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6 College Football Coaches Who Were Even Better Players
Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images (left), Craig Jones /Allsport/Getty Images (right)

College football coaches know the game inside and out. The long nights of studying film develop into game plans. The scribbled napkin drawings of plays and hours of practice turn into a scheme.

X’s and O’s and preparation are great and all, but the ability to relate to players is a coach’s most valuable asset. Coaches who have a history as players themselves are fine-tuned in this area.

They know what it’s like to strap on the helmet every Saturday. They know about the pressure. Having experience as a player gives coaches a perspective on what their guys are thinking on the field.

Some NCAA coaches with playing experience struggle to find consistency while others who didn’t step foot on the gridiron — like Mississippi State’s Mike Leach — are able to find success wherever they go.

Then, there are the FBS coaches who thrived at their respective positions and cemented a place in their alma mater’s history before putting on the headset.

It’s rare for coaches to not have playing experience now, but there are six college football coaches who were absolute studs in their heyday.

6 Best College Football Coaches as Players

6. Kirby Smart, Georgia

Before Kirby Smart turned Georgia into one of the best programs in all of college football, he was a high-motor safety in Athens. Smart had a nose for the ball equivalent to a bloodhound. The two-time All-SEC player finished his Bulldog career with 13 interceptions and was the first UGA player to return a blocked PAT for two points. One of those picks was against Tennessee’s Peyton Manning.

5. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan

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Another guy who coaches at his alma mater, Jim Harbaugh was Michigan’s starting quarterback from 1984 to 1986. The Wolverine QB broke out as a senior, leading Bo Schembechler’s team to an 11-2 record in addition to earning All-Big Ten and All-American honors and finishing third in the Heisman Trophy race. Harbaugh left Michigan as the program’s all time leading passer and only lost three games as the full-time starter.

4. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern

It’s safe to say Pit Fitzgerald is Northwestern football. As a linebacker for the Wildcats in the mid 1990s, Firtzgerald recorded 299 tackles, five forced fumbles and three interceptions over the course of his career. Not to mention he was the first two-time Bronko Nagurski Trophy winner, the first two-time Chuck Bednarik Award winner, a two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and a two-time All-American. Fitz put Northwestern on the map and continues to make Wildcat fans proud as the program’s head coach.

3. Josh Heupel, Tennessee

Heupel’s senior season at Oklahoma was magical. He won about every award imaginable including the AP Player of the Year award, Walter Camp Award, Archie Griffin Award, Harley Award and the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year award. The Sooners signal caller finished just 76 votes behind Florida State QB Chris Weinke in the Heisman Trophy race, but he bested Weinke in the 2001 Orange Bowl for the national championship.

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2. Eddie George, Tennessee State

When the Big Ten conference names its offensive player of the award after you, it can be assured you probably had a decent career. Eddie George’s career at Ohio State was a little better than decent, particularly his senior year in 1995. The Buckeye running back took home the Heisman Trophy, the Walter Camp Award, the Maxwell Award, the Doak Walker Award, the Big Ten Most Valuable Player Award and the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Award on top of being named a unanimous All-American. He rushed for an astonishing 1,927 yards that season and finished his career with 3,768 — which ranks fourth all-time in Ohio State history.

1. Deion Sanders, Jackson State

RELATED: Deion Sanders’ Game-Saving INT Ended His FSU Career in Style

You’d have a hard time finding a player more electric than Deion Sanders. The Florida State legend would shut down top receivers and return a punt for a touchdown the next play — all while talking trash. Sanders set several Florida State records during his time in Tallahassee such as most interception touchdown returns in a career, longest touchdown in FSU history and most career punt return touchdowns. Prime Time was a two-time consensus All-American and won the Jim Thorpe Award in 1988. His NFL career wasn’t too shabby, either.

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Honorable Mentions

Mario Cristobal, Oregon, offensive tackle at Miami

Kyle Whittingham, Utah, linebacker at BYU

Luke Fickell, Cincinnati, nose tackle at Ohio State

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Scott Frost, Nebraska, quarterback at Nebraska

Jeff Brohm, Purdue, quarterback at Louisville

Jay Norvell, Nevada, defensive back at Iowa

Nick Saban, Alabama, defensive back at Kent State

Ed Orgeron, LSU, defensive lineman at Northwestern State

Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M, quarterback at Samford

Dabo Swinney, Clemson, wide receiver at Alabama

P.J. Fleck, Minnesota, wide receiver at Northern Illinois

Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State, quarterback at Oklahoma State

Mel Tucker, Michigan State, defensive back at Wisconsin

Mack Brown, North Carolina, running back at Florida State

Brian Kelly, Notre Dame, linebacker at Assumption College

Sam Pittman, Arkansas, defensive end at Pittsburg State

Karl Dorrell, Colorado, wide receiver at UCLA

Mark Stoops, Kentucky, defensive back at Iowa

Mike Locksley, Maryland, defensive back at Towson State

Shane Beamer, South Carolina, wide receiver at Virginia Tech

David Shaw, Stanford, wide receiver at Stanford

Herm Edwards, Arizona State, defensive back at San Diego State

Bryan Harsin, Auburn, quarterback at Boise State

Matt Campbell, Iowa State, defensive lineman at Mount Union

Billy Napier, Louisiana, quarterback at Furman

Lance Leipold, Kansas, quarterback at Wisconsin-Whitewater

Dan Mullen, Florida, tight end at Ursinus College

Gus Malzahn, UCF, wide receiver at Henderson State

James Franklin, Penn State, quarterback at East Stroudsburg

Clark Lea, Vanderbilt, fullback at Vanderbilt

MORE: The 17 Best Stadium Atmospheres in College Football, According to Fans

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Joe Grobeck About the author:
Joe is a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and lives in Austin, Texas. He believes Ndaumkong Suh should've won the 2009 Heisman and is an avid basketball fan.
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