Jim Harbaugh’s decision to go for a first down facing fourth-and-one with a 38-0 lead over Maryland this past Saturday was not all that surprising. The Michigan head coach has a history of going for two and faking punts after his opponents have been all but vanquished. Some will call this approach competitive, while others will cite Sun Tzu and wax philosophical about it. In the end, we can all agree it is good, old-fashioned ruthlessness.
Harbaugh is currently the most ruthless head coach in college football, but where does he rank in history? Pretty high, actually. Here are the five most ruthless of all-time.
5. John Heisman
(Oberlin 1892, Buchtel 1893-94, Auburn 1895-99, Clemson 1900-03, Georgia Tech 1904-19, Penn 1920-22, Washington & Jefferson ‘23, Rice 1924-27)
The legendary coach and namesake for college football’s most coveted trophy makes this list for one game: Georgia Tech 222, Cumberland 0. From 1915-18, Georgia Tech went 30-1-2, thrashing almost all of its opponents. Cumberland had the misfortune of being the team Heisman decided to make an example out of in 1916. Cumberland had discontinued its football program a year earlier, but Heisman would not let the school out of its scheduled game. The reason for this was because Cumberland had beaten the Georgia Tech baseball team, which Heisman also coached, 22-0 earlier in the year allegedly using semi-pro players. So a ragtag group of fraternity brothers journeyed to Atlanta to represent Cumberland. It is uncertain when they actually gave up, but Georgia Tech led 63-0 at the end of the first quarter and 126-0 at halftime. The game remains the worst beating in college football history and is a testament to how ruthless Heisman could be.
4. Chip Kelly
At Oregon, Kelly’s spread offense scorched Pac-12 opponents, averaging around 40 points a game en route to three conference titles. Kelly is not the first coach to score a lot of points on teams with a nearly unstoppable offense. However, he is the first to regularly go for two-point conversions if it makes statistical sense. You may call that innovative. I call it ruthlessness backed up by stats.
3. John Jenkins
Jenkins’ 1990 Houston Cougars rang up a ton of points against its Southwestern Conference competition on its way to a 10-1 season (The Cougars were barred from postseason play because of NCAA sanctions.). Powered by the Run-and-Shoot offense, Houston scored more than 50 points on five of its opponents and quarterback David Klingler threw an NCAA-record 11 touchdowns in an 84-21 beating of poor Eastern Washington. The next year, Houston opened with a 73-7 whipping of Louisiana Tech, but then received back-to-back spankings by Miami and Illinois. The Cougars went 4-7 in 1991 and ‘92 and the ‘90 team is generally remembered as a bunch of bullies.
2. Jim Harbaugh
(San Diego 2004-06, Stanford 2007-10, Michigan 2015-present)
To be fair, Jenkins’ Houston teams may have had to score a lot of points because their defenses were atrocious. Harbaugh does not have that problem. His two big acts of ruthlessness this season, the fake punt against Illinois and the fourth down attempt against Maryland, came against two schools that scored a total of 11 points against the Wolverines. And this was not even Michigan’s biggest beatdown of the season. That distinction belongs to Rutgers, who the Wolverines beat 78-0.
1. Steve Spurrier
(Duke 1987-89, Florida 1990-2001, South Carolina 2005-15)
Could it be anyone else? At Florida, Spurrier ran up the score whenever he could with his Fun ‘n’ Gun offense. Some of his gems included a 63-7 win over South Carolina in 1995, a 56-13 win over LSU in ‘96 and a 71-13 win over Vanderbilt in 2001. Losing that way is bad enough, but losing to the Eddie Haskell of college football is even worse. Spurrier threw insults and made wisecracks after embarrassing his opponents, making the sting of defeat even worse. When he went to South Carolina in 2005, defenses in the SEC had become much more sophisticated and Spurrier’s Gamecocks scored fewer points than his Florida teams. He also ran his mouth a lot less.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)