Ranking The Playing Careers Of College Football Head Coaches

    Of the 130 current FBS head coaches, who had the best college career as a player? And who never even suited up beyond high school?

    February 28, 2017

    Of the 130 current FBS head coaches, who had the best college career as a player? And who never even suited up beyond high school?

    Nick Saban. Urban Meyer. Dabo Swinney. Jim Harbaugh. Bob Stoops. Most fans understand who belongs in the discussion for the premier head coaches in college football. But how would the rankings shift if those same head guys were appraised on their playing careers instead of their resumes on the sidelines?

    The majority of today’s coaches had anonymous careers on the field, often at Off-Broadway programs most fans couldn’t pinpoint on a map. And it’s undoubtedly that that anonymity, coupled with the reality that the NFL wouldn’t be an option, provided an early motivation to consider careers in football that relied more on the mind than the legs.

    130. Bill Clark, UAB

    … Jacksonville State, but did not play college football

    130. David Cutcliffe, Duke

    … Alabama, but did not play college football

    130. Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss

    … Southern Miss, but did not play college football

    130. Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech

    … Western Carolina, but did not play college football

    130. Mike Leach, Washington State

    … BYU, but did not play college football

    130. Joe Moglia, Coastal Carolina

    … Fordham, but did not play college football

    130. Chad Morris, SMU

    … Texas A&M, but did not play college football

    130. Matt Viator, Louisiana-Monroe

    … McNeese State, but did not play college football

    122. Butch Davis, Florida International

    … Arkansas defensive end

    121. Skip Holtz, Louisiana Tech

    … Notre Dame wide receiver

    120. Terry Bowden, Akron

    … West Virginia running back

    119. Randy Edsall, Connecticut

    … Syracuse quarterback

    118. Doug Martin, New Mexico State

    … Kentucky quarterback

    117. Mike Sanford, Western Kentucky

    … Boise State quarterback

    116. Mark Hudspeth, Louisiana-Lafayette

    … Delta State safety and quarterback

    Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

    115. Lane Kiffin, Florida Atlantic

    … Fresno State quarterback

    114. Brent Brennan, San Jose State

    … UCLA wide receiver

    113. Butch Jones, Tennessee

    … Ferris State wide receiver

    112. Bryan Harsin, Boise State

    … Boise State quarterback

    111. John Bonamego, Central Michigan

    … Central Michigan wide receiver

    110. Jim McElwain, Florida

    … Eastern Washington quarterback

    109. Gary Patterson, TCU

    … Kansas State safety and linebacker

    108. Urban Meyer, Ohio State

    … Cincinnati defensive back

    107. Gus Malzahn, Auburn

    … Henderson State wide receiver

    106. Troy Calhoun, Air Force

    … Air Force quarterback

    105. Bill Snyder, Kansas State

    … William Jewell defensive back

    104. Philip Montgomery, Tulsa

    … Tarleton State quarterback and safety

    103. Dave Doeren, NC State

    … Drake tight end

    102. Mike MacIntyre, Colorado

    … Georgia Tech safety

    dabo swinney clemson
    Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    101. Dabo Swinney, Clemson

