Publish date:

College Football's 20 Best Coaches Under 40

Author:
Justin Fuente

Justin Fuente

Last season was a good one for the 40-and-under crowd in college football.

Three of the four offensive coordinators in the College Football Playoff were under the age of 40 at the start of the season — Ohio State’s Tom Herman, Oregon’s Scott Frost and Alabama’s Lane Kiffin.

Herman took the Houston head coaching job, and Kiffin resurrected his coaching career by leading a dynamic Alabama offense.

Herman, Kiffin and Frost have moved off our list of the top coaches under the age of 40 — as has Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald — as they enter their 40s.

In their place are plenty of 30-somethings with bright futures ahead of them.

Best Head Coaches Under 40

1. Justin Fuente, Memphis head coach

Image placeholder title

Age: 39

Fuente has been on the fast track since Gary Patterson plucked him from the staff at Illinois State in 2007. As TCU’s offensive coordinator, Fuente coached in two BCS games, including a Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin to cap an undefeated season in 2010. At Memphis, he led one of the best turnarounds of the 2014 season. In three seasons, Fuente led Memphis to its first AP top 25 final ranking in school history and first 10-win season since 1938. And remember: Memphis had lost 10 games in each of the three seasons preceding Fuente’s tenure. Another year like that and Fuente will be the top coaching candidate in the 2015 carousel.

2. Bryan Harsin, Boise State head coach

Age: 38 

Harsin wasn’t even 30 when Chris Petersen promoted him to offensive coordinator on his first staff at Boise State — a move that coincided with the Broncos’ undefeated season in 2006. Of Boise State’s three major bowl games in school history — the 2007 Rose Bowl and the 2010 and 2015 Fiesta Bowls — Harsin has been a coordinator or head coach of all three. In two seasons as a head coach, Harsin has captured a share of a Sun Belt title at Arkansas State and an outright Mountain West title.

3. Matt Campbell, Toledo head coach

Image placeholder title

Age: 35

Starting during his time as an assistant, Campbell has been instrumental in Toledo’s re-emergence as one of the most consistent programs in the MAC. The Rockets have finished in the top four in the MAC in yards per play each season since 2010, including No. 1 in the league last season. He’s 26-13 as Toledo’s head coach and 19-6 in the MAC. Ending the Rocket’s MAC title game drought (since 2004) should propel him to a big-time job.

4. P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan head coach

Image placeholder title

Age: 34

The former Rutgers wide receivers coach arrived with a reputation as an ace recruiter and lived up to it. He had the top signing classes in the MAC in 2014 and 2015, the former by a wide margin. He has 11 3-stars committed so far for 2016. The rest of the MAC has 12 total. He has some quirks — his “row the boat” mantra, for starters — but Fleck can coach. After going 1-11 in his first season, Western Michigan went 8-5 in 2014.

5. Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech head coach

Image placeholder title

Age: 36

Kingsbury is still Coach Cool even if his stock has dropped since starting his career 7-0 in 2013. Since then, Kingsbury is 5-13 overall and 2-12 in the Big 12. The Red Raiders’ offense remains formidable, but Kingsbury needs new coordinator David Gibbs and the defense to turn his program’s momentum.

6. Willie Taggart, USF head coach

Image placeholder title

Age: 39

Western Kentucky is a legitimate Conference USA contender, and some of the thanks should go to Taggart, a former Hilltoppers quarterback. He shepherded the program in the FBS, going 7-5 in each of his final two seasons there. Progress has been slower at USF, which improved from 2-10 to 4-8 in his second season.

7. Neal Brown, Troy head coach

Image placeholder title

Age: 35

Troy won back-to-back outright Sun Belt titles with Brown as offensive coordinator in 2008-09. At the time, Brown was a green 28-year-old. From there, Brown took his version of the spread to Texas Tech under Tommy Tuberville and Kentucky under Mark Stoops. That’s Big 12 and SEC experience and a head coaching gig all before his 35th birthday.

Best Coordinators Under 40

1. Dave Aranda, Wisconsin defensive coordinator

Image placeholder title

Age: 38

Paul Chryst gets a leg up on his tenure as Wisconsin’s head coach thanks to the return of Aranda, who already has five seasons of coordinator experience under his belt at Hawaii, Utah State and Wisconsin. The Badgers have finished third in the Big Ten in yards allowed per play, remarkable considering they switched to a 3-4 defense in his first season and replaced All-American Chris Borland in his second.

2. Kirby Smart, Alabama defensive coordinator

Image placeholder title

Age: 39

As Alabama’s defensive coordinator since 2008, Smart has been an assistant of interest for several seasons. Presumably, the 2009 Broyles Award winner has had a number of head coaching jobs available to him as the Tide has been a perennial national championship contender. The question is when Smart, a Nick Saban assistant for all but one season since 2003, will leave his mentor’s shadow.

