Written by Justin Prince.
When it comes to college football, the Alabama Crimson Tide reign supreme. Monday night’s come from behind win to defeat the Georgia Bulldogs in the national title game just further cemented the school’s gridiron legacy.
The Tide now claim 17 national titles with a dozen coming in the “modern era” of college football. Although, there is some debate over exactly when the modern era started, what can’t be debated is the Tide’s dominance especially since Nick Saban took over in 2007.
Since the Fairmont, West Virginia, native was hired to revive Alabama’s historic program the Tide have won five national titles and consistently been ranked in the nation’s top five.
Saban, who won his first national championship in 2003 with Louisiana State, is well known and widely regarded as one of the greatest coaches in the history of college football. But, while Alabama is the home to perhaps the greatest football program in the land, it is the Mountain State that has bred and cultivated the game’s greatest coaches.
Along with Saban, there have been more than a dozen other West Virginia natives to man the sidelines at the highest level of college football in the modern era, if you define the modern era as post World War II, as many historians do.
Coaches from the rolling hills of West Virginia have coached some of the game’s greatest players and claimed some of the biggest victories in the history of college football. Below we are going to take a look at the 10 most successful coaches in the modern era from the state; but before we do that, it’s important to mention the father of the West Virginia coaching tree – Fielding Yost.
Yost was born in Fairview and got his first head coaching gig with Ohio Wesleyan in 1897, but it was his time at the University of Michigan (or Mee-she-gan as he pronounced it) that made Yost a legend.
For 25 seasons (1901-1923, 1925-1926) Yost led the Michigan football program, winning 10 conference titles and being credited with six national championships. Following his coaching career, he would take on an administrative role in Michigan’s athletic program until he retired in 1940. During his career, he amassed a record of 198-35-12 and was the inventor of the linebacker position. Yost is immortalized at Michigan with the Yost Ice Arena where the Wolverine hockey team plays, which was first built as a basketball facility by Yost when he was the school’s Athletic Director.
- Bill Stewart – VMI, WVU (36-37, 1 Conference Title)
Stewart was a long time assistant coach having begun his career on the staff of Salem International University in 1977. Over the years the Grafton native bounced around making stops as an assistant everywhere from Marshall (1980) to the Canadian Football League in the late 1990s. Stewart’s first head coaching job however, came in 1994 at the Virginia Military Institute and would last for just three seasons as he went just 8-25 with the Keydets. After being the offensive coordinator for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers Stewart returned to college football to his home state taking a position as an assistant at West Virginia University from 2000-2007.
His next coaching job would come as a interim head coach in the Mountaineers 2008 Fiesta Bowl win, just weeks after WVU had lost Rich Rodriguez to Michigan and its shot at a national title to rival Pittsburgh. Under Stewart the Mountaineers destroyed a heavily favored Oklahoma team 48-28. The bowl success led to Stewart being named the team’s full time head coach where he would go 9-4 three straight years claiming a share of the Big East title in 2010. Despite the success WVU fired Stewart following the 2010 season and he never coached again as he suddenly passed away just two years later at the age of 59.
- John “Doc” Holliday – Marshall (61-42, 1 Conference Title)
Another long time assistant serving mainly at his alma mater WVU, as well as having stints at North Carolina State and Florida before getting his first head coaching job with the Thundering Herd starting in 2010. During his years as an assistant, Holliday developed a reputation as one of the nation’s best recruiters and used his connections in the talent rich state of Florida to bring in some highly touted prospects. Some have panned out for Marshall and some haven’t, but over the course of his eight seasons, the Hurricane native has managed to win nearly 60 percent of his games and captured the 2014 Conference USA championship, the school’s first conference title in more than a decade. Coming off of an 8-5 season with a victory over Colorado State in the New Mexico Bowl, the Herd should be poised to make another conference title run under Holliday with the talent it returns.
- Jim Grobe – Ohio, Wake Forest, Baylor (117-121-1, 1 Conference Title)
The Huntington product has a losing record but has also been tasked with some of the hardest coaching jobs of anyone on this list. His first head-coaching job after being an assistant for nearly a decade was at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio in 1995. The Bobcats were coming off a 0-11 season and hadn’t had a winning record since going 6-5 in 1982. In his six seasons with Ohio, Grobe posted a 33-33-1 record and had winning seasons in 1997 and 2000 making him one of the more successful Bobcat coaches in decades.
