College football’s Coach of the Year awards are like the various awards for Best Actress. Meryl Streep has been given that award in some form by over 50 different selectors. The much less talented Nick Saban has been honored as COY by at least nine different voting bodies.
Who knows which COY is more credible than the other? Everybody has a different criteria, and there are so many awards that in some years, many different coaches can claim a prize.
In that way, the COY is the most college football of all the awards. Each year, a consensus forms around a few coaches, but it rewards some vague thing.
Compare that to an award like the Piesman Trophy, which knows exactly what it is. We’re not throwing darts at what “most outstanding” or “best” means to us. It is for a specific thing: a lineman doing a delightful, non-lineman thing.
Awards are good, but I’d rather not give out a bunch of blue ribbons that might or might not all mean the same thing. I’m talking about something nearer to a list of coaching superlatives. This award should be broken up into multiple, very literal categories. Give the things out on clear lines of delineation, so we can include more coaches and award different facets of an incredibly complex job.
Let’s talk about the current COY slate first.
There are plenty other head coach awards, but we’ll narrow them down to seven majors. Nearly all of these are given out before the bowls.
- AFCA: The American Football Coaches Association hands out COY awards for all divisions and has regional and assistant awards as well.
- AP: The gold standard of college football coverage for decades didn’t give out a COY until 1996, for some reason.
- Bear Bryant: The distinction is that it’s given out after the bowls. They also give out a lifetime achievement award.
- Eddie Robinson (FWAA): This is not to be confused with the other Eddie Robinson Award, which recognizes excellent FCS coaches.
- Home Depot: This is ESPN’s COY award. It’s given out at their awards show and is selected by their analysts.
- Sporting News: This used to be a way bigger deal, back in the day.
- Walter Camp: SIDs and coaches vote on it. It’s one in a suite of Camp awards.
Notably, two other organizations recognize assistants. They are the Broyles Award and FootballScoop.com’s COY awards (which goes all the way down to position coaches and strength coaches). College coaches really care about these because they’re voted on by their peers. In the case of the Broyles Award, it’s their elders.
You got all that? Good.
We’ve had those seven awards as a group since 1998.
Others have been around for much longer (the AFCA’s has been awarded since 1935), but this is the slate we’ve had since the BCS became a thing, and that’s a clear place in the history of the sport to put a pin into.
So let’s take a look at who’s won what over the last 20 years and see if we can get some consensus.
Coach of the year winners, last 20 years
|Year||AFCA||AP||Bear Bryant||Home Depot||Eddie Robinson||Sporting news||Walter Camp||Consensus?|
|Year||AFCA||AP||Bear Bryant||Home Depot||Eddie Robinson||Sporting news||Walter Camp||Consensus?|
|2018||Mike Leach||Brian Kelly||Dabo Swinney||Brian Kelly||Bill Clark||Bill Clark||Nick Saban||No|
|2017||Scott Frost||Scott Frost||Scott Frost||Scott Frost||Scott Frost||Kirby Smart||Mark Richt||Scott Frost|
|2016||Mike MacIntyre||Mike MacIntyre||Dabo Swinney||Mike MacIntyre||Mike MacIntyre||James Franklin||Mike MacIntyre||Mike MacIntyre|
|2015||Dabo Swinney||Dabo Swinney||Dabo Swinney||Dabo Swinney||Kirk Ferentz||Dabo Swinney||Dabo Swinney||Dabo Swinney|
|2014||Gary Patterson||Gary Patterson||Gary Patterson||Gary Patterson||Gary Patterson||Gary Patterson||Gary Patterson||Gary Patterson|
|2013||David Cutcliffe||Gus Malzahn||Gus Malzahn||Gus Malzahn||Gus Malzahn||Gus Malzahn||David Cutcliffe||Gus Malzahn|
|2012||Brian Kelly||Brian Kelly||Brian Kelly||Brian Kelly||Brian Kelly||Brian Kelly||Brian Kelly||Brian Kelly|
|2011||Les Miles||Les Miles||Mike Gundy||Les Miles||Mike Gundy||Bill Snyder||Les Miles||Les Miles|
|2010||Chip Kelly||Chip Kelly||Gene Chizik||Gene Chizik||Chip Kelly||Chip Kelly||Chip Kelly||Chip Kelly|
|2009||Gary Patterson||Gary Patterson||Chris Petersen||Brian Kelly||Gary Patterson||Gary Patterson||Gary Patterson||Gary Patterson|
|2008||Kyle Whittingham||Nick Saban||Kyle Whittingham||Nick Saban||Nick Saban||Nick Saban||Nick Saban||Nick Saban|
|2007||Mark Mangino||Mark Mangino||Mark Mangino||Mark Mangino||Mark Mangino||Mark Mangino||Mark Mangino||Mark Mangino|
|2006||Jim Grobe||Jim Grobe||Chris Petersen||Greg Schiano||Greg Schiano||Jim Grobe||Greg Schiano||No|
|2005||Joe Paterno||Joe Paterno||Mack Brown||Joe Paterno||Charlie Weis||Joe Paterno||Joe Paterno||Joe Paterno|
|2004||Tommy Tuberville||Tommy Tuberville||Tommy Tuberville||Urban Meyer||Urban Meyer||Tommy Tuberville||Tommy Tuberville||Tommy Tuberville|
|2003||Pete Carroll||Nick Saban||Nick Saban||Pete Carroll||Nick Saban||Urban Meyer||Bob Stoops||No|
|2002||Jim Tressel||Kirk Ferentz||Jim Tressel||Tyrone Willingham||Jim Tressel||Jim Tressel||Kirk Ferentz||Jim Tressel|
|2001||Larry Coker / Ralph Friedgen||Ralph Friedgen||Larry Coker||Ralph Friedgen||Ralph Friedgen||Ralph Friedgen||Ralph Friedgen||Ralph Friedgen|
|2000||Bob Stoops||Bob Stoops||Bob Stoops||Bob Stoops||Bob Stoops||Dennis Erickson||Bob Stoops||Bob Stoops|
|1999||Frank Beamer||Frank Beamer||Frank Beamer||Frank Solich||Frank Beamer||June Jones||Frank Beamer||Frank Beamer|
|1998||Phillip Fulmer||Bill Snyder||Bill Snyder||Phillip Fulmer||Phillip Fulmer||Phillip Fulmer||Bill Snyder||No|
This list shows that there is a consensus, but it forms around something different each year.
