10 best football coaches of all-time
It’s a topic that’s been tossed around in barbershops, on street corners, front patios and back porches for decades: who is the best football coach of all-time?
It’s impossible to find a consensus. However, we know the prime candidates, and we debate them regularly because everyone has his or her own criteria. Should championships matter most? Total number of victories? Success on the highest level, or on multiple levels? How about a coach’s overall impact on the game itself?
With these questions in mind, we present one man’s opinion of the 10 greatest coaches ever to step foot on the gridiron.
- Record as a Division I Head Coach: 357-124-4 (.736)
- Notable Accomplishments: 1993 and ’99 National Champion
There may never be another college coaching career like Bobby Bowden’s. Bowden, who had been a head coach at South Georgia and Howard College (now Samford), as well as West Virginia, took over a young Florida State football program that was 4-29 in the three seasons before he arrived and immediately took them to new heights. Under his direction, the Seminoles rose from mediocrity to national prominence, including an incredible run of 14 seasons with at least 10 wins and a top 5 ranking in the national polls – a feat that is unlikely to ever be duplicated.
- Record as a College Head Coach: 489-138-11 (.766)
- Notable Accomplishments: Winningest head coach in college football history, 4-time National Champion
No one in history has won more games as college football coach than John Gagliardi, who posted a 489-138-11 record at Carroll (MT) College and Saint John’s (MN). In his 60-year career, Gagliardi won four national titles with the Johnnies (1963 and ’65 NAIA, and 1976 and 2003 NCAA Division III) and 27 conference championships combined between the two schools. His name now graced the Gagliardi Trophy, given annually to the most outstanding Division III football player since 1993.
- Record as an NFL Head Coach: 318-138-41 (.640)
- Notable Accomplishments: 6-time NFL Champion
One of the first great coaches in pro football history, George Halas won six NFL Championships in a career that spanned nearly five full decades. Only Curly Lambeau could match Halas’ championship total. In 40 seasons – all but one in Chicago – Halas posted a losing record just six times.
- Record as an NFL Head Coach: 250-162-6 (.598)
- Notable Accomplishments: Super Bowl VI and Super Bowl XII Champion
The all-time wins leader in Dallas Cowboys history, Tom Landry led the franchise to five Super Bowls and two World Championships in his 29-year career as head coach. Landry’s Cowboys dominated the NFC for much of his tenure as Dallas made 10 league championship games from 1970-82. His 250 regular season victories rank No. 3 in NFL history, and his 20 postseason wins rank No. 2 on the all-time leaderboard.
- Record as a College Head Coach: 409-136-3 (.746)
- Notable Accomplishments: 1982 and ’86 National Champion; NCAA Division I wins leader
In terms of raw numbers, it doesn’t get better than Joe Paterno, who became head coach at Penn State in 1966 and roamed the sidelines for the Nittany Lions until 2011. Five of Paterno’s teams finished undefeated and untied, but in the days before the BCS or College Football Playoff, four were left without an opportunity to win a national championship. However, Paterno and the Nittany Lions twice earned college football’s greatest prize.
- Record as a College Head Coach: 408-116-15 (.757)
- Notable Accomplishments: 17-time Conference Champions; 9 Black College National Championships
The first head coach in college football history to reach 400 career victories, Eddie Robinson currently ranks No. 3 on the all-time NCAA wins list (and No. 2 among Division I coaches) with 408. Robinson spent 55 years as the head coach at Grambling State, where he led the Tigers to 9 black college national titles, 18 bowl games, 17 SWAC championships and three appearances in the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs.
- Record as a College Head Coach: 145-29-4 (.815)
- Record as an NFL Head Coach: 11-21 (.344)
- Notable Accomplishments: 1950, ’55, and ’56 National Champion; 14 Conference Championships
Few coaches in college football history were as dominant as Bud Wilkinson, who oversaw the Oklahoma Sooners program from 1947-63. During his time in Norman, OU set a record with 47 consecutive victories from 1953-57, in addition to a 31-game winning streak from 1948-50 that ranks No. 9 on the Division I leaderboard. The Sooners won three national championships, posted four undefeated seasons, and won 14 conference titles – including 13 straight from 1947-59. Wilkinson retired from coaching at OU at the age of 47, but spent two seasons in the NFL with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1978-79.
