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Ol’ Ball Coaches: Why the Big 12 has the best stable of coaches in the country

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Top to bottom, the Big 12 has a stronger roster of head football coaches than any other conference.

TCU Football vs Ohio State | September 15, 2018
TCU Football vs Ohio State | September 15, 2018
Melissa Triebwasser

A few years back I was on vacation in Rockport, Texas, with my family (humblebrag, my family likes me) when I saw an amazing commercial for the SEC on ESPN.

As best I can tell, there’s no way to embed the video for the commercial, but here’s the link to it. It’s in honor of the coaches of the SEC, a formidable group of Nick Saban and like four other actually good coaches.

“Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers,” Johnny Cash sings, just after Kevin Sumlin strides across the screen en route to another 8-4 record. “There’s a man goin’ round takin’ names.”

That commercial’s stuck with me, and the message was not lost — the SEC was at that point perceived to be the bastion of coaching, a collection of 14 of the sports’ finest minds.

Not that I have anything against the SEC — I don’t. But five years later I’d like to disagree with the commercial’s premise. Top to bottom, there’s no conference heading into 2019 with a deeper roster of coaches than the Big 12.

To wit: the consensus worst coach in the conference has won a national title. And make no mistake about it, Les Miles is a very smart man, and a good ball coach. The context is wrong, though. Kansas is a sinking ship, and I don’t think Les has brought enough lifeboats. And he’s been out for too long. I don’t know if the game has passed him by, but I know college football isn’t what it was in 2007 when Les was leading LSU to a national title.

Past Miles, you have a collection of nine coaches arguably entering or in the midst of their primes. Matt Wells might be the outlier, but it’s unfair to judge him when he hasn’t yet had a season at Texas Tech. At Utah State he had a career record of 44-34, and went 30-18 in the Mountain West. Those are fine numbers, although it remains to be seen whether or not they’ll translate to Lubbock, perhaps one of the only Power 5 towns more remote than Logan, Utah.

Then let’s run down the rest of the coaching roster. Lincoln Riley has made two College Football Playoffs in two years. Gary Patterson and Mike Gundy are entrenched legends at their programs. Tom Herman, for all the guff we give him, was a menace at Houston and seems to have Texas headed back to perennial contention. Matt Campbell is the Golden Boy of college football and will most likely jump ship for a blue blood job soon. Matt Rhule inherited perhaps the toughest rebuild in the nation at Baylor and has earned tons of respect since while still finding ways to win games. Neal Brown was a proven winner at Troy, compiling a 35-16 (23-9 in Sun Belt) record and earning a spot as the darling of analytical football nerds. And Chris Klieman might just have a better pedigree than all the rest, winning four FCS national championships in five years at North Dakota State before jumping ship to Kansas State.

No other conference in the country can boast that level of top-to-bottom leadership. The ACC’s roster is Dabo and everyone else — there’s no weak spots, but there’s no clear second best, either. For every Jim Harbaugh and Jeff Brohm in the Big 10, there’s a Chris Ash and Tom Allen to balance out the conference.

The SEC has Saban, sure, and Jimbo Fisher as a close second. Kirby Smart ain’t bad, either, to say the least. But does Barry Odom’s 19-19 record at Missouri give you any confidence? How about Derek Mason and his 24-38 career record?

Then we get to the Pac-12. Can you name who Oregon State’s head coach is right now? His name is Jonathan Smith. I’m sure Smith is a very fine man — I don’t know much about him other than he went 2-10 in his first year with OSU and played quarterback for the Beavers. There’s more dead weight in that conference than an overstuffed hearse.

Here, look. I added up all the Division 1 winning percentages for each Power Five head coach. Here are the results by conference:

ACC: .613

Big 12: .700

Big 10: .576

Pac-12: .657

SEC: .635

I’m not saying the best coaches are in the Big 12. I’m saying the Big 12 has the highest concentration of good coaches. That all adds up to a very entertaining slate of games week in and week out come Saturdays in the fall. And it also gives you plenty of talking points for your beloved SEC friends.