Conference USA has experienced its share of turnover among its head coaches over the last couple of seasons, but the league features quality depth at the top, as UAB's Bill Clark, FIU's Butch Davis and North Texas' Seth Littrell lead the way in coach rankings for the 2019 season. Clark takes the top spot after guiding UAB to a conference title last fall, but Davis and Littrell also rank among the top Group of 5 coaches. Marshall's Doc Holliday, FAU's Lane Kiffin, Louisiana Tech's Skip Holtz and MTSU's Rick Stockstill round out the next tier. Conference USA has two new coaches for 2019 and only four of the 14 have at least five seasons of on-field results at their current program.
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 Conference USA 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 Conference USA:
Ranking Conference USA's College Football Coaches for 2019
14. Tyson Helton, WKU
Helton was hired to get WKU back on track and in contention for Conference USA titles after Mike Sanford went 9-16 from 2017-18. The former Houston quarterback has no previous head coaching experience, but he’s worked as an assistant at a handful of programs – Hawaii, Memphis, UAB, Cincinnati and USC – in addition to last year’s stint as the offensive coordinator at Tennessee. Under Helton’s direction, the Volunteers averaged 22.8 points a game and 5.5 yards a play. He was also a key assistant on Jeff Brohm’s staff from 2014-15 at WKU, helping the Hilltoppers average over 40 points a game in both seasons.
13. Mike Bloomgren, Rice
Rice is one of the toughest jobs in college football, so it will take another year or two to evaluate Bloomgren’s rebuilding effort. The Owls went 2-11 in Bloomgren’s debut last fall, finishing near the bottom of Conference USA in most statistical categories. Bloomgren and his staff played a handful of young players last season and a similar plan is likely to be in place for 2019. Prior to Rice, Bloomgren worked as the offensive coordinator and line coach at Stanford (2011-17).
12. Dana Dimel, UTEP
Just like his C-USA West counterpart Mike Bloomgren, Dimel inherited a major rebuilding project last season. And as expected, UTEP struggled to generate massive improvement in Dimel’s first year. The Miners went 1-11 but were a little more competitive than the previous season by losing four games by nine points or less. UTEP brings back 12 starters, so some slight improvement should be noticeable in Dimel’s second year. Dimel arrived at UTEP after stints as an assistant at Arizona (2006-08) and Kansas State (2009-17). He also went 22-13 as Wyoming’s head coach from 1997-99 and 8-26 at Houston (2000-02). Dimel is 31-50 in eight overall years as a head coach.
11. Frank Wilson, UTSA
Wilson’s tenure at UTSA started off on a high note with a 6-7 mark and the program’s first bowl trip in 2016. The Roadrunners went 6-5 the following year but slipped to 3-9 last fall. The primary culprit in UTSA’s three-win 2018 campaign is an offense that averaged only 14.2 points a game. Wilson is known for his recruiting prowess, and the program’s roster rank has climbed to No. 6 in the conference. The 2019 season will be a crucial one for this staff to show the program is back on track after a disappointing three-win campaign.
10. Will Healy, Charlotte
Charlotte hit a home run with its hire of Healy this offseason. The Tennessee native started his coaching career as an assistant at Chattanooga in 2009 and stayed with the Mocs until he was hired as Austin Peay’s head coach prior to the ’16 season. Prior to Healy’s arrival in Clarksville, the Governors went 1-34 from 2013-15. Austin Peay finished 0-11 in Healy’s first year but showed marked improvement with an 8-4 mark in 2017. The Governors finished 5-6 last season, with two defeats by four points costing the team another winning record. Charlotte is a program with a ton of upside. Healy is the right coach to help the 49ers take a big step forward over the next five years.
9. Bobby Wilder, Old Dominion
Old Dominion returned to competition prior to the 2009 season, and Wilder has been instrumental in the football program’s rise to the FBS level. The Monarchs recorded five consecutive winning records (2009-13) at the FCS level and recorded back-to-back trips to the playoffs (2011-12). ODU was competitive right away when it moved to the FBS, recording an 11-13 mark from 2014-15. The Monarchs went 10-3 with the program’s first bowl trip in 2016 but are 9-15 over the last two seasons. Wilder hopes the infusion of junior college talent and coaching changes on both sides of the ball can provide a return to bowl eligibility in 2019.
8. Jay Hopson, Southern Miss
Hopson has guided Southern Miss to three consecutive winning seasons and a 15-9 mark in Conference USA play since 2016. The Golden Eagles missed out on a bowl trip following a 6-5 record last fall but should be in contention for the West Division title in 2019. Hopson previously went 32-17 at Alcorn State from 2012-15 and won at least nine games every year after a 4-7 mark in ’12. The Mississippi native also has stops on his resume from time as an assistant at Marshall, Ole Miss, Michigan and Memphis.