10 Greatest Football Coaches of All-Time
- Knute Rockne
- Record as a College Head Coach: 102-12-5 (.881)
- Notable Accomplishments: 1919, ’24, ’29 and ’30 National Champion
No one in major college football history has posted a higher winning percentage than Knute Rockne, who led Notre Dame to a 102-12-5 record from 1918-30. Though the AP poll had yet to come into existence during his career, Rockne is credited with leading the Fighting Irish to four national championships, including the 1924 season when the program capped off a 10-0 season with a victory over Stanford in the Rose Bowl – the first bowl game in program history.
Notre Dame went undefeated five times with Rockne as its coach, never recorded a losing season, and only once lost more than two games in a single year. An innovative tactician and motivator, Rockne is credited with popularizing the forward pass, and is also famous for his 1928 “win one for the Gipper” speech.
Tragically, Rockne died in a plane crash in 1931 at the age of 43.
- Nick Saban
- Record as a College Head Coach: 191-60-1 (.758)
- Record as an NFL Head Coach: 15-17 (.469)
- Notable Accomplishments: 2003, ’09, ’11, ’12, ’15 National Champion
Yes, four of the college head coaches listed in the Honorable Mention section have more career wins than Nick Saban. In fact, three have twice as many victories. And yes, Saban posted a losing record in a forgettable two-year NFL head coaching career.
However, no one listed above has won more national championships (and in a much shorter time frame). Plus, Saban has won at a higher rate than all but Gagliardi (who coached in NAIA and NCAA Division III), and Wilkinson.
Saban recently won his fifth national championship as a college coach, and his fourth in a seven-year period at Alabama. He needs just one more national title to tie Bear Bryant, though many believe that Saban has already caught up to the Bear on the all-time greatest coaches list. That may be premature, but Saban is certainly one of the greatest college football coaches of all-time, and one of the top 10 in the history of the sport.
And, as the only active coach on our list, Saban has plenty of time to climb much higher.
- Barry Switzer
- Record as a College Head Coach: 157-29-4 (.826)
- Record as an NFL Head Coach: 40-24 (.606)
- Notable Accomplishments: 1974, ’75, ’85 National Champion, Super Bowl XXX Champion
Only two coaches in football history have won both a national championship and a Super Bowl, which makes Barry Switzer an easy pick to be one of the 10 best football coaches of all-time.
Switzer first earned coaching notoriety as the offensive innovator at Oklahoma and directed some of the most prolific rushing offenses in history while utilizing the wishbone. He became head coach of the Sooners in 1973 and led the program to three national championships, 10 seasons of 10 wins or more, and 12 Big Eight Conference titles before he resigned in 1988.
Out of coaching for five seasons, Switzer was hired as the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys in 1994. He posted a 40-24 record in four years in the NFL, and led the Cowboys to a victory in Super Bowl XXX in his second year with the franchise.
- Jimmy Johnson
- Record as a College Head Coach: 81-34-3 (.686)
- Record as an NFL Head Coach: 80-64 (.556)
- Notable Accomplishments: 1987 National Champion; Super Bowl XXVII and Super Bowl XXVIII Champion
The second coach to win both a national championship and a Super Bowl is Jimmy Johnson, who turned the trick with the Miami Hurricanes and Dallas Cowboys.
Johnson rose through the college ranks as a defensive assistant before getting his first opportunity to be a head football coach in 1979 at Oklahoma State. After five seasons with the Cowboys, which included two bowl games and a No. 18 final ranking in 1983, Johnson was hired at Miami. In five years with the Hurricanes, Johnson posted four a 52-9 record that included double-digit winning seasons, four top 10 finishes (including three finishes in the top 2 of the AP poll), and the 1987 national title.
While Johnson doesn’t compare with many of the coaches on this list in terms of wins, he earns bonus points for not only winning two Super Bowls, but also for replacing the legendary Tom Landry and then rebuilding the Cowboys from the depths of a 1-15 season in his first year with the franchise.
After a falling out with team owner and former college teammate Jerry Jones, Johnson left the Cowboys in 1993. He later posted a 36-28 record with the Miami Dolphins after replacing another of the greatest football coaches of all-time, Don Shula.
