Alvarez & the Architects
Counting down greatest program builders in college football's modern era
It’s been a transformational couple of weeks in college football with playoff expansion to 12 teams very likely to be approved for the 2023 season and now a 9-0 Supreme Court ruling smacking down the NCAA for its funding model and restriction of compensation for athletes. There will be time to get to all that as it unfolds further but the news of Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez’s retirement from back in the spring made me reflect about the last fifty years of college football and this person’s place in that history.
Alvarez, the former longtime head football coach at Wisconsin, perhaps the last of the great program builders from the previous era of college football (late 1980’s-early 2000’s) still in the game has now exited the stage. While Alvarez hadn’t been head coach since 2005 (except for two interim stints in Badger bowl games in the 2010’s), his signature is all over the program. The model he created of strong offensive line play, bruising running game, efficient but not spectacular passing game and often-elite defense is really still in use for the Badgers today under Paul Chryst, an Alvarez disciple.
When Alvarez arrived in Madison after a very successful stint as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator, Wisconsin had undergone five straight losing seasons, each worse than the last. While they’d had success in the early 1980’s with three straight bowl appearances from 1982-1984, before that Wisconsin had been mediocre-to-bad for the better part of 15 years. They had not been to a Rose Bowl – where the Big 10 Champion always played – in 30 years. After a rough 1-10 start in 1990, Alvarez had the Badgers steadily improve. In 1993, the Badgers won the Big 10 and the Rose Bowl – beating heavily favored UCLA. They would win two more Rose Bowls in the late 1990’s and continue to be a force in the Big 10 through Alvarez’s retirement following a 10 win 2005 season. Alvarez had by then moved to the Athletic Director position (that’s another thing that’s changed dramatically in college football – Alvarez may have been the last “Head Coach/Athletic Director” in major college football. Bret Bielema took over and won at the same, and perhaps greater clip, reaching three Rose Bowls (though losing all three – last one with Alvarez as interim coach) before departing for Arkansas. A brief detour with Gary Andersen still lead to two disjointed but still-winning seasons before Paul Chryst came back to Madison. The Badgers have flirted with playoff contention a couple of times and – with the playoff expanding – look like they could be set up to be one of the “winners”. The point is – Barry Alvarez completely changed the trajectory of the Badger program. They were also-rans in the Big 10 – and he got them into permanent, long-term contention – from no Rose Bowls in 30 years, to 7 appearances between Alvarez and Bielema in 19. Wisconsin now comes into most seasons with 8-9 wins as their floor.
It got me thinking about the greatest program builders of the last half century of college football. Using the early 1970’s as the starting point with full integration having taken place and systems beginning to modernize with at least some scholarship limits (albeit nothing like the 85 scholarships we have now), I am ranking the top 7.
My evaluation is based in part on where the program started from – was there any recent historical success – how lasting was the improvement and has that trajectory or “floor” continued at the same level or better even after they’ve gone. You also, I believe, have to factor in recruiting territory limitations. (So Nick Saban rebuilding Alabama and winning at LSU in talent-rich Louisiana isn’t on this Top 7). The program doesn’t have to be competing for national championships necessarily – it’s about how they compare to where they were when the coach in question took over.
Let’s Count Them Down:
7. David Cutcliffe – Duke/Ole Miss: Aside from a brief burst in the late 1980’s under Steve Spurrier and one canary in the coal mine 8-4 season in 1994 under Fred Goldsmith, Duke was dreadful – real real bad from 1983 through David Cutcliffe’s arrival in 2008. Multiple 0-11, 1-10, 2-9 seasons under multiple coaches trying different approaches led to a feeling that Duke would never be competitive on the field in many games, much less go to bowl games again. It took five seasons but Cutcliffe gradually improved the Devils culminating in a 2013 where they won the ACC Coastal Division and played Florida State in the ACC Championship. They followed that up with several bowl/winning seasons. The last two years have not been good for Duke however. There is a sense that Cutcliffe’s time has come. Obviously there is great uncertainty that Duke can maintain an average of 6-7 wins in the coming years, particularly as the ACC improves. However, they’ll be in position to at least hire a reasonable replacement and the floor is much higher than it was in the first decade of the 2000s. That is what gets David Cutcliffe on this list. (Addendum: Cutcliffe also did an underratedly good job at Ole Miss, taking over for Tommy Tuberville who had started rebuilding from probation in the mid-1990’s and getting Ole Miss to 10 wins. He was oddly fired after a single 4-7 step back year following Eli Manning’s graduation.)
