Skip to main content

College Football's Top Coaching Trees


Any college football coaching tree probably goes all the way to Walter Camp.

We’re not here to settle that kind of family tree today. Instead, we’re going for a smaller approach trying to diagram the top sources of today’s cast of major coaches.

In that way, the former coach in Iowa City is looking like quite the patriarch.

Roughly a dozen of the current 128 coaches, and probably more, in the FBS can trace their lineage back to Hayden Fry at Iowa. Granted, not all of the coaches — all the way down to FAU’s Charlie Partridge — coached or played for Fry, but it’s enough to make him the top “root” in our coaching trees.

A few things before we get to the rankings:

• In general, our “branches” are all active coaches who worked directly with the “root” of the coaching tree.

• There will be a lot of overlap and omissions. Take Bob Stoops: He played for Hayden Fry and coached under Bill Snyder and Steve Spurrier. We’ve placed him in the Fry and Snyder coaching trees and could have placed him in Spurrier’s if the South Carolina coach had a more exact coaching tree lineage.

• We’re organizing by “Roots,” “Branches” and “Leaves” as wings of the coaching tree get further removed from the source. The "Branches" coached directly with the "Roots" while the "Leaves" are at least a step or two removed.

1. Roots: Hayden Fry (Iowa 1979-98) and Bill Snyder (Kansas State 1989-2005, 2009-present)
Branches: Bob Stoops, Kirk Ferentz, Dan McCarney, Bret Bielema
Leaves: Kevin Sumlin, Kevin Wilson, Dave Doeren, Paul Chryst, Mark Stoops, Paul Rhoads, Charlie Partridge
Let’s just start naming the programs the have flourished because Fry hired Snyder as his offensive coordinator in 1979: Iowa, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Iowa State and (for a time) Kansas and USF ... we could keep going. The Fry and Snyder coaching trees are so intertwined they must be listed together. Barry Alvarez took the Fry coaching tree to Wisconsin, where hired Bret Bielema and Dan McCarney, who hired Paul Rhoads at Iowa State. Think of that: Iowa's coaching tree even benefitted Iowa State. Bob Stoops, though, is the most intriguing by joining the Fry/Snyder tree with high-flying offensive minds: Mike Leach (a Hal Mumme guy), Mark Mangino (another Snyder product), Kevin Wilson (Randy Walker) and Kevin Sumlin (Joe Tiller).

2. Root: Nick Saban (Michigan State 1995-99, LSU 2000-04, Alabama (2007-present)
Jimbo Fisher, Mark Dantonio, Will Muschamp, Jim McElwain
Saban is closely associated with Bill Belichick and Don James, but his tree stands on its own. Naturally, other coaches in this group could be closely associated with other coaching trees: Dantonio is as much of a product of Jim Tressel as he is Saban, and Fisher was a former Terry Bowden quarterback and assistant. Still, all of them hit their stride career-wise after working with Saban.

3. Root: Bo Schembechler (Michigan 1969-89)
: Les Miles, Jim Harbaugh
Leaves: David Shaw, Brady Hoke, Derek Mason, Willie Taggart
We could spend hours diagramming the Cradle of Coaches, but for our purposes of looking primarily at active coaches, we’ll take on the Schembechler branch. Miles played for Schembechler before coaching under UM assistant Gary Moeller while current Michigan coach Brady Hoke worked for another Bo assistant in Lloyd Carr. The most interesting one of late is that of one of Schembechler’s former quarterbacks in Harbaugh, who counts Shaw, Taggart and Mason as a coaching tree of his own.

4. Root: Hal Mumme (Valdosta State 1992-96, Kentucky 1997-2000)
Mike Leach, Sonny Dykes, Dana Holgorsen
Leaves: Art Briles, Kliff Kingsbury, Ruffin McNeill
They all love to overwhelm opponents with the passing game. They’re mostly Texans. And they’re all just a little bit off, personality wise. McNeill is a bit of an outlier here — he played defensive back for Pat Dye at East Carolina — but he runs the Air Raid as effectively as any of the others.

5. Root: Bobby Bowden (Florida State 1976-2009)
Branches: Jimbo Fisher, Terry Bowden, Mark Richt, Rick Stockstill
The handoff from Bobby to his coach-in-waiting Jimbo Fisher was a little clumsy at first, but it’s hard to argue it wasn’t a success. Elsewhere, the Bowden tree has worked out in unexpected ways. Terry (with brother Jeff and longtime FSU assistant Chuck Amato) have a MAC upstart in Akron. And in some ways the Bowden tree is responsible for the rise of the spread offense, Tommy Bowden hired Glenville State head coach Rich Rodriguez as his offensive coordinator at Tulane and scoreboards haven’t been the same since.

6. Root: Urban Meyer (Utah 2003-04, Florida 2005-10, Ohio State (2012-present)
Branches: Dan Mullen, Kyle Whittingham, Steve Addazio
Leaves: Gary Andersen, Matt Wells, Mark Hudspeth
Meyer would be the first to mention Ohio State coach Earle Bruce as his mentor, but the current Buckeyes coach has built quite the coaching tree of his own. Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen, an assistant for Meyer at Bowling Green, is probably the clearest disciple by offensive scheme. Whittingham was Meyer’s defensive coordinator (and a holdover from a previous staff) at Utah before his promotion. Meyer, though, excels at what we’ll call “cross pollination.” At Florida, he hired a Lou Holtz guy (Charlie Strong), a Hayden Fry guy (Dan McCarney), a Don Nehlan guy (Doc Holliday) among others.

7. Root: Bear Bryant (Alabama 1958-1982)
Mike Riley, David Cutcliffe, Joey Jones
Leaves: Mike MacIntyre
Hard to believe the Bryant coaching tree is still going more than 30 years after his final game and years after two of his best disciples — Gene Stallings and Howard Schnellenberger — have retired. Riley and Jones, the head coach at South Alabama, both played for the Bear and Cutcliffe was a student assistant. MacIntyre joins the group as a former Cutcliffe assistant at Duke.

8. Root: Don James (Kent State 1971-74, Washington 1975-92)
Nick Saban, Gary Pinkel, Jim L. Mora
Saban’s tree has already been detailed, but James’ other two major proteges deserve notice. James may be a bit of an aberration on this list (along with Hayden Fry and Bear Bryant) in that the most proiment members of his coaching tree played for him. Saban and Pinkel played for James at Kent State. Pinkel then was an assistant for James at Washington. At the same time, Mora was a player for the Huskies’ coach.

9. Root: Mike Gundy (Oklahoma State 2005-present)
Larry Fedora, Dana Holgorsen, Todd Monken, Tim Beckman
Gundy’s tree may not have the clear identity of the Hal Mumme/Mike Leach tree or the close network of the Hayden Fry/Bill Snyder/Bob Stoops group, and the most successful members of the group of been the offensive coordinators. Gundy’s OC spot has been a place to thrive as an assistant and quickly move to a head coaching role.