The MAC has seen a number of coaches move to the Power 5 ranks in recent years, but the one constant in the league remains Ohio's Frank Solich. The former Nebraska coach is the conference's longest-tenured head coach in the league and takes the top spot in Athlon's MAC coach rankings for 2017. The league only has one new coach this year (Tim Lester at Western Michigan), while Toledo's Jason Candle, Miami's Chuck Martin and Eastern Michigan's Chris Creighton are a few names on the rise.
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 2017
12. Mike Jinks, Bowling Green
Jinks faced a tough assignment in his first year on campus in 2016. Not only were the Falcons replacing several key players from the 2015 MAC Championship team, Jinks was learning the ropes in his first season as a head coach at the FBS level. As expected, Bowling Green got off to a slow start. The Falcons opened with a 1-8 start before winning their final three games to finish 4-8. The end of the 2016 campaign provided optimism for Jinks and his staff, which should help this team take another step forward in 2017. With no previous head coaching experience at the FBS level and only three years of experience as an assistant, Jinks was a curious hire for Bowling Green (one of the MAC’s better coaching jobs). However, if Jinks and the Falcons pick up where they left off last season, the Texas native should move up this list in 2017.
11. Mike Neu, Ball State
Neu returned to his alma mater last season to take over as the program’s head coach after Pete Lembo left to be an assistant at Maryland. Neu’s first year had its share of ups and downs. The Cardinals started 3-1 but finished 4-8 and won only one game in MAC play. However, six of Ball State’s eight losses came by 10 points or less. The Indiana native previously worked in the NFL as an assistant with the Saints, spent two years at Tulane (2012-13) and also had a stint in the Arena Football League from 1998-08. The former Ball State quarterback hopes to get the Cardinals back in the postseason this year for the first time since 2013.
10. Paul Haynes, Kent State
Haynes enters 2017 squarely on the hot seat. The former Kent State defensive back is just 12-35 at his alma mater over the last four years. Additionally, the Golden Flashes have managed only eight wins in MAC games during that span. Prior to taking over as Kent State’s head coach, Haynes worked at a handful of programs as a defensive assistant, including Arkansas, Ohio State, Michigan State and Louisville. Defense has been a strength for the Golden Flashes over the last two years, finishing second in the MAC in fewest yards per play allowed. However, Kent State’s offense hasn’t finished higher than 11th in the league in scoring.
9. Tim Lester, Western Michigan
Lester is the MAC’s only new coach for 2017. And the former Western Michigan quarterback has some big shoes to fill. Former coach P.J. Fleck elevated the program’s profile on the recruiting trail and led the Broncos to a MAC title, Cotton Bowl appearance and a No. 15 finish in the Associated Press poll in 2016. Can Lester continue the momentum in Kalamazoo? As a former player and assistant (2005-06) with the program, Lester has a good idea of what it takes to win at Western Michigan. Additionally, he’s accumulated experience as an assistant with Power 5 programs Purdue (2016) and Syracuse (2013-15) over the last four seasons. Lester has previous head coaching experience from a stint at Saint Joseph’s (2004) and Elmhurst (2008-12). He went 40-23 over five years between those two programs.
8. Lance Leipold, Buffalo
After a successful stint at Wisconsin-Whitewater, Leipold is looking to replicate that success at Buffalo. In two years with the Bulls, Leipold is 7-17 and 4-12 in conference action. That’s a far cry from the 109-6 record at Wisconsin-Whitewater, along with the six Division III championships. However, the track record of success from his previous stop should provide some confidence this coaching staff will help the Bulls take a step forward over the next few seasons. Buffalo returns 14 starters for 2017, including quarterback Tyree Jackson, standout linebacker Khalil Hodge and one of the MAC’s top offensive lines.
7. John Bonamego, Central Michigan
Central Michigan was left in a difficult position following coach Dan Enos’ departure to Arkansas just before National Signing Day in 2015. However, the program was able to a familiar face in Bonamego as its next head coach. The veteran NFL assistant accumulated a wealth of experience at the next level working as a special teams coordinator and was a player at Central Michigan in the 1980s. Bonamego’s last collegiate experience prior to taking over as CMU’s head coach came in 1998 at Army. The Chippewas proceeded to go 7-6 in Bonamego’s first year and claimed a share of the MAC West title with a 6-2 mark in league play. The record in 2016 was nearly identical (6-7) but featured a slight regression in conference wins (three). Central Michigan has been to back-to-back bowl trips under Bonamego’s watch.