6. Frank Beamer – Virginia Tech: Taking over for Bill Dooley, the winningest coach at that point in Hokie history may not – by the record – seem like a huge challenge. While Virginia Tech wasn’t a national power, and was an independent at the time, they had gone to three bowl games in Dooley’s 9 seasons and had other years over .500. Unfortunately, Dooley had presided over severe NCAA violations that caused major probation and scholarship reductions impacting Tech for several years. Beamer spent the first few years with a couple of winning seasons but also a couple of real clunkers, including a 2-8-1 record in 1992. The Virginia Tech administration stuck with him – something that probably wouldn’t happen in many places today – and in 1993, things took off. Virginia Tech won 10 games, including the Independence Bowl and embarked on a string of consecutive bowl appearances that lasted throughout Beamer’s tenure. He built the Hokies brand on exciting special teams plays - called “Beamer Ball”, focusing on blocked kicks and punts and dynamic defense, coupled with mobile quarterbacks and a strong run game. Virginia Tech played for the national championship in 1999, coming up short against Florida State despite taking a lead into the 4th quarter of the Sugar Bowl. In 2000 they went 11-1, their only loss to an excellent Miami team when Michael Vick was injured early in the game. They then had a couple years where they went to more minor bowl games but rebounded to win at least 10 games from 2004-2011 and had several major bowl appearances. The final four years of Beamer did feature a small slide, but bowl appearances continued. Justin Fuente has followed up continuing the bowl streak until 2020 when the Hokies went 5-6 in the COVID year. While there were (some) ebbs and flows, Frank Beamer made Virginia Tech – located in rural Southwestern Virginia – a national brand and power. That would have been unthinkable in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. He’s only not higher because Tech was pretty good, relatively, when he took over and is based in better recruiting territory than some of the top people on this list.
5. Don James – Washington/Kent State: Perhaps the most underrated coaching tree in football comes from Don James. He coached Nick Saban and Gary Pinkel at Kent State – and turned the Golden Flashes into a winner, with plus-.500 finishes in three of his four years there, including 9 wins in 1973. Following that success he was hired by Washington – which had been mostly average for years and had come off two losing seasons. He promptly took the Huskies to three Rose Bowls in the late 1970’s and 1981, winning two. He also had, arguably, the best team in 1984 but a close loss to USC cost the Huskies the PAC-10 title. They won the Orange Bowl and finished #2 in the country to BYU in one of the strangest pre-BCS national championship races in college football history. Washington stayed competitive though not in top 10, until the early 1990’s when the Huskies went to three more Rose Bowls, winning two, and the 1991 National Championship which they shared with Miami. James left Washington with a 150-60-2 record after the 1992 season. His overall record was 175-79-3 with 6 Rose Bowls, 15 bowl appearances (at a time when there were less than 15 bowls). Washington continued to have success throughout the 1990’s due to the foundation he set and has come back around after a disastrous first decade of the 2000s.
Tie - 3. Bobby Bowden – Florida State: When Bobby Bowden arrived at Florida State in 1976, they were an independent school that had been a male teachers college until the late 1950’s. The Seminoles were coming off of a 4-18 record the previous two seasons. FSU had had some modest winning seasons in the late 60’s and early 70’s but were not any kind of football power. but in just his second year, the Seminoles won 10 games, then followed it up with 8, 11 and 10 wins and two Orange Bowl berths. From 1981-1986 the Seminoles were generally good, not great. But in 1987, Bowden started a run of success – 14 straight years finishing in the Top 4 nationally plus 2 national titles. The program trended back down to above average in the final few years of his tenure but his replacement Jimbo Fisher restored a tradition of excellence and won conference titles and one national title before leaving for Texas A&M. Now, without question, the last four years (including Jimbo’s last year in 2017) have been poor. With Mike Norvell in place and having a full offseason and recruiting class, I believe the tools are all there to restore Florida State to top tier in ACC and eventually nationally.
