Ranking The ACC Football Coaches

Every year, hundreds of newspapers, magazines and blogs (OK, this one is a recent trend) put out their preseason rankings of football teams. What’s the point? While I admit to finding them occasionally interesting, the idea that you can guess what the final standings are going to be is laughable. You could replay the entire 2003 season with all the same teams and schedules and not end up with the same standings. That’s just the way sports are, particularly football with its short schedules. One win or loss is often the difference between three or four spots in the standings.
So, I’m not going to guess the final rankings.
Instead, I’m going to rank the coaches. Over time, it’s the coaches that make the difference. Teams with better coaches win more games. For my purposes, I’m including lots of factors here in coaching, including on-field success, recruiting, program reputation and everything else that goes into a successful program.
One thing that’s really interesting about the ACC right now is the unbelievable quality of the coaching. The ACC is loaded! Ten of the eleven teams can legitimately say that they have an excellent coach. ACC basketball can’t even say that.
So, without further ado, here goes, starting at the top.
1. Bobby Bowden, Florida State – There’s not really much to argue about here. Two national championships, 342 wins (most all-time), 22 straight bowls and once had 14 consecutive top-five seasons. Bowden is to football what Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski are to basketball.
In recent years, FSU has finally shown some weakness. It’s not a coincidence that this happened shortly after two of Bowden’s top assistants, Mark Richt (a distant cousin of mine) and Chuck Amato left for Georgia and NC State respectively. In football, more than any other sport, good assistants are critical, and when programs lose a good coordinator, they often falter. You’ll see this theme come up againlater in this list.
Despite the relative lean years, Saint Bobby seems to have the Seminoles loaded again and ready for yet another shot at a national title. Unlike other aging coaches like Joe Paterno, Bowden shows no signs of slowing down. Until he finally does retire, or maybe just dies on the sidelines, he’ll occupy the top slot among ACC coaches.
2. Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech – Beamer was a close call for me over Larry Coker of Miami. Coker, after all has won a national championship. Coach Beamer on the other hand has built a national power out of somewhat unknown school in the Virginia mountains. Tech played for a national championship just a few years ago (losing to Bowden’s Noles), a concept unthinkable before Beamer arrived at Tech. He doesn’t get the talent that most top schools get, but he wins by playing what’s known as Beamer-Ball – suffocating defense and aggressive special teams.
Before Beamer, Tech was a pretty mediocre program with little history. He slowly turned that around, in large part by dominating in-state recruiting, beating rival Virginia and their coaching icon George Welsh for the state’s rich supply of talent. Since Al Groh showed up in Charlottesville, the recruiting tide has turned a bit, so it will be interesting to see if Beamer can keep Tech on the mountaintop. They have been on of ESPN’s analysts’ darlings for years now, but eventually that sort of attention passes. Even if Tech does slide back to being just a “good” program, Beamer will have made his mark and cemented his legacy. Look for some buildings or something to be named after him when he retires.
3. Larry Coker, Miami – Three years of coaching, three losses and one national championship. Not too shabby, huh? You can’t start out much better than that. On the flip side, he’s at Miami and they were already damn good when he got there. It’s not too hard to drive 120 MPH in a Ferrari.
In fairness, three years are a bit few to rank this high, except that he really couldn’t have done any better in his brief tenure. On top of what he’s already won on the field, he’s hauling in top recruits at levels that are good even by Miami’s lofty standards. There’s no reason to believe that barring some sort of NCAA trouble (which frankly isn’t that unlikely considering that it’s Miami), Coker will continue to enjoy incredible success in the Orange Bowl.
4. Ralph Friedgen, Maryland – What the Fridge has done in his three years at Maryland is nearly as impressive as what Coker has achieved at Miami. Three years, three ten-win seasons. Granted, those weren’t typical ten-win seasons; due to quirks in the calendar and NCAA guidelines, Maryland played 39 games over that time. Still, the 31 wins in three years was equal to the Maryland win total in their previous six years.
When Friedgen came to his alma mater, Maryland was non-factor in football. They had had very little success since Bobby Ross was in College Park. Fridge changed that immediately, going 10-2 in his first year and ending Florida State’s stranglehold on the ACC Championship. A long-time offensive coordinator under Georgia Tech coach George O’Leary and Bobby Ross before that, Friedgen had earned his rep before he ever coached a game. The only question was whether he could translate his success as a coordinator to the big job. Those questions were answered pretty quickly (and not surprisingly, O’Leary’s Georgia Tech squad had a disappointing year after Fridge left).
Now Friedgen needs to prove that he can maintain his success at Maryland against increasingly stiff competition and take the Terps to next level – a national power.
5. Chuck Amato, NC State – If I were ranking coaches based on the excitement level they’ve brought their fans, Amato might be number one. It really is amazing what he’s done in that regard at State. When he arrived, they were coming off a decade or more of mediocrity in all sports, including basketball. Amato, one of Bobby Bowden’s top assistants for many years instantly hit if off with the fans with his promises of gridiron success. Fortunately for Amato, outgoing coach Mike O’Cain had landed a somewhat unheralded recruit out of Alabama named Philip Rivers. As you know, Rivers went on to start every game in his Wolfpack career, helping Amato not only win games but build an identity in Raleigh. At the same time, Amato managed to bring many of his Florida recruiting connections with him from Talahassee, helping State land several highly-rated classes.
On the field however, State has really only marginally improved from the O’Cain years. State wasn’t really that bad under O’Cain and they haven’t been that great under Amato. Two key things have changed though, NC State is now beating UNC regularly, and they’re also beating Florida State. O’Cain’s biggest problem was his inability to beat Carolina, even after Mack Brown left. Fortunately for Amato, the Tar Heels have been in a freefall ever since and he’s owned the rivalry. The wins over Florida State are much more surprising and have helped lift Amato to near God status among the Wolfpack faithful. To take the next step though, his talented and athletic teams need to start finishing somewhere above fourth in the conference, something that hasn’t happened yet in his tenure.
6. Al Groh, Virginia – Much like Ralph Friedgen at Maryland and Chuck Amato at NC State, Al Groh came to Virginia four years ago and immediately lifted the hopes of the fans. George Welsh’s last few teams had failed to live up to the standards he had set in his stellar career in Charlottesville and the in-state recruiting battles were being won repeatedly by rival Virginia Tech. Al Groh put an immediate stop to that.
