Ranking the ACC’s College Football Coaches

Who are the best coaches in the ACC? Athlon ranks them all for 2012.

by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on twitter) and Braden Gall (@BradenGall)

Ranking the coaches in any college football conference is a difficult task. Many factors play into just how successful a coach is at any school. How well are the assistants paid? Are the facilities up to par with the rest of the conference? Can the coach recruit or is he more of an x's and o's manager? Are there off-the-field or age issues to take into consideration? Has a coach built a program or continued the success from a previous coach? How is the resume outside of their current position? These questions and more were posed to the editors at Athlon Sports, as they were asked to rank the coaches of each of the six BCS conferences. One thing to keep in mind - the record is not always indicative of where a coach should rank in a conference. 

Ranking the Coaches: ACC
Ranking the Coaches: Big East
Ranking the Coaches: Pac-12 (Tues.)
Ranking the Coaches: Big 12 (Tues.)
Ranking the Coaches: Big Ten (Wed.)
Ranking the Coaches: SEC (Thur.)
Ranking the Coaches: 2012 Top 25 Coaches (Fri.)

Here is how Athlon Sports ranks the coaches of the ACC:

1. Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech (25 years)
Alma Mater: Virginia Tech (1966-69)
Record: 209-98-2 (1987-present)
Record: 42-23-2 (Murray State, 1981-1986)
Overall: 251-121-4 (31 years)

Born in the Commonwealth, playing in the Commonwealth and coaching the Commonwealth, “Beamerball” has been a fixture of Virginian football for more than four decades. Prior to his arrival in Blacksburg, the Hokies had been to six bowls games. After six years and a 24-40-2 record, Beamer broke through with his first bowl appearance in 1993. He has been to 19 straight bowl games since, including a Michael Vick-led chance at the 1999 national championship against Florida State. Beamer has claimed three Big East Championships (1995, 1996, 1999), four ACC titles (2004, 2007, 2008, 2010) and five conference Coach of the Year honors. He is the longest tenured and winningest active FBS coach in the nation and has had at least 10 wins in eight straight seasons and 11 of the last 13. Beamer was there to usher in two new eras of Hokie football as he transitioned his team from Independent status to the Big East in 1991 and then into the ACC in 2004. Virginia Tech has won the Coastal Division five times in its seven-year history and will likely be the preseason favorite once again in 2012. There are few better in the nation than Beamer.

What Coaches By the Numbers Has to Say:

  • Beamer has won 75% of conference games since 2001
  • Since 2001, Beamer's defenses win 3rd down 70% of the time
  • Since 2001, Virginia Tech has scored 22 special team TDs and given up just 7
  • Beamer is 10-1 against rival and conference foe Virginia since 2001

2. Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech (5 years)
Alma Mater: Western Carolina (1979), Appalachian State (1982)
Record: 33-19 (2008-present)
Record: 45-29 (Navy, 2002-2007)
Record: 62-10 (Georgia Southern, 1997-2001)
Overall: 140-58 (15 years)

After two I-AA National Championships at Georgia Southern, Johnson completely reinvented the Naval Academy before bringing his patented triple-option attack to the big leagues. Navy had been to nine bowl games in over 100 years of football when they hired Johnson. He led them to five bowl games in six seasons, including two wins. At Georgia Tech, there were doubts about whether or not the antiquated system would work in the ACC. After five seasons, two division championships and one ACC crown (2009), the answer is most definitively yes. The Jackets have led the ACC in rushing all four seasons under Johnson and finished no worse than fourth nationally on the ground. Georgia Tech enters 2012 as the top contender to Virginia Tech in the Coastal Division.

What Coaches By the Numbers Has to Say:

  • Johnson's teams have averaged 302 rushing yards per game at Georgia Tech
  • Johnson's FBS offenses (10 yrs) have converted on 3rd Downs nearly 47% of the time
  • Johnson's FBS offensive possessions went three and out only 15% of the time
  • Johnson has won eight or more games in eight of the last 10 years

3. Al Golden, Miami (1 year)
Alma Mater: Penn State (1987-91)
Record: 6-6 (2011-present)
Record: 27-34 (Temple, 2006-2010)
Overall: 33-40 (6 years)

After spending time on Tom O’Brien’s staff at Boston College and Al Groh’s Virginia staff, Golden was plenty familiar with ACC football when he got the call from Coral Gables. He landed at Miami after building Temple into a MAC contender (he claimed 2009 MAC Coach of the Year honors). Despite the scrutiny from the Nevin Shapiro scandal and potential NCAA sanctions, Golden appears to have Miami trending back towards conference contention. After only its third non-winning season since 1979, Miami decided to withdraw itself from bowl contention due to the ongoing NCAA investigation in Golden's first year. The strong-willed, brutally honest head man recruited incredibly well in 2012 in the face of possible sanctions. His tribute to Howard Schnellenberger — his dress shirt, tie, slacks and jacket gameday combo — has once again become an iconic symbol on the Hurricanes’ sideline. The sky is the limit for Golden and Miami should they avoid heavy-handed NCAA sanctions.

