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 Conference USA:
Ranking C-USA's College Football Coaches for 2016
1. Jeff Brohm, WKU
In just two seasons at WKU, Brohm has quickly emerged as the No. 1 coach in Conference USA. Brohm was promoted to head coach in 2014 after Bobby Petrino left to return to Louisville. The Hilltoppers finished 8-5 in Brohm’s first year but claimed the Conference USA title with a 12-2 mark in 2015. Additionally, Brohm has emerged as one of the top offensive minds in the Group of 5 ranks. WKU has ranked inside of the top 10 nationally in scoring offense over the last two seasons and finished third nationally by averaging 7.23 yards a play in 2015. Even with quarterback Brandon Doughty off to the NFL, WKU’s program is in good hands with Brohm leading the way.
2. Doc Holliday, Marshall
Holliday is known for his recruiting prowess, but he’s doing more than just winning on signing day for the Thundering Herd. Holliday is 50-28 in six seasons and has guided Marshall to three consecutive years of at least 10 wins. The Thundering Herd won the 2014 Conference USA title and finished No. 23 nationally in the Associated Press poll. Additionally, Marshall is 4-0 in bowl games under Holliday’s watch.
3. Skip Holtz, Louisiana Tech
Holtz’s three-year run at South Florida ended after a 16-21 record, but the rest of his resume as a head coach features plenty of highlights. After a four-year stint as an assistant at Notre Dame from 1990-93, Holtz was hired as UConn’s head coach and recorded a 34-23 mark in five seasons. With a chance to work under his father Lou Holtz, Skip returned to the assistant ranks in 1999 at South Carolina and remained with the Gamecocks until 2004. Holtz took over East Carolina’s program in 2005 and guided the Pirates to a 38-27 record and four consecutive bowl trips. While the stint at USF was a disappointment, Holtz is back on track with a 22-17 mark in three years at Louisiana Tech.
4. Rick Stockstill, MTSU
Consistent. That’s the best way to describe Stockstill’s tenure at MTSU. Since taking over the program in 2006, Stockstill has guided the Blue Raiders to a 64-61 record and has four bowl appearances over the last seven years. MTSU has a winning mark in league play over the last four seasons and has only one year of fewer than six wins since 2009. With one of the league’s top quarterback-receiver combinations (Brent Stockstill to Richie James) in place, 2016 could be the perfect opportunity for Stockstill to break through and win the Conference USA East title.
5. Bobby Wilder, Old Dominion
Old Dominion is a program with a lot of potential, and Wilder has the Monarchs poised to challenge for a bowl bid in their third season at the FBS level. Wilder is the first coach at Old Dominion since the program returned to the gridiron in 2009. The Monarchs went 9-2 in their first season, followed by an 8-3 mark in 2010. Wilder led the program to an 21-5 record from 2011-12, which included back-to-back trips to the FCS playoffs. After finishing 8-4 in a transition year to the FBS level, Old Dominion is 11-12 over the last two seasons and just missed on a bowl appearance last year. Wilder should have the Monarchs in contention for a winning record this fall.
6. David Bailiff, Rice
With its tough academic standards, Rice is one of the toughest jobs in the Group of 5 ranks. While Bailiff has experienced his share of ups and downs since taking over in 2007, the program has won 53 games in nine years and made four bowl trips. Additionally, the Owls won the 2013 Conference USA title and have recorded two winning marks in league play over the last three seasons. After a 5-7 record last year, Bailiff will be looking to guide Rice to its fourth bowl in five years in 2016.
7. Jay Hopson, Southern Miss
Hopson is stepping into one of the most favorable roster situations of any first-year coach in 2016. Southern Miss returns 12 starters – including star quarterback Nick Mullens – from last season’s 9-5 team that claimed the Conference USA West Division title. Hopson has several stops as an assistant on his resume, including stints at Marshall, Ole Miss, Michigan, Memphis and Southern Miss. The Mississippi native was hired as Alcorn State’s head coach in 2012 and guided the Braves to a 32-17 mark in four seasons. With previous experience at Southern Miss, success in his only head coaching stop and ties to the state, Hopson looks like a good fit in Hattiesburg.
8. Sean Kugler, UTEP
Injuries hit UTEP hard last season, including an early season-ending ailment to standout running back Aaron Jones. As a result, the Miners slipped to 5-7 in Kugler’s third year on the job. However, UTEP is just one season removed from a 7-6 mark and a bowl appearance in 2014, and a quick rebound should be anticipated for 2016. Kugler is 14-23 in three seasons with the Miners.
9. Ron Turner, FIU
Turner wasn’t the most popular hire after Mario Cristobal’s firing, but FIU has increased its win total in back-to-back years after a 1-11 mark in 2013. The Panthers finished 4-8 in 2014 and nearly qualified for a bowl with a 5-7 mark last season. Turner also has prior stints as a head coach from stops at San Jose State (1992) and Illinois (1997-04). His all-time record as a coach is 52-87, but he did lead the Fighting Illini to a Sugar Bowl appearance in 2001. With 13 starters back, Turner has a good chance to lead FIU to a bowl game in 2016.
10. Charlie Partridge, FAU
Partridge was known for his recruiting connections in the state of Florida when he was hired as FAU’s head coach in 2014. As expected, the Owls have recruited well over the last three classes, and there’s a strong core of promising players in place for 2016. The on-field results have been slow for Partridge, as he’s posted back-to-back 3-9 campaigns to start his tenure. Prior to taking over at FAU, Partridge was an assistant under Bret Bielema at Wisconsin and Arkansas and also had a stint at Pittsburgh from 2003-07. This is his first opportunity to be a head coach, so it’s no surprise Patridge is still learning on the job entering year three.
11. Brad Lambert, Charlotte
Building a program from scratch isn’t easy. And it’s even harder to accomplish that goal by transitioning from the FCS to the FBS level. That’s the challenge facing Lambert at Charlotte, as the 49ers are 12-22 over the last three seasons, including a 2-10 mark in their first year at the FBS level in 2015. Prior to taking over as Charlotte’s head coach, Lambert worked from 2001-10 under Jim Grobe at Wake Forest. The fourth-year coach seems to have this program trending in the right direction.
12. Seth Littrell, North Texas
Littrell looks like a good fit at North Texas, but he inherited a team in need of a lot of help after a 1-11 record in 2015. Littrell comes to Denton after two seasons at North Carolina, working under coach Larry Fedora as the program’s offensive coordinator. Prior to North Carolina, Littrell worked as an assistant at Indiana, Arizona and Texas Tech. The Oklahoma native’s background with the Air Raid offense should help North Texas attract plenty of offensive talent into the program.
13. Frank Wilson, UTSA
Wilson is regarded as an ace recruiter, and his ability to attract talent to a program should be a huge benefit to UTSA. There’s no shortage of talent in San Antonio and the surrounding area, but the first-year coach has to prove he’s more than just a recruiter. Wilson has never worked as a head coach or a coordinator at the FBS level. His only experience as a head coach came in high school, leading O.P. Walker High School from 2000-03.
(Photos of Jeff Brohm courtesy of WKU Athletics)