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A better way to rank college football coaches

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Let’s judge college football coaches based on what they’re asked to do.

TCU v Oklahoma Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Another offseason day goes by and another top college football coaches list is out. This time it’s from Stewart Mandel of Fox Sports, a writer for whom I have great respect. Mandel is not a hot take artist, and he actually shows up to games. He also has good contacts within the industry.

However, I think that ranking college football coaches in a single list is flawed. Here’s why: coaches are being evaluated using different metrics.

For instance, Jimbo Fisher comes in at No. 6 on the list, behind Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Gary Patterson, Mark Dantonio and Jim Harbaugh. All are excellent coaches, but only three of the five ahead of Fisher are actually expected to compete and win at the highest level.

Patterson and Dantonio are included because they are overachievers relative to program resources. They have done a fantastic job at their schools, but they have not accomplished as much as Jimbo Fisher, Bob Stoops or Dabo Swinney. I find that many sportswriters are quick to reward overachieving in these lists and perhaps too quick to make the assumption that if the coach were simply at a more elite program he could easily recruit to that level. History shows that’s not true.

Recruiting at the highest level is a distinctly different skill set than finding under-hyped gems and turning them into players. It’s a necessary element of salesmanship and competitiveness that the coaches who actually compete at the highest level have. In order to overachieve at a program, some level of recruiting ability is obviously required, but it’s simply not the same as competing for the best athletes in the country against all of the schools with elite standards. They should have to show the ability before being placed next to the coaches who have proved they can do it.

What if college football teams were ranked by the College Football Playoff committee based on overachieving instead of achieving? Fans would be up in arms. It wouldn’t make sense. The analogy isn’t perfect, but ranking college coaches on the same list isn’t great, either.

What if Mandel changed his list around and had one ranking for coaches at programs with true national championship aspirations and another for coaches who get on the list due to overachieving? Using his rankings, it would look like this:

Keeping Mandel’s rankings and grouping them ...

At elite schools

  1. Nick Saban
  2. Urban Meyer
  3. Jim Harbaugh
  4. Jimbo Fisher
  5. Dabo Swinney
  6. Bob Stoops
  7. Brian Kelly
  8. Les Miles
  9. Hugh Freeze

That list looks pretty good. These coaches have shown they can play the game at schools that are willing to attempt to compete at the highest level and all have won significantly at their current school (Ole Miss might be too committed to trying to recruit at the highest level).

Overachievers

  1. Gary Patterson
  2. Mark Dantonio
  3. David Shaw
  4. Bill Snyder
  5. Chris Petersen
  6. Bobby Petrino
  7. Ken Niumatalolo
  8. David Cutcliffe
  9. Kyle Whittingham
  10. Tom Herman
  11. Dan Mullen

This list also looks really nice. Nobody seriously expects the coaches on this list to win a national title at their current school. None of these schools have won a national title in the last quarter century (Washington was the last in 1990) and most haven’t done a thing on the national level since WWII. But it’s still good to recognize them for their over-achievement. Just not at the highest level. Using this grouping accomplishes that.