What Coaches By the Numbers Has to Say:

  • Improved Temple's winning percentage by 25 percentage points compared to the five years prior to his arrival

4. Mike London, Virginia (2 years)
Alma Mater: Richmond (1979-82)
Record: 12-13 (2010-present)
Record: 24-5 (Richmond, 2008-2009)
Overall: 36-18 (4 years)

Virginia wanted to keep it in state in all senses of the word when it hired Mike London away from Richmond. He has completely reinvigorated the Cavalier brand name within the state as Wahoo recruiting has sky-rocketed since London took over in 2010. In only two seasons at the helm, London returned Virginia to posteason play for the first time since 2007 and has his program back near the top of the ACC recruiting hierarchy. The Cavaliers improved from 10th in the ACC in total and scoring defense in 2010 to third in total defense and fifth in scoring defense. London has constructed an excellent staff and has himself positioned for long-term success in Charlottesville.

What Coaches By the Numbers Has to Say:

  • As a defensive coordinator (2006-2007) and head coach (2008-2011), Coach London's teams have won eight or more games four of his six years

5. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State (2 years)
Alma Mater: Salem College (1985-86), Samford (1987)
Record: 19-8 (2010-present)

Fisher didn’t have an easy task taking over for a coaching legend (Bobby Bowden), while dealing with the always high expectations in Tallahassee. The Seminoles went to the ACC title game in Fisher’s first season and were picked by many to finish among the top 10 teams last year. However, Florida State underachieved last season, finishing 9-4 with a berth in the Champs Sports Bowl. Fisher has proven to be an excellent recruiter and is undefeated against the Seminoles’ biggest rivals – Miami and Florida. Florida State appears ready to re-emerge back on the scene as a national power, but it’s hard to rank Fisher any higher just three seasons into his career and with no ACC title on his resume.

What Coaches By the Numbers Has to Say:

  • Coach Fisher is just 9-7 as a head coach against teams that finish the season with a winning record and just 2-4 against Top 25 teams

6. Jim Grobe, Wake Forest (11 years)
Alma Mater:
Ferrum (1971-72), Virginia (73-74)
Record: 68-67 (2001-present)
Record: 33-33-1 (Ohio, 1995-00)
Overall: 101-100-1 (17 years)

Outside of Duke, Wake Forest is probably the most difficult place to win in the ACC. Prior to Grobe’s arrival (2001) in Winston-Salem, the Demon Deacons had just four winning seasons from 1987-00. Wake Forest has played in five bowl games under Grobe, including an appearance in the 2007 Orange Bowl. After a disappointing performance in 2010, the Demon Deacons bounced back to a 6-7 record last year and should be in position to make another bowl appearance in 2012. Grobe may never lead Wake Forest to a national title, but he is highly-respected and helped establish the Demon Deacons as a consistent bowl team in the ACC.

What Coaches By the Numbers Has to Say:

  • From 1980-2000, Wake Forest had just four winning seasons. In his eleven years as head coach of the Demon Deacons, Grobe has had five winning seasons.
  • Since 2004, Coach Grobe has faced off against opponents 73% of the time when he had inferior talent and has managed to win nearly 50% of the time.

7. Tom O’Brien, NC State (5 years)
Alma Mater: Navy (1968-70)
Record: 33-30 (2007-present)
Record: 75-45 (Boston College, 1997-06)
Overall: 108-75 (15 years)

When reviewing O’Brien’s resume, it’s interesting to note his two coaching stops almost mirror each other. O’Brien’s tenure got off to a slow start at Boston College, beginning with two 4-7 seasons. At NC State, O’Brien posted three years of seven losses, but eventually turned both teams into a consistent bowl team. However, there was some doubt O’Brien would survive as NC State’s head coach last year, as the Wolfpack got off to a 4-4 start and needed a furious second-half rally to beat Maryland and clinch a bowl appearance. O’Brien has a solid resume after two stops, but has never finished a season with fewer than three losses and his NC State teams have consistently finished in the middle of the ACC each season.

