Top 10 College Football Head Coaches Who Never Played

Brian Leigh

Some think you can't know football without having played football: that you had to have stuck your hand in the dirt to understand what you're seeing when you watch others do it.

Ten FBS head coaches would beg to differ.

That is not a particularly high number in proportion, given there will be 128 teams in college football next season, but it's high considering the bias some in power might give to coaches who have played the game. Doesn't it make sense that they should know better?

Sort of, I guess, but it is not a requirement for the job. In fact, the man who won last year's Walter Camp Coach of the Year award never played a down of college football, and neither did the man who upset Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl.

Here is how they rank from 10-1, based on whom I, in my subjective opinion (which is informed by their body of work), would want to coach my program for the next five years.

10. Bill Clark, UAB

Butch Dill

This is meant as no slight to Bill Clark, who was hired this offseason to replace Garrick McGee. It's just that every other person on this list has, at one point, accomplished something as an FBS head coach.

Clark has only been a head coach for one season before next, having just led Jacksonville State to an 11-4 season and the FCS Playoffs, where it upset sixth-seed McNeese State in the second round before losing to Eastern Washington in the quarterfinals.

According to Drew Champlin of, JSU, in addition to setting 49 school records during Clark's one season, also set 13 Ohio Valley Conference records and three NCAA records.

Before that, Clark served five seasons as the defensive coordinator at South Alabama, helping the Jaguars with their FBS transition.

Let's hope his own goes just as smoothly.

9. Dennis Franchione, Texas State

Rogelio V. Solis

Dennis Franchione has become something of a punchline in college football circles, which is both fair and unfair.

Yes, his Texas A&M offenses were slow and insipid. And sure, he once got beaten 77-0 by Oklahoma. These are things that nobody can deny (and few can refrain from mocking).

However, Franchione also grew Pittsburg State (his alma mater) into an NAIA power during the late 1980s and won nine games his final year at New Mexico, 10 games his final year at TCU and 10 games his final year at Alabama. Lest we forget.

Most recently, Franchione has led Texas State through its FBS transition period and turned it into a respectable enough program with a pair of .500 seasons in three years. Would it be shocking to see him win the Sun Belt one of these seasons? Not exactly.

But I won't be holding my breath.

8. Charlie Weis, Kansas


Charlie Weis is the only coach on this list to play in multiple BCS bowl games; but those appearances came in his first two years as a college head coach (2005 and 2006), and he's gone 20-41 at Notre Dame and Kansas ever since.

Which isn't to say he can't coach. Weis is not the reason Kansas football stinks so bad, though he also appears not to be a proper solution. He can win games in the right situation, though that situation appears to be highly specific.

He's not the worst coach in college football. Not by a long shot.

But he's also not a "decided schematic advantage."

7. Bobby Hauck, UNLV

David Becker

It's not how you start but how you...respond to how you start. Because Bobby Hauck no longer seems finished.

After going 6-32 in his first three seasons at UNLV—and first three seasons as an FBS head coach—Hauck finally fielded a competitive team in 2013, leading the Rebs to a 7-6 record and unlikely bowl berth.

Before that, Hauck earned his place at the FBS level with his FCS bona fides, having led Montana to consecutive 14-win seasons and losses in the national title game in 2008 and 2009, and established the Grizzlies as the powerhouse they currently still are.

I can't move Hauck any higher because, in large part, his UNLV team was not as good as its record last season. (It finished No. 96 in the Football Outsiders F/+ Ratings.) However, with 15 starters returning in 2014, there is reason to suspect it might be better.

6. Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech

Richard Shiro

Paul Johnson enters 2014 on the hot seat, which would have been unthinkable after his first two years at Georgia Tech (which included 19 wins and a berth in the Orange Bowl) but now seems justified after four straight years of mediocrity.

However, let us remember the good times.

Johnson's triple-option offense is unique, but it has typically worked well, despite the ever-changing climate of college football (which now seems to favor the spread and the pass).

Also forgotten on Johnson's resume is the time he spent at Georgia Southern, in what was then called Division I-AA. Over five years, his team never won less than 10 games, and it won consecutive national championships in 1999 and 2000.

5. Sonny Dykes, Cal

Mark J. Terrill

It was a perfect storm of failure for Sonny Dykes in his first season at Cal: His team was young, his system was too arcane to learn in one offseason and his conference was stronger than its been in years.

The result was something profoundly ugly, but one season—no matter how bad that one season—is not fair to judge a head coach on, especially when said coach was one of the hottest names in the business only nine short months ago.

There was a reason for that.

Dykes made Louisiana Tech a legitimate offensive juggernaut two seasons ago, leading it to a 9-3 season. He was schooled under Mike Leach at Texas Tech and still provides glimmers of hope of becoming as good. He just needs to turn it around.

One more bad season, and this argument loses some weight.

4. George O'Leary, UCF

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

No coach on this list—and perhaps in the world—is more famous for not having played college football than George O'Leary, who resigned five days after being hired by Notre Dame in 2001 after it was revealed he had fabricated some academic and athletic achievements on his resume. (For younger, but curious, readers, here's a good story on that ordeal from the New York Times.)

But let's put that aside. There's a reason Notre Dame wanted O'Leary in the first place, and there's a reason he just took Central Florida, of all teams, to the victory podium at the Fiesta Bowl.

He's a really, really, really good coach.

O'Leary inherited a sorry excuse for a program at UCF, a team that went 0-11 in his first season in 2004. Since then, in addition to the BCS bowl victory, it has won 10-plus games four times in a span of seven years. And those type of credentials can't be forged.

3. Mike Leach, Washington State


It took Mike Leach a year to gain his footing in Pullman, but after a 3-9 season in 2012, he got Washington State into a surprising bowl game last season and appears to be back at his old, pirate-y ways.

But what's happened at Wazzu is just the icing on the cake; the substance of Leach's resume is borne from his time at Texas Tech, where he turned the Red Raiders into national contenders (and the nation's most fun team to watch) with his unique Air Raid offense.

Leach is a lot different than Chip Kelly, but one could argue Kelly never happens if not for Leach first laying the groundwork.

The way he plays is that revolutionary.

2. Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss


It's amazing that Hugh Freeze is here, listed among the best young college football coaches in America, after not having played the game himself and only arriving on the FBS scene (for good) as an offensive coordinator at Arkansas State four seasons ago.

His rise since then has been remarkable. In one year, Freeze was promoted to head coach of ASU after Steve Roberts resigned. One year later, after leading the Red Wolves to a Sun Belt title, he was coaching his very own SEC team at Ole Miss.

One year later, he had engineered an impressive turnaround, leading the Rebels to a 7-6 record and bowl victory one year after, going 2-10. And finally, last season, after hauling in one of the most impressive recruiting classes in the country, he improved that record by one win to 8-5 and is looking to improve even more in 2014.

Is anybody willing to bet against him?

1. David Cutcliffe, Duke

Gerry Broome

David Cutcliffe won the Walter Camp Coach of the Year award last season after doing the unthinkable: He made Duke football relevant.

And relevant is putting it lightly. He made the Blue Devils champions, technically, as they won the ACC Coastal and played Florida State in the conference title game (although they subsequently got smoked by the best team in America).

Cutcliffe has been around the top levels of college football for a long time now, most notably as an assistant coach under Phil Fulmer at Tennessee in the 1990s. He coached Peyton Manning with the Vols and Eli Manning at Ole Miss, and even at Duke he's turned guys such as Thaddeus Lewis and Sean Renfree into NFL prospects.

If you were a high school quarterback recruit, is there anyone else in the country you'd rather play for?


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