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 MAC:
Ranking the MAC's College Football Coaches for 2016
1. P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan
Fleck is known for his energy and ability to recruit. However, through three seasons at Western Michigan, Fleck is proving to be more than a coach that just wins on signing day. After a 1-11 record in Fleck’s first season (2013), the Broncos are 16-10 over the last two years. Additionally, the program is coming off back-to-back bowl games for the first time in program history. Fleck also guided Western Michigan to its first postseason win by defeating MTSU 45-31 in the Bahamas Bowl last year. With 13 returning starters back for 2016, Western Michigan should challenge for its first trip to the MAC title game since 2000.
2. Frank Solich, Ohio
Solich is the dean of MAC coaches and enters 2016 with a 138-80 record in his career. Solich guided Nebraska to a 58-19 record from 1998-03 and was hired at Ohio in 2005. The Bobcats are 80-61 under Solich and only have two losing seasons since his arrival. Additionally, Ohio has played in six bowl games over the last seven years and recorded three trips to the MAC title game since 2006. Solich isn’t flashy, but he’s brought consistent success to the Bobcats.
3. Rod Carey, Northern Illinois
Carey inherited big shoes to fill from Dave Doeren in 2012. Doeren guided Northern Illinois to a BCS bowl appearance that year, with the Huskies losing 31-10 in the Orange Bowl to Florida State. The program hasn’t slipped under Carey’s watch, as Northern Illinois is 31-11 and has three trips to the MAC title game over the last three seasons. The Huskies finished 8-6 last year, but the program was hit hard by injuries at the quarterback position. Carey should have Northern Illinois back in the mix to win the MAC once again in 2016.
4. Terry Bowden, Akron
Bowden guided the Zips to a breakthrough season in 2015. Akron won eight games – the most in school history – and claimed the program’s first bowl victory (Famous Idaho Potato Bowl). Bowden is 19-30 through four seasons at Akron, but the program has showed marked improvement under his watch. After a 1-11 debut in 2012, the Zips finished 5-7 in back-to-back years before the 2015 breakout campaign. Prior to his stint at Akron, Bowden went 29-9 at North Alabama, 47-17-1 at Auburn, 45-23-1 at Samford and 19-13 at Salem.
Related: Athlon Sports Top 25 for 2016
5. John Bonamego, Central Michigan
Considering Bonamego had never coached anything other than special teams since 1999, his hire came as a surprise at Central Michigan. However, Bonamego quickly showed he was capable of keeping this program near the top of the MAC, as the Chippewas gave Oklahoma State all it could handle in the season opener. Central Michigan finished 7-6 in Bonamego’s debut, which included a victory over MAC West champion Northern Illinois and a three-point loss at Syracuse. With a full offseason to put his stamp on the program, Bonamego should keep the Chippewas trending up in 2016.
6. Lance Leipold, Buffalo
Leipold was one of the top coaching hires in the 2015 carousel, leaving Wisconsin-Whitewater after guiding the program to a 109-6 mark from 2007-14. Winning at the FBS level would require a few adjustments for Leipold and his staff, and the Bulls finished 5-7 in 2015. However, Buffalo just missed out on a bowl after losing three games by five points or less. Year one was just a small speed bump for this staff. The future is still bright for the Bulls with Leipold at the helm.
7. Chuck Martin, Miami, Ohio
Miami is one of the MAC’s top jobs, but the RedHawks have fallen on hard times. However, Martin seems to have this program moving back in the right direction. After an 0-12 record in Don Treadwell’s last season (2013), Martin is 5-19 over the last two years, but the RedHawks were more competitive in 2015 and return 13 starters for 2016. Prior to Miami, Martin went 74-7 at Grand Valley State and guided the Lakers to three Division II titles.
8. Jason Candle, Toledo
Candle is one of the rising stars in the Group of 5 coaching ranks and should move near the top of this list over the next few seasons. Candle’s career path is similar to former coach Matt Campbell, as both played at Mount Union before later coaching with the Purple Raiders as an assistant, followed by a stop in Toledo in the same capacity. Candle was promoted to head coach after Campbell left for Iowa State. The Rockets won’t miss a beat with Candle in charge.
9. Chris Creighton, Eastern Michigan
Eastern Michigan is arguably the toughest job in college football. This program has only season of more than two wins since 2009, with the last winning record coming in 1995. Considering the lack of success by the program in recent years and the roster situation he inherited, immediate success wasn’t going to be easy for Creighton. Through two years, Creighton is 3-21 overall and 1-15 in conference play. But prior to Eastern Michigan, Creighton went 42-22 at Drake, 63-15 at Wabash and 32-9 at Ottawa.
10. Paul Haynes, Kent State
After a 9-26 record through three seasons, Haynes is entering a critical 2016 campaign. The Golden Flashes had a standout defense in 2015, but the offense averaged a paltry 9.1 points in MAC games last year. Fixing the offense is Haynes’ top offseason priority if Kent State wants to win more than four games for the first time in four seasons. As a former player and assistant with the Golden Flashes, Haynes certainly knows what it takes to win at this program. However, the pressure is starting to build after last year’s 3-9 record.
11. Mike Neu, Ball State
Neu – a former Ball State quarterback from 1990-93 – returns to Muncie as the program’s head coach in 2016. Neu has garnered a variety of experience over the last 18 seasons, spending time as a head coach in the Arena Football League (New Orleans), as a college assistant with Tulane (2012-13) and in the NFL with the Saints (2014-15). While Neu is a former Ball State player and had a one-year stint as a graduate assistant with the program, this is his first opportunity to be a head coach at the FBS level.
12. Mike Jinks, Bowling Green
Bowling Green hit a home run with its last coaching hire (Dino Babers), and the program is hoping Jinks keeps the Falcons at the top of the MAC East. Jinks’ hire came as a surprise to most, as he had only three seasons as an assistant (Texas Tech) at the FBS level prior to his hire in Bowling Green. Additionally, Jinks has never worked as a coordinator at this level. His only experience as a head coach came in the high school ranks, spending one year at Burbank High School (2005) and a handful at Cibolo Steele (2006-12). Considering Jinks’ stint at Texas Tech came under Kliff Kingsbury, the transition on offense from Dino Babers’ attack should be minimal.