On Wednesday, our Big Ten brethren declared “the Big Ten has the best roster of head coaches of any conference in America.”
Just when you think the ACC is starting to get a little respect...
Last season, the ACC was the best conference in large part because no conference has better coaches. At worst, it’s on par with the Big Ten, which is the ACC’s only legitimate challenger in this dispute. (The cacophonous sound of protests from the SEC will not be entertained until the conference can produce a second 10-game winner.)
This bench-trial verdict was reached before the ACC could present its case, so we direct our appeal to the masses.
The ACC doesn’t have the most bling, but it’s the only conference with two active coaches that can flash national championship jewelry -- Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney. Urban Meyer’s lone equal is Nick Saban, but Fisher and Swinney are right below.
It shouldn’t be forgotten, however, Fisher and Swinney were ushered into their roles as first-time head coaches at two of the country’s better programs within the last decade. Clemson hadn’t won 10 games since 1990; Swinney has done it six straight times now. Fisher has won 10 or more in six of seven seasons after inheriting a mess.
Without a liberal interpretation of the word, the list of the ACC’s elite coaches ends there.
After that, Bobby Petrino has four 10-win seasons at two different schools in three different conferences. He’s finished in the top five twice and coached a true sophomore to a Heisman Trophy.
That’s as strong of a top three as the Big Ten's, and frankly it’s entirely possible Petrino isn’t No. 3 on the ACC’s list. The ACC is a repository for the sport’s most underappreciated coaches. Heck, how many people still associate Swinney with his goofy catchphrases or capers through the Clemson locker room than standing under a cascade of creamsicle-colored confetti?
Justin Fuente won 10 games and was a red-zone interception from beating the eventual national champions to win the ACC in his first season at Virginia Tech. He was the offensive coordinator on a Group of 5 TCU team that won a Rose Bowl. Memphis was tied for the fewest wins against FBS opponents from 2009-2011 when he arrived in 2012. The Tigers ended 2014 ranked. In Year 4, Memphis was ranked 13th in the College Football Playoff rankings -- the highest ever for a Group of 5 team -- after winning at Ole Miss, which won at Alabama earlier in the year.
Then there’s Duke’s David Cutcliffe, and this one is going to take some time to present. Before Cutcliffe, Duke didn’t have a winning record in 13 seasons. It had four wins -- two vs. the FCS -- in the four seasons before Cutcliffe arrived. Temple, which was second worst, had seven.
But the stat to seal the judgment as Cutcliffe being one of the country’s best: Since 2013, 24 coaches played 10 or more games against ranked teams while unranked, and only Cutcliffe doesn't have a losing record.
It is literally a David vs. Goliath scenario.
So it’s no surprise when Brett McMurphy polled nearly all 128 coaches a few months ago on the subject of which coach gets the most out of his players, Cutcliffe was second only to a documented wizard, Bill Snyder.
Mark Richt wouldn’t be a bad No. 3 either. It feels like a generation ago now, but he has two SEC titles. For the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately crowd, Georgia was 8 yards from playing and likely crushing Notre Dame for the 2012 national title. He also has the top-ranked 2018 recruiting class at Miami.
So that leaves the next tier with Larry Fedora (first 10-win season at North Carolina since 1997) and Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson (two 1-AA championships and a national coach of the year honor).
Dave Doeren was PJ Fleck five years ago, leading Northern Illinois to an undefeated regular season. The jury is out on Syracuse’s Dino Babers, but Bowling Green went from 10 wins to four in its first year without him. Wake Forest's Dave Clawson built the foundation at Bowling Green for Babers. For a decade from 2006-15, among schools that remain in the Group of 5, only Boise State and Bronco Mendenhall’s BYU had winning records against Power 5 opponents.
Until recently, the ACC was annually trashed and rightfully so. It was easily the worst Power 5 conference. A lot of schools and fan bases were indifferent to football. Many of these coaches aren’t given blank checks to build and sustain programs, and at several schools resources are dedicated to basketball first.
It makes what the ACC coaches have done even more impressive.