Sometimes it’s for Playoff/BCS breakthroughs (Swinney, Saban, and Stoops). Sometimes it’s for wild turnarounds (Kelly in 2018). Other times, it’s in recognition of overachievement (Beamer, MacIntyre, Mangino, Friedgen). There is little rhyme or reason.
Let’s replace the awards with what we actually mean when we give them out.
If I was in charge of college football, I’d propose this. Some ideas follow, including example winners from select years.
The Apology for Our Media Days Mistake Award
We, The Media, routinely get predictions wrong. This is a very clear way to atone for a preseason prediction that was just flat-out off base.
Was your coach, for example, picked sixth in the Big 12 but instead went to the conference title game with at least a shot at a Playoff berth? We should probably honor you nationally for doing something like that.
- 2019: Matt Rhule, Baylor (Honorable mention: P.J. Fleck, Minnesota)
- 2015: Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
- 2014: Gary Patterson, TCU
The Coach of the Actual Best Team Award
You should take a look at the Blue Chip Ratio before every season. Based on 20 years of recruiting rankings, those are the teams that have the talent to win a national title. So pick the team that’s playing the best, and there you have your award winner.
We get bored with success, so we have to pretend that it isn’t a phenomenal achievement every year to win football games with the most talent. (For example, Urban Meyer never winning a Big Ten COY award.)
Getting talent to perform at an elite level consistently — particularly when the talent is college-aged — is a really important skill, But it’s only part of the equation, and we should praise the guys who do all of it well. In 2019, for example, I’d vote for the coach of a team with a roster that is 81% blue-chippers (partly a credit to his predecessor, of course) and has consistently played up to its lofty potential without much of a drop off from week to week.
- 2019: Ryan Day, Ohio State
- Every other year this decade: Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, or Dabo Swinney
The Year 0 Award
Your first season will often be something of a throwaway. Over-performing in that circumstance should be lauded, especially in the first year of a dire situation.
- 2019: Scott Satterfield, Louisville
- 2013: Gus Malzahn, Auburn
- 1999: June Jones, Hawaii
The Teen Choice Award
I thought about making this the “recruiter of the year” award, but that’s not good enough. If it’s going to be a teens’ choice, then we need to ask the actual teens. I suggest a survey of recruits done at different recruiting camps where they write in the coach with the most swag, drip, or whatever the hell the kids say these days.
My pick: I am not a teen, therefore I will abstain from giving my recommendation. I do not speak for the youths. However, according to recruiting rankings, the 2019-20 answer appears to be Swinney:
The Zombie Coach of the Year
A few years ago, Miami (Ohio) went 0-6 and then ripped off six straight wins to make a bowl. That is bonkers, and should be acknowledged.
One of my bad habits is seeing what a team is doing a few games into the season and then writing them off. I think a team that starts the season 2-4 and then finishes 7-5 shouldn’t go unnoticed. These coaches righted the ship.
- 2019: Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee (Honorable mention: Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech)
- 2018: Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern
- 2016: Clay Helton, USC
The Probably Unsustainable Moment to be Celebrated Anyway Award
Did your team win a ton of one-score games? Did they do so with a bunch of seniors or grad transfers? Did they force a ridonkulous number of turnovers? Is it all probably gonna crash down to earth next year?
If the answer to many of those questions is yes, then we’ve got ourselves a winner. We’ll cross the bridge that is next year when we come to it.
- 2019: Lovie Smith, Illinois
- 2017: Mark Richt, Miami
- 2010: Gene Chizik, Auburn
The G5 COY
My colleagues tell me to describe this like the WWE’s Intercontinental title. This is the wrassler who is really skilled but doesn’t get the big title shot for a variety of reasons, one being that the actual heavyweight champ is a much bigger audience draw.
- 2019: Ken Niumatalolo, Navy
- 2017: Scott Frost, UCF
- 2006-2010: Chris Petersen, Boise State
This wouldn’t just clarify things. This would actually help us all out during the coaching carousel silly season.
Clear definitions like these can sort coaches into different buckets and offer some clarity about who’s good at what. There are different ways to judge coaches beyond wins and losses, and if you’re about to hire one of them, looking at the record might not be enough.
Is he the teens’ choice? Well, that’s probably good for recruiting. If he’s finished third a few times in Wildly Unsustainable voting, hell, he might actually be pulling something off that is sustainable. Has he won a media days apology? Then you know he can get the most toothpaste out of the tube.
That’s better than a bunch of COY awards that mean different things about different coaches in different years.