College football has lacked drama in recent years, at least in the national-championship picture. Clemson has won five straight titles in the ACC. Ohio State has won three straight in the Big Ten. Oklahoma is a five-time reigning champion in the Big 12. In the vaunted SEC, Alabama has won four of the past six years. All four schools are in the hunt for their respective conference championships this year, and three of the four are sitting in the top four of the first College Football Playoff rankings, released Tuesday night.
A look at the 2021 recruiting rankings doesn’t give much reason to believe those trends will change. Alabama and Ohio State have the top two classes; Clemson ranks No. 6, first in the ACC; Oklahoma is No. 12, first in the Big 12, led by the No. 1 quarterback prospect. It’s fair to say the same schools have popped up over and over, and it’s fair to expect that they’ll continue to do so, outside of a one-year explosion like LSU’s in 2019.
Historically, these long periods of dominance by an exclusive tier of top programs are not unusual. In the first decade of this century, Oklahoma, Ohio State and USC won at least five conference championships, and in the 1990s, so did Michigan, Nebraska, Florida State, Florida and Miami — five programs with a combined record of 18-14 this season. Dynasties rise and fall in this sport, and it appears the contemporary rulers have cemented their place.
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So it raises the question: What usually spells the end of these periods, and when might that happen for the four in place right now? Since 1960, 14 programs1 — some (Alabama, Texas) more entrenched than others (West Virginia, Arkansas) — have, in one 10-year period, won five championships in what at the time would have been considered a major conference.2 When we looked at how those programs waxed and waned, four rough themes emerged.
The most common culprit for the end of a long period of prosperity is a coaching change. Virtually every blue blood has gone through a fallow period at some point in the past half-century because a coach (or several coaches) didn’t uphold the predecessor’s standards. It happened with Gary Gibbs, Howard Schnellenberger and John Blake at Oklahoma, and with Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione and Mike Shula at Alabama. Even Ohio State — the gold standard of consistency, with 16 double-digit win seasons in the past 18 years — suffered a one-year blip in 2011 as it went 6-7 and transitioned from Jim Tressel to Urban Meyer.
Of course, these schools found that returning to dynasty status simply required hiring another championship-level coach, as Oklahoma did with Bob Stoops, Alabama did with Nick Saban and Ohio State did with Meyer. Though both took over programs with losing records the previous season, both won national championships in their second or third years.
But making that hire is easier said than done. Some programs still haven’t made it back to the mountaintop — such as USC, which has tried Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian and now Clay Helton since Pete Carroll left for the NFL. In the past 11 seasons, the Trojans have more midseason coaching changes (two) than conference championships (one). Michigan has had the same issue with Rich Rodriguez, Brady Hoke and now Jim Harbaugh since Lloyd Carr retired after the 2007 season.
Indeed, maintaining a program at the highest level requires constant attention. In total, seven schools have coaches who won at least 10 conference championships at the school since 1960.3 The first takeaway from their records is that they were dominant until they stepped down — all but Bobby Bowden at Florida State won or shared a conference championship in one of their last two years, so anybody projecting the end of those dynasties had to wait until the coaches were out the door.
It’s not surprising that of those seven coaches’ successors, only one finished with a higher winning percentage than the legendary coach before him — Jimbo Fisher managed to go 83-23 (.783) at FSU, just ahead of Bowden’s 315-98-4 (.760). But in most cases, the drop-off was not that significant. The successors, after all, were still in control of high-achieving programs with winning cultures and access to top recruits. All seven won at least 65 percent of their games.
It may be surprising, though, that in each case but one, the successors’ successors also suffered a drop-off in winning percentage from the previous coach. That list includes some names that wouldn’t necessarily be remembered fondly around the campuses of their respective schools, such as Nebraska’s Bill Callahan, Ohio State’s John Cooper and Florida State’s Willie Taggart. In other words, hiring a successor may not be a school’s most important job — it may in fact be hiring the coach after that, who may need to uphold some traditions that could have weakened over the years.
