The American Athletic Conference has seen its share of coaching changes in recent years. The 12 programs in the league have a knack for finding the next stars in the coaching ranks, and this conference has several names to watch in 2017 and beyond. Tulsa's Philip Montgomery and Memphis' Mike Norvell are two coaches on the rise, while Navy's Ken Niumatalolo consistently wins at a high level. The AAC has four new coaches for 2017: Houston's Major Applewhite, UConn's Randy Edsall, Temple's Geoff Collins and Cincinnati's Luke Fickell.
Success with any college football team starts with coaching. Even if a program doesn’t have the resources of the nation’s elite jobs, a good coach can elevate a program into national title contention. However, similar to any position on the field, statistics may not tell the full story when judging a coaching tenure.
This is not simply a list of coaches ranked by accomplishment or wins. While those aspects are important, it doesn’t provide a complete picture of how successful coaches are. Winning 10 games at Alabama is different than winning 10 games at Kentucky. Also, every program has a different amount of resources available. Hierarchy in college football also plays a vital role in how successful programs are. It's always easier for programs with more built-in advantages to contend for a national title on a more consistent basis.
A couple of other factors to consider when ranking coaches: How well are the assistants paid? A staff with two of the nation’s top coordinators could be a sign the head coach is better as a CEO and may not be as strong in terms of developing gameplans. How is the coach in the X’s and O’s? Can the coach recruit? Are the program’s facilities on par with the rest of the conference? Much like assistants, a program needs good facilities to win big. If a team is winning at a high level with poor facilities and a small budget, it reflects positively on the head coach. Is the coach successful at only one stop? Or has that coach built a solid resume from different jobs?
Again, wins are important. But our rankings also take into account a blank slate. If you start a program from scratch, which coach would you hire knowing what they accomplished so far and their career trajectory? Remember, you don't get the assistants - only the head coach. And head-to-head wins do not matter for this ranking. Athlon's editorial staff has voted on a ranking of coaches for all 10 conferences. Here are the results for the American Athletic:
Ranking the AAC's College Football Coaches for 2017
12. Scottie Montgomery, East Carolina
Montgomery arrived at East Carolina regarded for his work as an offensive assistant at Duke (2006-09 and 2014-15) and also in the NFL with the Steelers from 2010-12. However, his debut resulted in a 3-9 record last season and the Pirates are likely to be picked near the bottom of the American Athletic Conference once again in 2017. To speed up the rebuilding process, Montgomery picked up a couple of graduate transfers, including former Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk, Clemson running back Tyshon Dye and Minnesota defensive end Gaelin Elmore. East Carolina has missed out on bowl games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2004-05.
11. Major Applewhite, Houston
Applewhite has big shoes to fill in replacing Tom Herman at Houston. Under Herman’s watch, the Cougars went 22-4 over the last two years, won the Peach Bowl in the 2015 season and claimed the American Athletic Conference’s No. 1 recruiting class in 2016. While Herman won’t be easy to replace, Applewhite was also instrumental in the program’s success over the last two seasons as the program’s offensive coordinator. After leading the American Athletic Conference in scoring in 2015, the Cougars ranked fifth by averaging 35.8 points per game last season. The former Texas quarterback also has experience as an assistant from stints at Texas, Alabama, Rice and Syracuse. Applewhite already has one game as the program’s head coach under his belt (Las Vegas Bowl), but the real work begins in 2017.
10. Luke Fickell, Cincinnati
Fickell has strong roots throughout Ohio. He’s a native of the state, played his college ball at Ohio State and also worked with the Buckeyes as an assistant coach. That experience and background should help Fickell continue to build on those connections on the recruiting trail for the Bearcats. The Ohio native also spent 2011 as Ohio State’s interim coach after Jim Tressel resigned prior to the season. Fickell guided Ohio State to a 6-7 mark that year and was retained on Urban Meyer’s staff as a co-defensive coordinator in 2012. Over the last couple of seasons, Fickell has teamed with Chris Ash and Greg Schiano to mold some of the nation’s top defenses. While Fickell was an interim coach for one season, this is his first opportunity to run a program on a full-time basis. With his experience in the state of Ohio, Fickell should be a solid hire for Cincinnati as it looks to rebound after winning 11 games over the last two years.
9. Geoff Collins, Temple
The outlook on Temple’s program has significantly changed over the last 10 years. After being dismissed from the Big East after 2004 and forced to spend time as an Independent (2005-06) and a stint in the MAC (2007-11), the Owls returned to the Big East in 2012 and remained in the league as it shifted to the American Athletic Conference. This program has taken a significant step forward on the gridiron in recent years, as Temple has four bowl appearances since 2009 and posted 20 wins over the last two years – the most in a two-year stretch in program history. Collins has big shoes to fill in replacing Matt Rhule but was one of college football’s rising stars in the assistant ranks and is poised to keep the program performing at a high level. Collins helped Florida’s defense rank among the SEC’s best from 2015-16 and also had previous stops in his career at Mississippi State (2011-14), FIU (2010) and UCF (2008-09). This is the first head coaching job for Collins.
8. Randy Edsall, UConn
Edsall is back at UConn after leaving the program after the 2010 season. Under Edsall’s direction from 1999-10, the Huskies won 74 games, claimed the Big East title and a BCS bowl bid in 2010 and won at least eight games from 2007-10. Edsall left Storrs as the program’s winningest coach and spent from 2011-15 at Maryland. The Terrapins went 2-10 in Edsall’s first year but showed progress with a 4-8 mark in 2012 and back-to-back bowl games in 2013-14. However, Edsall was dismissed after a 2-4 start in 2015 and spent the 2016 season in an off-field role with the Lions. While Edsall’s return came as a bit of a surprise, he knows what it takes to succeed at UConn. Additionally, his hire of Rhett Lashlee as coordinator should provide some immediate punch for an offense that averaged only 14.8 points per game last year.