    … Alabama wide receiver

    100. Jim Mora, UCLA

    … Washington safety and linebacker

    99. Dan Mullen, Mississippi State

    … Ursinus tight end

    98. Blake Anderson, Arkansas State

    … Sam Houston State wide receiver

    97. Craig Bohl, Wyoming

    … Nebraska defensive back

    96. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona

    … West Virginia defensive back

    95. Clay Helton, USC

    … Houston quarterback

    94. Tyson Summers, Georgia Southern

    … Presbyterian linebacker

    93. Geoff Collins, Temple

    … Western Carolina linebacker

    92. Bob Davie, New Mexico

    … Youngstown State tight end

    91. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame

    … Assumption linebacker

    90. Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia

    … Iowa Wesleyan wide receiver

    89. Neal Brown, Troy

    … Massachusetts wide receiver

    88. Chris Ash, Rutgers

    … Drake defensive back

    87. Ed Orgeron, LSU

    … Northwestern State defensive lineman

    86. Shawn Elliott, Georgia State

    … Appalachian State defensive end

    85. Mike Riley, Nebraska

    … Alabama defensive back

    84. Mike Jinks, Bowling Green

    … Angelo State quarterback

    83. Will Muschamp, South Carolina

    … Georgia safety

    82. Paul Chryst, Wisconsin

    … Wisconsin quarterback

    81.Tom Herman, Texas

    … Cal Lutheran wide receiver

    80. Mark Stoops, Kentucky

    … Iowa safety

    79. Doc Holliday, Marshall

    … West Virginia linebacker

    78. Bret Bielema, Arkansas

    … Iowa defensive lineman

    77. Jeff Monken, Army

    … Millikin wide receiver

    76. Dave Clawson, Wake Forest

    … Williams College defensive back

    75. Willie Fritz, Tulane

    … Pittsburg State defensive back

    74. Derek Mason, Vanderbilt

    … Northern Arizona cornerback

    73. Tony Sanchez, UNLV

    … New Mexico State wide receiver

    72. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa

    … Connecticut linebacker

    71. Pat Narduzzi, Pittsburgh

    … Rhode Island linebacker

    Credit: Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

    70. Mark Richt, Miami

    … Miami quarterback

    69. Matt Wells, Utah State

    … Utah State quarterback

    68. Sean Kugler, UTEP

    … UTEP offensive lineman

    67. Tom Allen, Indiana

    … Maranatha Baptist linebacker

    66. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State

    … South Carolina defensive back

    65. Rod Carey, Northern Illinois

    … Indiana center

    64. Scott Satterfield, Appalachian State

    … Appalachian State quarterback

    63. Gary Andersen, Oregon State

    … Utah center

    62. Chuck Martin, Miami U.

    … Millikin safety

    61. Nick Rolovich, Hawaii

    … Hawaii quarterback

    60. Mark Whipple, Massachusetts

    … Brown quarterback

    59. Chris Creighton, Eastern Michigan

    … Kenyon College quarterback

    58. Bobby Wilder, Old Dominion

    … Maine quarterback

    57. Seth Littrell, North Texas

    … Oklahoma running back

    56. Jay Hopson, Southern Miss

    … Ole Miss defensive back

    55. David Beaty, Kansas

    … Lindenwood wide receiver

    54. David Bailiff, Rice

    … Texas State offensive lineman

    53. Jason Candle, Toledo

    … Mount Union wide receiver

    Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

    52. Nick Saban, Alabama

    … Kent State safety

    51. Kalani Sitake, BYU

    … BYU fullback

    50. Larry Fedora, North Carolina

    … Austin College wide receiver

    49. David Shaw, Stanford

    … Stanford wide receiver

    48. Chris Petersen, Washington

    … UC Davis quarterback

    47. Frank Wilson, UTSA

    … Nicholls State running back

    46. Dino Babers, Syracuse

    … Hawaii running back, linebacker and safety

    45. Matt Campbell, Iowa State

    … Mount Union defensive lineman

    44. Bronco Mendenhall, Virginia

    … Oregon State linebacker and safety

    43. Matt Rhule, Baylor

    … Penn State linebacker

    42. Lance Leipold, Buffalo

    … Wisconsin-Whitewater quarterback

    41. Ken Niumatalolo, Navy

    … Hawaii quarterback

    40. Steve Addazio, Boston College

    … Central Connecticut State linemen

    39. Everett Withers, Texas State

    … Appalachian State defensive back

    38. Todd Graham, Arizona State

    … East Central defensive back

    37. Paul Haynes, Kent State

    … Kent State defensive back

    36. Jay Norvell, Nevada

    … Iowa defensive back

    Credit: Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

    35. Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech

    … Murray State quarterback

    34. Justin Wilcox, Cal

    … Oregon safety

    33. Mike Neu, Ball State

    … Ball State quarterback

    32. Jeff Tedford, Fresno State

    … Fresno State quarterback

    31. Mike Bobo, Colorado State

    … Georgia quarterback

    30. James Franklin, Penn State

    … East Stroudsburg quarterback

    29. Mike Norvell, Memphis

    … Central Arkansas wide receiver

    28. Brad Lambert, Charlotte

    … Kansas State defensive back

    27. P.J. Fleck, Minnesota

    … Northern Illinois wide receiver

    26. D.J. Durkin, Maryland

    … Bowling Green defensive end and linebacker

    25. Scottie Montgomery, East Carolina

    … Duke wide receiver

    24. Charlie Strong, South Florida

    … Central Arkansas safety

    23. Paul Petrino, Idaho

    … Carroll College quarterback

    22. Rocky Long, San Diego State

    … New Mexico quarterback

    21. Rick Stockstill, Middle Tennessee

    … Florida State quarterback

    20. Barry Odom, Missouri

    … Missouri linebacker
    Odom has had a long and successful history at Mizzou, beginning as a middle linebacker from 1996-1999. He was a rugged run-stopper for Larry Smith, amassing 362 career stops to rank No. 7 in school history. As a senior, Odom earned honorable mention All-Big 12, and he played a key role in the 1997 squad that snapped the Tigers’ 14-year postseason drought.

