Now that the coaching carousel has slowed down and only one big job remains open, I thought it might make sense to objectively assess the best coaching jobs in America. That is, irrespective of who is coaching right now or what the current team's record is or how good the players are, what are the actual top college football jobs in America? While I tried to eliminate current results from the equation, I did consider two primary factors: a. the size of the athletic department and b. ability to recruit.
My thinking in making these the primary criteria was twofold: first, the size of the athletic department gives a rough approximation of how much a school can pay, which gives us a suitable market valuation of the coaching job (it also gives us a sense of the size of the fan base since revenue derives from fans) and second, the ability to get recruits to the school is the lifeblood of any program. If you have to bring all your players from a large geographical distance then your program is, by definition, a more challenging job than other jobs.
So I tried to break down these jobs to money and players. (Not necessarily buying players, although Auburn is in the top 20 jobs).
The way I tried to think of it was this, if every school was a complete blank slate in terms of players and coaches, which would be the most desirable jobs? In other words, if coaches conducted a fantasy coaching draft which would be the top picks?
It's also important to note that in today's college football market, the right coach can elevate a program to new heights and the wrong coach can tank it even with all the benefits. (See Zook, Ron). In other words, any of these programs could win a national title. But some have easier paths to that national title than others.
Again, because I'm going to get these emails, this has nothing to do with who your coach is now or who your players are or even what your record has been in the past thirty years. This list is simply a blank slate. Pretend that college coaches are conducting a fantasy draft of programs. Recent results do not matter for this list.
Agree or disagree in the comments, but here is my top 25:
The biggest athletic department in America combined with one of the most fertile recruiting grounds in the nation. Toss in a relatively weak conference, undisputed status as the preeminent program in your state, and you have an excellent shot at being in the running for a BCS bid every season.
Plus, Texas is located in a great cosmopolitan town and the university is solid academically.
In the reconstituted Big 12, there is no reason Texas should not win at least ten games every season.
If every coach in America got to draft, I think Texas would be the usual top pick.
Being the flagship institution and only SEC school in the nation's best college football recruiting state is a hell of an advantage. The only thing that doesn't put the Gators number one is the strength of other programs, Florida State and Miami, in the state and the rugged SEC schedule.
Long rumored to be a sleeping giant, Steve Spurrier awoke that giant with his arrival and ever since things have been rolling in Gainesville. There's no reason to think that in the long run the Gators are going to be anything other than dominant.
Alabama could win a national title with just players from Alabama, but the Tide has a strong national brand that is increasingly allowing them to snag some of the top prospects from across the nation. Throw in the fact that Alabama is perfectly located -- next door to Mississippi, near Louisiana and the Gulf Coast, and close enough to Atlanta to go after Georgia's top players -- and the Tide will be rolling for decades to come.
4. Florida State
Some may argue that I have the Seminoles too high here considering their comparatively weak athletic department revenues, but the Seminoles are a major national brand firmly situated in the Sunshine State. What's more, unlike the rival Gators the Seminoles get to play in the ACC. That's huge. Because when the Seminoles start clicking on all cylinders there is no program in the ACC that can consisently hang with them. This means that like Texas there is no reason why the Seminoles shouldn't win ten games every season and be in the BCS mix year after year.
Per capita Lousiana produces more football players than any state in the nation. And LSU is the only major program in the state. That means LSU gets virtually any player it wants in the state. As if that wasn't enough the Tigers also recruit Texas with a great deal of success. Now that Texas A&M is in the SEC that pipeline is only going to increase. LSU can also recruit along the Gulf Coast in Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida while frequently being able to sell recruits on Baton Rouge being closer to their home than their flagship state institutions.
As the Gulf Coast population has boomed, LSU has been a prime beneficiary.
The number of college football players produced by the state of Georgia is truly staggering. Go look at SEC rosters if you doubt me. Tennessee, South Carolina, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Alabama, all of them make a living by recruiting inside the state's borders.
But if Georgia evaluates recruits correctly, it will get the top prospects in the state. Snagging the top prospects in the state means that Georgia can win a national title just off Peach State talent.
Toss in the fact that Athens is a crown jewel of a college town and the Bulldog job is downright heavenly.
7. Ohio State
Ohio is the only state north of the Mason-Dixon line that produces enough football talent to win a national title just by recruiting inside the state's borders. Plus, the Buckeye are a top ten athletic department in terms of size, play in a large city that is dominated by Buckeye athletics, and can poach top players from states throughout the Midwest thanks to the weak teams in many of those states.