7. Scott Frost, UCF
In his first year in Orlando, Frost guided UCF to a six-game improvement in the win column, which tied for the biggest jump in victories among FBS teams from 2015 to 2016. Frost’s success with the Knights comes as no surprise. The former Nebraska quarterback quickly moved through the ranks as an assistant. After stints as a graduate assistant at Nebraska (2002) and Kansas State (2006), Frost was hired at Northern Iowa (2007-08) and at Oregon (2009-15). The last three seasons of Frost’s time in Eugene were spent as the team’s offensive coordinator, guiding the Ducks to the No. 1 spot in the Pac-12 in scoring for three consecutive years. UCF could be the biggest threat to USF in the American Athletic Conference’s East Division in 2017.
6. Chad Morris, SMU
SMU has made steady progress under Morris and appears primed for a breakthrough year in 2017. The Mustangs finished 2-10 in Morris’ debut (2015) but improved to 5-7 last season and just missed on a bowl after losing two games by eight points or less. After a lengthy career as a high school coach in Texas (1994-09), Morris was hired as Tulsa’s offensive coordinator in 2010. The Golden Hurricane averaged a healthy 41.4 points per game that season, which caught the attention of Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. Morris was hired by Swinney prior to the 2011 campaign and was instrumental in the development of the Tigers’ high-powered offense from 2011-14. Additionally, Morris helped recruit Heisman finalist and NFL first-round pick Deshaun Watson to Death Valley. With plenty of ties and recruiting experience in the state of Texas, Morris is the right coach to transform SMU into a consistent winner.
5. Mike Norvell, Memphis
Norvell is one of college football’s top coaches on the rise entering 2017. In his first year at Memphis, Norvell picked up where Justin Fuente left off, guiding the Tigers to an 8-5 record. The Tigers easily handled Kansas, beat eventual American Athletic champ Temple and defeated Houston in the regular season finale. And with the lethal pass-catch combination of quarterback Riley Ferguson and receiver Anthony Miller returning in 2017, Memphis should be picked near the top of the conference and could be the favorite in the West Division. Norvell has been on a fast rise through the coaching ranks after beginning his career at Central Arkansas in 2006. After spending one season there, Norvell was hired as a graduate assistant by Todd Graham at Tulsa in 2007 and was later promoted to an on-field assistant in 2009. After four years with the Golden Hurricane, Norvell worked as an offensive coordinator under Graham at Pitt (2011) and again to Arizona State (2012-15).
4. Willie Fritz, Tulane
Fritz likely needs another season to rebuild the roster, but the Kansas native has Tulane moving in the right direction. The Green Wave finished 4-8 in Fritz’s debut last year and wasn’t far from a winning record after losing four games by 10 points or less. Tulane is the fourth stop as a head coach in Fritz’s career. From 1997-09, he went 97-47 at Central Missouri and only had two seasons with a losing record during that span. His next stop came at Sam Houston State, where the Bearkats went 40-15 and played for the FCS Championship two times from 2010-13. Fritz helped Georgia Southern transition from the FCS ranks to the FBS level from 2014-15 and recorded a 17-7 record in an impressive stint in Statesboro.
3. Charlie Strong, USF
After a three-year stint at Texas, Strong has returned to familiar territory. The Arkansas native has extensive ties to the state of Florida, including a lengthy stint as an assistant with the Gators from 1991-94 and again from 2003-09. Strong also established connections on the recruiting trail from his stint with Florida, as well as a four-year run at Louisville. From 2010-13, Strong guided the Cardinals to a 37-15 record, including a 23-3 run over the final two seasons. While his tenure at Texas resulted in a 16-21 mark, Strong should be a better fit at USF and inherits a team capable of finishing 2017 ranked inside of the top 25.
2. Philip Montgomery, Tulsa
Montgomery is just two years into his tenure at Tulsa, but the Golden Hurricane have showed marked improvement under his watch. After finishing 2-10 in 2014, Tulsa went 6-7 in Montgomery’s first year with a trip to the Independence Bowl. A full year to learn Montgomery’s high-powered offense paid big dividends for the Golden Hurricane last fall. Tulsa finished sixth nationally by averaging 42.5 points a game and became the only FBS team to have a 3,000-yard passer, two 1,000-yard rushers and two 1,000-yard receivers. The Golden Hurricane’s 10-win campaign in 2016 was the first double-digit victory total by the program since 2012. Prior to Tulsa, Montgomery worked as an assistant at Baylor (2008-14), Houston (2003-07) and three different high schools in Texas.
1. Ken Niumatalolo, Navy
Niumatalolo enters his 10th season at the Naval Academy already entrenched as the program’s winningest coach with 77 career victories. The Hawaii native was promoted to the top spot after Paul Johnson left for Georgia Tech at the end of the regular season in 2007, with Niumatalolo leading the team in the 2007 Poinsettia Bowl. The Midshipmen have won at least eight games in eight of Niumatalolo’s nine seasons, including an 11-2 mark in 2015. Navy finished 9-5 last season and claimed the American Athletic Conference’s West Division title. The program’s No. 18 finish in the final Associated Press poll was the first for Navy since a No. 24 rank in 2004.
Inset photo of Willie Fritz courtesy of tulanegreenwave.com