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Dynasty Mode: The 7 ways CFB dynasties end

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Let’s pick a metric that gives us a list of dynasties, and then let’s find some common threads.

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Bear Bryant at Alabama Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

Something changes, and the team that dominated college football for years just stops doing so. The shift is sometimes gradual, but history tells us it is eventually happening. This is the roadmap to a conclusion, based on every previous example that fits this criteria.

You could define “dynasty” in many ways, so I had to pick a starting point, though there’s no single benchmark that’ll include every team with a reasonable case to be considered one. The threshold: three national titles in seven years. For FBS, that means finishing atop the AP or Coaches Poll. For everyone else, it means winning an NCAA playoff.

(Using polls also means teams from before the 1930s aren’t considered here, though there were plenty of dynasty-like teams in the old days as well.)

I’m not focusing on dynasties that are still alive (such as FCS North Dakota State) and I’m not considering 2009-2017 Alabama and 1993-2017 Mount Union dead just yet. While those two don’t currently meet the criteria, their seven-year windows aren’t exactly closed.

1. Your great coach might hang on until he’s no longer great.

Oklahoma from 1950-56

What took Oklahoma from the best team for most of the ‘50s to a mediocrity after 1956? The most common thread is that Bud Wilkinson wasn’t the same. In Wishbone, which features a foreword from Wilkinson’s son, author Wann Smith lays out several ideas:

  • Wilkinson spent too much energy on coaching clinics, thus missing key recruiting weekends.
  • After John F. Kennedy appointed Wilkinson director of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, that job took up too much concentration.
  • Defenses wised up to OU’s split T offense. (This seems sketchy, given that several programs, OU included, continued to build dynasty-like programs with similar offenses for decades.)
  • Toward the end, Wilkinson had a harder time retaining assistants.
  • OU’s focus on recruiting its home state and Texas, while ignoring other states, became a liability.
  • Wilkinson lost his enthusiasm, retiring at only 47.

The dynasty also endured NCAA problems and allegations that Wilkinson’s (literally) well-oiled program was too tight with state businessmen. Some moments appear as catalysts, like an embarrassing loss at Northwestern in 1959 that came after much of the team got food poisoning, maybe involving the mafia. (That urban legend found believers in Wilkinson and his team physician, according to Smith.)

Alabama from 1961-65 and 1973-79

By this standard, Bryant built two dynasties. The first ended at a time when Bryant acknowledged he’d let up a bit in recruiting.

The second began after he committed to recruiting harder, integrated Alabama’s roster, and adopted the wishbone offense with the help of a friend, Texas coach Darrell Royal.

Nobody can win forever, though. Bryant suffered congestive heart failure in 1977, when he was 63, and went to alcohol rehab later that year. He won his last title in 1979. His next three teams were good, but not Bryant good, with eight combined losses. He retired after the 1982 season and died a few weeks after that of a heart attack.

When Ray Perkins took over, he faced a rebuild. The Tide, poor things, won only one more championship until Nick Saban arrived.

Appalachian State (FCS) from 2005-07

Jerry Moore won three titles in a row, the last after the greatest upset ever. He then lost either three or four games in each of his five remaining seasons.

By 2011, App State was nudging Moore to retire. The school made the shock move to fire him after 2012. Moore said his boss misunderstood a conversation they’d had the year before. He’d wanted to coach another year before stepping down.

2. Keeping an endless supply of good quarterbacks is hard, even in Los Angeles.

USC from 1972-78

Mike Rae was a star in ‘72, Pat Haden was mediocre in ‘74 (when Anthony Davis was a star rusher), and Paul McDonald was really good in ‘78. The #2 Trojans had another great team in 1979, when McDonald paired with RBs Charles White and Marcus Allen.

But by the ‘80s, the QB wheels had fallen off. Gordon Adams and John Mazur couldn’t make the most of Allen, one of the best backs in college history. USC didn’t find a great QB until Rodney Peete in 1987.

Getting hit with NCAA probation in 1982 didn’t help. John Robinson left to coach the Rams, and the Trojans declined under Ted Tollner and Larry Smith before Robinson returned.

3. An underdog found a massive advantage, then squeezed everything they could out of it.

Miami from 1983-91

This smaller, big-city, private school has always had more in common as a university with Villanova or Fordham than with Florida State. In football, the Hurricanes were long mediocre. But a perfect storm (if you will) in the ‘80s accelerated their rise.

When Howard Schnellenberger took over in 1975, the program had produced seven first-round picks in its history. Since then, the Canes have 58.

The U is in the most elite of recruiting areas now, but it wasn’t always. South Florida wasn’t heavily populated until the 1930s or so, which meant it wasn’t loaded with blue-chip talent until the ‘50s or ‘60s. That is, not coincidentally, around the time South Florida homes started to get air conditioning.

