Published November 20, 2014
The winningest coach in the history of college football will be on one sideline this Saturday. That would be Penn State's Joe Paterno. On the other side will be Alabama's Nick Saban, the Crimson Tide's $4 million man and the best coach in college football today.
We'll see whether he's still on top Sunday morning.
Judging coaches is difficult because wins and losses aren't always equal. An eight-win season makes Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald look like a genius. An eight-win season for Les Miles at LSU has Tigers fans pining for change.
But with some helpful suggestions from the AP Top 25 voters, we rank the 12 best coaches in college football right now (career records in parentheses).
1. Nick Saban (44-11 at Alabama, 135-53-1 overall). He's a tireless recruiter. He's put together talented and innovative staffs, despite being as demanding as any boss in the business. He's won two national championships (one with LSU and another with Alabama) and now that he's gotten that NFL itch out of his system, there's no reason why the 59-year-old can't rack up at least a couple more before he calls it quits.
From the panel: "Is there any other coach that strikes fear in opposing coaches' hearts?" — Kirk Bohls, Austin American-Statesmen.
2. Chris Petersen (62-5 at Boise State). Without five-star recruits, Petersen has established the Broncos as an elite program that usually performs at its best in its biggest games. Petersen's winning percentage undoubtedly has gotten a boost from playing in the WAC, but do not for a second mistake him for his predecessor, Dan Hawkins.
From the panel: "You give him longer than a week to prepare for anyone and he beats them." — Erik Gee, KNML-AM, Albuquerque, N.M.
3. Bob Stoops (130-31 at Oklahoma). The days of being known as Big Game Bob have waned with three BCS title-game losses since winning Oklahoma's last championship in 2000, his second season in Norman. If anything Stoops has become one of the most under-appreciated coaches in the country.
From the panel: "With a peerless eye for coaching talent, Stoops survives staff turnover better than anybody." — Dave Matter, Columbia Daily Tribune.
4. Pat Fitzgerald (35-29 at Northwestern). The former Northwestern star took over under the most trying circumstances, being promoted after the death of Randy Walker in 2006. The Wildcats went 4-8 that season, but haven't had a losing record since. No coach, not even Petersen at Boise State, maximizes his resources better than Fitzgerald.
5. Gary Patterson (98-29 at TCU). There's a lot of talent in Texas and Patterson has made a killing grabbing the hidden gems the Big 12 schools miss. His teams are tenacious and tend to adjust well during games, especially defensively.
From the panel: "He has done a marvelous job building and sustaining his program recruiting against Texas and Texas A&M." — Bill Cole, Winston-Salem Journal.
6. Steve Spurrier (45-33 at South Carolina, 187-73-2 overall). The Ball Coach put together one of the greatest runs in SEC history during the 1990s with Florida, a string of dominance only surpassed by Alabama great Bear Bryant. Since returning from the NFL and taking over at South Carolina, it might be tempting to deem his second act as mediocre, but this is a program that has never won the SEC. Now the Gamecocks are favored to get to the SEC championship for a second straight season.
7. Brian Kelly (8-6 with Notre Dame, 179-63-2 overall). As recently as last week, this wouldn't have seemed like an odd choice. But in college football, especially at Notre Dame, every game becomes a referendum. From Grand Valley State to Central Michigan to Cincinnati, Kelly has been a master program builder. He'll have the Fighting Irish consistently contending for BCS bowls.
8. Bobby Petrino (24-15 at Arkansas, 65-24 overall). Petrino has burned some bridges (Louisville and with the Falcons in the NFL) and he's not the most personable or affable coach — though to be fair, there are few Mack Brown-types in the profession — but when it comes to putting together topflight offenses, he might be the best in the business.
9. Mack Brown (134-34 at Texas, 220-108-1 overall). Last season was Brown's first losing one since he took over at Texas in 1998. Before that, he put together a string of nine straight years of at least 10 wins and a national title in 2005. Brown is a master recruiter and an astute CEO coach, who generally surrounds himself with top-notch assistants and lets them do their thing.
10. Joe Paterno (402-135-3). Maybe Paterno's greatest strength through an unmatched career has been his willingness to give his assistants the freedom to do their jobs. In turn, those who work for Paterno are extremely confident and loyal, providing Penn State the continuity that has been a huge part of the program's success. That's why, as JoePa pushes 85 years old, there's no reason for him to retire unless he wants to.
11. Les Miles (63-17 at LSU, 91-38 overall). Miles makes obvious mistakes and he comes across as a little bit odd. He also makes bold moves that often work and instills confidence in his players. He's a lockdown recruiter with a national title to his credit and a stellar record in one of the best conference in the country.
From the panel: "Keeps winning and saving college football from ever encroaching corporate drudgery." — Joshua Kendall, The State, Columbia, S.C.
12. Frank Beamer (199-95-2 at Virginia Tech, 241-118-4 overall). Beamer's been at Virginia Tech for 24 years and has had so much success most fans don't remember that the Hokies were an afterthought when he got there. Now there is no more consistent program in the country. Virginia Tech has seven straight double-digit win seasons and hasn't had a losing record since 1992.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at http://Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP