Navy's Ken Niumatalolo takes the top spot in the AAC coach rankings
The American Athletic Conference has experienced its share of coaching turnover in recent years. Only four of the league's coaches - Willie Fritz, Mike Norvell, Philip Montgomery and Ken Niumatalolo - have spent the last three years at their current school. Niumatalolo takes the top spot in Athlon's American Athletic Conference coach rankings for 2019, but the gap has closed to Norvell, Fritz and new Houston coach Dana Holgorsen. The AAC boasts a strong second tier with Cincinnati's Luke Fickell and UCF's Josh Heupel rounding out the league's top six coaches.
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.
How did we compile the rankings for American Athletic Conference coaches? For starters, it’s an impossible task. However, we tried to weigh every possible factor into this ranking. 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.
Every team has a different variety or built-in resources available, and hierarchy in college football also plays a vital role in how successful programs are. Those factors, along with career biography/resume, success in developing talent and landing prospects on the recruiting trail factored into the ranking. Additionally, how well programs value staff (is the head coach better as a CEO or hands-on approach) and the facilities or program resources matter into forming an outlook of how coaches have performed at different stops throughout their career.
Again, wins and the career biography to this point 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 Conference:
Ranking AAC's College Football Coaches for 2019
12. Randy Edsall, UConn
The Huskies have struggled in Edsall’s second act in Storrs. UConn is only 4-20 over the last two years and a deeper look at the team’s performance in 2018 shows just how far this program needs to come to be competitive in the AAC. The Huskies surrendered 50.4 points and 617.4 yards a game – both records at the FBS level – and averaged only 22.2 points a game. Edsall and his staff are building with youth, so there could be some noticeable progress by the end of 2019. While progress has been hard to find in Edsall’s second stint, he previously went 74-70 with the program from 1999-2010 and 22-34 at Maryland from 2011-15.
11. Philip Montgomery, Tulsa
The 2019 season could be a make-or-break year for Montgomery’s tenure at Tulsa. After guiding the program to back-to-back bowl trips in 2015-16 and recording a 10-win season in 2016, the Golden Hurricane are just 5-19 over the last two years. Additionally, Montgomery’s offense has slipped significantly on the stat sheet after averaging 42.5 points a game in ’16.
10. Mike Houston, East Carolina
Houston is likely to rank much higher on this list in the coming years, as the former James Madison coach was a home-run hire for East Carolina this offseason. Houston spent the last three years with the Dukes, guiding the program to a 37-6 mark, three playoff trips and a FCS national title in 2016. Prior to the stint at James Madison, Houston went 14-11 at The Citadel (2014-15) and 29-8 at Lenoir-Rhyne (2011-13). Houston’s stint at The Citadel is notable, as the Bulldogs made a four-game jump in wins after a 5-7 debut. East Carolina enters the year with question marks on both sides of the ball, but Houston could propel this team to be among the league’s most improved by the end of 2019.
9. Sonny Dykes, SMU
SMU just missed a bowl in Dykes’ first full year at the helm last season. The second half of 2018 provided optimism for this staff, as the Mustangs won three out of their final six games, with the three defeats all coming by 10 points or less. Dykes is known for offensive acumen, and SMU’s attack could take off with Texas transfer Shane Buechele leading the way in 2019. Dykes previously went 22-15 at Louisiana Tech (2010-12) and 19-30 at California (2013-16). He’s 46-53 overall as a head coach at the FBS level.
8. Rod Carey, Temple
Temple’s coaching search after Geoff Collins left for Georgia Tech certainly didn’t lack for intrigue. Manny Diaz was originally hired to replace Collins, but he left to be the head coach at Miami after Mark Richt retired. The school had another brief search and eventually pulled Carey away from Northern Illinois. The Minnesota native went 52-30 and posted five winning records over six seasons (2013-18) in his tenure with the Huskies. Northern Illinois claimed the 2014 and ’18 MAC titles and posted two double-digit win seasons (2013-14). Carey’s teams were usually strong on defense, and while the Huskies struggled on offense in 2018, this unit ranked in the top four of the MAC in scoring every year from 2013-17.
