The MAC college football coaching ranks are stable going into the 2020 season. The conference returns all 12 coaches from 2019, with Ohio's Frank Solich and Buffalo's Lance Leipold taking the top two spots once again. Central Michigan's Jim McElwain isn't far from the top tier after leading the program to a MAC West title in his first season on the sidelines in Mount Pleasant. The MAC has a couple of rising stars in the next group, including Kent State's Sean Lewis, Toledo's Jason Candle and Eastern Michigan's Chris Creighton.
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 MAC 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 the MAC:
Ranking the MAC's College Football Coaches for 2020
12. Tom Arth, Akron
Akron has access to talent in the state of Ohio, but budget concerns and no consistent success at the FBS level make this a difficult job in the MAC. As an Ohio native, Arth certainly knows the terrain on the recruiting trail and what it will take to build a winner. And as expected, plenty of patience will be needed. Akron was the only team to finish without a victory (0-12) last season. The Zips struggled mightily on offense by averaging only 10.5 points a game and 4.02 yards a play. Of the team’s 12 losses, only two came by eight points or less. Prior to taking over at Akron, Arth went 9-13 at Chattanooga from 2017-18 and 40-8 at John Carroll from 2013-16. He’s now 49-33 over seven years as a head coach.
11. Scot Loeffler, Bowling Green
Considering Bowling Green went 9-27 in the three years prior to Loeffler’s arrival, there was no overnight fix coming for the program in 2019. The Falcons finished 3-9 in Loeffler’s debut last fall, but the season provided a bright spot with a 20-7 victory over rival Toledo on Oct. 12. The former Michigan quarterback is a native of Ohio and had stints as an offensive coordinator at Temple, Auburn, Virginia Tech, and Boston College before taking over at one of the top jobs in the MAC. Loeffler was hired to rebuild the program, and after landing one of the top recruiting classes in the conference, there’s optimism for 2020 and beyond.
10. Thomas Hammock, Northern Illinois
Hammock returned to his alma mater after working from 2014-18 in the NFL as running backs coach for the Baltimore Ravens. Prior to that stint, he worked as an assistant in DeKalb from 2005-06 and had other stops at Minnesota (2007-10) and Wisconsin (2011-13). Hammock’s debut resulted in a 5-7 mark, which was only the program’s second losing season since 2009. Of the seven losses, three came by six points or less.
9. Mike Neu, Ball State
Neu entered the 2019 season facing a make-or-break year with a 10-26 mark through three years at his alma mater. The former Ball State quarterback delivered with the best coaching job of his tenure in Muncie. The Cardinals finished 5-7 and won four MAC games – doubling their total (four) from Neu’s first three years. Ball State defeated eventual MAC champion Miami (Ohio) 41-27 in the regular-season finale and lost five games by 10 points or less. There were clear signs of improvement for Neu last season. Can Ball State take the next step and get to a bowl game in 2020?
8. Tim Lester, Western Michigan
Lester had big shoes to fill at his alma mater in replacing P.J. Fleck as Western Michigan’s coach prior to the 2017 season. Over the last three years, Lester has guided the team to a 20-18 overall record and back-to-back bowl trips. The Broncos have not posted a losing record under Lester’s watch but have not won more than seven games. He’s also guided the program to a 14-10 record in MAC play and just missed a trip to the conference title game last year. Lester – a former quarterback for the Broncos – had stints as an assistant at Syracuse and Purdue and worked as the head coach at Elmhurst (2008-12) and Saint Joseph’s (2004) before returning to Kalamazoo.
7. Sean Lewis, Kent State
Lewis is a coach on the rise and a name to watch over the next couple of years. After his playing career ended at Wisconsin in 2007, Lewis quickly worked his way through the coaching ranks to land on Dino Babers’ staff at Eastern Illinois from 2012-13 and Bowling Green in 2014. After coaching receivers that season, Lewis was promoted to co-offensive coordinator in ’15 and remained in that role until joining Babers at Syracuse from 2016-17. Lewis went 2-10 in his debut at Kent State in 2018, but the program showed marked improvement last fall. The Golden Flashes finished 7-6 and earned the first bowl victory in program history after defeating Utah State in the Frisco Bowl. In addition to the progress in the win column, the offense has showed marked improvement with Lewis at the helm. Kent State averaged 12.8 points a contest in the year prior to his arrival but recorded 29.2 a game last season.