His turnaround at Ohio got him hired to take on another rebuilding project with Wake Forest in 2001. The Demon Deacons had gone 2-9 the year before and in Grobe’s first season the team’s record improved to 6-5. Grobe would follow that up with a seven win campaign the next year and a bowl victory over the Oregon Ducks. But, it was 2006 season that would bring Grobe and Wake the most success as the Demon Deacons went 11-3 and won the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship. It was the school’s first ACC title since 1970 and for that success Grobe was named Associated Press National Coach of the Year.
Unfortunately he wouldn’t be able to maintain that level of success and only managed two more winning seasons before being forced to resign in 2013. Grobe would be out of coaching until 2016 when he agreed to take the Baylor University job on an interim basis while the school dealt with the fallout of the Art Briles scandal. The Bears were in turmoil and not expected to be very competitive but under Grobe he managed to lead Baylor to a winning season and Cactus Bowl victory. Following the bowl win Baylor hired Matt Rhule to be its full time coach and Grobe is back to enjoying his retirement.
- Rich Rodriguez – WVU, Michigan, Arizona (118-83, 4 Conference Titles)
Rich Rodriguez is currently in some hot water, being accused of sexual misconduct and fired by the University of Arizona amid those allegations. However, this list is only concerned with on the field success and the coach from Grant Town has had a lot of it. Like the aforementioned Stewart, Rodriguez got his career started with a stint at Salem before becoming an assistant at his alma mater, WVU. From there he would have a successful run as the head coach at Glenville State of the West Virginia Intercollegiate Conference before taking over as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Tulane.
It was during his time with the Green Wave that “Rich Rod” would develop the reputation as an offensive guru, helping Tulane to an undefeated season behind one of the nation’s best offenses in 1998. He would follow Tommy Bowden from Tulane to Clemson and coach the Tigers offense for two seasons before getting his first shot at a Division 1 head-coaching job with the Mountaineers.
From 2001-2007 Rich Rod had the WVU offense running like a hot rod, scoring points in bunches and racking up wins, as he went 60-26 during his time in Morgantown and won four Big East titles. In 2007, he even had the ‘Eers on the verge of a national title berth before a 13-9 loss to the Pitt Panthers in the regular season finale spoiled that opportunity. Not long after, it was announced that Rodriguez would be leaving to take the head coaching job at Michigan in an effort to turn around a Wolverines program that was a bit down. It proved to be a bad move as Michigan played a different style than Rodriguez was known for and the players he inherited simply didn’t fit his system. After three seasons in Ann Arbor and a 15-22 record Rich Rod was let go and he was out of college coaching for the entire 2011 season. In 2012 he was hired by the Arizona Wildcats and revived his career until the recent allegations and a string of losses derailed it once again. During his time at Arizona, he went 43-35 with three bowl victories.
- Ben Schwartzwalder – Syracuse (178-96-3, 1 National Title)
For 25 seasons Point Pleasant’s own Ben Schwartzwalder was in charge of the Syracuse football program. Schwartzwalder, a successful high school coach who had stints at Sistersville and Parkersburg High before making the jump to college coaching is one of the first coaches to heavily recruit and play African-American players. Schwartzwalder also had a knack for discovering running back talent. During his career he coached Jim Brown, Floyd Little, Jim Nance, Larry Csonka and the first black man to win the Heisman Trophy, Ernie Davis.
It was the Davis-led Syracuse team that won Schwartzwalder his lone national title after defeating the Texas Longhorn’s in the 1960 Cotton Bowl, a game considered to be one of the biggest and most important in college football history. Syracuse, who played as an independent during Schwartzwalder’s career, also won the Lambert Trophy, an annual award that goes to the best Division 1 team in the East, four times. Schwartzwalder was immortalized in the film “The Express: The Ernie Davis Story” where he was portrayed by actor Dennis Quaid.
- Jimbo Fisher – Florida State, Texas A&M (83-23, 3 Conference Titles, 1 National Title)
Our second active coach, the native of Clarksburg, has an opportunity to climb even higher on this list. A long time assistant for coaching legend Bobby Bowden, Fisher was groomed to take over the reigns at Florida State when Bowden finally stepped away from the game following the 2009 season. Fisher immediately proved he was up to the task winning 10 games in his first year as the ‘Noles head man. Fisher helped restore a Florida State program to national prominence and his five-year run from 2012-2016 was one of the most impressive in the history of the sport.