Al Groh left his job as the head coach of the New York Jets to take the Virginia job, a shocking change of career. I can’t think of another example of an active professional head coach willingly leaving to take a college job, particularly to a mid-level program like UVA. While Groh wasn’t winning hearts in NYC, his first Jets team had done pretty well, going 9-7. It’s not like he was about to be fired.
Ironically, one reason he was so unpopular in New York was his bland personality. He seemed like exactly the opposite kind of coach who would do well in college. He came to Charlottesville though and set a tone that the program would be run like an NFL team. They play a pro-style offense and defense and he and his staff clearly stress their pro experience and connections when on the recruiting trail. The results were immediate, with Virginia landed several consecutive top-twenty recruiting classes.
Like Amato at State, Groh has now been at Virginia long enough and has landed enough good classes that it’s time for the Cavaliers to take the step up to being a consistent top twenty-five program.
7. Tommy Bowden, Clemson – In Tommy Bowden’s first year at Clemson, his Tigers shocked the conference. Clemson had a long history of playing power football. Passes were for pansies. Tommy changed that. They used funky alignments, trick plays, inside sweeps, everything. I remember watching a few of their games where it was clear that the defense, to say nothing of the cameramen, had no idea where the ball was or where it was going.
After a few seasons, those tricks stopped working. That’s the way it is in a conference. The new coach can often get away with a lot of tricks, but once the other guys get more film on you, that stuff is less effective. Just as significantly, Bowden’s creative offensive coordinator, Rich Rodriguez, left to become head coach at West Virginia.
Another problem for Bowden was the hiring of Lou Holtz at South Carolina. The state of South Carolina has good high school football, but there’s only so much talent to go around. It’s certainly easier for Clemson when the Gamecocks are down (which historically they’ve been).
After getting spanked by Wake Forest 45-17 last year, it seemed a certainty that Coach Bowden would be fired, maybe before the end of the season. Miraculously though, things turned around the very next week when Clemson beat Florida State for the first time. Suddenly IPTAY turned down the heat a bit under Tommy’s chair. Clemson went on to run the table for the season, including a memorable 63-17 win over the hated Gamecocks.
Now, Tommy Bowden’s job is somewhat safe. The Tigers are expected to do pretty well this season. If they don’t though, well, let’s just say that the folks in IPTAY still remember where that temperature control knob is.
8. Jim Grobe, Wake Forest – Jim Grobe has done the miraculous in his three years at Wake Forest; he’s made them significant again. Wake actually gives teams some concern. It used to be, under the inexplicably long rein of Jim Caldwell, a veritable certainty that a game against the Demon Deacons was a win. No longer. Using a run-based attack that features constant misdirection, Wake is becoming if not a force, a respected opponent. In Grobe’s three years, Wake has home wins against Clemson (including the blowout I mentioned above) and NC State, and road victories against Virginia, Boston College, Purdue and UNC. Wake even went to and won a bowl game in 2002.
Wake’s biggest challenge in the coming years will be keeping Grobe. In building a winning team in Winston-Salem, particularly one that uses a running attack when most smaller programs try to win with gimmicky passing attacks, Grobe has attracted admirers. There is no doubt that bigger programs, ones with a better chance to win consistently, will come calling for Coach Grobe. If the Deacons can keep him, that truly would be a miracle.
9. Chan Gailey, Georgia Tech – Chan Gailey, along with Al Groh, is the second ACC coach who used to be a head coach in the NFL. Gailey coached the Dallas Cowboys for two years before being fired. Before that, Gailey was offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers when they were employing their creative offense built partly around the multi-talented Kordell Stewart (the Slash Kordell, not the Horrible Quarterback Kordell).
At Georgia Tech, Gailey has had some hiccups, but shown promise. He took over after George O’Leary infamously left to briefly become the head coach of Notre Dame (I believe O’Leary is now employed as a Professor of Linguistics at Oxford). The problem for Gailey is that O’Leary left the problem in shaky state. O’Leary’s last year there was the year after Ralph Friedgen left and it was pretty mediocre. Gailey stepped in and guided the Yellow Jackets to back-to-back 7-6 seasons. His team last year was young and showed some promise, beating Auburn, Maryland and NC State.
It may be that Gailey deserves to be ranked a bit higher in this list, but his two years haven’t yet given him enough time to prove it.
10. Ted Roof, Duke – Roof has a very brief, but impressive resume as a head coach. Last year, fed up with a 30 game ACC losing streak, the longest in conference history, Duke fired head coach Carl Franks. It was out of character for a school like Duke to fire a coach mid-season, but clearly the program was headed nowhere. Ted Roof stepped in for the final five games and achieved a stunning turnaround.
Roof’s first game as coach was against an uneven, but potent NC State Wolfpack. Duke played them tough before losing by a single touchdown. The next week was a road game at Tennessee, not exactly a great place to kick-start a program. Duke surprised the Vols by playing them tight into the fourth quarter. One week later, Duke ended the losing streak in outrageous fashion, waxing Georgia Tech 41-17. Duke went on to win again, beating rival UNC in the season finale.
In five games, Roof won twice, both against ACC competition. His predecessor, Carl Franks, won two conference games in five years – both in his first year. It looks to me like Ted Roof is a coach with a very promising future.
11. John Bunting, UNC – And now we come to the one ACC coach who everyone would agree is struggling. Bunting’s first team at Carolina went 8-5 with a big win over Florida State and a bowl victory over Auburn. Tar Heel fans thought that they finally had the man to make them forget the Carl Torbush disaster. Well, it hasn’t worked out that way. Bunting’s next two teams went 3-9 and 2-10, including a stretch of ten consecutive home losses. Carolina even lost to Duke last year, snapping a 13 year win streak against their hapless gridiron rivals. Making things worse for Carolina fans is that at the same time as their program has fallen apart, cross-Triangle rival NC State is flourishing and starting to capture the minds and hearts of young football fans (and players) around the state.
That just doesn’t sit well with the Carolina Blue crowd. John Bunting is one of their own and a guy who looks like a football coach. He’s big and tough and he played linebacker for the Heels. His teams though are anything but tough, with last year’s squad giving up nearly 500 yards a game, the 116th best defense in the country. If Carolina can’t improve significantly on that, and their surprisingly good recruiting classes should help, then I doubt John Bunting will be coaching in Chapel Hill next season.

My Last US Olympic Basketball Post

OK, this time I meant it. I’m not going to write any more about the state of the US national team. Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty to say, but enough is enough. I might dust of my ideas at some point in the future, but not now.
That said, the Duke Basketball Report has put together a nice compilation of post-mortems. In particular are good articles by Fran Frashilla and Rick Majerus. There are plenty of good ideas in here.
One thing I fee pretty certain about (well, somewhat certain) is that we learned our lesson. Our team will be much, much better in 2008. The catch is, the other teams will be better too.
Edit: It looks the DBR found more.


From the Too-Weird-To-Be-Fiction department comes breaking news that CBS is exploring the idea of a sitcom based on the life of Bobby Knight. They say they have no writers yet for the show. I’m assuming that John Feinstein is not one of their candidates.
I did happen to come across one of the sample scenes they are trying. This is just an audio clip. Enjoy. Oh, and you’re gonna want to use headphones, as The General’s vocabulary is bit salty.
(Thanks to The Hood for the audio link).

Tony K On Prime Time

Tony Kornheiser has a great take on the return of Deion Sanders. Deion really is a trip. He’s an ubelievable egomaniac and I doubt he can really make much of an impact, but I’ll give him credit for being interesting.
One great quote from this whole Deion-is-returning story is the quote from his personal trainer that Deion has been running 4.38 40s… on grass!
That’s great! Justin Gatlin couldn’t run a 4.38 on grass. Ricky Williams maybe could, but a 37-year-old Deion Sanders most certainly can’t.
Or maybe they meant a 40 as in a 40 ouncer? 4.38 seconds is pretty impressive for one of those as well.