Hiring a college football coach is an inexact science, and the following list provides the proof. This collection features the top 25 college football coaching hires of the past 25 years, a group defined by variety as much as greatness.
Nick Saban and Urban Meyer both were can’t-misses who hit the mark, at multiple schools. But for every Saban and Meyer, there are moves like Clemson handing over its program to a 39-year-old career wide receivers coach named Dabo Swinney, one of seven internal promotions who appear on the list.
Jim Harbaugh was a big-name player but a relatively unproven coach when he came to Stanford. Pete Carroll couldn’t break through with two NFL teams before USC gave him a chance. Jim Tressel had led only FCS school Youngstown State before getting his chance at Ohio State.
There’s no perfect path to a great coaching hire.
Here are the top 25 coaching hires since 1995. The list primarily considers a coach’s success at a program, but also what situation he walked into. Remember, the hires are being evaluated here, so a coach can appear more than once. As a result, a lot of excellent coaches didn’t make the rundown. I generally rewarded longevity, although several coaches here worked wonders in a short time.
Let’s get started.
25. Bill O’Brien, Penn State
Hired: Jan. 7, 2012
What he inherited: An unprecedented mess. The Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal had rocked Penn State, leading to the ouster of program icon Joe Paterno, who died of cancer on Jan. 22, 2012. Investigations began, and in July the NCAA imposed major penalties, including a postseason ban and scholarship losses.
What happened next: O’Brien had the shortest tenure of any coach on this list and went only 15-9. But he stabilized the program at a critical point and overcame a series of unique obstacles and constant tension to help Penn State far exceed the gloomy post-sanctions predictions. A first-time head coach, O’Brien had to navigate complicated challenges around Paterno’s legacy, the roster and the NCAA penalties, which allowed other teams to recruit his players. He won national coach of the year honors in 2012, as Penn State went 6-2 in Big Ten play. His work that fall and in 2013 prevented a collapse and helped set up successor James Franklin, who won the Big Ten in 2016 and has 42 wins and three top-10 finishes in the past four seasons.