During that span, Fisher and the Seminoles went 59-9 winning three ACC championships and a national title in 2013. After such a run, I guess it makes sense that things would drop off a bit and Fisher’s team went 5-6 in 2017 with him at the helm, his first losing record as a coach and Fisher resigned before the team’s last regular season game amid speculation that he was no longer getting along with Florida State’s administration. Not long after stepping down at FSU, Fisher was named the head coach at Texas A&M and will take over an Aggies program that went 7-6 in 2017, but lost three games by eight points or less.
- Bobby Pruett – Marshall (94-23, 6 Conference Titles, 1 National Title-1-AA)
Another coach who got his feet wet at the high school level before diving into college coaching, Bobby Pruett, got his first colligate job as a defensive line coach at Marshall in 1979 where the Beckley native had once starred as a player in the 1960s. He would stay with the Thundering Herd until 1983 when he left to coach the defensive backs for his long time friend Al Groh at Wake Forest. Pruett would eventually take over as the team’s defensive coordinator before moving on to successful stays at Ole Miss, Tulane and Florida before returning to Marshall to become head coach.
Pruett, who took over the Herd in 1996, inherited a loaded roster that had advanced all the way to the Division 1-AA championship game before losing 22-20 the season prior to Pruett’s arrival. Pruett brought with him a quarterback transfer from the Gators named Eric Kresser and also was able to land a talented but troubled West Virginia receiver by the name of Randy Moss.
Pruett and the Herd stormed through the 1-AA ranks beating every team on its schedule by at least two scores on way to an undefeated season and the school’s second national title at that level. Despite the success and the amount of returning talent many believed Marshall would struggle when it made the jump to Division 1-A and the Mid-American Conference. However, the Herd didn’t struggle at all and Pruett won 10 games and a conference title in his first year in what is now known as the FBS. He would follow that up with a 12-1 season in 1998 and then a perfect season, 13-0, in 1999 in which the Herd won its third straight MAC title and finished the season ranked 10th in the AP Poll. Under Pruett, the Herd would have three Heisman finalists (Moss, Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich), a 33 game win streak at home, six conference championships (5 MAC, 1 SOCON), a 1-AA national title and five bowl victories. That’s a long list of accomplishments for a coach that was only a Head coach for nine seasons. Pruett’s win percentage of .8034 would be good for 8th all time, directly behind Fielding Yost, if he met the minimum requirement of being a head coach for at least 10 seasons set by the NCAA for inclusion on the list.
- John McKay – University of Southern California (127-40-8, 9 Conference Titles, 4 National Titles)
Today the Trojans of USC are considered one of the premier programs in America with one of the nation’s best football histories. McKay and his success as the team’s head coach from 1960-1975 built much of the respect that the Trojans command. Born in the now nonexistent town of Everettville in Monongalia County, McKay was a talented high school player recruited by Wake Forest, but turned down the scholarship to tend to his ill mother at home in West Virginia. McKay then would join the United States Army and saw action in World War II’s Pacific Theater.
Upon returning home from the war, McKay finally pursued a college football career as a player, playing one season for Purdue before transferring to Oregon where he would finish his eligibility. He then joined the Oregon coaching staff for a season as an assistant before moving on to a position with USC. He would work as an assistant for the Trojans for just a single season before being named the team’s head coach in 1960.
His first couple of seasons started out rocky with McKay posting just an 8-11-1 record however he would turn it around in year three leading the Trojans to an 11-0 season and captured the school’s first national title since the 1930s. During his tenure with USC, McKay popularized the I-Formation, which utilized a physical rushing attack. In this system both Mike Garrett and O.J. Simpson won the Heisman trophy for McKay and the Trojans. USC, with McKay at the helm, would have three unbeaten seasons (1962, 1969, 1972), win nine conference titles and claim four national titles as McKay posted a 127-40-8 record, including a 70-17-3 record within the Pacific-8 Conference. McKay would leave the Trojans to try his hand at professional football where he became the first ever coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His success in the college ranks wouldn’t carry over however, and he finished his NFL coaching career with a 44-88-1 record.
