 conference titles, had a .837 winning percentage, and a .662 percentage against ranked teams.
Barry Switzer was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2001 and even coached the Dallas Cowboys (NFL) to a 40-24 record from 1994-1997 (including a Super Bowl victory).
12. John McKay
Despite going just 8-11-1 in his first two seasons as USC’s head coach, John McKay quickly turned things around with an 11-0 record in his third season. It was the first of four national championships he would win at USC, enjoying a 127-40-8 record from 1960-1975.
In addition to the national championships, he coached USC to nine conference titles and saw 11 of his players inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Although he didn’t have the same success in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, his college legacy remains to this day.
John McKay was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1988 and passed away at the age of 77 on June 10, 2001.
11. Pop Warner
Pop Warner is known for being a winner, competitor, and innovator at the collegiate level. His 319 wins is the 9th-best in college history and he did so with a .730 winning percentage. He coached seven teams from 1895-1938 and had a winning record at every school he coached.
As far as innovations go, Pop Warner is credited with inventing the three-point stance, the single- and double-wing formation, the body-block technique, the screen pass, the bootleg, and the hidden ball trick. He didn’t break rules, but he certainly made decision-makers change them.
Warner won three national championships in his career as a coach. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951 and passed away at the age of 83 on September 7, 1954.
10. Frank Leahy
Known for his good manners and referring to his players as ‘lads,’ Frank Leahy didn’t like to lose. That’s a good thing because he rarely did. He began his coaching career in 1939 at Boston College and went 20-2 over two seasons — which is when he got the call from Notre Dame.
As head coach of Notre Dame, Leahy went 87-11-9, led his team to four national championships in a seven-year period, and went on a 39-game winning streak from 1946-1950 (three national championships in that span). He put his heart and soul into coaching and it certainly showed.
He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1970 and passed away at the age of 64 on June 21, 1973.
9. Woody Hayes
Not many college coaches expressed themselves on the sidelines like Woody Hayes did — especially when things weren’t going his way. He might’ve taken things a bit too far at the end of the 1978 season when he punched an opposing player, which ultimately led to his firing.
With that said, he’s still one of the best college football coaches of all time and deserves to be in the top-10 for his 238-72-10 record from 1946-1978. He would end up winning 205 games, 13 conference titles, and five national championships with the Ohio State Buckeyes over 28 years.
Hayes was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983 and passed away at the age of 74 on March 12, 1987.
8. Bobby Bowden
Only three college football coaches won more games than Bobby Bowden and we’ve already mentioned one of them (John Gagliardi). He led his teams to a 377-129-4 record from 1959-2009, with 305 of those wins coming with the Florida State Seminoles from 1976-2009.
He helped coach two Heisman winners at Florida State, won two National Championships, 12 conference titles in the ACC, and finished in the top-five every year from 1987-2000. He’s also the only college football coach to win 11-straight bowl games, which is consistency at its finest.
Bowden was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2006 and passed away at the age of 91 on August 8, 2021.
7. Joe Paterno
Next to John Gagliardi, Joe Paterno is the only other coach to win more than 400 games at the collegiate level. He started at Penn State in 1950 as an assistant coach and spent 16 years in that position. In 1966, he got the call to be the head coach and won the second-most games ever.
From 1966-2011, Paterno led the Penn State Nittany Lions to a 409-136-3 record. He won two national championships, three conference titles, 24 bowl games, and five unbeaten seasons. He knew how to win and he did it often. Paterno was also the athletic director from 1980-1982.
Joe Paterno was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2007 and passed away at the age of 85 on January 22, 2012 — two months after being fired.
6. Bud Wilkinson
We’ve already mentioned one Oklahoma Sooners’ head coach thus far, but Bud Wilkinson is our second. During his 17 years on campus, the Sooners were virtually unstoppable. From 1947-1963, Wilkinson led his teams to a 145-29-4 record, including 3 national championships.
