Conference USA has seen its share of changes in the head coaching and membership ranks over the last 10 seasons. The league has been a stepping stone for a handful of coaches to Power 5 jobs, but the names at the top of the rankings for 2017 - Louisiana Tech's Skip Holtz, Marshall's Doc Holliday, Old Dominion's Bobby Wilder and MTSU's Rick Stockstill - have provided more long-term stability for their programs. In addition to the veteran coaches returning, Conference USA has a few names on the rise, including UTSA's Frank Wilson, North Texas' Seth Littrell and WKU's Mike Sanford. And of course, the league got a lot more interesting this offseason with the arrival of Lane Kiffin to FAU.
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 2017
14. Brad Lambert, Charlotte
Starting a program from scratch is no easy assignment. That’s exactly the task Lambert has navigated over the last four seasons with the 49ers as the first coach in program history. After two years as a FCS Independent, Lambert guided Charlotte through a transition to the FBS ranks. The 49ers are 6-18 since joining the FBS level and 16-30 overall under Lambert. He’s yet to record a winning record, but the program took a step forward by winning four games overall and three in league play last season.
13. Sean Kugler, UTEP
Kugler took over at his alma mater prior to the 2013 season and is likely facing a make-or-break 2017 campaign. After a 2-10 debut, the Miners finished 7-6 and played in the New Mexico Bowl in 2014. However, UTEP is just 9-15 over the last two seasons and has won only five conference games in that span. Kugler came to El Paso after working for three years with the Steelers as the offensive line coach. However, the offense has not finished higher than ninth in the league in scoring in Kugler’s tenure and standout running back Aaron Jones must be replaced this offseason.
12. Jay Hopson, Southern Miss
As a native of Mississippi and a former Southern Miss assistant, Hopson was a good pick to replace former coach Todd Monken after he left for the NFL last season. The Golden Eagles had their share of ups and downs in Hopson’s first year, as the program was picked to win Conference USA’s West Division in the preseason, yet finished 7-6 overall and 4-4 in league play. An injury to quarterback Nick Mullens and an unlucky minus-17 turnover margin played a huge role in the seven-win season, but Southern Miss finished on a high note by winning the New Orleans Bowl. Hopson previously went 32-17 in four years at Alcorn State and also has stops on his resume as an assistant at Memphis, Michigan, Ole Miss and Marshall.
11. Frank Wilson, UTSA
Wilson has always garnered plenty of praise and accolades for his work on the recruiting trail. But after one season at UTSA, the former LSU assistant is more than just a good recruiter. The Roadrunners showed marked progress in his first year, finishing 6-7 overall and 5-3 in league play. Additionally, UTSA earned its first bowl trip in program history and finished second in Conference USA’s West Division. Prior to taking over at UTSA, Wilson worked as an assistant at LSU, Tennessee, Southern Miss and Ole Miss. He also spent time as the head coach at O.P. Walker High School in Louisiana from 2000-03. The Roadrunners are trending up entering 2017.
10. Seth Littrell, North Texas
Littrell was a rising star in the coordinator ranks before his hire last season at North Texas. And after his first year in Denton, it’s clear the Mean Green are trending in the right direction. After finishing 1-11 in 2015, Littrell guided North Texas to a 5-8 mark and a bid in the Heart of Dallas Bowl in his debut. The four-game improvement from 2015 to 2016 was the most by any team in Conference USA’s West Division last year. Prior to North Texas, the Oklahoma native worked at Texas Tech, Arizona, Indiana and North Carolina and emerged as one of the nation’s top offensive-minded coaches. Littrell’s 2015 offense with the Tar Heels led the ACC in scoring (40.7 ppg) and ranked third in 2014.
9. David Bailiff, Rice
With tough academic standards, maintaining and building a consistent winner at Rice is not easy. Bailiff has managed to navigate the difficulty of this job to deliver 56 wins since 2007 and guide the program to four bowl appearances, including a Conference USA title in 2013. Additionally, after having just one season of double-digit victories prior to 2007, the Owls also have two 10-win campaigns under Bailiff’s direction. However, since an 8-5 record in 2014, Rice is just 8-16 over the last two years and went 3-9 – its lowest win total since 2009 – last season. Can Bailiff turn things around for the Owls in 2017?
8. Butch Davis, FIU
After a six-year absence, Davis is back on the sidelines and in familiar territory. The Oklahoma native has extensive experience and connections to the state of Florida, including a stint as Miami’s head coach (1995-00) and a previous four-year run as an assistant with the Hurricanes from 1984-88. Despite dealing with NCAA scholarship sanctions and a bowl ban in 1995, Davis guided the program to a 51-20 mark over six seasons. He was hired away from Coral Gables to coach the Browns in 2001 but lasted only four years, compiling a 24-35 record. Davis resurfaced at North Carolina in 2007 and inherited a program coming off back-to-back losing records. However, the Tar Heels quickly showed improvement under Davis, finishing 8-5 in three consecutive years. His tenure in Chapel Hill ended due to a NCAA investigation following the 2010 campaign. Davis is a proven winner and regarded for his past work on the recruiting trail. This should be a good hire for FIU.