- Don Shula
- Record as an NFL Head Coach: 328-156-6 (.669)
- Notable Accomplishments: Super Bowl VII and Super Bowl VIII Champion
No coach in NFL history has won more games than Don Shula, who posted a 328-156-6 overall record in 33 seasons. Also, no one has taken a team to more Super Bowls, either as Shula and Bill Belichick are tied with six coaching appearances on football’s biggest stage.
Even more impressive, Shula is also the only coach in NFL history to lead his team to a perfect record of the course of an entire season, having led the 1972 Miami Dolphins to a 14-0 mark in the regular season, then to three playoff victories capped by a victory in Super Bowl VII. The following year, the Dolphins won it all again.
Prior to his 26-year stint in Miami, Shula began his head coaching career with the Baltimore Colts, and posted a 71-23-4 record in seven years. The 1968 Colts won the NFL Championship, but fell to the New York Jets in Super Bowl III.
- Bill Belichick
- Record as an NFL Head Coach: 223-113 (.664)
- Notable Accomplishments: Super Bowl XXXVI, Super Bowl XXXVIII, Super Bowl XXXIX, and Super Bowl XLIX Champion
One of just two coaches to take a team to six Super Bowls and one of only two men to win four as a head coach, Bill Belichick is the perfect example of why it’s okay to give a coach a second chance to lead a program or franchise.
Belichick was fired after five seasons as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns (the first four of which he employed Nick Saban as defensive coordinator). In Cleveland, Belichick posted a 36-44 overall record with only one playoff appearance. A longtime assistant to Bill Parcells, with whom he won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants, Belichick reunited with his mentor in New England in 1996 and followed to the New York Jets for two seasons.
In 2000, Belichick was hired as the head coach of the Patriots, and in just his second year won the first Super Bowl in franchise history. Belichick and the Pats would win two more World Championships in a three-year period and posted have posted an incredible 15 consecutive winning campaigns that include an AFC Championship in 2007 following a 16-0 regular season, and a fourth Super Bowl title following the 2014 season.
- Bill Walsh
- Record as an NFL Head Coach: 92-59-1 (.605)
- Record as a College Head Coach: 34-24-1 (.576)
- Notable Accomplishments: Super Bowl XVI, Super Bowl XIX, and Super Bowl XXIII Champion
One of the most influential coaches in football history, Bill Walsh helped develop the West Coast Offense as an assistant with the Cincinnati Bengals and utilized it during a Hall of Fame career that included three Super Bowl titles. Walsh also helped the coaching profession by publishing multiple books, including “Finding the Winning Edge,” which is essentially the football coaching bible.
Walsh earned his first head coaching opportunity at Stanford (his first of two stints with the Cardinal), and posted a 17-7 record in two seasons before leaving for the lowly San Francisco 49ers, who were coming off a 2-14 season. Walsh’s Niners went 2-14 again in his first year, but he quickly built the franchise into one of the game’s great dynasties and won his first Super Bowl in his third season with the team. He also drafted several NFL legends like Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Ronnie Lott.
Walsh also produced one of the greatest coaching trees in football history that included Super Bowl winners Mike Holmgren, George Seifert, Mike McCarthy, Jon Gruden, and Mike Shanahan, among others. Of course, Walsh was a key branch on the coaching tree of the great Paul Brown.
- Paul Brown
- Record as an Pro Head Coach: 213-104-9 (.672)
- Record as a College Head Coach: 33-13-3 (673)
- Record as a High School Head Coach: 92-10-3 (.876)
- Notable Accomplishments: 1930, ’35, ’36, ’38, 39, ’40 State Champion; 1942 National Champion; 3-time NFL Champion
Paul Brown is one of the most uniquely successful coaches in football history. A high school coaching legend that won six state titles (one at Severn School in Maryland and five at Massillon Washington in Ohio), Brown’s teams were also recognized as high school national champions in 1935, ’36, ’39, and ’40.
In 1941, Ohio State hired Brown as its head coach, and he posted an 18-8-1 record with the Buckeyes in three seasons, which included the first national championship in school history in 1942. Brown also spent two seasons coaching the Great Lakes Naval Training Station team while serving in the Navy during World War II, and posted a 15-5-2 record before embarking on a pro coaching career.