The West Coast produces a great deal of football talent, but it doesn't produce the rabid following that other regions of the country have.
That works to USC's benefit since the Trojans have produced a strong following in the nation's second biggest market.
The only private school in our top ten, USC has the location, weather, top academics, and national cachet that makes other schools drool.
USC can draw the top players in the state, but thanks to its national profile it can also attract many of the top players in the nation.
As an aside, the first eight jobs in my ranking represent the only seven states in America where you could win a national championship entirely with players from your own state. Every other program has to venture outside its geographic borders to stock a national title level team.
The second best program in the Big 12 and a traditional national power in its own right, Oklahoma has the athletic department revenues and proximity to Texas to allow it to flourish. Plus, like Texas, in the new Big 12 Oklahoma should win at least ten games a year. The competition just isn't strong enough to keep this from happening.
Geographic proximity to top players in Texas helps to make up for the fact that the state of Oklahoma doesn't produce the kind of talent that would justify a top ten program ranking.
The Wolverines have a proud history, a massive athletic department budget, and a strong national brand. But they've also got a demographic issue, the state is losing population. And before it started losing population it was stagnating.
Want a crazy stat?
Since 1980, Michigan's population has increased by only 600,000 people.
Since 1980, Florida's population has increased by nine million.
Which market would you rather be recruiting?
The same holds true for every other state in our top eight, populations have exploded in those seven states over the past thirty years. What's more, demographic trends continue to favor the Sunbelt region. Which is why so many teams from below the Mason-Dixon line and the Southwest feature so prominently in our list.
Having said all that, Michigan retains an elite national brand nestled inside a large state. The Wolverines should continue to be strong for decades to come.
11. Penn State
Prior to the Jerry Sandusky mess, Penn State had laid claim to the entire northeast. That is, any recruit that Penn State really wanted in the northeast, the Nittany Lions should have been able to get.
I'm leaving Penn State ranked highly for now because it's hard to quantify the lasting impact of the scandal on the program. Plus, I attempted to eliminate all external factors and pretend this was a fantasy coaching draft.
If all those things remain true then Penn State is a top job.
12. North Carolina
Talk to coaches and all of them seem to believe that North Carolina is a sleeping giant.
The state produces a ton of good football talent, it's growing rapidly, the Tar Heel program is well known nationally, the athletic department is large, and the ACC is a conference that can be dominated with the right coach.
I talked to a bunch of coaches and agents before I ranked these jobs, and their opinion of the Tar Heels was universally high. In fact, several coaches I talked with said they thought North Carolina was a better job than Penn State even without the progran uncertainty surrounding the Sandusky scandal.
13. Texas A&M
The Aggies have a lot to gain from joining the SEC. In fact, this ranking could turn out to be low.
A&M could never compete with Texas for recruiting dominance when both schools were in the same conference. But now that A&M is the lone Texas school in the SEC?
Wow, the sky is truly the limit for the Aggies.
Ranking them as the fifth best program in the SEC could turn out to be low.
It's possible I've ranked Oregon too highly given some of the difficulties that come from recruiting in the state, but listen to coaches talk about the value associated with the close relationship to Nike and you'll agree with me about the Oregon job.
The facilities are incredible, the monetary commitment from Nike and other donors is amazing, and the Ducks have created a national brand for themselves.
Plus, the new Pac 12 television deal is going to be a financial boon for many programs, Oregon included.
The Hurricanes have the most fertile recruiting territory in the country. No other program could win a national title by signing every player within a 80 mile radius of the campus.
But Miami is a private school and the overall athletic budget and facilities are not as impressive as most of its rivals.
Ultimately the recruiting advantages in conjunction with the relatively light ACC schedule pushes the Hurricanes into the top fifteen, but can't take the Canes any higher than that.
(FYI, just like Penn State I'm excluding the current issues surrounding the program from the analysis.)
The Volunteer athletic department is massive, its facilities are top of the line, and its track record of producing NFL talent bests every other program in the SEC. So why is UT ranked here? Because it doesn't have the in-state recruiting advantages that other schools have in the SEC. Basically, the state of Tennessee doesn't produce the quality of players that rival Southern states do. Now, partly this is ameliorated because Knoxville's location is ideal for taking players from North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.
For instance, everyone knows Knoxville and Nashville aren't far apart at 180 miles. But did you know it's only 214 miles to downtown Atlanta from Knoxville? Just 231 miles to Charlotte?
