Is Urban Meyer the Best College Football Coach of All Time?
I’ve always been obsessed with numbers and sports. When I was a kid, I pored over the stats on the back of baseball cards. As an “adult,” I may or may not have Barry Bonds’ and Pedro Martinez’s Baseball-Reference pages bookmarked just so I can get lost in those rabbit holes at a moment’s notice.
Usually it's only the mind-boggling numbers of athletes that can put me in a head-shaking trance, but Urban Meyer is one coach who has that same effect. I’ve always been dumbfounded by how successful he’s been at every stop throughout his career, but what’s really staggering, at least to me, is how quickly he’s won when he takes a new gig.
Meyer is 50-4 at Ohio State. I’ll repeat that: 50-4.
He is undoubtedly one of the best coaches in recent college football history, but his dominant run with the Buckeyes got me wondering -- is Urban Meyer the best college football coach of all time?
Let’s dig into the numbers and see what we can find out.
All He Does Is Win
In 1986, Meyer was an assistant coach at Saint Xavier High School in Cincinnati. It took him 15 years -- which included various assistant positions across the country, most notably a five-year stint as the wide receivers coach at Notre Dame -- to get his first head-coaching job.
Bowling Green hired him to be their head man in 2001, and four years later, Meyer had catapulted himself to Florida, one of the premier jobs in all of the country.
How in the world could a coach go from an average MAC program to an SEC powerhouse in four years? By winning a ton of football games.
Meyer went 17-6 at Bowling Green before bolting for Utah. He went 22-2 with the Utes, including a 13-0 season in 2004 where he helped Alex Smith win the Heisman trophy and go first overall in the NFL Draft.
Meyer kept on rolling in Gainesville, going 65-15 with the Gators and winning a pair of National Championships (2006 and 2008). He unexpectedly retired during the 2010 campaign, citing health and family as reasons, but he quickly resurfaced in 2012, taking over at Ohio State.
The tattoo scandal that engulfed the Buckeyes program in 2011 and led to Jim Tressel’s resignation was one of the best things that ever happened to Ohio State, in part because it led to getting Meyer.
The Buckeyes certainly weren’t struggling under Tressel -- he went 106-22, after all -- but Meyer has done what he always does and taken things to a new level. He went 12-0 in his first campaign, although the team was unable to play in the postseason because of NCAA sanctions, and Meyer captured the first ever College Football Playoff title in 2014.
Here’s all that winning in an easily-digestible table.
|Year||School||Record||Final AP Rank|
That’s a pretty remarkable career, even if he stopped right now. Per AP rankings, Meyer has finished in the top five seven times, including a trio of national titles. Even if you count his two years at Bowling Green, when he had virtually no chance of finishing the the top five, he's produced a top-five squad in half of his 14 seasons.
Where does Meyer's insane .851 winning percentage rank in the history of the game at the Division-I level?
I’m glad you asked.
One of the Best
Among coaches with at least 10 seasons under their belt, Meyer’s .851 winning percentage ranks third behind Knute Rockne's and Frank Leahy's, a couple of Notre Dame legends.
|Coach||Win Percentage||Primary School|
|Knute Rockne||.881||Notre Dame|
|Frank Leahy||.864||Notre Dame|
So much about college football has changed since the days of Rockne and Leahy, who each stopped coaching before 1955. Their accomplishments are impressive nonetheless, but the overall parity and strength of the opposition is quite different in the modern area.
Behind Meyer are Barry Switzer and Tom Osborne, two coaches who I’d say fit into the arbitrary cutoff of the modern era of college football. Saturday Down South, an SEC-centric college football site, suggests the 1980s were the start of the modern era, but other respectable college football sites consider it to be the 1960s.
Either way, Switzer and Osborne, who garnered fame with Oklahoma and Nebraska, respectively, each coached into the late 1980s, so they qualify as modern coaches.
Looking at just active coaches, there are some guys who are off to fabulous starts, but none quite stack up to Meyer.
Among those who have coached at least 50 games, Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher (68-13, .840), Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops (179-45, .799) and Washington’s Chris Petersen (106-24, .815) have each started their careers with a bang. Petersen did most of his work at Boise State, going 92-12 over 8 seasons, but he’s barely over .500 (14-12) in his first two years with Washington.
There’s one current coach who is the elephant in the room.
Saban Versus Meyer
It’s hard to be the best coach of all time if you’re not the best coach going right now.
While Nick Saban is doing incredible things at Alabama, Meyer clearly has the more impressive résumé.
Meyer, when he was at Florida, had some memorable clashes with Saban, most notably a pair of number one versus number two battles in consecutive SEC title games in 2008 and 2009, which the two teams split.
Saban does lead in national titles -- winning five to Meyer's three, although Saban has coached six more seasons than Meyer -- but that's about the only statistical advantage he has on Meyer, albeit an important one.