- Lou Holtz – William & Mary, N.C. State, Notre Dame, South Carolina (249-132-7, 3 Conference Titles, 1 National Title)
Other coaches on the list have more national titles but no coach has more wins. In fact, Holtz’s 249 career victories ranks 8th all time in college football history. The Follansbee product got his coaching career started with an assistant coaching job at Iowa in 1960 after being a player at Kent State. For the next eight years, Holtz would work as an assistant coach at several schools including Ohio State and South Carolina before getting his first head coaching job at William & Mary. Despite not posting a winning record during his time with the Tribe (called the Indians at the time) Holtz managed to win the Southern Conference Title in 1970, earning the team a berth into the Tangerine Bowl. It was enough to garner the attention of N.C. State and the Wolfpack hired Holtz to be its head coach in 1972. Unlike his stint at William & Mary, Holtz, wouldn’t have a losing season in Raleigh, going a combined 33-12-3 and winning an ACC Title in four seasons with the school.
Holtz would then try and make the jump to the NFL ranks taking over the New York Jets in 1976, but would only coach a single season before resigning with a game left on the schedule. Holtz returned to college football where he was named the head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks in 1977. In his very first season in Fayetteville, Holtz won 11 games and guided the Hogs to an Orange Bowl victory over the Oklahoma Sooners. In 1979 Holtz would lead Arkansas to the Southwest Conference championship. Holtz would coach the Razorbacks for four more seasons before being fired after a 6-5 season in 1983. Minnesota would be Holtz’s next coaching stop and it too would be brief. The Gophers were looking for a long-term coach that could solidify a football program that won just one game the season before Holtz took over and signed the West Virginian to a contract that Holtz believed would be a “lifelong” deal for him. But, he signed it with one stipulation, an out clause for if Notre Dame ever offered him its head-coaching job.
After the 1985 season in which the Gophers finished 7-5 and won the Independence Bowl, the Fighting Irish did indeed come calling. Holtz accepted the offer to coach Notre Dame and promised to restore the Irish to national prominence.
Notre Dame had struggled in the years prior to Holtz, but in just his second season, the Fighting Irish posted a winning record, which would set off a string of 10 straight winning seasons. Inexplicably, despite the success, Holtz would suddenly retire in 1996 following 100 wins and a national title in 1988 as the head coach of the Fighting Irish. Perhaps fittingly, Holtz’s lone national championship came at the expense of home state team the West Virginia Mountaineers. Holtz did return to coaching in 1999 to start yet another rebuilding job, this time with the South Carolina Gamecocks. South Carolina had gone 1-10 in the season before Holtz’s arrival and Holtz would go 0-11 in his first year. But, his second season the Gamecocks made a huge leap forward finishing 8-4. Holtz would retire from college coaching for good following a 6-5 season with South Carolina in 2004.
- Nick Saban – Toledo, Michigan State, LSU, Alabama (218-62, 8 Conference Titles, 6 National Titles)
Was there any doubt that the Fairmont native would top this list? Probably not, as Saban has now cemented himself as not just the greatest West Virginia native to coach at the college level, but perhaps the best college football coach of all time.
Like Holtz, Saban enjoyed a playing career at Kent State University before getting into coaching and it was with the Golden Flashes that he would get his first job in the profession as a graduate assistant. He would then have several jobs as an assistant and a defensive coordinator at various schools and in the NFL before he would get his first crack at becoming a head coach in 1990 with the Toledo Rockets.
Saban would spend only one season with the Rockets, but would capture the MAC championship in that season before heading to the NFL as the defensive Coordinator with the Cleveland Browns. He would be there until after the 1994 season when he was named head coach at Michigan State. While with the Spartans, Saban would build Michigan State into one of the Big Ten’s strongest teams, finishing 9-2 in 1999. In 2000 he would move on to become the head man at LSU and while with the Tigers he would win two SEC titles and the school’s first national title since 1958. Saban left LSU for an ill-fated return to the NFL, this time as the head coach of the Miami Dolphins. Like others on this list his college head coaching success did not follow him to the pros as Saban went just 15-17 in two season with the Dolphins.
He would return to the college game as the head coach of Alabama and the rest is history. Since taking over for a Crimson Tide program that hadn’t won a conference title since 1999, Saban has been on one of the best runs in the history of the sport if not the best. He’s posted a 127-20 record, won the SEC title five times, and claimed five national titles. With the Tide loaded with freshman talent, look for Saban to continue to add to his legacy in 2018.