Even more incredible were the winning streaks his teams compiled, which included a 31-game win streak from 1948-1950 and a 47-game win streak from 1953-1957. His 14 conference titles are the most by any Sooners’ head coach — two more than Barry Switzer, who we have at #13.
Wilkinson was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1969 and passed away at the age of 77 on February 9, 1994.
5. Eddie Robinson
We’ve talked about John Gagliardi, we’ve talked about Joe Paterno, now let’s talk about Eddie Robinson. With a 408-165-15 record with Grambling State from 1941-1997, Eddie Robinson goes down as the third-most winningest college coach in history — that’s right, 408 wins.
He was known for doing a little bit of everything on the field — taping players up, lining the field, directing the band, and getting the most out of his team. In just his second season at 23 years old, he went 9-0 without getting scored on. He was a true legend and will forever be revered.
He would go on to win 9 black college national championships and 17 Southwestern Athletic Conference titles. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1997 and passed away at the age of 88 on April 3, 2007.
4. Tom Osborne
After a short career in the NFL, Tom Osborne was eventually hired as an assistant coach at Nebraska under Bob Devaney. Little did they know they were getting one of the best college football coaches of all time, earning a 255-49-3 record over the next 25 years (1973-1997).
In his final four seasons with the team, he went 49-2 and won three national championships (1994, 1995, and 1997). In fact, he was one play away from winning a fourth championship in 1993, which would’ve marked four championships in five years. It was an incredible run.
Tom Osborne was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1998 and would go on to serve three terms in Congress from 2001-2007.
3. Knute Rockne
Before Knute Rockne, the forward pass was nonexistent in the game of football. Thanks to Knute, it became a staple of the game and is what makes football, well, football. He’s known as a massive motivator, great innovator, and one of the best college football coaches of all time.
He spent 13 years at Notre Dame, earning a 105-12-5 record from 1918-1930. He led his team to five unbeaten seasons and three national championships — including back-to-back wins in 1929 and 1930, despite coaching from a wheelchair at times with an infection in both of his legs.
Rockne tragically and suddenly passed away due to a plane crash at the age of 43 on March 31, 1931 and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951. Gone too soon, but never forgotten.
2. Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant
From 1945-1957, Paul Bryant coached Maryland, Kentucky, and Texas A&M to a 91-39-8 record to begin his coaching career. In 1958, he got the call to be the head coach of Alabama, and boy did he prove to be one of the best college football coaches of all time.
From 1958-1982, Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant earned a 232-46-9 record with Alabama. He won six national championships, including back-to-back championships in 1964 and 1965, and again in 1978 and 1979. His 323 wins at the collegiate level are the eighth-most in college football history.
Paul Bryant was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1986 and passed away at the age of 69 on January 26, 1983.
1. Nick Saban
Of all the head coaches we’ve mentioned up to this point, none of them are active coaches. That’s where Nick Saban is different. He started his coaching career in Toledo before moving to Michigan State and LSU, where he saw success at all three alma maters — going 91-42-1.
It wasn’t until he landed at Alabama in 2007 where he truly cemented his legacy as a college coach. He has earned himself a 167-23 record, 8 conference titles, and six national championships. If you add in the national championship at LSU, he has a total of seven.
Nick Saban is showing no signs of slowing down and there’s no telling how many more national championships his team will win. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be named at the top of the best college football coaches of all time.
Active Coaches Climbing Up the Ranks
Next to Nick Saban, there are quite a few active college football coaches that could find themselves on this list by the time their careers come to an end. He’s not the only one finding success these days, although it might seem like he’s the only one winning championships.
Some head coaches to keep an eye on as they continue their careers are Dabo Swinney, Kirby Smart, Lincoln Riley, Dan Mullen, Pat Fitzgerald, Matt Campbell, Ed Orgeron, Gary Patterson, Jimbo Fisher, Jeff Devanney, Les Miles, and K.C. Keeler. They all know how to win at this level.
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For the time being, it’s clear who the GOAT is and it’ll likely be that way for a long time. Who knows if we’ll ever see anyone overthrow Nick Saban at the top of our list of best college football coaches of all time.
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