Commentary

Does a program make the coach?

Originally Published: July 9, 2012
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

It is the college football equivalent of the game between Chicken and Egg, which, after all these years, Vegas still posts as pick 'em. Does the coach make the program? Does the program make the coach? It is a question that travels deep into the heart of autumn Saturdays geekdom, so bring your flashlight and your debating skills.

[+] EnlargeTom Osborne
US PresswireTom Osborne (255 wins) is No. 1 at Nebraska, but the Huskers still sport a .657 winning percentage without him.

Our method centers on measuring the strength of a program by its win-loss record after you take away the results of its best coach. Say, Nebraska without Tom Osborne, or Illinois without Bob Zuppke. Not only would it give you a sense of the program's power through the decades, but it also would identify the coaches who meant more to their schools as measured by the scoreboard.

For instance, Knute Rockne may be the winningest coach in the history of major college football as measured by winning percentage (105-12-5, .881). But without the Rock, Notre Dame's winning percentage drops only .017, from .731 to .714.

Or, from a more modern era, John McKay won three national championships at USC and finished with a winning percentage of .749. But take away McKay and the Trojans fall only from .703 to .694.

Stand up, Pete Carroll. And John Robinson. And Howard Jones. Paul Hackett, keep your seat.

So without further ado, let us applaud the ubergeeks of ESPN Stats & Information, those wretched souls who took the records of 121 FBS schools, subtracted the record of the coach with the most victories, and then did the math again. (Check out the results here.)

That said, for the purposes of selecting the top 10 coaches, we limited this list to programs that had played at least 50 seasons. We did so in an attempt to have a representative sample on both sides of the equation, although the longevity of some coaching careers brushes that aside like a pulling guard on a cornerback.

The program that falls the farthest without its top coach is no surprise, in part perhaps because he coached it for more than half of its football history. Take away Bobby Bowden's record of 304-97-4 (.756) over 34 seasons at Florida State, and the Seminoles fall from .665 to .551. In bowl terms, that's the difference between New Year's Day and Dec. 20.

Given the wide gap between the Bowden years and the rest of Florida State history, third-year coach Jimbo Fisher needs to win sooner rather than later. Otherwise, the Seminole fans' self-image as a football powerhouse will clash with the reality of the record book. There's Bowden, and there's the rest of Florida State football.

Second behind Bowden is his contemporary at BYU, LaVell Edwards. Like Bowden at Florida State, Edwards took his program out of anonymity into national prominence. In 29 seasons with the Cougars, Edwards went 257-101-3 (.716).

Without Edwards, whose BYU teams won 19 conference titles and the 1984 national championship, the Cougars' winning percentage falls from .575 to .485. Without Edwards, stunningly enough, the Cougars are a losing program.

Following Edwards in the top five are Dan McGugin of Vanderbilt, Chris Ault of Nevada and Bill Snyder of Kansas State. McGugin and Ault are Hall of Fame coaches (and Snyder is poised to join them) whose success also serves to highlight the program's futility without them.

Of the top 10 coaches who made the biggest difference, nine are in the Hall of Fame. The outlier is Trevor Rees, who went 92-63-5 (.591) with the Golden Flashes from 1946-63. While that is below the threshold of .600 that the Hall of Fame requires of its coaching candidates, Rees fits in at ninth on this list, below Wallace Wade of Duke and tied with Fisher DeBerry of Air Force.

Let's give a shout out to the coach who proved to be at one with his program. Randy Walker, who played at Miami (Ohio) and then coached there, kept the RedHawks right in the middle of their historically rich road. Miami has an overall winning percentage of .6180. Walker, in nine seasons (1990-98) at his alma mater, went 59-35-5 (.621). Without him, Miami is .6177.

In a program known as the Cradle of Coaches -- Walker's predecessors include Woody Hayes, Ara Parseghian and Bo Schembechler -- Walker's tenure best tracks Miami's history.

Special recognition goes to Howard Schnellenberger, who went 58-74 (.439) at Florida Atlantic from 2001 until his retirement last fall. His standing on this list will change dramatically on Aug. 31. That's when FAU plays Wagner, the Owls' first game ever without Schnellenberger.

This method may or may not prove anything, except that the time between the end of spring practice and the day when freshmen report in August allows the mind to wander and the barroom arguments to generate. Take away the historic cases of McGugin and Wade, who coached at schools that subsequently emphasized academic excellence over football. The evidence indicates that the iconic winners of the modern era outshine their programs because there hasn't been time to build on their success.

But your mileage may differ. That's why offseason debates exist.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com