Ever since the College Football Playoff was created, and debated, the game as we know it has been controlled by the Alabama Crimson Tide and Clemson Tigers. After all, the two teams met four straight years in the CFP and always look poised to meet again each season. What that also means is the list of active college football coaches with national titles will remain rather small. But the five active college coaches with a national championship still reign supreme, even if the other members of their club have since taken off their headsets.
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. Nice. 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. 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:
Nick Saban (Alabama)
All anyone can say here is DUH! The 70-year-old Nick Saban , who may go down as one of the greatest head coaches in college football history, has dominated his profession for years now and has made it all happen while coaching in the powerful SEC. Saban won his first national championship with the LSU Tigers back in 2003, but he has taken it to a completely different level in guiding the Crimson Tide football program to titles in 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2017 and 2020. Nick Saban is a living legend and has now been a national champion at Alabama more times in his coaching career than even Bear Bryant.
Dabo Swinney (Clemson)
Unless you have been living under a rock for the last few years, this is another obvious choice. 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.
Jimbo Fisher (Texas A&M)
The Texas A&M Aggies gave Jimbo Fisher a national championship plaque before he even coached a game. That's why he got paid the big bucks to move to College Station. The Aggies are looking for the same magic Fisher brought to the Florida State Seminoles back in 2013 when he won the BCS National Championship game with quarterback Jameis Winston. There's no doubt it could happen.
Kirby Smart (Georgia)
Kirby Smart did the damn thing and beat Alabama to win Georgia's first national championship in over four decades. That's quite the title drought. 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 soon see if 2021 was just a fluke or if Smart can keep Georgia football in the Limelight and in the national championship conversation for years to come.
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. This new task won't be easy, but his return to the game certainly adds another big name to the list.
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.
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.
And maybe that day is sooner than we think. Jim Harbaugh may not have found success at Stanford, but his Michigan Wolverines have now made back-to-back CFP appearances. TCU's Sonny Dykes could win a title in 2022 as well, which would set the college football world on its ear. Perhaps this is the year we can add another active college coach with a national championship to this list in 2023.
This post was originally published on May 29, 2019 before updating.
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