The four-team era of the College Football Playoff is over, and Nick Saban's surprising retirement leaves us with just five active head coaches with national titles.
Saban isn't the only head coach with a national championship under his belt to leave the college ranks in recent years. Urban Meyer walked away from the Ohio State Buckeyes and went to the NFL with the Jacksonville Jaguars, only to be fired midway through his first season.
Bob Stoops retired and left the Oklahoma Sooners in the capable hands of Lincoln Riley (who, naturally, left Oklahoma for the University of Southern California). Stoops did pop up in the XFL with the Dallas Renegades and became the interim coach for their final game of the regular season in 2021, so maybe someday folks in the Big 12 (or somewhere else in the FBS) will have to deal with him again.
Pete Carroll left the Pac-12 behind to win a Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks. Now, it's unclear what Carroll's future holds after stepping down as Seahawks head coach.
Then, there are legends like Florida State's Bobby Bowden and Michigan's Lloyd Carr that have long since retired (and, for Bowden, unfortunately, passed away). Oh, and we can't forget Gene Chizik won a title at Auburn and is now a defensive assistant at UNC.
Three of them are obvious, including Kirby Smart, who won his first national championship with Georgia in 2021, and a couple have snuck back into the mix after leaving football for a few years. So let's take a look at the five NCAA college football coaches who fit that criteria.
Jim Harbaugh (Michigan)
It's unclear what the future holds for Jim Harbaugh, but the Michigan Wolverines head coach has finally brought the Big Ten program back to the promised land with a 15-0 national championship run.
There's plenty of speculation about Harbaugh bolting for the NFL, but as of right now Harbaugh is one of the few active head coaches in college football with a national championship.
Dabo Swinney (Clemson)
Unless you have been living under a rock for the last few years, this is another obvious name that's won a national title. Dabo Swinney has made the ACC look like child's play over the last few seasons and has national titles in 2016 and 2018 to prove it. In many ways, the 52-year-old is the only man who can currently hold a candle to Nick Saban.
That being said, the NIL and transfer portal era hasn't been kind to Clemson under Swinney's command, and it's unclear what the future holds for the ACC program.
Kirby Smart (Georgia)
After a four-decade title drought for the Georgia Bulldogs, Kirby Smart has turned the SEC program into a powerhouse thanks to back-to-back national championships. While the Bulldogs weren't able to three-peat in 2023, Smart has Georgia right in the thick of things heading into the next era of the sport.
Now, with the pressure of bringing a national title back to Athens in the rearview, Smart has been given a new lease on life as the leader of the Bulldogs program and he has the contract extension to match. With momentum on his side, we'll see if Smart can keep bringing the Bulldogs SEC and national championship titles.
Mack Brown (North Carolina)
After resigning following the 2013 season, Mack Brown has returned to college football to lead the North Carolina Tar Heels back to national prominence. Although it was well over a decade ago, the now-70-year-old Brown has shown a coaching prowess to win big games, including the greatest college football game ever between the Texas Longhorns and USC Trojans back in 2005.
Brown has the Tar Heels competing in the ACC, but they still look like they're a step away from being a College Football Playoff contender, even with the expanded 12-team format in 2024 and beyond.
Honorable Mention: Jimbo Fisher (Unemployed)
Jimbo Fisher technically isn't an active head coach, but with no announcement about the unemployed head coach retiring, he at least deserves an honorable mention.
Fisher was fired by Texas A&M with an absurd buyout that could give him no incentive to coach elsewhere. That being said, he could have the itch to coach again to return to glory after leading Florida State to a national championship a decade ago.
Who Could Be Next Active College Coach with a National Championship?
Will a current head coach join this elite list in the near future? It's entirely possible.
Brian Kelly got the Notre Dame Fighting Irish to the National Championship Game in the BCS era. However, he left South Bend for LSU, leaving a powerful Notre Dame program in the capable hands of Marcus Freeman. Down in Florida, Dan Mullen seemed to be building something akin to his mentor in Meyer, but a down 2021 season saw him leave Gainesville a disgrace, handing the program over to Billy Napier upon his departure.
Up in Oregon, Dan Lanning, who replaces Mario Cristobal following his departure for the Miami Hurricanes, has been recruiting with gusto to try and separate the Ducks from the pack and leave Washington, Utah and the Pac-12 in their wake. Lanning could stay at Oregon to make a national title run, but there are rumors that he could take over for Saban after his surprise retirement at Alabama.
In the Big Ten, Ryan Day seems oh-so-close to getting a ring like Meyer did, so right now we're ready to write off Penn State, Wisconsin and the ilk. Some former national powers, such as Miami, Tennessee and Nebraska, have seen better days and don't seem to be in the mix any longer. Honestly, as long as Matt Campbell is at Iowa State we like its chances more than a lot of programs.
With his fiery press conferences, it only feels like a matter of time before Mike Gundy wins a title with the Oklahoma State Cowboys. Kansas, Pittsburgh and even Arkansas and Maryland showed flashes of brilliance, but not enough to break through.
Maybe James Franklin will get it done with the Nittany Lions or Mel Tucker at Michigan State. Hell, Lake Kiffin could bring Ole Miss to the national championship, but first he needs to keep them from sliding down the rankings. Perhaps P.J. Fleck will leave Minnesota for a team that can contend for a title. Hey, maybe voters will stop being prejudiced against Group of Five teams and give Luke Fickell and Cincinnati a shot. OK, so maybe there are better odds of Kentucky becoming a football school than that happening, but someday another coach is going to join these five as title winners.
This post was originally published on May 29, 2019 before updating.
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