Tie - 3. Howard Schnellenberger – Miami/Louisville/FAU is very similar to the Bowden story at Florida State. In fact Miami had had even less success than Florida State before he got there and there was talk of folding the program. Schnellenberger created the “State of Miami” recruiting plan and took the Hurricanes to a national title in the 1983 season – setting the stage for two different eras of dominance, (the rest of the 80’s/early 90’s and the early 2000’s). Schnelleneberger – after an ill-fated attempt to coach professional football in the USFL – the team went defunct before he ever coached a game - then went to Louisville who had been dreadful for over a decade. After three losing seasons, he took the Cardinals to four winning seasons out of the next six, including a 10 win Fiesta Bowl season in 1990. He jumped into another ill-advised opportunity at Oklahoma in 1995 that flamed out and he left college football for several years. Then, he involved at Florida Atlantic and got their program off the ground – even winning Conference USA once and taking the Owls to two bowl games. Even though he closed with several losing seasons there, you can’t talk about great builders in college football without the great – and impeccably dressed Howard Schnellenberger (who recruited Joe Namath to Alabama!). You could argue that Jimmy Johnson put more in place to extend the Miami dynasty – and certainly Butch Davis got the Canes out of the NCAA ditch in the late 1990’s. The only thing that Coach Schnellenberger is penalized for in my ranking is that he bolted frequently and didn’t have long term success at any one place necessarily - though it’s clear he would have if he had stayed at Miami after 1983. He just didn’t stay long enough.
2. Barry Alvarez – Wisconsin: See explanation above.
1. Bill Snyder – Kansas State: When Bill Snyder arrived at Kansas State after helping Hayden Fry rebuild Iowa into a Big 10 contender in the late 1970’s and 1980’s, the Wildcats were considered the worst program in Division I college football and there was even talk of dropping down a level. Outside of one modestly successful season in 1982, they had routinely been speed bumps for Big 8 powers Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado for decades. They had lost 27 straight games (which would stretch to 30 until they won a game in Snyder’s first year). Starting out 1-10 in 1989, Snyder steadily built the Wildcat program strategically using the surprisingly rich Kansas Junior College pipeline and recruiting players who would fit their scheme and could be developed in 3-4 years. By 1991 they had a winning season at 7-4. In 1993 they went 9-2-1 and won a bowl game.
From 1993 through 2003 Kansas State won 9 or more games – except for a 6-6 2001 where they still went to a bowl game. In 1998 they were an improbable comeback OT loss in the Big 12 Championship Game away from playing for the national championship. In 2003, they stunned #1 Oklahoma to win the Big 12 Championship. While the program trended down in 2004 and 2005, leading to Snyder’s retirement and then stayed average to below average for three more years, Snyder returned in 2009 and after one 6-6 season got Kansas State back into 10 win territory, including a 12 win 2012 winning the Big 12 and, again, getting close to playing for National title. Snyder did see a dip in the last year of his second tenure…but the program has stayed above average-to-good and was able to bring in Chris Klieman who won 8 games his first year. For degree of difficulty, bottom line results and sustainability long term compared to past history – Snyder is #1.
Honorable Mention: Steve Spurrier - Duke/Florida/South Carolina, LaVell Edwards – BYU, Pat Fitzgerald - Northwestern, Bobby Ross – Maryland/Georgia Tech/Army, Gary Patterson – TCU, Ken Niamatalolo – Navy, June Jones - Hawaii/SMU, Hayden Fry – Iowa, Nick Saban – Michigan State/LSU/Alabama, Mark Dantonio – Cincinnati/Michigan State, Todd Monken - Army