Zemek blog: Coaches and Championships

Staff Columnist
Posted Apr 8, 2008

Basketball's Final Four always resurrects the "best coach never to have won a national title" debate, so with the events in San Antonio still fresh in the public memory, it's worth considering the same question in the college football world.

At the outset, one must hasten to say that this kind of exercise is not meant to identify underachieving coaches. The emphasis of this search is to focus on the best in the business who, through back luck more than anything else, haven't been able to caress the crystal near the end of the first week of January. Just like big-time basketball, collegiate football is a cruel and unforgiving profession that has locked many legendary figures outside the candy store. The ranks of national championship football coaches form an extremely exclusive club, a commentary more on the difficulty of winning a title than anything else.

Consider just some of the men who never won a national championship: Bo Schembechler, Pat Dye (even though the 1983 poll vote might have been misguided, Auburn fans; I understand), Frank Kush, Grant Teaff, Hayden Fry, Bill Yeoman, Barry Alvarez, George Perles, Earle Bruce, Don Nehlen, Bill Snyder, Jackie Sherrill, George Welsh, Bill Walsh, Dick MacPherson, and Terry Donahue. Pretty impressive, to say the least. And it would only scratch the surface.

What's also worth noting is that of the legendary coaches who have a national title, a great many of them took decades to finally win it. How long did it take Joe Paterno to win his first championship? Tom Osborne? Vince Dooley? Lou Holtz? Gene Stallings? Bobby Bowden? Those are but a few of the men who had fashioned decorated and substantial careers before they won a national title. As the saying goes, they didn't suddenly become that much smarter when they finally entered the winner's circle; a national title only creates that appearance.

Therefore, with the past as prelude, who is the best active coach not to have won a national title? Tommy Tuberville might get a sympathy vote because his team should have had a chance to contend for the 2004 title. Frank Beamer has been a legend at Virginia Tech, in a career nothing short of sensational. Mike Bellotti has made Oregon a formidable school on a consistent basis, no small feat in the Pacific Northwest.

The vote here, however, ultimately goes to Mark Richt of Georgia. No, it's not because the Bulldogs figure to be the preseason No. 1 team for 2008; it's because the Reverend Coach has more than held his own in the conference where college football's pressures and prizes come in plus-size packages.

In the Big East and now the ACC, Beamer--probably No. 2 on this list--hasn't had the regularity of cutthroat competition that could have vaulted him to the top spot. It's in the SEC where coaches are tested and tried at levels the rest of the country can't quite match. If you prove your worth as the coach of an upper-division SEC school--one of the 15 or 20 places in America with a hallowed football heritage--you wind up punching a ticket to immortality. In what can be called the conference of championship coaches--five of the SEC's 12 sideline sultans have won a national title, three of them currently working in the SEC East--Richt has won more division titles than any other man since 2002. Yes, he might lack the longevity of other coaches, but Richt has packed so many accomplishments into his first seven seasons that he's already put himself at the top of his profession.

The top four coaches in college football, right now, are Pete Carroll, Jim Tressel, Bob Stoops, and Richt. The first three men have won a national title. The fourth man is the best coach who hasn't yet held the hardware. This season might change things, but even if it doesn't, Mark Richt is to be accorded a level of respect that few other active coaches can match. He might become the next Bill Self, but remember that Self was pretty good even before the Kansas Jayhawks cut down the nets a few days ago. Win or lose, Georgia is very fortunate to have its current head coach.