What Coaches By the Numbers Has to Say:

  • O'Brien has won eight or more games in eight of the last eleven seasons
  • 23% of Coach O'Brien's wins since 2001 have come against Cupcakes (FCS teams and Non-Conference, Non-AQ opponents who finish the season under .500). This is the second highest among active ACC head coaches with at least three years of head coaching experience in the ACC

8. Dabo Swinney, Clemson (4 years)
Alma Mater:
Alabama (1990-92)
Record: 29-19 (2008-present)

Tommy Bowden was fired midway through the 2008 season, opening the door for Swinney to serve as Clemson’s interim coach. The Tigers finished the year 4-3 and made an appearance in the Gator Bowl against Nebraska. Swinney was hired as the full-time coach after the regular season finale against South Carolina and has posted an overall record of 29-19 in his tenure. The Tigers have made two appearances in the ACC title game under Swinney’s watch and won the conference crown in 2011. Swinney is regarded as an excellent recruiter and has assembled a solid coaching staff with Chad Morris as his offensive coordinator and Brent Venables leading the defense. However, the Tigers had a disappointing 6-7 record in 2010 and if Clemson struggles in 2012, the blame is going to squarely fall on Swinney’s shoulders.

What Coaches By the Numbers Has to Say:

  • Swinney is just 13-15 against opponents that finish the season with a winning record
  • Swinney is 6-8 against Top 25 teams
  • Coach Swinney is 0-3 against arch rival South Carolina

9. Larry Fedora, North Carolina (First Year)
Alma Mater: Austin College (1981-84)
Record: First Season
Record: 34-19 (Southern Miss, 2008-11)

After learning from two of the best in the business — Bobby Bowden at Florida State and Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State — Fedora got his first head coaching job at Southern Miss in 2008. A historically strong C-USA program, he maintained status quo with a slightly better than average 22-17 overall record in his first three seasons. However, in 2011, behind the leadership of senior quarterback Austin Davis, Fedora led the Eagles to a Conference USA championship after a major upset of then-unbeaten Houston. He took USM to a bowl game in all four of his seasons in Hattiesburg and accepted the Tar Heels’ head coaching position on December 7, 2011. Unfortunately for Fedora, his tenure in Chapel Hill got off to a rocky start - although no fault of his own - as the Tar Heels are banned from postseason play in 2012 and will have to deal with 15 fewer scholarship players over the next three years.

What Coaches By the Numbers Has to Say:

  • In 13 years as an offensive coordinator and head coach, Coach Fedora's teams have lost five or more games in 11 of 13 years.

10. David Cutcliffe, Duke (3 years)
Alma Mater: Alabama
Record: 15-33 (2008-present)
Record: 44-29 (Ole Miss, 1998-2004)
Overall: 59-62 (11 years)

Cutcliffe has been an incredibly effective offensive coach — when he has a Manning under center. He was Peyton’s offensive coordinator at Tennessee and coached Eli at Ole Miss. With a Manning as his starter (2001-03), Cutcliffe is 24-13 as a head coach. Without a Manning guiding his ship, he is 35-49 as a head coach and hasn’t experienced a winning season since 2003 — aka Eli’s final season in Oxford. His offensive prowess is still respectable (see Thaddeus Lewis) but Duke has gone 6-26 in ACC play under Cutcliffe with only one season with at least two conference wins (3-5 in 2009).

What Coaches By the Numbers Has to Say:

  • Cutcliff's 15 wins in his four years as head coach of the Blue Devils is just two shy of the number of wins Duke had in the 10 years prior to his arrival

11. Randy Edsall, Maryland (1 year)
Alma Mater:
Syracuse (1976-79)
Record: 2-10 (2011-present)
Record: 74-70 (Connecticut, 1999-2010)

Disaster is really the only way to properly describe Edsall’s inaugural season at Maryland. The Terrapins won only two games (Miami and Towson) and lost eight consecutive games to end the year. The disaster wasn’t relegated to just on-field activities, as 24 players have left the team since Edsall took over in College Park. Before coming to Maryland, Edsall posted a 74-70 record in 12 years at Connecticut, but only finished better than fourth two times in seven seasons in the Big East (Connecticut was a FCS school in 1999 and was a FBS Independent from 2000-03). Edsall still has time to redeem himself after an awful start, but there’s plenty of concern surrounding the direction of the program after just one year at Maryland.

12. Frank Spaziani, Boston College (3 years)
Alma Mater:
Penn State (1965-68)
Record: 20-19 (2009-present)

After 12 consecutive years with a winning record, Boston College slumped to a disappointing 4-8 mark in 2011. Although the Eagles made a bowl game in Frank Spaziani’s first two years, the program’s win total has declined over the last three seasons. With the lack of success last year, Spaziani needs to show progress in 2012 to keep his job in 2013. Former coach Jeff Jagodzinski didn’t exactly leave a full cupboard of players for Spaziani, but the Eagles can’t afford to sink too far in the standings, especially with the ACC likely expanding to 14 teams in 2013. 

What Coaches By the Numbers Has to Say:

  • Under Coach Spaziani, Boston College has scored 30 or more points just six times in 38 games
  • The Eagles won 74% of their games in the five years prior to Spaziani's arrival. BC is 20-19 under Coach Spaziani.
  • Coach Spaziani is 5-14 against teams finishing the season over .500 and 0-5 against Top 25 teams.

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