7. Rick Stockstill, MTSU
As evidenced by Stockstill’s No. 7 rank in Conference USA, this is a deep league at the top for coaches. Stockstill ranks in the top 10 of college football’s longest-tenured coaches going into 2019, guiding MTSU to an 87-78 record since 2006. The Blue Raiders have earned eight bowl trips in that span, including four in each of the last four seasons. MTSU also won the program’s first division title last fall. Stockstill has only one year of fewer than five wins (2011) but also has just one season of more than eight (2009).
6. Skip Holtz, Louisiana Tech
Consistency sums up Holtz’s tenure in Ruston. The Bulldogs are 46-33 since 2013 and posted five consecutive winning records. Additionally, Louisiana Tech has earned five straight bowl trips and claimed the 2014 and ’16 C-USA West titles. Holtz previously went 16-21 at USF from 2010-12, 38-27 at East Carolina (2005-09) and 34-23 at UConn (1994-98). In 19 overall years as a head coach, Holtz is 134-104 overall with 14 bowl appearances.
5. Lane Kiffin, FAU
After an 11-3 record and a Conference USA title in Kiffin’s first year, high expectations surrounded FAU going into the 2018 campaign. However, the Owls slipped to 5-7 and just 3-5 in conference play. Bad luck played a huge role in the losing record, as FAU posted a minus-seven turnover margin and lost four games by eight points or less. Kiffin is 16-10 through two years in Boca Raton and previously went 28-15 at USC and 7-6 at Tennessee. Despite the 5-7 mark last fall, Kiffin still ranks as one of the top coaches in Conference USA and should have the program back on track in 2019.
4. Doc Holliday, Marshall
Holliday has posted winning records in six out of his nine seasons at the helm in Huntington and returns a team projected near the top of the list of favorites to win Conference USA in 2019. The Thundering Herd have been to six bowl games since 2011 and posted three consecutive double-digit win seasons from 2013-15. Holliday guided Marshall to a 13-1 mark with a No. 23 finish in 2014, which tied the program’s highest win total at the FBS level. It’s no secret Holliday is regarded as an excellent recruiter. However, in addition to reeling in talent, Holliday has also proven he's more than capable of building one of Conference USA’s top programs on an annual basis.
3. Seth Littrell, North Texas
Littrell’s is one of college football’s top coaches on the rise. After working as an assistant at Texas Tech (2005-08), Arizona (2009-11), Indiana (2012-13) and North Carolina (2014-15), Littrell inherited a program that had eight consecutive losing seasons from 2005-12 and went 1-11 in the year prior to his arrival (2015). The Mean Green showed marked improvement in Littrell’s first season, finishing 5-8 overall with a trip to the Heart of Dallas Bowl due to APR scores. The program improved its win total by four games once again in 2017, as North Texas finished 9-5 and claimed the C-USA West Division title. Littrell’s team went 9-4 last fall to improve his overall record in Denton to 23-17. Offense is Littrell’s specialty, and North Texas has ranked in the top two of C-USA in scoring in each of the last two years.
2. Butch Davis, FIU
FIU is still a relative newcomer to the FBS level, but that doesn’t minimize just how far this program has improved under Davis’ direction. The Panthers are 17-9 and have recorded back-to-back bowl trips for just the second time in program history. FIU has just four winning records since 2004 and two of those have come under Davis’ tenure. The Panthers fell just short of the program’s first trip to the Conference USA title game last fall, but with 13 starters back, Davis should have this team in contention for the East Division crown once again. Success at a high level is nothing new for Davis. He went 51-20 at Miami from 1995-00 and finished 28-23 at North Carolina (2007-10). Davis also had a four-year stint as the head coach for the Browns, compiling a 24-35 record with one playoff trip from 2001-04.
1. Bill Clark, UAB
As we mentioned in last year’s Conference USA coach rankings, UAB’s return to the gridiron was one of college football’s best storylines in recent memory. And after last season, it’s time to add another chapter to the program’s rise. The Blazers won a school-record 11 games, claimed the Conference USA title and a Boca Raton Bowl victory last fall. The 11 wins came a season after the program returned to action after a two-year hiatus. During the 2017 campaign, UAB was one of the biggest surprises in college football. Clark guided the Blazers to an 8-5 stint and a trip to the Bahamas Bowl. He previously led the program to a 6-6 mark in 2014 – a four-win jump from the previous year. In four overall seasons as a head coach, Clark is 36-18 and does not have a losing record on his resume at the collegiate level. While UAB must replace several key players on last year’s team, don’t count out another run at the conference title. After all, restocking a roster seems like a manageable task when Clark and his staff had to fight to get the program restarted, push for upgraded facilities, build a team from scratch and win a conference title in just two years. Navigating all of those obstacles to win 19 games since 2017 clearly shows Clark is one of the top Group of 5 coaches in the nation.
(Photo of Bill Clark courtesy of UABSports.com)
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