    19. Bob Stoops, Oklahoma

    … Iowa safety
    Stoops was a tough and scrappy kid from Youngstown, Ohio who helped bring an overachieving identity to Hayden Fry’s first few teams in Iowa City. Stoops, who pulled down 10 career interceptions, was a four-year starter in the Hawkeye secondary, helping bring an improbable Big Ten title to the school in 1981. As a senior, he was named to the All-Big Ten team before taking a position on Fry’s staff a year later.

    18. Luke Fickell, Cincinnati

    … Ohio State nose guard
    Fickell was a model of unmatched consistency during his years in Columbus, remarkably starting a school-record 50 straight games along the defensive line. And he wasn’t just eating up blocks in the middle, he was making plays as well. The former high school wrestling champ ended his career with 212 tackles, 26 stops for minus yards and six sacks, impressive output for an interior lineman.

    17. Kirby Smart, Georgia

    … Georgia safety
    Smart demands much from his Bulldog defenders, much the way he did from himself in Athens at the end of the previous century. He was a scrappy, try-hard ball hawk at Georgia, ranking fourth in school history with 13 interceptions. A standout who led by example, Smart earned four letters Between the Hedges, rising to the All-SEC First team as a senior in 1999.

    16. Bobby Petrino, Louisville

    … Carroll College quarterback
    Long before Petrino was a household name in coaching circles, he was a prolific passer for tiny, yet powerful, Carroll College in Helena, Mont. He played for his father, Bob, twice being named an NAIA All-American, while leading the Fighting Saints to three Frontier Conference Championships in a row. An outstanding all-around athlete, Petrino also played four seasons on the college’s basketball squad.

    15. Jeff Brohm, Purdue

    … Louisville quarterback
    Despite bouncing around the NFL—and the XFL—for eight seasons, Brohm was actually drafted by Major League Baseball and not the NFL. He was selected by the Montreal Expos and the Cleveland Indians, but was committed to becoming the Cardinal quarterback. After waiting his turn and struggling as a junior, Brohm blossomed as a senior in 1993, throwing 20 touchdown passes and leading Louisville to a 9-3 record.

    14. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M

    … Purdue linebacker
    Although Sumlin is synonymous with high-powered offenses these days, it was on defense that he built his reputation as a player. Despite walking on with the Boilermakers, he led the 1983 team with 91 tackles. It was his first of four years as a starter in a career that included 375 tackles, six interceptions and a pair of honorable mention All-Big Ten recognitions.

    13. Major Applewhite, Houston

    … Texas quarterback
    A fan favorite in Austin, Applewhite was beloved for his gutty demeanor and knack for coming through in the clutch. He started fast with the Horns, earning Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year in 1998 and the league’s co-Offensive Player of the Year a season later. But Applewhite eventually lost ground to Chris Simms, finishing his career with 60 touchdown passes, 8,353 passing yards and a smattering of school records.

    12. Joey Jones, South Alabama

    … Alabama wide receiver
    Jones was much more than a fan favorite among Crimson Tide fans. He was also a terrific pass-catcher at a time when Alabama receivers were mostly used as downfield blockers. Jones was clutch throughout his four seasons, pulling down 71 career passes for 1,386 yards and 15 touchdowns, including eight as a junior in 1982. In his Tuscaloosa final, he was named to the All-SEC Team, and later to Bama’s All-Decade Team for the 1980s.

    Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    11. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State

    … Samford quarterback
    Many years before he even became ahead coach, Fisher was a talented quarterback at the lower levels of college football. He was twice named the WVIAC Player of the Year while at West Virginia’s Salem College before transferring with head coach Terry Bowden to play at Samford. In his only season with the Bulldogs, Fisher was named the 1987 Division III National Player of the Year, establishing a new single-season D3 mark with 34 touchdown passes.

    10. Kyle Whittingham, Utah

    … BYU linebacker
    Whittingham crossed enemy lines when he joined the Utah coaching staff in 1994, because he was a Cougar more than a decade before becoming a Ute. And a very productive Cougar at that, amassing 240 tackles, 10 stops behind the line of scrimmage and a half-dozen forced fumbles over his final couple of seasons in Provo. As a stalwart senior in 1981, Whittingham was named honorable mention All-America and the WAC co-Player of the Year.