7. Charlie Strong, USF
The 2019 season will be a critical one for Strong. USF went 10-2 in Strong’s first year (2017) but slipped to 7-6 last fall. While a winning record and a bowl game isn’t necessarily a bad thing for any program, the Bulls lost their last six games – all by 10 points or more. With a revamped staff and 15 returning starters, there’s optimism for a rebound this fall. Strong previously had a successful stint (37-15) at Louisville from 2010-13. During that run, the Cardinals played in the Sugar Bowl in 2012 and posted back-to-back seasons of 11 more wins (2012-13). Strong parlayed that success into the top spot at Texas. However, he was dismissed after a 16-21 stint from 2014-16.
6. Luke Fickell, Cincinnati
Fickell is one of the top Group of 5 coaches on the rise after guiding Cincinnati to an 11-2 record last season. The 11-win campaign marked a seven-win jump by the Bearcats after a 4-8 finish in Fickell’s first year. In addition to the on-field improvement, Fickell and his staff continue to reel in talent on the recruiting trail to solidify this program’s place as a AAC title contender on an annual basis. Fickell is a native of Ohio and has spent his entire collegiate coaching career in the state. He worked for one year (2011) as Ohio State’s interim coach and spent from 2002-10 and 2012-16 working as an assistant in Columbus.
5. Josh Heupel, UCF
The transition from Scott Frost to Heupel was nearly perfect for UCF last season. After a 13-0 record under Frost in 2017, the Knights finished 12-1 and once again claimed the AAC title. UCF finished No. 11 in the final Associated Press poll after falling to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl. Losing star quarterback McKenzie Milton in the regular season finale to a serious leg injury was a major setback for the offense, but Heupel kept the offense performing at a high level, especially in the second half of the AAC title game versus Memphis. The second-year coach will have a few more challenges to navigate in 2019, but Heupel has UCF poised to push for a New Year’s Six bowl.
4. Willie Fritz, Tulane
Tulane continues to make steady progress under Fritz’s watch, and the 2019 team is likely to be the best of his tenure in New Orleans. After winning four games in 2016, the Green Wave increased that total to five in ’17 and seven last season. Tulane’s bowl trip in 2018 was the program’s first since ’13. Fritz is 16-21 through three years at Tulane. Prior to his current stint with the Green Wave, Fritz went 17-7 in two years at Georgia Southern (2014-15), 40-15 at Sam Houston State (2010-13) and 97-47 at Central Missouri (1997-09). Fritz once again ranks as one of Athlon’s top coaches on the rise going into the upcoming season.
3. Dana Holgorsen, Houston
Houston made a huge splash this offseason by hiring Dana Holgorsen from West Virginia with a monster five-year, $20 million contract. Holgorsen’s affinity for the city of Houston is no secret, and there’s plenty to like about this fit for both sides. In addition to the fertile recruiting territory, Houston has the resources and upside to consistently contend for the AAC title and a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl. Also, Holgorsen’s high-powered offense should be an excellent fit considering the talent available within the state of Texas. Holgorsen went 61-41 at West Virginia and had only one losing season over eight seasons. The Mountaineers had two years of double-digit wins and finished in the Associated Press poll in two out of Holgorsen’s last three years in Morgantown.
2. Mike Norvell, Memphis
Memphis continued its rise under Norvell last fall, as the Tigers finished 8-6 and claimed the AAC West title for the second year in a row. Norvell is 26-14 over three seasons and has won at least eight games every year. Additionally, the Tigers are 17-7 in AAC play. Prior to taking over as the head coach at Memphis, Norvell was regarded for his work as an offensive coordinator at Pitt (2011) and Arizona State (2012-15). That track record of success on offense has continued with Memphis, as the Tigers have not finished lower than third in the AAC in scoring over the last three years.
1. Ken Niumatalolo, Navy
For the third year in a row, the No. 1 spot among coaches in the American Athletic Conference belongs to Niumatalolo. The Hawaii native has recorded an 87-58 mark since taking over in Annapolis prior to the 2007 Poinsettia Bowl. Niumatalolo has guided Navy to nine bowl trips over 11 full years at the helm and has only three seasons of fewer than eight victories. Navy’s 2015 campaign was the best of Niumatalolo’s tenure, as the Midshipmen finished 11-2 and No. 18 in the Associated Press poll. The AAC’s longest-tenured coach has some work to do after a 3-10 mark last fall, but as indicated by Niumatalolo’s track record, it’s safe to assume this program will rebound.
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(Image of Ken Niumatalolo courtesy of NavySports.com)