There’s no doubt Saban has it rolling at Alabama. He’s 100-18 in Tuscaloosa and has won four of the last seven national championships. Outside of a wonky tenure with the Miami Dolphins, Saban has -- like Meyer -- been successful everywhere he’s been.
While his run at Alabama is nearly unrivaled, Saban hasn’t won in quite as big of a fashion as Meyer did in his previous stops.
|Year||School||Record||Final AP Rank|
Saban’s fairly pedestrian tenure at Michigan State (34-24-1) makes you wonder how he even got an interview for a monster job like LSU, although the Tigers (obviously) knew what they were doing. In fact, Mark Dantonio, with an 87-33 record, is doing things at Michigan State that Saban never did.
None of Saban’s stops -- outside of the Dolphins -- can be categorized as anything other than a success, but when they’re compared to the way Meyer has absolutely dominated at every step, Saban can’t compete really until this recent reign of terror with the Crimson Tide.
Meyer has only lost three or more games five times in his 14-year career, and a pair of those campaigns came in his two seasons at Bowling Green. Saban, on the other hand, lost at least three games in four of his five seasons at LSU.
Saban had a three-year stretch with the Spartans (1996-98) where he went 19-17. Meyer's worst three-year run came in the first three years of his career (2001-03), and he still went 27-8. In fact, in his worst two-year stretch (2001-02), Meyer still won 17 games.
Meyer has had back-to-back seasons at each of his last three coaching stops -- Utah, Florida and Ohio State -- where he's had just two combined losses. Saban has only done it with Alabama, although he’s achieved the feat on two separate occasions.
Even at his peak, Saban doesn't surpass Meyer in terms of win-loss record, although we're nitpicking between filet mignon and prime rib here. Over the last four years, Saban is 50-6 while Meyer is 50-4. These two guys are laying waste to college football.
By any metric, Saban -- whose .765 winning percentage ranks 25th all time -- is clearly one of the best coaches in college football history, but even he hasn’t had a career of all-around dominance that stacks up to Meyer’s.
Way back in the intro, I touched on Meyer’s penchant for winning immediately at each of his coaching stops. It’s his ability to do this that is truly astonishing.
For the most part, freshmen don’t make much of an impact in college football, so even if Meyer brought in a superb recruiting class in his first season, he’s not utilizing many of them on game days. Meyer is inheriting another coach’s roster and doing significantly better with those players.
Here’s a look at what Meyer has done in his first year at each school, juxtaposed with the team’s performance in the season before Meyer stepped foot on campus.
It’s staggering. It really is.
It’s like Meyer knows some kind of cheat code. He could probably fix our national debt in about 15 minutes.
The dude comes in and wins right away. On average, Meyer’s teams won 4.75 more games in his first season than they did in their last year under the previous coach.
In the modern era, especially in the past two decades, recruiting has become paramount for any top-level college football program. Get top-ranked classes, and you win a lot of games. Get mediocre classes, and you’re Purdue.
It’s hard to pin down exactly how good a head coach is at recruiting for a number of reasons. For starters, it’s much easier to get top talent to a place like Ohio State than it is Northwestern. Secondly, it’s primarily assistant coaches -- which college teams have a near endless amount of -- who do a large chunk of the recruiting, since the head coach is busy, you know, coaching.
With that said, by just about any method you choose, Meyer has become one of the top recruiters in the nation since he got to Florida. In recruiting circles, there are tales of his prowess, and it bears out in Rivals’ recruiting rankings.
|Year||School||Rivals Class Rank|
Meyer owns two of the best recruiting classes of all time in terms of what they did in college. While his 2006 class at Florida -- featuring Percy Harvin, Brandon Spikes, and Tim Tebow -- laid the foundation for back-to-back 13-1 seasons in 2008 and 2009, his 2013 recruiting class at Ohio State may go down as the best ever.
Ezekiel Elliott, Joey Bosa and Von Bell headlined that class, which ended up featuring a whole mess of pros. In all, nine players from that group stayed just three years in Columbus before declaring for the draft.
Spearheaded by that 2013 group, the Buckeyes had 12 players taken in the 2016 NFL Draft, all of whom went in the first four rounds.
The most important traits for any head college coach in the modern era are the ability to recruit top talent and then morph said talent into wins on Saturdays.
Urban Meyer has done that as well as anyone in the history of the sport.
While legendary coaches like Frank Leahy and Knute Rockne have a better winning percentage, they didn’t coach in nearly as cut throat of an era -- on the field or on the recruiting trail -- as what Meyer has competed in for the entirety of his career.
If Nick Saban keeps winning titles at Alabama, his remarkable run with the Crimson Tide may wind up completely overshadowing -- and outweighing -- the fact that he didn’t truly dominate at LSU or Michigan State.
Meyer, on the other hand, hasn’t just won everywhere he’s been: he’s won big, and he’s done it immediately. It’s hard to improve on a 50-4 record, but if Meyer can win another national championship with the Buckeyes, he may cement his case as the best coach ever.
Going by the numbers, he may have done that already.