The season’s over. There’s not much of a need for a prelude here. Just what were the 10 best coaching performances in the sport over the past four and a half months?
The envelope, please:
10 – P.J. FLECK, WESTERN MICHIGAN
The Broncos definitely “rowed the boat” for their young and excitable coach. Much as Tom Landry’s stoic exterior hardly meant that he wasn’t a fiercely passionate competitor, Fleck’s boyish enthusiasm hardly means that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Western Michigan won seven more games this season than it did in 2013. That’s a turnaround shared (in the regular season) by two other teams, Air Force and TCU. Their coaches naturally made this list as well.
9 – GARY PINKEL, MISSOURI
Remember when Pinkel stepped into the SEC with more than a little pressure sitting on his shoulders? The once-embattled coach has now won back-to-back SEC East championships. Yes, the SEC East is not what it was in, say, 2001 or 1997, but the key point to realize about Missouri is that it has won the East with a 7-1 league record in both 2013 and 2014. South Carolina, as a point of comparison, won the 2010 East with a 5-3 mark. Missouri might play in the SEC’s far weaker division, but winning it with a 7-1 record should diminish doubts about the quality of Pinkel’s work. Moreover, Missouri was a target in 2014 — the Tigers didn’t sneak up on anyone. They still bested the competition in their division.
8 – TROY CALHOUN, AIR FORCE
The best bowl coaching performance in the Mountain West belongs to Boise State’s Bryan Harsin, but over the course of the regular season, Calhoun was the best coach in the league. Air Force also made the seven-win improvement from 2013 first mentioned in the P.J. Fleck entry, above. The Falcons, though, beat Fleck and Western Michigan in the Potato Bowl to make it a great eight. Air Force won twice in 2013, but only once against FBS competition. A 10-win 2014 rates as a phenomenal feat in Colorado Springs for a program that’s back on track… and back in possession of the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy.
7 – WILLIE FRITZ, GEORGIA SOUTHERN
All Fritz did was step into a young FBS program and, in his first season on the job, go unbeaten in the Sun Belt Conference. Other than that, Fritz really didn’t do anything of note this season.
6 – JUSTIN FUENTE, MEMPHIS
The American Athletic Conference was not particularly robust this past season, but don’t let that change or diminish what Fuente has done in taking a tire fire of a program (under former coach Larry Porter) and turning it into a conference champion with a bowl victory and a 10-win season. When you can fix a program such as Memphis and not merely take it to the bowl-eligibility threshold of 6-6, but lift it to a 9-3 regular season, it’s quite apparent you can coach.
5 – NICK SABAN, ALABAMA
He didn’t win a national title. Heck, he didn’t even make the national championship game. Yet, Saban turned in one of his better performances at Alabama this past season. He oversaw a highly flawed team with an erratic quarterback who was especially shaky away from home. His team lacked depth at wide receiver, with Amari Cooper having to do almost everything by himself for extended stretches of the season. His secondary gave him and Kirby Smart headaches. Yet, Saban kept his team united and disciplined enough to escape all enemy SEC lairs except Oxford. The SEC West was not as great as it appeared or promised to be in early October, but it certainly wasn’t a cakewalk. Saban got the better of both Gus Malzahn and Les Miles. He rules the roost in his corner of the country, and he actually won an SEC title for once (Bama’s second in the past five years, one of the more bizarre stats you’ll find in contemporary college football).
4 – JIMBO FISHER, FLORIDA STATE
The caption below tells the story of how well Fisher performed in the cauldron that was the 2014 Florida State season:
3 – PAUL JOHNSON, GEORGIA TECH
To appreciate what Johnson did this past season, go back exactly 12 months, to January of 2014. Bruce Feldman reported that Johnson was tired and not feeling comfortable about his situation in Atlanta. Quite a lot of noise and chatter were swirling about on The Flats, as Georgia Tech looked like a program adrift and unmoored. Uninspiring results, the lack of a substantially impressive season in a number of years, and the inability to find a triggerman for the triple-option offense all combined to make Yellow Jacket fans rightly restless about their program.
Johnson, undeterred, cultivated Justin Thomas into the field general he’d been looking for ever since Josh Nesbitt walked out that door. The Yellow Jackets caught a bit of a break against Clemson, in that Deshaun Watson wasn’t healthy, but Georgia Tech took advantage of that break. Moreover, a Watson-less Clemson team pounded Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Georgia Tech then won in Athens — something it had rarely done under Johnson — gave Florida State a ride in the ACC title game, and spanked the SEC’s second-best team, Mississippi State, in an Orange Bowl blowout. In Georgia Tech’s last four games of the season (including the bowl), Johnson substantially rewrote his legacy in the ACC. No one’s talking about his job security now, and what’s more is that by making the Orange Bowl a second time (winning is a bonus), Johnson has proved that his system and methods can be enduringly successful. What a magnificent response to pressure this was — YOU CAN DO THAT!
2 – GARY PATTERSON, TCU
The seven-win regular-season improvement shared by Western Michigan and Air Force also belongs to TCU. Naturally, pulling off that kind of turnaround in a power conference is that much more of an accomplishment.
What makes Patterson’s work this season even more remarkable is that TCU had been dogged by one lousy and luckless offseason after another since moving to the Big 12. Drug busts; players quitting football; Devonte Fields running into trouble with the law — TCU lost quality players in separate offseasons. Patterson didn’t flinch, and he didn’t try to cut corners, either, in terms of disciplining players. Now, he has a team that’s at the forefront of the 2015 title chase. Not bad after a 4-8 season in 2013, wouldn’t you say?
1 – URBAN MEYER, OHIO STATE
The credit has to be shared by offensive wizards Tom Herman and Ed Warinner, but keep in mind that Meyer kept Luke Fickell on his defensive staff as well. A lot of Buckeye fans were ready to run Fickell out of town after the 2014 Orange Bowl loss to Clemson. Meyer had great offensive assistants (and assistance), and his recruiting was obviously out of this world if Cardale Jones was his THIRD-STRING QUARTERBACK, but don’t forget the improvement of Ohio State’s defense late in the season as a reflection of Meyer’s ability to get his team to peak at the right time.