Due to other factors like expanded air travel and digital recruiting film, Schnellenberger had much less competition for local talent than Miami does today. He and his successors landed loads of special players, and the program leaned hard into being the coolest.

So you’ve got a school that never invested that much in football, but had unprecedented access to maybe the biggest talent boom ever. That doesn’t last forever. Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, Oklahoma, and everyone else now spends a ton of time recruiting South Florida, and Miami going from elite to merely decent has cut into its brand advantage.

Miami fans will tell you the program lost its swagger, and they’ll be correct. A mix of NCAA hammers and coaching exits (some of which were related) would have made it hard to keep winning titles under any circumstance. The national shift toward the Canes’ turf only made it harder.

Georgia Southern (FCS) from 1985-90

A little bit different from Miami, because Southern could certainly still compete in FCS if they’d stayed. But like the Canes, the Eagles found ways to win titles despite huge resource disadvantages.

My colleague Steven Godfrey sums it up well:

Statesboro lives to tell you about tradition. In 1982, GS hired Georgia defensive coordinator Erk Russell to build a modern program with virtually no budget. Uniforms were expensive, so tradition became athletic tape striped down blue helmets with no logos.

Southern was a teacher’s college sunk hours south of the Georgia gnat line (Mike Leach explains Georgia gnats here) in the sparsely populated coastal pines. With no team-building rituals, Russell renamed a drainage ditch between two practice fields Beautiful Eagle Creek, bottling its “magic water” in a milk jug to pour on opponent fields for luck. For home games, the team rode in yellow school buses, on loan from the county.

The ‘80s Eagles built their entire program around Russell’s underdog mentality and OC Paul Johnson’s flexbone option offense. The Eagles didn’t return to championship form until they brought back option master Johnson as head coach in 1997.

The Eagles later jumped to FBS, meaning the permanent end of their dynasty, but not the end of the things that made them nightmarish opponents. Basically, they should never, ever stop running the triple option, as they discover every few years when they briefly try something else.

2018 image

4. Your opponents might’ve passed a rule specially designed to undermine you.

Nebraska from 1993-97

Between the ‘70s and ‘90s, Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne used a few key things to win more consistently than anyone else:

The Huskers had loaded up on players who met minimal academic thresholds. They did so under the NCAA’s Prop 48, which let partial and non-qualifiers sit out their freshman years, study up, and then play.

After the 1996 season, the recently formed Big 12 began limiting Prop 48 players to no more than one per football team. The bloc of schools that had come to the league from the Southwest Conference had pushed to curb Prop 48 admission, because they already had their own rules against it. This pissed Osborne the hell off, and it arguably set the stage for Nebraska’s move to the Big Ten.

Other factors caught up, too. The rest closed the gap in facilities. For a while, the program tried a pro-style offense, despite not being in a great footprint for those QBs. Conferences also began limiting roster sizes. When the Big Ten upped its travel roster size from 70 to 74 in 2018, it was news in Lincoln.

5. You might have one class of players just outlandishly better than your competitors, and you might not be able to replace it.

Notre Dame from 1943-49

World War II depleted the Notre Dame student body. The university might have collapsed if Navy hadn’t sent an infusion of midshipmen to South Bend.

The war also gave rise to probably the best class ever. The Irish had won the title in 1943 and built up all the recruiting power of a blue-blood. After that season, Frank Leahy left the head coaching job to serve in the Navy.

When Leahy returned for 1946, he recruited a class largely of fellow veterans, many enrolling as 22- or 23-year-old freshmen. The Irish had also been bold in using the GI Bill to offer aggressive compensation packages, at a time when amateurism was hard to define and enforce.

Michael Weinreb explained how that created a 1946 monster.

About 70 players were on the Notre Dame roster that season: roughly 50 returning veterans — including Martin and Connor and Sitko, who rejoined the Irish and became the only back to lead Notre Dame in rushing for four straight seasons — plus another 20 or so who weren’t called for service, ranging in age from 17 to 26. The Irish’s depth was so obscene that Leahy counseled at least one player to go to the NFL because he’d have a better chance of playing there than at Notre Dame.

The ‘46 Irish averaged a score of 30-3.

1949 was the last year of eligibility for that bonkers class of ‘46. A lot were in their late 20s by then, including RB Red Sitko and end/tackle Jim Martin. When those large adults left, Notre Dame had to get back to a competitive landscape. Leahy’s team went 4-4-1 in 1950.

Speaking of that time period ...