    9. Lovie Smith, Illinois

    … Tulsa strong safety
    A punishing safety and linebacker, Smith is one of the finest defenders to ever play for the Golden Hurricane. He started every game for three seasons at Tulsa, collecting 367 tackles and ending each campaign on the All-Missouri Valley Conference Team. For his run-stopping ability and open-field tackling, Smith was also named honorable mention All-America as a sophomore in 1977 and a senior in 1979.

    8. Frank Solich, Ohio

    … Nebraska fullback
    Solich’s ties to Lincoln run very deep, both as a coach and as an athlete. One of the seminal figures of coach Bob Devaney’s first Husker recruiting class, Solich became an important cog in the heralded ground attack of the 1960s. “Fearless Frankie,” who was named All-Big Eight while establishing a school single-game record for rushing yards by a fullback, was later inducted into the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame in 1992.

    7. Tim Lester, Western Michigan

    … Western Michigan quarterback
    Lester helped spark an uptick in Bronco football from 1996-1999 with his potent right arm. He was Gary Darnell’s gunslinger for four seasons, throwing for 87 touchdowns and 11,299 yards as Western Michigan worked its way back into MAC contention. Lester concluded a stellar career ranked sixth in the NCAA in touchdown passes and fourth in passing yards, while stockpiling a bunch of school and league records.

    6. Willie Taggart, Oregon

    … Western Kentucky quarterback
    Taggart has always had a soft spot for playmaking dual-threat quarterbacks, because he once was one on The Hill. In fact, he’s one of the most decorated players in Western Kentucky history. By the time he was finished as a four-year starter, Taggart had set the Topper standard for rushing and scoring, as well as the I-AA mark for rushing yards by a quarterback. And in each of his last two years, he was a finalist for the Walter Payton Award, the I-AA equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.

    5. Scott Frost, UCF

    … Nebraska quarterback
    Frost’s college career actually began at Stanford, not Nebraska, though he became a household name after transferring to the Huskers in 1996. In two seasons in Lincoln, he was the archetypal Nebraska option quarterback, rushing for 28 scores and throwing for 18 more. As a senior in 1997, Frost sparked Big Red to a perfect campaign while becoming just the tenth player in history to rush and pass for more than 1,000 yards in a year. He’s also the rare college head coach to be drafted by an NFL team, picked in the third round by the New York Jets.

    4. Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State

    … Oklahoma State quarterback
    Though often overshadowed by backfield mates Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas in Stillwater, Gundy still delivered a record-smashing career as the Cowboy quarterback. He took the reins midway through his freshman season and went on to become the all-time leading passer in Oklahoma State and Big Eight history. Gundy’s school standard of 7,997 yards still stands today, and he was the frontman of teams that won 10 games in consecutive seasons in 1987 and 1988.

    Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

    3. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan

    … Michigan quarterback
    Nope, Harbaugh never posted monster numbers as a collegian. No quarterbacks in Ann Arbor did while Bo Schembechler was in charge. However, Harbaugh started parts of three seasons with the Wolverines, winning 10 games in 1985 and finishing in third place in the Heisman Trophy vote as a senior. He ended his career as Michigan’s all-time leader in passing yards, while guiding the program to a 21-3-1 record. Harbaugh was chosen in the first round of the 1987 NFL Draft, laying the groundwork for a 15-year professional career.

    2. Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech

    … Texas Tech quarterback
    Kingsbury and Mike Leach on the same team equaled plenty of gaudy passing numbers and rewritten records at Texas Tech. As a three-year starter as the triggerman of Leach’s Air Raid offense, Kingsbury tallied 95 career touchdown passes and more than 12,000 yards through the air. As a senior in 2002, he took command of the Red Raider and Big 12 record books by throwing for 45 scores and 5,017 yards. Kingsbury was the forerunner to the likes of B.J. Symons, Sonny Cumbie, Cody Hodges, Graham Harrell and Taylor Potts in Lubbock.

    1. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern

    … Northwestern linebacker
    No individual has ever been more influential to Northwestern football, past and present, than Fitzgerald. Today, he’s the school’s all-time leader in coaching victories. During the 1990s, Fitz was one of the game’s fiercest linebackers and the catalyst for a Wildcat resurgence in Evanston. He was nasty from the second level, overcoming modest athleticism to become a tackling machine. In 1995 and 1996, Fitzgerald was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, a consensus All-American and the recipient of the Bednarik Award and Nagurski Trophy.


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