So there are plenty of players within a short drive from Knoxville, lots of them are just out of state. Is any other job in the SEC within three hours of three of the six most rapidly growing cities in the South? Toss in the fact that UT has a good national brand and the Volunteers spend the most on recruiting in the nation, and you have a top twenty job.
There is no reason why UCLA shouldn't be a perennial power in college football.
The athletic department is large, the location is appealing, but USC has owned this rivalry of late. Even still, Los Angeles is big enough to have two football powers. Hell, if Alabama and Auburn can both be dominant in a state of 4 million then USC and UCLA can be dominant in a metropolitan area of 16 million.
How competitive is football in the SEC? I've got Auburn as the 18th best job in the country. But that only ranks the Tigers as the seventh best job in the SEC.
You could make an argument to flip Tennessee and Auburn, but I don't think any reasonable person who really analyzes the situations could argue that these schools are the 6th and 7th best jobs in the SEC. In fact, based on all the people I've talked with, there is a virtual consensus that these are the top seven jobs in the SEC.
The Cornhuskers are a great national brand with a large athletic department, but they're isolated when it comes to recruiting.
Getting out of the Big 12 made sense. But did getting out of the Big 12 for the Big Ten make sense? That's a tougher call. Nebraska has to go outside the state's borders to get the vast majority of its talented players, but unlike Michigan and Tennessee there aren't a great deal of top players in close geographical proximity to Lincoln.
The more I think about it, the more I think I've ranked Nebraska too high here.
But the Cornhuskers have to be a top twenty job, right?
20. Notre Dame
The Irish have a great school, prestige, and a national following, but do most coaches really believe Notre Dame can outmatch the top programs on this list?
This is where fans overvalue history. Coaches are much more clinical about analyzing the benefits and drawbacks of a school. History factors in, but not as much as you would think. And Notre Dame has a lot of drawbacks. Beginning with the fact that you can't hide academically inferior students on a private school campus as easily as you can on big state school campuses. (How USC and Miami keep players eligible in a private school environment is a story that needs to be written).
I've got the Irish as the 20th best job in the nation and that might be too high.
The Badgers have a massive athletic department and a great following, but where are the players going to come from to lead to consistent dominance?
In other words, can Wisconsin really best Ohio State, Michigan, or Penn State in the long run if all three of these programs have the right hires?
The answer is no.
Having said that, could you quibble with the Badgers beneath Nebraska? I think so. Wisconsin may very well be a better job than Nebraska. But can you really argue that Wisconsin and Nebraska are either the fourth or fifth best programs in the Big Ten? I don't think so.
22. Oklahoma State
Thank you, T. Boone Pickens.
OSU is a large athletic program that benefits from the largesse of Pickens. Indeed, Oregon and Oklahoma State both offer evidence of what a committed billionaire booster can do to the status of a football program. Long a football backwater, OSU has thrust itself into the national mix on the strength of Pickens' facilites upgrade.
As the third best job in the Big 12, there is no reason to believe that Oklahoma State can't feast in a weakened Big 12.
23. South Carolina
This will undoubtedly drive Arkansas fans bonkers, but South Carolina is a superior program to Arkansas when it comes to recruiting territory and both programs produce similar athletic department revenues.
That is, South Carolina is the flagship institution in a state that produces a ton of talent. As if that wasn't enough, Columbia is a short drive to Atlanta which means the Gamecocks can get in to that fertile Georgia recruiting market as well.
Ranking South Carolina over Clemson is a tough call here, but the SEC brand is becoming so valuable that's the difference. Clemson is just outside my top 25 jobs.
Potentially a controversial pick, but there is no reason why Arizona isn't a top job. The revenues are there, the growth rate in the state is there, the recruiting market is fertile, and the Pac 12 cash is about to start rolling in to the Arizona coffers.
Arizona State -- just outside my top 25 as well -- is also a sleeping giant.
It's unlikely that both will win big at the same time, but over the next decade and more one of these teams will win huge.
25. Virginia Tech
It was a tough analysis for the final spot because Virginia Tech doesn't have the best location for sustained success. Especially if Virginia ever finds a coach who can get things rolling in Charlottesville.
But in the meantime, Tech is the foremost program in a large Southern state. I've got Tech as the fourth most desirable job in the ACC -- Clemson would be the fifth -- and I think that's a fair appraisal.