Five years ago, I set out to rank all the head coaches in the FBS based on their playing careers.
I didn’t do a very good job.
In reviewing the rankings from 2016, two things stood out: how many head coaches are no longer in their roles today, and how flawed my process seemed to be in evaluating coaches as players. I placed far too much emphasis on the level of college ball played rather than rewarding those who became stars in lower divisions of the sport. The annoying part is I acknowledged who should be rewarded and didn’t follow through.
Not this time.
In re-ranking the 130 current FBS coaches as players, I placed a greater premium on those who made meaningful contributions in college, regardless of level. Naturally, those who were multiyear starters, multiple letter winners or award recipients for FBS teams get more credit, as do those who played professionally, especially in the NFL. Quarterbacks who set records and started for multiple seasons receive significant credit on the list. But coaches who as players held clipboards or waved towels for elite-level programs aren’t ranked nearly as high this time.
The ranking doesn’t change as much at the top or the bottom, but features shake-ups elsewhere, as well as a number of interesting additions. There are more high-end players in this group than in the 2016 version, especially at quarterback, as Josh Heupel (Oklahoma), Steve Sarkisian (BYU), Scott Frost (Nebraska) and Jonathan Smith (Oregon State) join the mix. This list also includes several true superstars in the lower divisions, such as Will Hall (Northwest Mississippi, North Alabama) and Billy Napier (Furman).
No list is flawless and each is subjective, but my hope is this one better reflects college coaches in their playing days.
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130. Jedd Fisch, Arizona Wildcats: A New Jersey native, Fisch did not play football at either the high school or college levels. He was an all-state tennis player in high school and began coaching high school ball as a student at Florida.
129. Mike Leach, Mississippi State Bulldogs: Before mastering the pass-heavy Air Raid offense, Leach played a sport in which only backward passes are permitted. He played rugby at BYU after a high school football career in Wyoming as a backup.
128. David Cutcliffe, Duke Blue Devils: A great playcaller but not much of a player, Cutcliffe’s career ended after his time at Banks High School in Birmingham, Alabama. He set his sights on coaching soon after arriving at Alabama, where he worked as a student assistant under Bear Bryant.
127. Manny Diaz, Miami Hurricanes: The son of the former Miami mayor with the same name, Diaz played football, basketball and baseball in high school. He then attended Florida State but did not play and pursued a career as a sports journalist before switching gears later.