7. Mike Sanford, WKU
WKU is the only Conference USA program with at least eight victories in each of the last four seasons. While Jeff Brohm leaves big shoes to fill, the Hilltoppers won’t be slowing down anytime soon. That’s due to Sanford’s arrival, as the 35-year-old coach is one of the offseason’s top hires. Sanford takes over at WKU after two seasons at Notre Dame, where he helped the Fighting Irish average over 30 points a game in back-to-back years. He also has previous stints at Boise State (2014), WKU (2010) and Stanford (2011-13). Sanford has worked under a few standout coaches, including Brian Kelly (Notre Dame), Willie Taggart (WKU) and David Shaw and Jim Harbaugh at Stanford.
6. Lane Kiffin, FAU
Kiffin was instrumental in Alabama’s success and development on offense over the last three seasons. He helped the Crimson Tide average over 35 points a game in three consecutive years and led the SEC by posting 38.8 points per contest in 2016. Kiffin’s acumen on offense is no secret and he won’t have trouble attracting talent to Boca Raton. How will Kiffin handle his third opportunity to coach at the FBS level? There’s certainly some baggage with this hire, but Kiffin went 7-6 at Tennessee in 2009 – a two-game improvement from 2008 – and finished 28-15 at USC. This hire has a chance to pay big-time dividends for FAU.
5. Doc Holliday, Marshall
After leading Marshall to 33 wins from 2013-15, Holliday enters 2017 looking to get the program back on track. The Thundering Herd regressed to 3-9 last season, which was the fewest wins under Holliday’s watch. The West Virginia native is 53-37 in seven years at Marshall and has guided the program to four bowl trips. The Thundering Herd claimed the 2014 Conference USA title and also finished No. 23 in the final Associated Press poll that season. Holliday is a good recruiter and should be able to get the program back on track over the next two years.
4. Bill Clark, UAB
UAB’s football program has experienced quite a journey since the 2014 season. After the program was eliminated following the regular season finale in December of 2014, president Ray Watts reversed his decision and reinstated the team the following June. While the two-year shutdown was unnecessary, UAB’s program is back and in a much better position. Additionally, the Blazers still have the right man for the job in Bill Clark. The Alabama native has extensive coaching ties to the state, as he worked as a high school for several seasons before landing on South Alabama’s staff in 2008. After five years with the Jaguars, Clark was hired as Jacksonville State’s coach in 2013. He went 11-4 with the Gamecocks that year and left to take over at UAB prior to the 2014 season. The Blazers went 6-6 in Clark’s debut – a four-game improvement from 2013. With a new practice facility under construction, along with the ongoing talk of a new stadium, Clark has the necessary resources to build a solid program in Birmingham.
3. Bobby Wilder, Old Dominion
Old Dominion returned to the gridiron in 2009 after the program was disbanded in 1941. Wilder was tapped as coach to build the program from scratch after spending nearly his entire coaching career as an assistant coach at Maine (1990-06). The Monarchs quickly showed how far Wilder was able to take this program in a short amount of time. Old Dominion started 17-5 from 2009-10 as a FCS Independent and later qualified for the FCS playoffs in the Colonial Athletic Association in 2011-12. After spending one season (2013) as a FCS Independent, the Monarchs made the jump to the FBS level and Conference USA. Wilder led the program to a 6-6 record in its FBS debut, followed by a 5-7 mark in 2015 and a breakthrough 10-3 season last fall. The Monarchs also scored the program’s first bowl trip and victory in the Bahamas Bowl.
2. Rick Stockstill, MTSU
Stockstill is Conference USA’s longest-tenured coach and has successfully led MTSU to five consecutive non-losing seasons. Since taking over the program in 2006, the Blue Raiders are 72-66 under Stockstill and have earned six postseason trips. Additionally, MTSU has just one season of fewer than five wins and recorded 10 victories – the program’s highest since joining the FBS level in 1999 – in the 2009 season. Stockstill should have the Blue Raiders in the mix to win Conference USA’s East Division title in 2017.
1. Skip Holtz, Louisiana Tech
Louisiana Tech has emerged as one of Conference USA’s top programs under Holtz’s direction. He took over in Ruston prior to 2013 after Sonny Dykes left for California and guided the Bulldogs to a 4-8 record that season. However, Louisiana Tech has earned three straight seasons of nine victories and three consecutive postseason trips. The Bulldogs have also earned two West Division titles and have not lost more than two games in league play since 2013. Prior to Louisiana Tech, Holtz went 16-21 at USF (2010-12), 38-27 at East Carolina (2005-09) and 34-23 at UConn from 1994-98. Holtz has a career record of 119-93.