6. Rod Carey, Northern Illinois
Northern Illinois set the bar high for the rest of the MAC in recent years. The Huskies reeled off six consecutive West Division titles and recorded at least 11 wins every year from 2010-15. Carey was promoted to head coach after Dave Doeren left for NC State, with this first game coming in the Orange Bowl against Florida State. Northern Illinois went 23-5 over Carey’s first two years and lost only one game in MAC play. However, the Huskies have been hit hard by injuries at the quarterback position over the last two years and slipped to 13-13 in that span. And for the first time since 2007, Northern Illinois did not make a bowl appearance last season. Can Carey get the Huskies back on track in 2017?
5. Chris Creighton, Eastern Michigan
Eastern Michigan is one of the nation’s toughest jobs, so it’s no surprise Creighton gets a significant bump in the coach rankings after a breakthrough season. After guiding the Eagles to a 3-21 record from 2014-15, Creighton led EMU to a 7-6 mark last season. The seven wins represented the program’s first winning record since 1995. Additionally, the trip to the Bahamas Bowl was Eastern Michigan’s first postseason bid since 1987. Creighton had three previous stops as a head coach on his resume prior to taking over at Eastern Michigan. He went 32-9 at Ottawa from 1997-00, 63-15 at Wabash from 2001-07 and 42-22 at Drake (2008-13).
4. Terry Bowden, Akron
Bowden has an extended track record of success, accumulating a 164-99-2 career mark at five different coaching stops. The high point of Bowden’s five-year run at Akron came in 2015. The Zips finished 8-5 – the highest win total in Akron history – and earned the program’s first bowl victory with a win over Utah State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Bowden is 24-37 over five seasons with the Zips and has won at least five games in each of the last four years. The son of coaching legend Bobby Bowden started his career as a graduate assistant with the Seminoles in 1982 and landed his first head coaching gig at Salem in 1983. He guided the Tigers to a 19-13 record from 1983-85 and spent one year at Akron as the program’s quarterbacks coach in 1986 before taking over at Samford in 1987. Bowden went 45-23-1 with the Bulldogs and was hired at Auburn prior to the 1993 campaign. The Tigers went 47-17-1 under Bowden’s direction, including an 11-0 mark in 1993. Bowden resigned as Auburn’s head coach during the 1998 season and didn’t resurface on the sidelines until 2009 at North Alabama.
3. Chuck Martin, Miami
The RedHawks were one of the nation’s most improved teams over the course of the 2016 season. After an 0-6 start, Miami finished with six straight wins in the regular season and barely lost to Mississippi State in the St. Petersburg Bowl to finish 6-7. The six-win mark in Martin’s third season was the highest for the program since a 10-win campaign in 2010 and eclipsed the victory total (five) from his first two years (2014-15). Martin took over in Oxford after a successful stint as an assistant under Brian Kelly at Notre Dame (2010-13) and previously led Grand Valley State as the program’s head coach, recording two Division II titles and 74 wins from 2004-09. Martin clearly has Miami trending up entering the 2017 season.
2. Jason Candle, Toledo
Candle is a rising star in the MAC and leads a Toledo team that could be the favorite to win the conference in 2017. The Ohio native was promoted to head coach after the 2015 regular season when Matt Campbell left to take over at Iowa State. The Rockets won Candle’s first game (2015 Boca Raton Bowl) and finished 9-4 last year, with three losses coming by five points or less. From 2012-15, Candle called the plays for Toledo’s high-powered offense, which led the conference in scoring in 2014. He was hired by Tim Beckman at Toledo in 2009 and remained in an assistant capacity when Campbell was promoted to head coach prior to the 2012 season. He also has a previous stop on his resume from a stint at Mount Union (2003-08).
1. Frank Solich, Ohio
Solich is the MAC’s longest-tenured head coach and has transformed Ohio into one of the most consistent programs in the conference. The Bobcats have not had a losing season since 2008 and made eight bowl games over the last nine years. Solich has accumulated an 88-67 overall mark at Ohio and guided the program to four MAC Championship appearances. Prior to taking over at Ohio, Solich went 58-19 at Nebraska from 1998-03 and worked under legendary coach Tom Osborne from 1983-97 as an assistant.
Photo of Jason Candle courtesy of uToledo.edu