Recommended Articles

3. Rhett Lashlee, Auburn offensive coordinator

Image placeholder title

Age: 32

No coach has worked with Gus Malzahn longer than Lashlee, who was Malzahn’s quarterback in high school. Malzahn tends to receive the credit as the offensive mastermind, but no one is more embedded in the system than his 32-year-old offensive coordinator.

4. Justin Wilcox, USC defensive coordinator

Image placeholder title

Age: 39

A defensive coordinator for two undefeated Boise State teams under Chris Petersen, Wilcox is at home on the West Coast. His defenses at USC and Washington each ranked third in the Pac-12 in yards per play the last two seasons.

5. Kalani Sitake, Oregon State defensive coordinator

Age: 39

Gary Andersen’s hire of Sitake from Utah was a coup for the first-year Oregon State coach. Sitake is one of the Pac-12’s most respected defensive coordinators as Utah has remained solid on that side of the ball despite the move from the Mountain West to the Pac-12. His defenses have had a knack for the fundamentals even if they’ve been at a talent deficiency.

6. D.J. Durkin, Michigan defensive coordinator

Image placeholder title

Age: 37

Any coach who has worked for both Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh is on a good career trajectory. He’s also due for some good timing. Durkin left Stanford just before the Cardinal became a BCS regular and arrived at Florida in time for Meyer’s final season and into the Will Muschamp era. Even if Florida struggled in 2013 and 2014, it wasn’t because of Durkin’s defenses, which ranked fifth and first, respectively, in yards per play in the SEC.

7. Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma offensive coordinator

Image placeholder title

Age: 31

Riley may have made a career-defining move this offseason, leaving East Carolina for Oklahoma. All Bob Stoops needs Riley to do is revive OU’s spot on the cutting edge of offense. After all, Norman is where Mike Leach, Mark Mangino, Kevin Wilson and Kevin Sumlin all turned their offensive coordinator posts into their first head coaching jobs. Riley, a former Leach assistant at Texas Tech, led the No. 3 passing offense in the country last season.

8. Sonny Cumbie, TCU co-offensive coordinator/QB coach

Age: 34

Doug Meacham calls the plays at TCU, but the arrival of Meacham and Cumbie at TCU was critical to the Horned Frogs’ run at a College Football Playoff spot last season. The duo represented a culture shift for the TCU offense to the spread, and Cumbie was critical in grooming Trevone Boykin into a Heisman-contending QB. If you’re noticing a trend, Cumbie is also a Leach guy, passing for 4,724 yards for Texas in 2004.

9. Barry Odom, Missouri defensive coordinator

Image placeholder title

Age: 38

Odom returned to his alma mater after leading a turnaround for the Memphis defense last season. The Tigers ranked 10th nationally in yards allowed per play and 11th in scoring defense. In only his sixth season as a full-time assistant coach, Odom is an SEC defensive coordinator.

10. Mike Norvell, Arizona State offensive coordinator

Image placeholder title

Age: 33

Statistically, Arizona State wasn’t the most dynamic offense in the Pac-12 — fifth in passing efficiency, sixth in yards per play, seventh in yards per carry and third in points per game. That said, Arizona State needed to start its backup quarterback for three games (against two ranked teams) and still finished with 10 wins for the second consecutive season. 

11. Jake Spavital, Texas A&M offensive coordinator

Image placeholder title

Age: 30

Surprise, surprise: Another Air Raid devotee on the list. Spavital comes from the Dana Holgorsen branch of that coaching tree, getting his first full-time coaching gig as West Virginia’s quarterback coach in 2011. He replaced Kliff Kingsbury at Texas A&M to work with Johnny Manziel and then supervised the Aggies’ QB derby last season. He’s another bright offensive mind entrenched in the most trendy scheme of the day. He’ll be sure to follow Kingsbury and others as they move into head coaching jobs.

12. Scottie Montgomery, Duke offensive coordinator

Age: 37

Well before age 40, Montgomery notched an NFL position coach stint under his belt and now sits at the right hand of David Cutcliffe at Duke. A Blue Devils alum and North Carolina native, Montgomery could slip into a head coaching role in a few years.

13. Mike Sanford Jr., Notre Dame offensive coordinator

Image placeholder title

Age: 32

Not to be confused with Mike Stanford Sr., his father who is the former coach at UNLV and current coach at Indiana State. After serving as offensive coordinator for Fiesta Bowl-bound Boise State last season, Sanford had a chance at coordinator posts at Ohio State and Notre Dame. He picked Notre Dame. Not bad for a guy born in the 1980s.