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What does this mean for the current elites? It’s unclear what the future holds for the modern dynasties and their coaches. Saban, who turned 69 on Oct. 31, seems likely to retire at some point, though he steadily shrugs off those rumors. His departure, whenever it comes, will likely set off the hiring circus to end all hiring circuses, as Alabama hopes to safeguard its dynasty. But whoever succeeds Saban may be set for a few years, after inheriting a roster stocked with five-star recruits from the previous era. Perhaps the more scrutinized hire should be the next one.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who grew up in Alabama and played for Gene Stallings as a walk-on, has always been a natural candidate to replace Saban. If he does, the Tigers will, in turn, need a new coach to continue their run of success. As for Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley and Ohio State’s Ryan Day, they’re newer in their roles, but the NFL will naturally seem like a proper landing spot for both.
Ascending to and staying in the top level of college football requires a financial commitment from the school. Perhaps the best example of what money can buy is in the ACC, where Florida State won three straight conference titles from 2013 to 2015 before Clemson started a streak of five in a row.
The Seminoles were the conference’s top program under Bowden, and Fisher continued that tradition with a national championship in 2013. But the school soon lagged in spending. Last week, ESPN.com detailed how Florida State became hesitant about renovations and raises for support staff.
At the same, Clemson began to infuse money into its program. The Tigers have managed to retain star defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who now makes $2.2 million (second among all assistant coaches in the country). The full salary pool for the 10 on-field assistant coaches in 2019 was $7.41 million (second to Alabama), and beyond them is an army of coaches Clemson calls “analysts.” At most schools, such expenses are superfluous, but among the top programs, they’re becoming essential. “If we say we want to compete on the field with those teams,” Texas coach Tom Herman told The New York Times in 2017, “we have to do business the way business is done.”
Spending on bells and whistles for the football program, of course, depends on the athletic department. Texas A&M, with its network of donors, made a power move in 2017 by luring Fisher away from Florida State on a fully guaranteed, 10-year, $75 million contract — perhaps signaling an intent to better fund the program and an effort to edge its way into the top tier. The juxtaposition was clear: A&M’s last coach was Kevin Sumlin, who came from Houston and won 11 games in his first season but averaged eight wins over the next five, and the school wanted more. Fisher went 17-9 in his first two years but is 5-1 this season.
Recruiting is the lifeblood of any program, and historically, the top programs have all been located in fertile recruiting areas. This isn’t an exact science, of course: The state of Wisconsin, for example, ranks 32nd4 in the number of top-300 recruits it has produced in the past 20 classes, and yet the state’s flagship school has played good football for most of this century. But geography can still be instructive.
For years, Texas relied on lying right in the heart of the state richest in young football prospects, and the state still churns out loads of coveted players. But another state is making a play as a hotbed for football talent. Georgia produced 98 top-300 recruits from 2002 to 2006 but has 149 in the past five classes. Considering the programs that have grown more powerful in the past decade — among them Alabama, Clemson and Georgia, all within about 200 miles of Atlanta — the state a program resides in can give it a boost.
Location in itself won’t build a program. But for a school outside the South, like Nebraska, which has fallen out of the dynasty tier, access to talent may play a role.
A new winner on the block
Sometimes, a thriving juggernaut doesn’t tail off — rather, a new competitor knocks the champion off its pinnacle, often during conference realignment. West Virginia reeled off six conference titles from 2003 to 2011, a run that spanned three coaches (Rich Rodriguez, Bill Stewart, Dana Holgorsen). But all of those titles came in the old Big East, and the Mountaineers haven’t found the same success in the Big 12.
This provides a faint ray of hope for any aspiring Alabama-slayer — that the Crimson Tide can be overtaken not because of their own demise but because of another school’s growth. It’s what motivated schools like Tennessee (with Derek Dooley and Jeremy Pruitt) and Florida (Will Muschamp) to hire Saban disciples as head coaches. We can see this strategy playing out at Georgia: Under former Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, Georgia reached the national championship ahead of schedule in year 2 and might have knocked off the Tide if not for Tua Tagovailoa’s miraculous throw. Smart’s program even started matching Saban’s on the recruiting battlefields. But on Oct. 17, in perhaps a testament to how slow the fall is from the throne, Alabama beat Georgia for the sixth straight time. Even as the rest of the SEC keeps its targets trained on Saban and Alabama, the Tide’s 2020 team is undefeated and No. 1 in the country, as strong as ever.