Minnesota from 1934-41

The Gophers won three AP titles and a couple of other recognized titles in this span. Then the United States joined World War II, upending the whole sport and allowing a new power, Notre Dame, to take hold. “Not replacing players” is one way to put the reason for the Gophers’ decline. “The U.S. joined a big war” is the more concise way of putting it.

Augustana (Division III) from 1983-86

The Vikings’ 60-game unbeaten streak (with one tie) is the longest in modern NCAA history. It’s fair to call them the most dominant dynasty on this list.

Under Bob Reade, Augustana perfected DIII manball. A Detroit News writer explained:

Run down to the railroad tracks and wait for the 7:15 train heading into the city and then step in front of it. You would have about as good a chance as the Dutchmen did yesterday as the steamrollering express that is known as the Augustana Vikings football team ran roughshod over Hope here in Holland.

In that ‘86 season, rushing yards per game were Augie 286, opponents 25.

Augie made the playoffs four years more in a row. But Reade never got past the semifinals again before taking a faculty buyout package and leaving after 1994.

The ‘86 defense had seven 59-win seniors, including all-everything tackle Lynn Thomsen, whom the program considered the “anchor.” Augie allowed 5.6 points per game in ‘86.

The team’s absurdly good rush D stats became less absurd in 1987 and on. A loss to Dayton in the second round of the 1987 playoffs ended the streak. The score was 38-36. Since arriving in 1979, Reade had never given up that many points in a game.

North Dakota State (Division II) from 1983-90

The Bison managed a transfer of power from Earle Solomonson (titles in 1985 and ‘86) to Rocky Hager, who won two more in the next four years.

In 1990, the Bison had an elite trio of seniors operating their veer offense: RBs Tony Satter and Marty Sieh and QB Chris Simdorn. The three combined for more than 2,000 rushing yards and 32 TDs in a 10-game regular season. Simdorn won the Harlon Hill Trophy (for Division II’s top player). The Bison won the title game 51-11.

Then, several things happened.

  • Nickel Trophy rival North Dakota got a lot better. In the late ‘80s, new UND coach Roger Thomas made a point of catching up to the Bison. Thomas shifted to a 3-4 defense better suited to defend NDSU’s option. After NDSU won 12 in a row from 1982-92, UND won five of the next six and swept the Bison in 1994.
  • Hager had recruited all-time talents in his first few years, including four-year QB Simdorn. But Hager didn’t have a ready-made bunch of senior stars any time after 1990. At least on offense, the Bison leaned on underclassmen for the rest of Hager’s tenure.
  • By 1995, North Alabama had become more dominant. UNA wasn’t directly responsible for NDSU’s postseason exits, but even if everything had been hunky dory in Fargo, a better team had come along.
  • Hager butted heads with athletic director Bob Entzion. After 1996:

Entzion and the coach’s attorney reached an agreement in which Hager would coach in 1997, then resign. But when Entzion proferred the contract, included a ‘loyalty clause’ that Hager was supposed to sign pledging his allegiance to NDSU.

‘In essence, they asked Rocky to promise to be an obedient lap dog while he looked for a new job,’ wrote columnist Dave Kolpack in the Fargo Forum.

In January 1997, NDSU fired him. His replacement, Bob Babich, left after six seasons to take an NFL assistant job. Hager applied for his old job, but NDSU hired Craig Bohl instead. The Bison then reclassified to FCS, where they’ve enjoyed some success.

North Alabama (Division II) from 1993-95

In ‘95, Bobby Wallace’s Lions brought back 45 lettermen and 19 returning starters from a team that had lost one game the previous two years.

The average score of a 1995 UNA game was 37-11. Ten Lions made All-America teams, and senior linebacker Ronald McKinnon became the first (and still only) defensive player ever to win the Harlon Hill.

The next year, UNA went 6-5. After a 9-3 1997, Wallace left for Temple.

Youngstown State (FCS) from 1991-97

“Here we were in Ohio,” Jim Tressel, YSU’s dynasty head coach and current president, told me. “There’s only one I-AA school, [but] we’ve got six MAC schools who are always gonna get the first run of the players, after Ohio State and every other team that came in and recruited Ohio. So we were never really going to be able to attract exactly what we wanted. We needed to develop them.”

Having to recruit against higher-level schools is a big problem for everyone below the top handful in FBS’ Power 5. Youngstown didn’t have ready-made talent when it lost 26 seniors from its unbeaten 1994 team, the best Tressel had before his move to Ohio State.

YSU went 3-8 the year after that title, before fighting back to 13 wins and another championship two years later. The program had been known for elite defenses, first under former coordinator Mark Dantonio, but struggled to replicate that as time went on.

1997, Tressel’s last title at YSU, was also the school’s first year in the tough Gateway Conference. YSU lost a lot of the scheduling flexibility Tressel had enjoyed.