6. Chuck Martin, Miami (Ohio)
Martin delivered the best season of his tenure in Oxford in 2019. The RedHawks finished 8-6, won the division title, and beat Central Michigan for the conference championship. Miami also earned a trip to the LendingTree Bowl – the program’s second postseason bid under Martin – and finished with a winning record for the first time under his watch. The RedHawks have finished 6-2 in MAC play in three out of the last four years. Martin is 30-45 overall at Miami (Ohio) but has won at least five games in each of the last four seasons. Additionally, he previously went 74-7 as the head coach at Grand Valley State from 2004-09.
5. Jason Candle, Toledo
Candle is another coach in the MAC with a promising future. The Ohio native played his college ball at Mount Union and eventually worked as an assistant with the program from 2003-08. He landed on Tim Beckman’s staff at Toledo in 2009 and was promoted to offensive coordinator under Matt Campbell in ’12. Candle took over as head coach once Campbell left for Iowa State and proceeded to go 20-7 through his first two years (2016-17). The Rockets won the MAC title with an 11-2 mark in 2017. Candle hopes to get the program back to that level in 2020, as Toledo is 13-12 over the last two years and missed a bowl in 2019.
4. Chris Creighton, Eastern Michigan
To put into perspective how good Creighton’s tenure at Eastern Michigan has been, it’s worth looking at the program from a historical view. Located in Ypsilanti – less than 20 minutes from Ann Arbor – the Eagles have posted only eight winning seasons since 1975. Additionally, Eastern Michigan has four bowl appearances in its program history. Three of those have taken place under Creighton’s watch. After a 3-21 start to his tenure, Creighton has won at least five games in each of the last four years, including two winning marks (2016 and ’18). Eastern Michigan is 28-47 overall under Creighton and tied for second in the MAC West in 2018. Creighton has been successful at every stop in his coaching career. From 1997-2000, he went 32-9 at Ottawa and finished 63-15 at Wabash from 2001-07. Creighton took over at Drake in 2008 and compiled a 41-22 mark over six years. He’s 164-93 overall in his coaching career.
3. Jim McElwain, Central Michigan
McElwain’s first year at Central Michigan resulted in one of the biggest turnarounds of the 2019 college football season. The Chippewas finished 1-11 in 2018 but improved to 8-6 last fall. Additionally, McElwain guided the team to the program’s first MAC West title since 2009 and an appearance in the New Mexico Bowl. McElwain has won at every stop in his career, so it was no surprise the Montana native turned Central Michigan’s fortune around in a hurry. He previously went 22-15 at Colorado State from 2012-14 and finished 22-12 with two SEC East titles at Florida from 2015-17.
2. Lance Leipold, Buffalo
Leipold is one of the rising stars in the Group of 5 coaching ranks and has Buffalo positioned to push for the MAC title in 2020. After a 7-17 start to his tenure with the Bulls, Leipold has guided the team to 24 wins and two bowl bids over the last three years. Buffalo has not won fewer than six games in a season during that span and also won the MAC East title with a program-high 10 wins in 2018. Leipold also went 109-6 and won six Division III titles at Wisconsin-Whitewater from 2007-14.
1. Frank Solich, Ohio
Solich is the longest-tenured coach in the Group of 5 ranks and recently inked a two-year contract extension to keep him on the sidelines in Athens through 2021. The Bobcats have consistently finished near the top of the MAC under Solich and are 113-81 since his arrival in 2005. Ohio has just two losing seasons in that span and played in 11 bowl games since ’06. Prior to Solich's tenure, the program had only two postseason appearances and won eight or more games just three times. Solich has delivered nine seasons of at least eight victories and four MAC East titles. The biggest remaining goal for Solich at Ohio remains a conference title – something the program hasn’t done since 1968.
Podcast: Ranking the Group of 5 Coaches for 2020
(Top photo courtesy of ohiobobcats.com)