Skip to main content

The Greatest Coaching Rivalries in College Football History

Harbaugh-Carroll (1).jpg

Rivalry week will bring about its share of icy handshakes and frosty interactions, and that has nothing to do with the looming winter.

As much as rivalries have to do with close games, traditional matchups, hated fanbases and trophy games, they pit coaches with differing styles — both in demeanor and on-field scheme — who have to recruit against one another and beat each other to win conference and national championships.

This year will mark the first meeting between Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, a matchup that may produce one of college football's all-time best coaching rivalries. The reasons are easy to see why: They coach at rival schools. They’re both elite coaches who expect to be competing for national championships at the end of every season. And both of these coaches have accrued plenty of other personal rivals over the years.

Of course, the gold standard for coaching rivalries is one between Ohio State and Michigan, between Woody and Bo. Urban and Jim might not have a Ten Year War, but they should end up on this list sooner or later.

Woody Hayes vs. Bo Schembechler

Woody vs. Bo is the template for great coaching rivalries. The Ten Year War took an already heated Ohio State-Michigan rivalry and elevated it to one of the best in sports. To Hayes, Michigan was “the school up north.” To Schembecher, Ohio State was simply “ohio.” Hayes and Schembechler had two rival schools in Rose Bowl contention every season when the two met at the end of the year. They had a shared history with Hayes coaching Schembechler at Miami (Ohio). They respected each other, but neither coach could stomach a loss in The Big Game.

Steve Spurrier vs. Bobby Bowden and Phillip Fulmer

To Spurrier, every coach was a rival. He sparred with Ray Goff and Dabo Swinney, but none of his rivalries were more heated than his matchups with Florida State’s Bobby Bowden and Tennessee’s Phillip Fulmer. It helped that the Florida-Tennessee game was the gateway to the SEC title, and Florida-Florida State was a gateway to a national championship. The cracks at his rivals — “Free Shoes University,” “you can’t spell Citrus without U-T” — were enough to make the sideshow entertaining. But from time to time, it could get personal, with Spurrier on multiple occasions accusing Florida State of cheap shots and intentionally injuring his players.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

Jim Harbaugh vs. Pete Carroll

The rivalry reached its peak when Harbaugh joined Carroll in the NFC West, but it got its start when Harbaugh at Stanford put the bull’s eye on Carroll’s USC program. Even before his first season at Stanford, Harbaugh theorized Carroll would last “one more year” at USC before going to the NFL. Carroll, of course, fired back, “If he's going to make statements like that, he ought to get his information right.” Harbaugh doubled down and said: “We bow to no man. We bow to now program here at Stanford University.” The Cardinal defeated USC 24-23 in 2007 for one of the most stunning defeats in college football history, a moment that signaled the rise of Stanford and the erosion of Carroll’s dynasty at USC. Two years later, Harbaugh elected to go for a two-point conversion to go up 55-21 in a win over USC. During the postgame handshake, Carroll admonished Harbaugh, “What’s your deal?” and the rivalry was born. Harbaugh had a 2-1 edge in college, but Carroll’s Seahawks went 5-4 against Harbaugh’s 49ers in the pros.

Urban Meyer vs. Nick Saban

The beef between Meyer and Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin provided better material during Meyer’s time in the SEC, but Kiffin didn’t stay long enough in Knoxville to call it a true rivalry. Meyer and Saban don’t snipe at each other publicly, but they’re not pals, either. One is an old-school defensive guy. The other one of the primary figures in the rise of the spread offense. Any list of the top coaches in the sport today starts with these two, in either order. It doesn’t hurt that they’ve met three teams in de facto national championship semifinals. They split their meetings in the SEC championship game in 2008 and 2009, and Meyer won in the 2014 College Football Playoff semifinal on the way to the national championship.

Gary Patterson vs. Art Briles

The rise of Baylor and TCU’s admission to the Big 12 revived one of the Southwest Conference’s best rivalries. The Frogs already heald a grudge against former Texas governor and Baylor grad Ann Richards for exerting pressure to keep TCU out of the Big 12 when the league originally formed. In the here and now, though, Patterson and Briles have been up for the moment. Patterson is the defensive mind. Briles is the offensive guru. And neither has much of a filter.

Joe Paterno vs. Jackie Sherrill

The rivalry between the former Penn State coach and former Pittsburgh coach could be distilled into one off-hand remark Paterno thought was off the record. Paterno said in 1979 he wouldn’t retired and leave the game to “the Switzers and the Sherrills.” Paterno late apologized to Switzer and wrote a forward to his book. Paterno also said he and Sherrill had problems that ran deeper. “We've had one or two incidents outside of coaching that I'd rather not go into. But when I said 'certain things,' I meant an attitude — an emphasis on winning, an emphasis on how much a coach should make,” Paterno told the New York Times. “Some people interpreted what I said as meaning that they were cheating. But that was not the case both for Switzer and for Sherrill.” Paterno and Sherrill eventually made amends with Paterno inviting his former Pitt rival to address his team in 2004.

Darrell Royal vs. Barry Switzer

Switzer and Tom Osborne were friendly even in the throes of the Oklahoma-Nebraska rivalry in 70s and 80s. Switzer and Bedlam rival Pat Jones got along fine. Even Royal and Arkansas coach Frank Broyles were friendly during nearly 20 years of Southwest Conference matchups. Switzer and Royal, though, squeezed plenty of animosity into the four years they overlapped at Oklahoma and Texas. Royal in 1976 accused Switzer of spying on Texas practices and offered to resign if the OU could pass a lie detector test. Turns out Royal was partially correct — an OU booster in disguise actually was spying on Texas practices.

Darrell Royal vs. Frank Broyles

Royal and Broyles weren’t rivals in that they despised one another — far from it. The Texas and Arkansas coaches were downright chummy even though they had the longest rivalry in modern college coaching at 19 years. Royal went 14-5 during that span.

Bret Bielema vs. Gus Malzahn

As rivalries go, there’s not much here that would have been obvious. Auburn and Arkansas both claim several rivalries that are more heated. Bielema and Malzahn never really crossed paths before the two became SEC head coaches. Then, Bielema claimed in 2013 hurry-up offenses like Malzahn’s contribute to the concussion crises. Malzahn called such a claim a joke, and from there the rivalry became a test of which football philosophy would prevail.