Brown helped to found and served as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns in 1946. He posted a record of 111-44-5 with the club, and won four AAFC championships and three NFL titles. Brown left Cleveland in 1962 and eventually took over the expansion Cincinnati Bengals franchise. In eight seasons in Cincinnati, Brown led the Bengals to three playoff appearances.
- Bear Bryant
- Record as a College Head Coach: 323-85-17 (.760)
- Notable Accomplishments: 1961, ’64, ’65, ’73, ’78, ’79 National Champion; 15-time Conference Champion
Though Nick Saban is quickly gaining on him, Paul “Bear” Bryant is still the greatest college football coach of all-time. Not only does Bryant still have the edge over Saban in total national championships, but he was also slightly more successful than Saban as a turnaround artist prior to taking over as the head coach at Alabama.
When he was just 32 years old, Bryant was hired as the head coach at Maryland. One year after the Terrapins finished 1-7-1, Bryant posted a 6-2-1 record in his only season at the school. Bryant then ventured into the SEC for the first time as the head coach at Kentucky. The Wildcats were 2-8 the season before Bryant arrived and were riding a string of three consecutive losing seasons, but Bryant immediately led Kentucky to an 8-3 record in 1946 and posted eight winning records in eight years with the Wildcats – easily the best period in program history.
In 1950, UK finished 11-1, setting a school record for wins that still stands. The Wildcats won the SEC championship and the Sugar Bowl and finished No. 7 in the AP poll. Only the 1977 Kentucky squad finished with a higher final ranking (No. 6).
Bryant took over the Texas A&M program in 1954 and suffered the only losing campaign (1-9) of his incredible career before posting three straight winning seasons — including an undefeated, Southwest Conference title-winning season in 1956 — before leaving for Tuscaloosa prior to the 1958 campaign.
Bryant, who played end at Alabama from 1933-35, returned to his alma mater following one of the toughest stretches in program history. The Crimson Tide had gone just 4-24-2 in the three seasons prior to Bryant’s arrival, but never suffered a losing season under the Bear. In 25 years as head coach, Bryant posted a 232-46-9 record and set the NCAA Division I record for career victories (323) that stood until Bobby Bowden (and later Joe Paterno) broke it.
- Vince Lombardi
- Record as an NFL Head Coach: 105-35-6 (.719)
- Notable Accomplishments: Super Bowl I and Super Bowl II Champion; 6-time NFL Champion
Other coaches have more victories and more Super Bowl titles, but there has never been a better football coach in the history of the game than Vince Lombardi.
Like many coaches, Lombardi’s took a long and winding path to fame. His coaching career began on the sidelines St. Cecilia High School in New Jersey in 1939, where he spent eight years on staff, five of them as the program’s head football coach.
Lombardi later moved on to his alma mater, Fordham University, where he had been a guard on the famed “Seven Blocks of Granite,” where he served as an assistant for one year prior to joining the great Army head coach Red Blaik’s staff in West Point. Following five seasons with the Black Knights, Lombardi ventured into the NFL as an assistant with the New York Giants.
In New York, Lombardi ran the offense for head coach Jim Lee Howell (and developed the famous “Lombardi Sweep,” one of the most iconic offensive plays in football history) while another member of our list – Tom Landry – led the defense. In 1956, the Giants won the NFL title. Three years later, at the age of 46, Lombardi finally accepted his first head coaching position.
The Green Bay Packers hadn’t fielded a team with a winning record since 1947 and hadn’t won an NFL Championship since 1944, and had also fallen on tough times financially, but Lombardi quickly turned the Packers into the league’s premier franchise. Green Bay, which had posted a 1-10-1 record the previous season, bounced back with a 7-5 record in Lombardi’s first season in 1959. In his second, the Packers made it to the NFL Championship Game, then won the title in back-to-back years in 1961-63.
Lombardi won three more NFL titles, and led Green Bay to the victory in Super Bowl I and Super Bowl II before stepping down as head coach following the 1967 season. He coached one more season in Washington in 1969, and led the team to its first winning season in 14 seasons, but succumbed to colon cancer the following year at the age of 57.