Sports are a huge part of the college experience, and football is the heart of student social life at many universities. Each team’s coach sets the tone, and throughout the years, mammoth personalities and talents have shaped the sport. Here are five of our favorites.
1. Bear Bryant
No matter whose list of football greats you check, Bear Bryant is always number one. He spent nearly 4 decades – 38 years – as a head coach. Twenty-five of those he dedicated to the University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide, earning them six national championships and 13 conference championships. Add his coaching time at Maryland, Kentucky and Texas A&M, and according to ESPN Classic, he “took 29 teams to bowl games and led 15 to conference championships.” The man in the hound’s-tooth hat was known for his determination. Bryant was known for saying, “I don’t want ordinary people. I want people who are willing to sacrifice and do without . . . That’s what it takes to win.” The Bear really did live for football, as he died 28 days after he coached his last game.
2. Knut Rockne
Knut Rockne had a long history with the University of Notre Dame. While he was a student, in 1910, the football team cut him for being undersized, never dreaming that he would not only play for them as left end the next year but coach their college team to a victory record that is still revered today. He became the Fighting Irish’s head coach at a mere age 30 in 1917, armed with a chemistry degree – he also taught at the university – and a flair for new strategies. He’s credited with making the game more exciting with passing offense and shock troops and being a master motivator. In his 13 years as Notre Dame’s head coach, Rockne achieved five undefeated seasons with no ties and three national championships. He was known for his inspiration and motivation, especially “Win one for the Gipper.”
3. Bobby Bowden
With more than 300 Division I wins at the same school, Bobby Bowden is a legend who took the Florida State University’s Seminoles from insignificance to powerhouse status. When he assumed the head coaching position, the Seminoles had totaled just four wins but 29 losses over the past three seasons. He told his players, “You’re not ordinary, you’re not average. You’re something special.” Bowden expected discipline from his players and practiced it himself. He led Florida State to no fewer than 31 bowls in 33 years, 12 Atlantic Coast Conference titles and two national championships – in 1993 and 1999. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2006 as one of the “winningest coaches in National Collegiate Athletic Association history.”
4. Joe Paterno
“Joe Pa” served Penn State University as head coach for 46 seasons, from 1966 to 2011, earning the title of longest tenure and winningest Division I coach with 409 wins. Add his 16 years as an assistant coach, and it’s little wonder Joe Paterno became a Penn State institution. He led the Nittany Lions to 37 bowls – 24 of them wins – five undefeated seasons and two national championships in the 1980s. He has the distinction of having won games in all five major college bowls – the Rose, Orange, Fiesta, Sugar and Cotton Bowls. Paterno was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2006. He was known for demanding not only athletic but also academic achievement from his players; the team regularly earned national team recognition for academic performance, topping a New America Foundation list in 2011.
5. Eddie Robinson
Eddie Robinson was head coach at Louisiana’s Grambling University for 55 years, with 408 wins to his credit and a place in the College Football Hall of Fame at his retirement in 1997. According to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, he started at Grambling at the age of 22, straight from a 25-cent-an-hour job at a feed store. He had a bachelor’s degree from Leland College, his experience as a winning quarterback and 2 years of assistant coaching. His first head coaching year, his Grambling Tigers won only three of eight games, but the next year, they won all eight. Under Robinson, the Tigers took 17 conference titles, and he sent more than 200 of his players on to professional careers in the National Football League. Advice he once gave extends far beyond the gridiron, however: “If a man finds his place in the world, he should pursue it with all the talent the good Lord has given him, no matter where it may be.”
Other names and accomplishments deserve recognition as well. Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner coached four different teams to national championships in the early 1900s and left the legacy of the Pop Warner Little Scholars. John Gagliardi was head coach at Saint John’s University for 57 seasons, consistently leading them to numerous Division III conference titles and two championships. Urban Meyer, current head coach for the Ohio State Buckeyes, is still coaching, and winners like Barry Switzer have parleyed college national championships into head coaching positions with professional teams like the Dallas Cowboys. All demonstrate the meaning of perseverance, commitment and discipline, and each new season leaves us counting the yards and watching the talent, win after win.