YSU made the title game in 1999, when it ran up against a revived Georgia Southern. Tressel’s departure after 2000 formally ended the run.

Northwest Missouri State (Division II) from 2013-16

The Bearcats won 09’s title under legendary coach Mel Tjeerdsma, after a string of title game appearances. A few years later, Tjeerdsma assistant Adam Dorrel built the most dominant team in college football, culminating with a 30-0 run from 2015 to ‘16.

That got Dorrel an FCS job at Abilene Christian. The Bearcats have remained a playoff team, but they finished Dorrel assistant Rich Wright’s first two seasons as head coach with three losses apiece.

“It just has a natural ebb and flow to it. You get a run of really good kids, and it’s a big piece of the puzzle,” Wright told me. “In ’15, we won the national championship, and we had two, four, six, eight — I’m looking at my wall — we only had eight seniors. But we had a tremendous junior class. And that junior class was what really kinda catapulted that ‘15 team over the top.”

That class included QB Kyle Zimmerman (37 TDs, 4 INTs, nearly 4,000 yards in 2016), RB Phil Jackson II (5.8 yards per run, 11 TDs), and five of the defense’s top six tacklers.

“They sometimes have lived off the success of what other people have done rather than carving out their own,” Wright said of players who were backups in 2016.

Still, it’s probably safest to treat this dynasty as “dead” the same way Jon Snow was “dead” in Game of Thrones. Northwest, which went 12-2 in 2019, might yet reemerge.

6. A lower-level dynasty has to keep replacing coaches throughout.

Grand Valley State (Division II) from 2002-06

The school in Allendale, Michigan, split its rise among three coaches. Tom Beck molded a DII playoff team by the time Brian Kelly took over in 1991. Kelly won titles in 2003 and 2004 before leaving for Central Michigan, and assistant Chuck Martin won two more before reuniting with Kelly at Notre Dame in 2010.

Around 2008 and 2009, Martin’s candidacy for various MAC jobs became public knowledge. That took a toll, longtime GVSU sports information director Tim Nott told me.

“Kids got nervous, because there was gonna be a change,” Nott said. “I kinda feel like that two-or three-year period in there, our recruiting just wasn’t as good as it had been.”

The Lakers’ injury luck changed, too. In 2001, when the team made the title game and lost to North Dakota, all-everything QB Curt Anes had gotten hurt in the first round. But Anes was healthy in 2002, when GVSU won it all. Good health didn’t last forever.

GVSU also suffered from factors that might affect any sub-FBS team:

  • FBS’ move toward offering players fuller cost-of-attendance payments was challenging for Division II teams that’d recruited against lesser Division I programs. “Back in the early 2000s, guys weren’t making extra cash while they were at Central Michigan,” Nott noted.
  • Only NFL teams can really hire head coaches from FBS dynasties, but small-school dynasties can lose coaches to hundreds of potential destinations. You could apply the revolving-door challenge to UW-Whitewater, Northwest Missouri State, the DII version of NDSU, and others.

Compare that to FBS, where Bama had Bryant stay around long enough to build two dynasties, then fended off other big-money teams hoping to poach Saban, something a Division II program can only dream of doing.

7. Goliaths might emerge elsewhere, eliminating your margin for error.

Wisconsin-Whitewater (Division III) from 2007-14

The Warhawks played in nine of 10 Stagg Bowls, starting with 2004’s, and they won six of eight starting in 2007. Their dominance started under Lance Leipold, who left after 2014 to make Buffalo respectable. Under Leipold, Whitewater was outrageous, posting five different 15-0 seasons in his last six years.

Under former Leipold assistant Kevin Bullis, the Warhawks have usually been a 12-1-ish team, rather than a 15-0 team.

“What’s the difference between 13-1 and 15-0?” Bullis asked when we talked. “That to me is like the million-dollar question.”

The simplest answer: not much! A scan of Whitewater’s stats since its 2014 title doesn’t show massive declines.

But the emergence of another DIII power hasn’t helped. In addition to going back and forth with Mount Union, Whitewater has to contend with Mary Hardin-Baylor, which won in 2016 and 2018. It’s like three dynasties at once, with one of them winning every Stagg Bowl between 2005 and 2018 before North Central won in 2019.

“The margin for error is very little,” Bullis said. “You look at our game against Mary Hardin-Baylor [in 2018]. Two very physical teams. Two very athletic teams. Well, what was ultimately the difference in that game? A punt returned, and we turned the ball over four times.

“So, I mean, that’s the margin right there.”

Does your team meet the dynasty threshold?

Then enjoy it. It won’t last forever. Or maybe it will.